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May 10, 2009


CR Sunday Interview: A Talk With Darwyn Cooke And Special Guest Ed Brubaker About The Hunter

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*****

imageDarwyn Cooke's adaptation of Richard Stark's The Hunter appears right this very second for order in the current Diamond Previews. It's published by IDW, and its ordering number for the Direct Market is MAY090880. I'm saying this right up front because I think people will want to have this one and I hope the DM will be a big part of that. The first of up to four possible books in a short series, The Hunter is one of the more interesting comics projects to come along in quite some time: a major visual talent in the prime of his career tackling a run of near perfectly-realized prose works. Writing as Richard Stark, the late Donald Westlake created in the Parker series a much-copied icon of pulp in its same, single-name protagonist as well as bringing to crime fiction a way of writing and a sensibility in terms of subject matter years ahead of its time. By making his focus presenting the work through a new medium rather than forcing his own authorial voice onto the page, Cooke allows us to see a modern classic with new eyes. I have the first 50 pages of the adaptation, and I've read them seven times in seven days. The Hunter is lovely, literate, accessible comics and I hope Cooke sells a million copies.

imageI talked with Darwyn Cooke on Monday, May 4. We were joined by his editor on the Parker adaptation series, Scott Dunbier, and another Westlake fan: comics crime writer and former Cooke collaborator Ed Brubaker. Brubaker and Cooke have a nice rapport, and it was fun to hear the one-time Catwoman team banter back and forth. I'm glad the conversation at one point slipped into a discussion of Brubaker's collaboration with Sean Phillips, Criminal. I think Criminal is a great serial comic and I wish it had greater traction in an increasingly precarious marketplace for such book. I look forward to its return from its current hiatus as much as I look forward to having Darwyn Cooke's original graphic novel in my hands this summer. I had a really good time talking to these guys, and I hope that shows in what follows. I also hope that it will lead to some of you remembering this interview and taking a look at the project when it comes out. For that matter, just about every film, book and comic mentioned in the following discussion is worth your consideration. Start with The Hunter. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Darwyn, can you talk about the nature of your collaboration with Mr. Westlake? How did you initiate the back and forth?

DARWYN COOKE: The whole thing got started because I had had this in mind for a few years. Scott [Dunbier] and Ted [Adams] and IDW put it together with the agents on a formal level. I asked if it would be okay to contact Donald through e-mail about the project. And he was really forthcoming through the e-mail. I tried to be polite and not to badger him [Brubaker laughs] and ask a bunch of stupid questions. I tried really hard to think about how I would feel about a fan of mine working with me, how I'd want him to behave himself. [laughter] I just started sending him e-mails when it was important in my developing the project to get some insight from him. He was always affable and forthcoming. He's a lot more like the Westlake that writes the Dortmunder books than he is the Stark that writes the Parker books. He was a funny man.

SPURGEON: Was there a burning issue for you, something you were really curious about getting from him?

COOKE: You take a character like Parker, which has been sort of clearly but sketchily defined in Stark's books -- a lot of our visual impression of the character comes from film. Lee Marvin played the character in Point Blank. Mel Gibson played him in Payback. Jim Brown played him in The Split.

ED BRUBAKER: There was a French woman who played him in a movie.

COOKE: I was just going to say: some chick played him in a Godard movie.

BRUBAKER: I recently got a copy of The Outfit, where Robert Duvall played him.

COOKE: That's right. And Joe Don Baker plays Handy McKay.

BRUBAKER: Yeah.

COOKE: Westlake's often said the character kind of lacks definition [laughs] because anybody can really play him. One of the things I was intensely curious about was his visual impression of Parker. Because for me, it's Lee Marvin. Lee Marvin is what I saw in my head going into this. I wanted to sort of get that out of my head. That was the one thing he was kind of reluctant to get into. It was really neat. Because he said, "I don't want to color your impression."

SPURGEON: Didn't he at one point say that he saw Jack Palance?

