Retroactive: Darwyn Cooke 1998-2008 hardcover
Artist/Cover artist: Darwyn Cooke
Publisher: Brandstudio Press
One of the hottest items at this past summer’s Comic-Con International San Diego was Darwyn Cooke’s new art book, Retroactive. It’s my understanding that the print run was limited to 1,000 copies and that Cooke sold out of the 500 copies he brought with him to the convention. I was unable to attend the San Diego con this year, but I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy thanks to my local direct-market comics retailer. I’m not usually one for comics art books. I tend to be more focused on the stories and characters in comics over the visuals. I’m a huge fan of Cooke’s work, though, so I decided to plunk down some extra cash for this retrospective of past projects and gallery of unseen or little-seen work. Retroactive is only 48 pages long, and I worried I might not feel as though I was getting my money’s worth when I decided to pick it up. Those concerns quickly faded as I began to thumb through its pages.
I was expecting the book to consist mainly of unpublished work — concept art for pitches that didn’t fly, rough sketches for better-known work and early efforts perhaps seen only by a select few. That didn’t prove to be the case entirely. There are a number of images I found here with which I was quite familiar, such as Cooke’s recent Heroes Con poster and covers for small-press books such as Spellgame and Comics Festival. Still, the oversized nature of this hardcover encourages closer examination of these images, and their inclusion didn’t lead to any kind of disappointment.
The book also showcases the diversity of Cooke’s craft. He’s best known for a simpler approach to DC’s super-heroes with a noir sensibility, in keeping with the influence of animator Bruce Timm. That aspect of Cooke’s efforts is showcased in this book, but there’s more to be found as well. A detailed yet more exaggerated cartoon entitled Grimoire 2004 is included as well, and it looks quite unlike Cooke’s other efforts. We also get a glimpse at an art-deco experiment when it comes to Cooke’s design for poster about Canadian comics awards. His merging of the tools of the comic artist’s trade with a classic cityscape is quite attractive.
Another highlight of the book is a two-page spread featuring the Spirit and two members of the supporting cast. As Cooke demonstrated with his much-lauded, 12-issue run on the revived series recently, the crime-drama property often focuses on the battle of the sexes and no small measure of social satire. But with the image provided in this volume, Cooke explores a more tender side of the characters; there’s a real sense of warmth and family in the image. The sweetness of the image harkens back to a simpler time as well, and the black-and-white approach Cooke employs for that image emphasizes that even more.
Perhaps the strongest images in the book are a couple of select sketches of Selina Kyle, AKA DC’s Catwoman. The Selina images tend to be the simplest ones in the book; some might even see them as crude sketches, as Cooke employs a scant number of strokes to arrive at the final images. But it’s the basic, limited nature of that approach for those images that spotlights Cooke’s artistry. With just a few well-placed marks with a pen, marker or brush, he manages to say so much. Selina’s allure shines through, but so does her guarded nature. A single, static image ends up speaking volumes about who this woman is, about how Cooke perceives her.
Given this book’s limited print run, it’s not widely available in direct-market comic shops. One can find it for sale online, and prices seem to vary from $25 US to as high as $65 US. I managed to get one through Strange Adventures Comic Shops for $40 CAN; interested parties can e-mail the owner to inquire about availability or visit this Darwyn Cooke website for ordering information.
If there’s one thing that Retroactive says about Darwyn Cooke’s career and craft above all else is that there’s a lot more to be said. These are 48 brilliant, lovely pages, but they really just made my hungry for more. Not only did I crave more artwork, but Cooke’s work calls for a more complete commentary, both from him and others. Retroactive is a good product, but a bigger, more comprehensive volume would be great. 8/10