I was waiting for Darwyn Cooke’s next thing. Everyone who loves comics was waiting for Darwyn Cooke’s next thing.
Ever since I saw the sad news of Darwyn Cooke’s passing on Saturday, I’ve been rolling around the right way to summarize the impact of his career. It’s practically a given that millions of fans know the superstar artist for The New Frontier, his seminal work that retold the formation of the Justice League against a late 1950s/early 1960s Jet Age/Space Race backdrop. Just when I thought I remembered all the amazing high points, more kept popping up. Oh yeah, he redesigned Catwoman with writer Ed Brubaker, taking Selina Kyle away from the jack-off material look of the late 1990s and into an outfit that was practical, cool and believable. It still had sex appeal but it felt like the visuals came from a fashion Selina herself would deem alluring. It was on her terms.
He also pulled off pretty much the only revival of The Spirit that fell like it updated the ethos of master cartoonist Will Eisner. (Cooke’s Spirit also turned sidekick Ebony White into something more than a jigaboo caricature, thank God.) And hey, he co-wrote “Task Force X,” one of the best episodes of the already-great Justice League Unlimited cartoon, fusing elements from various iterations of the Suicide Squad into an ice-cold heist caper that made the superhero show cooler than ever.
That buzzy, deconstructed opening sequence for Batman Beyond? Cooke reportedly cranked it out on an old iMac he had sitting around.
I’d been looking at Darwyn Cooke’s work for a while without realizing it. After working as an art director and graphic designer, Cooke transitioned to animation and worked on bothe the Batman and Superman animated series. A return to comics soon followed, as his distinctive style elevated titles like X-Force and Spider-Man’s Tangled Web. His first solo writing gig, Batman: Ego, flew under my radar when it first came out. I read it years later, and was stunned by Cooke’s grasp of Bruce Wayne’s tortured psyche. This guy could write as well as he could draw, I thought. On a project like DC’s Before Watchmen, which felt like it was preemptively reviled by almost everyone, Cooke’s work on Minutemen elevated that miniseries above the corporate cash-in motivations that birthed it.
That was the thing with Darwyn Cooke. Every time you thought you knew the scope of his talent, he surprised you again with just how much he could do.
I distinctly remember when Cooke became a guy I decided I needed to keep track of. It was a 2003 interview on Comic Book Resources about The New Frontier. Since the adventures were set in the 1950s before the creation of spandex, the heroes’ costumes would be wrinkled cotton and not skintight miracle fabric. This was the thinking of an artist who was weaving research and stylistic preference into a bespoke reality. Cooke wasn’t going to just draw muscular naked bodies and color them blue, red or green. He was creating people with heft and dimension.
Cooke’s influences were easy to read: he infused retro-styled Rat Pack cool into everything he did, following the north star of mid-century comics minimalism evinced in the work of Alex Toth and Bernie Krigstein. But he never just plumbed nostalgia for its own sake. He was pulling the primal essences of the characters he worked on into the present, so that people would never forget what was inspirational or compelling about them. His Superman was never corny or overwrought; instead, he was all altruism, the avatar of humanity’s collective best self.
Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations of the Parker novels cast the master-thief lead character as a force of nature, an apex predator you couldn’t stop staring at even though you knew he was trouble.
Cooke’s innate talent was to boil down the characters he worked on to their most appealing angles. Comics and their adaptations are at their worst when handled by creators who crank out path-of-least-resistance hackwork or lack the intuition to elevate their interpretations. It never felt like Darwyn Cooke did anything he didn’t believe in. You’ll see that conviction in every panel, every cover, every convention sketch that he produced. Making comics or comics-based adaptations can be a cool way to make a buck. But, with Darwyn Cooke, it always felt like more than that.