COOKE: That's what he finally gave up to me. [Brubaker laughs] Young Palance, in that...

BRUBAKER: That crime movie where he's the bad guy.

COOKE: Panic in the Streets.

BRUBAKER: Yeah.

COOKE: He's got like a virus or something.

BRUBAKER: He's huge in that.

SPURGEON: Young Jack Palance was terrifying.

COOKE: You read that first chapter of The Hunter, and there are great lines like, "His hands looked like they were made by a sculptor who worked in wood, and thought big." [laughter] You get this wonderful impression of his physicality, but I couldn't see a face. Once he mentioned Palance, I moved towards that considerably. For me, it was really important going into this adaptation that there was a shot of putting his vision of the character forward. As opposed to say, a Hollywood vision of it. Or an auteur's vision. I really wanted to capture what he thought was there.

It was interesting, Ed, because he said when he writes, he never pictures his characters as real people.

BRUBAKER: Really?

COOKE: He said, "Every character I've ever written is an imaginary character in my head, except for Parker." [Brubaker laughs] "He's the only one I thought of as somebody, as Jack Palance, everybody else is a complete fiction in my head."

BRUBAKER: Wow.

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SPURGEON: Was the sheer number of adaptations something that hung over your collaboration? It seems like he'd be used to seeing people work with his characters, but at the same time that might not have always gone smoothly.

COOKE: I asked him about that in one of my e-mails. I thought his response showed a certain amount of wisdom and experience. He said that it was a lot more frustrating when he was younger, but that he's sort of come to appreciate all of the films for one thing or the other. He said his two favorites happened to be The Outfit, with Robert Duvall, and Point Blank, for completely opposite reasons. "Point Blank is this total, way-out fantasy [laughter] based on one of my books. I love it as a film, but it's the least faithful adaptation. I love The Outfit for the opposite reason. It's the most faithful and sort of taciturn of all of them."

BRUBAKER: It really does feel like the book.

COOKE: The word I've been using to describe it is Buffalo. Like Buffalo, New York. [Brubaker laughs] Even though it takes place in New York, it feels like Buffalo. [laughter] It's the city I imagine Criminal takes place in.

BRUBAKER: Yeah, Buffalo fits. Buffalo is like the Tijuana of America.

SPURGEON: Is it a stamp of approval from Westlake that you get to call the character "Parker"? I noticed that the character is always called something different in the movie adaptations.

COOKE: There are a couple of rumors as to why it's that way. The story that's out there, I guess, is that he would never allow them to use the name unless they'd commit to a series of films.

BRUBAKER: I had heard that Warner Brothers had bought the rights to The Man With The Getaway Face and then they never made it.

COOKE: That's another story. They bought the rights to Getaway Face and the name Parker, way back like in '65 or '66. They never made it, but they retained the rights to the name.

BRUBAKER: I had a meeting a few years ago with Joel Silver's office and they were working on Comeback or Backflash, one of the recent ones. They had Scott Smith writing it. They were actually going to use the name "Parker," they claimed, but then they never made it.

COOKE: There was no question that he was happy to have the name on the graphic novel, and what we're doing here.

SPURGEON: Was any of your back and forth on comics terms?

COOKE: Almost zero. We made sure he got a healthy dose of my work. And some of Ed's, too -- the Catwoman stuff is part of what we sent him. So he had a chance to look at all of that. But you have to keep in mind, he was a man in his 70s. I feel like this punk, right? [laughter] And I didn't want to badger him, or take the conversation anywhere he didn't want to go. I always kept it to story and character, those kinds of things.

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SPURGEON: Ed, I remember you once saying that you discovered a bunch of crime and pulp writers at once. Was Donald Westlake one of those authors?

