Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Stark Raging Bad

Posted by Don MacPherson on June 18th, 2009

The Hunter hardcover graphic novel
Writer: Donald Westlake
Artist/Adaptation/Cover artist: Darwyn Cooke
Editor: Scott Dunbier
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Price: $24.99 US

One of the most anticipated announcements at Comic-Con International San Diego 2008 (and one of the most professionally run and applauded announcements) was that involving artist Darwyn Cooke’s next project, to be released by IDW Publishing. It’s fitting that on July 22, the first night of Comic-Con International San Diego 2009, marks the official release of that project. The Hunter is an adaptation of the novel of the same name penned by the late Donald Westlake under his Richard Stark nom de plume. I’ve not read any of Westlake’s work (though I have seen the movie Payback, which is based on The Hunter), but I am a big fan of Cooke’s work. I recently got the chance to peruse an advance reader’s copy of the graphic-novel adaptation, and I must confess I was incredibly excited about it. Mind you, I worried a bit that I might be venturing into one of those situations in which the anticipation and expectations for a project might eclipse the actual experience. Fortunately, this isn’t one of those occasions.

Those who enjoyed Cooke’s work with the Catwoman and Slam Bradley characters for DC Comics will be delighted with what they find in The Hunter, but Cooke’s efforts here far exceed those earlier works. Perhaps what’s most interesting about his approach to Westlake’s anti-hero, Parker, is how the storyteller shifts his narrative techniques while maintaining a consistently and deliciously noir tone.

Betrayed, shot and left for dead, a career criminal known only as Parker manages to claw his way back to the land of living, and after getting back on his feet, he begins a trek across the country, bound for New York, where his revenge awaits him. Of course, Parker is a practical man as well, as he sets out to get back his cut of the caper that led to the afore-mentioned betrayal. Evil, greedy men prove to be obstacles to his goals, but as he’s proven time and time again, though, Parker is a resourceful and determined man who lets nothing get in his way.

Cooke’s artwork is obviously going to be the biggest appeal of this book, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a marvel to see how his simple style is able to convey such depth, maturity and darkness. His expressive artwork — sometimes subtle, sometimes overt — pierces the veil of the stoic and hardened protagonist and exposes the buried emotion even as it displays his power. Unlike Payback, this adaptation is set in 1962, the year the novel was originally published. That allows Cooke to show off how good he is at capturing a period. Still, he maintains something of a timeless quality throughout much of the book. This story could be set in the 1920s or the 1990s, at least as far as how it looks is concerned.

The single color scheme is incredibly effective. Cooke’s line art is already pretty dark, so he wouldn’t really need any color to bring out the noir atmosphere of the story. But the blues used throughout the book to adorn that thick linework adds an icy feel to the storytelling that mirrors the main characters cold, distant nature and makes this ugly side of society easier to accept and more hauntingly attractive. I also enjoyed how he employs a pixilated effect to convey flashbacks.

The first act is almost completely silent, but Cooke nevertheless conveys all of the information the reader needs to fully appreciate Parker’s skills, confidence and sheer nerve. Cooke keeps adopting different approaches to the storytelling. Sometimes, he ignores dialogue and narration; at others, he employs word balloons and tells the story through the characters’ mouths. At others, there’s an omniscient narrator. And Cooke is such a skilled storyteller, so sharp when it comes to transitioning through these shifts that it seems seamless. It never feels scattered. Rather, these choices seem to renew the book’s hold on the reader’s attention repeatedly.

While I haven’t read the original novel or seen the original movie adaptation (Point Blank), I have seen Payback. It was easy to spot synergy between this adaptation and the Mel Gibson flick. I was surprised at how much they mirrored each other, but I was also relieved to find divergences as well. Cooke’s take on the main character is much harsher. Parker may be the hero of the book, but he’s no hero, no knight in shining armor (unlike his counterpart in Payback). His emotion in this story is reserved for only one woman, not two.

Cooke portrays the dangerous world in which these characters exist as oddly alluring but at the same time, they’re clearly living depressing lives. Parker is ultimately a survivor, someone who chases after what he needs rather than what he wants. Parker is incredibly impressive and intimidating, but he’s also a pitiable figure. While this piece of crime fiction is fascinating, with its clever twists and examination of the tricks of the criminal’s trade, the reason it’s such a captivating read is that it’s such a thorough, well-crafted character study of a broken but strong man. 10/10

Note: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of the book, which is slightly different that the final product, especially in terms of the interior color. Thanks to the folks at Strange Adventures for making this early review possible.

6 Responses to “Stark Raging Bad”

  1. Simon DelMonte Says:

    It’s worth noting that the original novel was recently reissued, in case anyone wants to compare it with Cooke’s adaptation.

  2. Martin Says:

    I have the strangest stance on Cooke’s artwork. I think it’s terrific, pretty much perfect, but…the thing is, whenever I see it in normal comic book size, it just feels so inhibited and small. It’s why I’ve yet to actually buy any of his work except Absolute New Frontier. Yeah, I know, I’ll admit that sounds horribly snobbish, but I honestly couldn’t get into his Spirit run because of that – my loss I’m sure, but I’m hoping it’ll pay off for me if DC decides to release a larger version of that.

    Part of that sense of smallness probably comes from his old-fashioned layouts where he packs a lot into every page and panel, which I am generally in favor of for the sake of storytelling. With Cooke, though, I really wish he’d give his art more room to breathe. I’ll definitely check out Hunter because Cooke going into original graphic novels gives him the opportunity to do just that, so here’s hoping he starts taking it.

  3. Don MacPherson Says:

    Martin wrote:
    I’ll definitely check out Hunter because Cooke going into original graphic novels gives him the opportunity to do just that, so here’s hoping he starts taking it.

    I certainly don’t want to deter you from picking up the book next month, but you should be aware it’s not in an oversized format like Absolute New Frontier. It’s actually smaller than a standard comic book (though much thicker, obviously), measuring 6×9 inches.

  4. Joseph Says:

    Even amongst the big blockbuster books coming out this summer this is the one book I’m looking forward to the most.

  5. Don MacPherson Says:

    Joseph wrote:
    Even amongst the big blockbuster books coming out this summer this is the one book I’m looking forward to the most.

    In recent years, one or two projects have always seemed to emerge as “buzz” books at Comic-Con International, and I’ll bet that this year, The Hunter will be that book (along with Wednesday Comics to a lesser extent). I’m expecting there’ll be quick sellouts, similar to what we saw with Scott Pilgrim Vs. the Universe earlier this year (which debuted the week of the New York Comic Con).

  6. D. Peace Says:

    I have been a big fan of Cooke’s work for years and I’ve been looking forward to this novel since it’s announcement. His art seems so well suited to this genre – clean, sharp, angular lines and an aesthetic style that completely personifies the mid 20th century. Of course, I’m sure that’s not news to anyone who’s read Catwoman or The Spirit.

    Thank you for this review. While I’m not surprised that this is an outstanding piece, a 10/10 is very impressive. The end of July can’t come soon enough.