by KC Carlson
Crime comics used to be the bread and butter of the industry, long before many of us were born. Beginning in the early 1940s (although newspaper strip Dick Tracy  was an important precursor), these types of stories lasted until they were driven out by crusading psychologists, crazed legislators, and wimpy publishers in the comic book witch hunts of the early 1950s. They were gory, grim, violent, wanton, and celebratory of crime and criminals. Of course, kids loved them! So they were crushed in the name of protecting the young ‘uns – covered up with the postage stamp of the Comics Code, which was your guarantee of bland comics!
In the last decade or so (but actually since the 70s –- remember Jack Kirby’s big-fisted In the Days of the Mob or Max Allan Collins & Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree?), crime comics have made a big comeback in the hands of Frank Miller (Sin City, Batman: Dark Knight projects), Ed Brubaker (Criminal, Gotham Central), Brian Michael Bendis (Powers, Alias), David Lapham (Stray Bullets), and many others. For instance, Daredevil, once containing tales of a happy-go-lucky Marvel superhero, has been slowly transformed into a crime comic over many years, mostly at the hands of those last four creators listed above.
Darwyn Cooke is also obviously a fan of the genre, as evidenced in his previous work on Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score and on Will Eisner’s The Spirit. (Eisner wisely managed to keep crime in the comics in the 50s by making his detective a faux superhero and publishing his exploits in the Sunday newspapers, positioning it as being something for everybody). Cooke, as his next major comics project, has decided to adapt four of Donald E. Westlake’s (writing under the pseudonym Richard Stark) Parker novels over the next couple of years. The first, The Hunter, is due out in July from IDW and seems destined to be one of the major works in comics this year.
Parker is an amoral career criminal. Ruthless to the point of obsession, he will seemingly stop at nothing – including murder – to get what he wants. However, he doesn’t always need to resort to personal violence as a means to an end. In this story, Parker uses psychology and bullying to get a character to commit suicide with pills, after Parker is betrayed by her.
However, while disposing of the body, Parker slashes her face with a knife in a ghastly moment. Later, we discover that it was, in fact, a horrific act of twisted kindness – he slashed her face so that her picture wouldn’t be in the newspapers. Later, when Parker accidentally kills an innocent woman while swept up in his revenge caper against a former partner-in-crime, he momentarily stops what he is doing to call the police to report the body. I read the scene – and Cooke stages it so that the dialog obscures Parker’s face – as a confessional, of sorts. Parker is obviously a complicated character, which explains his popularity in crime fiction circles.
I don’t want to give too much of the story away, as that’s the fun in reading these things. The aftermath of a heist goes bad leading to death, near-death, betrayal, large piles of cash, revenge, double-crossing, dames, weasels, liars, tough guys, squirrely cabbies, more dames, guns, dives, penthouse hotels, corporate offices, NYC, LA, more guns, blood, booze, airplanes, long walks, and more dames. You know…
Since The Hunter is also the first novel in the Parker series, the main character needs to be properly introduced. Cooke excels in doing this in a bravura 19-page, mostly wordless, introductory sequence that should be a new textbook on how to introduce a character from scratch in a dynamic and compelling way. [These pages are available as a preview at IDW’s website.] And we don’t even see the character’s face until the 12th page! There are so many great storytelling tricks, camera angles, and sly nods to the great graphic storytellers of the past that you could study these pages for hours. (I did!).
The plot itself is wonderfully told, mostly in dribs and drabs, with frequent time shifts, flashbacks, and narrated passages. Having not read the original novel, I’m not sure how much of this is Westlake/Stark and how much is Cooke, but the story, while basically simple and straightforward, is told/presented in the most intriguing way possible. Much of it hinges on the first 30 pages or so. Normally, I’m annoyed if I have to flip back and forth to double-check something from earlier in the story, but here, as each piece of this twisted puzzle is presented, you are actually rewarded by going back to re-read a passage. Especially when you’re directed back to the opening sequence.
Even Cooke’s “information dump” pages – necessary in getting this much plot told in this relatively limited number of pages – are elegantly designed and never once stop the story dead. Cooke’s storytelling choices are right on the money. The story is told in a vast variety of panel sizes and page layouts, tiny clipped panels when the action is moving and larger panoramic shots when Cooke wants you to look for detail. It’s amazing how many visual techniques are used by Cooke to move the reader’s eye from place to place. And it’s not all talking heads either. Cooke’s “camera” is all over the place – giant eyeball close-ups, nervous hands, rear-view mirrors, objects like phones, furniture, guns, and cocktail glasses all have starring roles in their own panels. And shadows. Lots of shadows.
Special attention should also be paid to the coloring/shading in The Hunter, also provided by Cooke. It’s more of a monochrome wash than traditional comic coloring, utilizing many variations of a subtle turquoise palette. That’s a unique and excellent choice, as the color is flexible enough for warmth as well as dark enough for mood and shadow. The stylized lettering is also by Cooke.
Published by IDW as a dust-jacketed hardcover book in a handsome format just slightly smaller than a standard comic book (but thicker), this 140-page graphic novel is destined to be a trend-setter, not just for its story, artwork, and readability, but for its format and presentation as well. It will be the book to watch in next year’s various comics awards and will most likely be the book to beat. Further, I suspect it will cause a large number of comics readers to jump formats and check out the original Hunter novels by Westlake/Stark. I’ll be in that group, and I suspect that none of us will be disappointed.
Purchase Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter
KC Carlson has been working in, around, and adjacent to comic books since the 1970s, most notably for DC Comics as an editor (including Collected Books) in the 90s. KC’s Bookshelf is an ongoing attempt to catalog the great comic book collections and history books that should be on your bookshelf.