BRUBAKER: The Point Blank movie I'd seen when I was young. HBO or Showtime showed it one month. That really blew me away. I had no idea what it was. And I think I read one of the Parker novels when I was a teenager. But it wasn't until Darwyn and I were working on Catwoman, actually. Darwyn had a friend who just stumbled into a bunch of these books; he was reading the Parker books again. We were talking about it. I went out and started picking them up at used bookstores and really getting into them. I had read some of Westlake stuff. I'd read some of the Dortmunders, and The Axe and The Hook.

The Parker books were a huge revelation to me. My desk, I have a bookshelf next to my desk. It has a bunch of writing reference and crime reference books on it, and it has all the Parker novels. [laughs] Westlake's Stark stuff and Ross MacDonald are pretty much the big influences on me as a writer, I think. I'm constantly re-reading those books. They're so much fun to read.

Just this morning I read the first 85 or so pages of Darwyn's book. It was really interesting because I know The Hunter so well to see things that I'd forgotten from it, or things that were emphasized in certain way because of the adaptation, that I hadn't actually thought about that way. To see the poetry of his prose. He was the first guy to really write that way, to write about criminals in this matter-of-fact kind of way. Parker is definitely not a good guy, but at the same time you constantly root for him. [laughs]

COOKE: It wasn't news, but he wrote me the one time that the whole point of the series was an exercise at the beginning to see if he could write a character who's completely internal. Where all the emotional content is internalized to the point where the only indication you get of how they might be feeling is how they act physically. I guess the book 361, which has the Westlake name on it, not the Stark name, is the first book where he first experimented with that approach. And then he rolled right into The Hunter. I'd say by the time you get to The Outfit, the third book in the series, he's caught lightning in a bottle.

SPURGEON: What is it like to portray that style visually? In Point Blank, director John Boorman seemed to see the book's lean prose as a blank slate that allowed him to interpret some of the scenes in wildly evocative ways. What was your decision-making like?

COOKE: Part of what you consider right off the top is that it has been adapted already, and these approaches have been taken, and they're there for you to see. While I think especially the director's cut of Payback has some merit, and I think that Point Blank is a bonafide classic, neither one of them really represent Parker faithfully as a character. In each case they could not help but add a layer of sentiment to his relationships that does not exist in the books. The hardest part of the work was staying true to that Buffalo mentality that just permeates the man's work. It's like Bob Burden. I don't know, man. [laughter] It takes place in this nothing hellscape.

The movies... they made brilliant visual choices, but they all run counter to the nature of the stories. Like in Point Blank, we have Big Al Stegman's car lot, and it's this awesome looking place with corvettes and great graphics. It's wonderful in the film. In the book, it's a shitty little shack in between two houses with a couple of dirty cabs parked in front of it. I had to resist all the story training I got at Warner's, which is to amp it up, to stage it bigger, to make more of everything. In this case, to keep it down where it was. Every time I sort of started to sympathize with Parker, or wanted to edit his behavior to make him more sympathetic, I would just stop working for a day, and then go back and do whatever heartless little scene I had to do. [laughter]

There's a scene in the book, oh my God, where he take his wife's corpse, she'd OD'ed, and he carries her out into the park to dump her body. He takes out a knife and cuts her face up, because he knows if her face is cut up they won't run her picture in the paper and it won't tip the guy that she's been killed.

BRUBAKER: And doesn't he get rid of the body because he doesn't know how long he's going to have to wait and he doesn't want the body around? [laughs]

COOKE: He wants to get rid of her. He sees her corpse, he dresses her and leaves her on the bed and says, "You always were stupid." And then goes out and watches TV until it's night time and then carries her out to the park and then cuts her face. That's... my nature is I believe in the heroic ideal to a great degree. You get to a scene like that and you go, "Shit. This isn't really in me." But it's certainly in Parker, so I just had to bear down and go with it. I wanted to interpret in that regard. I went right back to what Donald had put down there and said, "No, no, let's go with this." Let's see how we can make this real as opposed to find a new reality for it.

