guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

August 2009

Darwyn Cooke,
Richard Stark’s Parker. Book One: The Hunter (IDW, 2009). $24.99. hardcover.

By Jared Gardner

In the dog days of summer I generally go on a crime spree, and I’m delighted to see plenty of new crime comics out there of which to partake this season (in the coming days and weeks, I’ll be surveying a few of them). By far the most glamorous new crime book this summer is the story of one of the least glamorous criminals in the history of hardboiled fiction: Richard Stark’s (Donald Westlake) Parker. If you’ve never read a Parker novel, you probably still know the character, albeit by a different name. From Lee Marvin’s “Walker” in the 1967 John Boorman film, Point Blank to Mel Gibson’s “Porter” in the 1999 mess, Payback, Parker has been adapted many times, but never under his proper name (only fitting, perhaps, since the man spends much of his time in his novels under an alias). However, right before his death in 2008, Westlake agreed to let Darwyn Cooke adapt the Parker series straight. With The Hunter, released this summer from IDW, Cooke begins what promises to be the first in a gorgeous series of adaptations, with The Hunter.

Now, let me confess up front that, although a career criminal (well, a career reader of crime fiction, anyway), I have never been the hugest fan of the Parker series. That makes me something of an oddball among devotees of hardboiled crime fiction. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my anti-heroes to have a bit of the, um, heroic in them--something, anything redemptive. Parker’s got nothing for a nancy-boy like me: he is not witty, cerebral, tortured, divided, or full of any surprises. What you see is what you get: a big, hard, handsome man with big, lethal hands and an incredible talent for getting the job done whatever bodies happen to get in his way. The prose in these novels is as cold and lethal as the character and, like Parker, not especially beautiful. It is not meant to be. But unlike the ladies who go all moist when the beast stalks by, he tends to leave me either dry or a bit nauseous.

That said, I enjoyed pretty much every bit of Cooke’s adaptation, and I will be there for every book in the series he adapts. The reasons, of course, have much more to do with Cooke than with Parker—although we must give Westlake some real credit here. His stripped-down prose and chiseled imagery works perfectly for Cooke’s animator’s instincts. Nowhere is this more clear than in the opening 20 pages, an almost wordless sequence in which Parker stalks into early 1960s New York across the Washington Bridge and begins his hunt for vengeance on those who double-crossed him--before he had a chance to double-cross them, it must be said. I couldn’t help but wish there had been a way to keep the whole book moving in this semi-silent mode, so remarkable is what Cooke accomplishes in these opening pages. But this is the first book in a series, and there is background, exposition, the story of the heist gone terribly wrong to cover. And these are the weakest moments in the book, when Cooke essentially becomes an illlustrator to Westlake’s prose, extended sequences where we get long prose accounts of how the double-crosser got double-crossed, what Mal (the double-double-crosses) did while Parker was hunting him, etc. Fortunately, the book ends with another jaw-dropping semi-silent sequence, abridging (quite properly) the jump-and-start original ending to the novel and setting us up much more fully than Westlake ever did, at least for this reader, to want to know what happens next.

Whether you share my taste for old timey crime fiction or not, this is something to see: Cooke, one of the most talented visual storytellers in comics today, is at the top of his game here and he knows it. He has channeled into Parker’s rough energy, but unlike his protagonist, Cooke has maintained wit, perspective, and humanity. The end result (and I’m not sure what Westlake would think about this) is that Cooke’s Parker ends up more human by association. And that can only be a good thing.