This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on December 13th, 2013.
The fourth, and supposedly final, comic adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels was released by IDW on Wednesday. It represents an ongoing effort by cartoonist Darwyn Cooke (The New Frontier, Catwoman) to revitalize this classic crime series in a new medium for a new audience. Westlake, under the pseudonym, Richard Stark, wrote twenty-four Parker novels between 1962 and 2008, when he passed away. Cooke, who rose to prominence as a comics writer and illustrator during the 1990’s, is a longtime fan of the novels and worked directly with Westlake on the adaptations before his death. Two of the previous volumes, The Outfit and The Score, won Eisner Awards for Best Adaptation. Cooke’s work on Parker helps to display how the comics medium can enhance adapted stories and bring new life to a lost treasure.
As direct adaptations, Cooke’s comics must be evaluated differently from original works. The plot, characters, and settings all remain almost exactly the same when one compares the novels and comics side-by-side. Westlake’s involvement in the early stages of adaptation ensures that he is to be viewed as the auteur of these stories. That does not detract from Cooke’s contribution though, but refocuses it on his craftsmanship. It is in the presentation of information, violence, and characters, which the comics exceed the source material, perfecting its brutal tone and beautifully rendering complex heists.
Parker, the series protagonist, is a criminal, a thief who makes no qualms about his line of work. Many of the novels focus on at least one heist, requiring some degree of exposition to make both the situation and plan clear. Cooke is able to bypass the expository drag of prose by using visual language to represent complex ideas though. When Parker targets a casino in The Outfit, the inner workings of the establishment are broken out in a single page using pictograms, pie charts, and symbols.
A potentially devastating amount of exposition is transformed into an enjoyable story device. This page invites the reader to explore and internalize information, rather than forcing it upon them.
This type of display is not just useful for heist scenarios though. In the same comic, Parker writes a coded letter to assemble a crew for the heist. Rather than separating the letter and it’s true intent, the page displays it with cliff notes. Once more the reader is invited to explore a complex set of details as if it were a puzzle, rather than simply being necessary.
In addition to the intricate plans and heists, the Parker novels are filled with violence. Parker has an established (a)moral code in two parts. (1)He will not betray a fellow criminal, (2) unless he is betrayed, in which case he will seek out brutal vengeance. All of Cooke’s comics contain at least one betrayal around which the plot hinges, making violence an inevitable component of the story. In The Score, Paulus, another thief, attempts to flee with his share of the loot traveling up a narrow cliffside road. His car skirts too close to the edge and begins to tumble over.
In three panels, Cooke shows Paulus’ fate to be heartbreaking, in spite of him being a particularly unlikable character. Moving between panels one and two, Paulus and the car separate with Paulus moving up and to the right, opposite the car. It provides a clear sense of momentum and hope. It appears that he is escaping the car’s fate. That brief moment of hope is snatched away in the final panel as the car rolls over the cliff. Paulus is barely visible with only a hand showing from the bottom-left corner, opposite of where he aimed to be. With only two colors and not a single word, his death is revealed, capturing his last thoughts with motion.
More generic (read: not cars falling off of cliffs) scenes of violence are depicted with equal parts precision and ferocity as well. Gunfights, fistfights, and knife fights are all shown to be dynamic moments, where each gunshot or punch carries power.
In this panel, two mafia goons fire at Parker. Their guns are shown to explode with light and sound, eliminating the right third of the panel entirely. Only the bold “BAM” and “POW” are left to illustrate the gunshots. Background details have been eliminated in favor of breaks in the blue shading that fracture the frame of the panel itself. The top border is not clearly defined, hovering around the jagged points of the background. These cracks of white in the background parallel the gunmen’s outstretched arms and point to the two gunshots as being the most important component of the panel. All focus is drawn to the power of the gunshot and potential impact of those shots: a potent illustration of danger.
The simple style used to depict violence and schemes is applied to characters as well. Cooke’s facial illustrations are reminiscent of Jack Kirby’s in OMAC or Kamandi. They are symbolic representations, focusing on the effect of lines, rather than physical correctness. When depicting a man being strangled in The Hunter, it is both obvious that the man has two hands about his throat and that he’s a balding slouch. Thick lines across his brow provide the appearance of a wide head and embedded wrinkle lines. Only six lines create a bulbous pug nose. Two brushstrokes under his bulging eyes provide cheeks weighed down by too many hamburgers. It’s an economical drawing, accomplishing a great deal with very little.
When Cooke uses his pencils to reveal Parker’s face for the very first time in the same book, all of the details from Westlake’s original novel are there.
The office women looked at him and shivered. They knew he was a bastard, they knew his big hands were born to slap with, they knew his face would never break into a smile when he looked at a woman. They knew what he was, they thanked God for their husbands, and still they shivered. Because they knew how he would fall on a woman in the night. Like a tree.
Although Slayground concludes Cooke’s adaptations, they will remain a touchstone amongst fans of comics and crime thrillers alike. These comics have brought new attention to the works of Donald Westlake, while displaying the craft and artistry possible within the comics medium. It’s the highlight of Darwyn Cooke’s career so far and a fitting legacy for Mr. Westlake. It’s also not completed. Although Cooke originally planned on only adapting four novels, there is a note at the end of Slayground: Parker will return in 2015.
I cannot wait.