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SPURGEON: There's a page right before that scene, the "tree wasn't dead" page. You briefly show the shadow of his wife encroaching on him at one point: her memory. It's a very striking scene, but it's also interpretive -- because that text is fairly straightforward.

COOKE: I'm looking for a compact way in four panels to get across the fact that she haunts his sleep or his dreams. And it's funny because the prose on that page... there are maybe eight lines in the entire series of books that would give you any indication of what's going on in this guy's heart. And that's a big one.

SPURGEON: It's not sentimental, though.

COOKE: No, but it's very telling. It's fear. And fear is the last thing you associate with this guy. It's a critical moment in the book, and I wanted to make sure it got noticed, I guess. I pulled that trick.

BRUBAKER: I like that scene a lot, though. It made me pick up the book. "Was there a dream sequence?" [laughs] I love the way you did that, because I forgot that line at the end of the chapter where he was afraid of her. That's the last time he's scared of anything.

COOKE: This book is like a kiss-off to any sort of emotional burden the character has as he plunges ahead in the series. We're seeing the man at this point where he's jettisoning the last things that would make him vulnerable. So there are a few really nice moments where you get some insight into the man he was.

BRUBAKER: Did you ever ask him why he stopped doing the books in the '70s? I know he started again because of Payback; they seem to have started coming out again right around then.

COOKE: It was all through e-mail, and again I don't know how much of these are straight answers because he was a wry and funny guy, but he said "Stark just went away one day." He literally talked about him like he was another guy that showed up and then split after Butcher's Moon. He started another one, but it just never took. He said, "Yeah, the guy just sort of went away for 20 years." It was probably a combination of writing the screenplay for The Grifters and all those things jelling that brought it back.

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SPURGEON: Darwyn, I wanted to ask you about the shift in presentational modes, right around page 45, maybe the third or fourth major extended scene in the book. You start with this lovely picture of Parker and his wife at a hotel, and from there you move into several pages of this heavy narrative that's very different than the pantomime that starts the book and the more traditional words-and-pictures comics that come right after the opening. I found it very striking. Why did you change the way you presented the story at that point?

COOKE: When you're looking at this from a storytelling standpoint, you're trying to find subtle ways to shift gears and control pacing in a way that a book or a film can't do. If there's one thing that you can bring to a book like this that's perhaps well known, it's a fresh look at certain things. You can take the time to really blow it out at the beginning and getting to know him visually. You'll notice that most of the scenes that take place in the here and now have very, very sparse narrative. They're almost all dialogue and visually driven. Narrative has been stripped down to what I considered essential character or plot stuff that you needed to have. When you go into flashback, which we happened to do twice in the book, I move into a denser narrative. It evokes that sense of someone telling you the story, it allows me to cover more ground in fewer pages, and it gives us a format that distinguishes the flashback from the real-time story, without doing big scallops around all the panels.

BRUBAKER: I loved it when you got to that. As I was reading it, I'm like, "How is he going to deal with the back-story stuff?" And then I got there and I was like, "Oh, yeah. That's great."

COOKE: A lot of the back-story stuff, too, has to do with double-dealing, and dirty tricks and what's going on in people's mind. There's no way you can replace the narrative, unless you're jamming expository dialogue into people's mouths.

imageBRUBAKER: I loved the Keeley's Island map page, too, I thought that was great.

COOKE: That's fun, too. I don't know. I haven't followed a formula with how I structured it, it's just as I went along with the structure of the book, whatever felt natural at that point. I really like a pacing shift-up on a longer form project. You can have a brisk action scene, you can have a thoughtful character scene of dialogue and then you can get a dense piece of narrative that gives you a bunch of detail. And then move forward again. It helps create dynamic pacing, I guess.

BRUBAKER: I always loved in the books that most of it was from Parker's point of view, but one part of the book is from everybody's point of view, or someone else's point of view.

COOKE: This is what I love about the guy, man. In a way, from the very first book, he sort of sat down and said, "Okay, I'm going to put myself in the tightest box imaginable. These are all going to be four books long. They're all going to be six or seven chapters. One of the chapters will be from someone else's point of view. And then we'll switch it back." And then he followed that pattern. Forever.

BRUBAKER: Yeah. [laughter]

COOKE: And it never got old, it never got tired, it never stopped being fun to read. He just eliminated all that structural nonsense right off the bat so that every time he sat down he could sit and write the story. He knew how to plug it into these boxes. It reminded me that I like to work on a grid. It eliminates a certain amount of touchy-feely stuff at the beginning and allows you to dive into the story and keep it clear and linear. I thought it lined up nicely.

SPURGEON: Can you talk some about your overall structural choices? Did you make any decisions before you started working, or did you work on specific sections first? Was there anything new about the process to you?

COOKE: You can always see how you'd handle certain scenes or what certain characters might look like. The things you're dying to take a shot at. On a broader level, I guess I looked at it and I wanted it to be completely cartooned by me: down to the lettering, the color tints, even the digital corrections. I'm doing all of the work. The other thing was that I took what he said about how he approached writing the books -- the name "Stark," even -- and strip down what I do and take the polish out of it. I tried to make sure the art had a real live, off-the-floor look, to the point where the blue tint is laid right onto the boards. Nobody does that anymore. It forces you to work quickly and to do it for real. I also thought that it feels right when you're doing something about 1962 to sort of do it that way.

BRUBAKER: You're doing the blue with a brush?

COOKE: A watercolor ink and a brush.

SPURGEON: Whoa.

BRUBAKER: I was looking at it and thinking it looked like a scan and not an overlay. [laughs] Too cool.

COOKE: You get that brush texture to it. It's like the wash that Tim Sale does but with a tint to it.

SPURGEON: Was there anything that represented a significant learning curve for you, something that was harder for you on this project than on past ones?

COOKE: Yeah. The one thing for sure was I was trained at Bruce Timm's studio to look at a story a certain way: What can you bring to it? What can you do to plus it up? How can you make it bigger? I hesitate to say this, but it'd kind of like the Marvel Method, you know? It's like Stan [Lee]: make more out of everything. And that's been my approach all the way down the line.

Then you hit this and you're like, "No, the trick here is to make less of it." When we get to the end scene of the book, when he actually does get his money back, contrary to the film there are probably 15 different antagonists that he has to deal with on a subway platform. He does the whole thing without firing a single shot. It's a completely non-violent climax. It goes so against my instincts. My instincts are that you need a page to see him loading a thousand guns [laughter], putting them in his overcoat, ratcheting several of them and turning the subway platform into a bloodbath. Make it visually exciting enough to feel like the end of the story. I had to get past that.

SPURGEON: Was there a point when you looked at what you were doing and knew that you had made the right choice?

COOKE: One of the e-mails Donald sent me, he referred to Parker. He said, "Think of him like a carpenter. Or an electrician. He's not there to cause a fuss. He's there to do a job. He takes pride in the job he does. He doesn't want any bullshit from anybody. He just goes about his job." Looking at the character that way, that's exactly how he'd handle the thing on the subway platform. The goal is the money. He's not childish enough to have to demonstrate himself violently. I had to work my way through it and figure out why it was that way and why it's hopefully more powerful.

BRUBAKER: You mentioned that e-mail to me when we were in San Diego. You said that he also said that Parker was a contractor where every now and then he might have to kill the customer to get the job done but it's nothing personal. [laughter]

COOKE: It's funny you mention that because I went to his memorial, which was on April Fool's Day up in New York. It was at this place called The Player's Club, which is this cool theatre-club place. They had Peter Straub and Lawrence Block, they spoke at the memorial, but the highlight of the evening was Westlake's contractor [laughter] who was apparently his best friend. He had renno'ed a townhouse for Westlake in the '80s and then Westlake bought the farmhouse outside of New York and he had the guy come out to work on that. The guy ended up moving across the street. They spent their lives out there building shit all of the time. So he knows what he's talking about.

SPURGEON: This particular book is getting close to 50 years old now. Is there anything about the way the character works for people now that may have been different at that time?

COOKE: The last book came out just over a year ago, the last Parker, and he's in a world of cell phones or what have you. In The Hunter he's able to hand forge a driver's license with a ballpoint pen. And at the end of Dirty Money, he has to pay $200,000 for new set of computer-safe IDs. So I don't think the then and the now of it have ever really interfered with the character.

I know for me personally I just love, anarchist that I am, the notion of a cat who's got his own little scorecard and is out there making it on his own. He's got his dough tucked away where he needs his dough, and he quietly goes about his business. Where he's drawing the line is nowhere near where I'd draw it [laughter] but I admire the fact that this guy is out there making his own decision and moving forward in what he considers an incredibly fair fashion. [laughs]

He said in one of the e-mails that when the first half-dozen books came out, all of the fan letters he got came from either guys in prison or young black men. He said he was pretty certain that the black men were identifying with a guy who had to operate outside of society.

BRUBAKER: Every now and then I get fan mail from someone in prison, for Criminal, and I always feel a little swell of pride and a little fear. [laughter]

COOKE: You don't want to go Norman Mailer, go to jail and make an honest man out of him?

BRUBAKER: No. [laughs] I want research. I'm always afraid I'm going to ask too many questions and suddenly they're going to be in my life.

COOKE: I tell you, Ed, as long as we're talking about it, Criminal is the best book out there. It's just fantastic.

BRUBAKER: Well thanks, man.

COOKE: It's great to have a comic book I love to read.

BRUBAKER: We were talking about this at San Diego, and you told me Tracy was like your favorite comic book character. I was like, "Oh. I'll have to hit Darwyn up for a variant cover when I do Tracy again." [laughter] My brain clicked into publisher mode.

COOKE: Tracy was my favorite until I met Frank Kafka. I would love to draw the Frank Kafka daily.

BRUBAKER: He's like my Amazing Screw-On Head. Those are absolutely the hardest parts of the book to write. [laughs]

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SPURGEON: Darwyn, are you looking forward to this part of it, the getting it out there aspects? How do you feel about The Hunter, now that it's done? How do you hope people will look at it?

COOKE: I couldn't say. I will say there was a certain amount of calculation involved in what we're doing. For me, this is my first major work outside of a major comic direct market publisher. IDW, in my head they're a book publisher. When I look at the breadth of their line, I don't categorize them the same way I do DC and Marvel. So right off the bat, that's been exciting for me.

What's been incredible is that with Scott and everybody there, there's 100 percent support. I want the book to look a certain way, in terms of the design, the outer case, the typography, paper selections... we're taking the time to go through that in a way we can't with Marvel or DC. You get one from column A and one from column B with those guys, pre-formatted stuff. Here we're able to create a product that's going to look a lot more like a book.

BRUBAKER: The book's amazing, I gotta say. I don't know if I'd say easily, but it's definitely your best work.

SPURGEON: Are you aware of how handsome the book is, Darwyn?

COOKE: I only know what I like and I gotta be honest, I'm still... I'm not completely free. [laughter] You spend a certain number of years cutting Superman's pecs so that everybody's fucking happy and it tightens you up a bit.

It's funny because for me it's like stepping back to where I wanted to go in the first place. If you look at the Slam Bradley stuff... the roots of this work are right there. They're in Big Score. Then as I get into more Justice League-oriented work everything starts tightening up and getting cleaner, draftsmanship has to be on top instead of underneath. This is a chance to get back to where I wanted to be in the first place.

BRUBAKER: I'm jealous you got to do it. The first 20 pages are pretty fucking ballsy. We don't see his face for almost 11 pages, and there's no real dialogue.

COOKE: The first chapter of that book is so well written it makes me want to puke, but it was like there's nothing visual left if you put the prose down. It's all there. It's an external description, people's reaction to the guy. So it's like, "You know what? Let's take a good chunk of space here and see if we can achieve the feeling of that chapter purely through the visuals that he's directing. Right down to the holes in his shoe.

BRUBAKER: I was going to mention that hole in the shoe when he steps into the puddle.

COOKE: He steps into the gutter, steps off the curb... I sort of sat down and mapped it all out, and then just thought, "Okay, let's try to make it real clear."

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BRUBAKER: I love the scene where he hops the subway terminal right next to the guy and the guy is like, "What the hell?" [laughs]

COOKE: It's one of the benefits of cartooning, I guess. Just being able to sit there and go, "I was going to do it this way but you know what works? Walk-off camera, action and reaction, a little guy looking up, all of those things."

BRUBAKER: That's a place where I think your cartooning and your time in the Bruce Timm mines really paid off. I've worked with guys like you before but it's so hard for me to free up the narration. I have to force myself to use less narration in the Criminal stories just to let Sean [Phillips] have more room to show. But nobody else would have had the guts to adapt this this way. That's really amazing, I thought.

COOKE: If it was a brand new manuscript, I wouldn't have either. The book is readily available. If you've read the book and you enjoyed it, here's a take on that first chapter. Or for people that pick this up first and then the novel. But yeah, if this was something he had just typed there's no way I would have even thought, "Oh, boy..."

BRUBAKER: But if it was something you were writing yourself I could see you easily doing pages and page of silent stuff following the character, as a writer and an artist. I never had that when I was a cartoonist, but I was never that good.

SPURGEON: Darwyn, am I to understand you might do the next Parker book earlier than maybe we first thought?

COOKE: It went really well, all things considered. I've got other projects that I'm moving forward on, but as long as we don't completely crash and burn we're probably going to have book two for next summer.

BRUBAKER: Wow.

SPURGEON: Is there something you're looking forward to getting back to the next book, something new you want to try out or something you want to build upon?

COOKE: There's one really huge thing about it that's incredibly unique. In the next part of the story he has face-altering plastic surgery, so he looks like a completely different person. And that's a wonderful, kind of horrifying thing; because we've spent a book building up a character people can visualize and relate to. And then he disappears so we have to do it all over again. [laughter]

imageBRUBAKER: Are you doing the whole series?

COOKE: Not the whole series, I'll never live that long. [Brubaker laughs] We're looking at four. Originally we were thinking of doing the first four in a row. But the more I looked at it, there are books that are incredibly strong a little further down the line. We're looking at maybe using bridging material from a couple of the books so that the through-line of the story is clear. For example, right now we're discussing the notion -- and I actually want to throw this out there in case there's any outrage out there I can get it out of the way. Getaway Face is a good book, but it's not a brilliant book. It's an important book to the through-line of Parker's story. But The Outfit, the third book, is brilliant.

BRUBAKER: The Outfit is closer to a sequel to Point Blank in some ways.

COOKE: Exactly. So the plan we're discussing right now is to use the first chapter or two on Getaway Face as a prologue to The Outfit. We'd take all the stuff out of Getaway Face we need to to understand the story and where we are.

Getaway Face is great, but it basically comes down to an armored car thing.

BRUBAKER: It's not my favorite of the books.

COOKE: God bless you, Donald, I'm not trying to say anything negative, but I think he was still finding his feet there with how he was going to move forward. Because we can only do four, the idea of being able to move straight to The Outfit would be great. The other two that I really want to do are The Score, which is I think one of the best ones.

BRUBAKER: I have the pocket book edition of that, which has one of the coolest covers.

COOKE: With the field and the black truck driving towards you.

BRUBAKER: With the black truck driving towards you, yeah.

COOKE: That's a wicked cover. [laughs]

BRUBAKER: There are hundreds of these things on eBay. Butcher's Moon and Plunder Squad were so hard to find.

COOKE: Hey, just do what I did, man. I did a Wizard interview where I said, "I really need those books, but they're too expensive on eBay." I've got three copies of each now. [laughter] The final one I really want to do is Slayground.

BRUBAKER: That one is so good.

COOKE: From a premise standpoint, yeah, it's a masterpiece.

BRUBAKER: I really like the one that no one seems to like: The Sour Lemon Score. I don't know why I like that one, but it's just such a fucked-up story.

COOKE: The Grofield book?

BRUBAKER: No, that's Lemons Never Lie, which I really like a lot, too. The Sour Lemon Score is the one [where] he keeps being chased by other thieves. They hole up in a house and rape this woman and then one of the thieves gets thrown down the stairs and crippled. Super fucked-up book. It's so unlike all the other ones. He did a sequel to it where you find out what happened to this woman and these two thieves. One of them is gay and in love with his sadistic friend. His sadistic friend is now in a wheelchair and they live in New York. Parker happens to walk by on the street, and they all want to kill him because he ruined their lives. It's one of the better of the modern ones.

COOKE: He never worked out a plot.

BRUBAKER: Really? He just made it up as he went along every time?

COOKE: Guy sat down and just started typing himself a story. That's the other part that really freaks me out. Once you get into the books' construction, you go, "That's why he decided to take a wild turn." He woke up and today and said, "Where am I going with this. Let's shake it up." [laughter] It's really amazing when you stop to think about it.

SPURGEON: Ed, I wanted to ask about something from earlier. I can see Ross MacDonald in your writing. Where's Westlake in your work, do you think?

BRUBAKER: The willingness to flip the story. In the most recent Criminal book we got to the end of chapter three of a four-part story and chapter four began telling the back-story of one of the other characters.

COOKE: Is this Dead and Dying?

BRUBAKER: No. That one, too, though. That was almost Jim Thompson. But no, Bad Night, the one about the cartoonist. The guy who draws the Frank Kafka strip. That's the most recent one. Chapter three opened with the story of the bad cop who'd been setting the whole thing up. So you got tot the end of the chapter three and realized the whole story up to that point was kind of a set-up. With something like that I was very consciously riffing on the Westlake stuff and on the Richard Stark stuff.

Also: the sort of inside world of where the criminals are the main characters. I would sit and read these books when we were working on Catwoman, and all I kept thinking about was how we could make Catwoman more like this. [laughs] You know? I want to do it where she's not a good guy, where they're all actually living outside the world. In Westlake's stuff it's all about the criminals hook up, how they plot their scores. The only other people in the stories are either innocent victims or their marks.

COOKE: He was fascinated by process, I think. The notion of how you would go about and do something. To the point where explaining the trouble Parker has to go to get a car, to go to a town, where he buys the guns from the toy dealer. He'll take a chapter to walk you the mundane details of that. But there's something so compelling about it.

BRUBAKER: Then two paragraphs to have him kill 12 guys on an island. [laughter]

It's totally true. Five pages for how he gets a fake ID and a hundred dollars from a bank, and then less than a page for the killing 12 guys. Where everybody else would do it the exact opposite. I love that part of it. It really sparked something in my imagination as a writer to constantly look for heists. Whenever you're anywhere looking at the world as if you're a criminal.

I have a friend, Duane Swierczynski, who's a crime writer. He wrote an encyclopedia about bank robbery called This Here's A Stick-Up. I was in my bank branch not long ago and I realized it was one of the banks in his book. There was that Seattle bank robber in the '90s, the guy who got shot in the weird police standoff, that guy who lived in a tree house. I don't know if you remember that guy. He was a famous bank robber. He was on the FBI's most wanted list. He was robbing mostly around Seattle. I realized my bank branch where I'm at currently was his first bank robbery, where their hotwired getaway car was in the parking lot and it had died. So they ran across the street, ran across the golf course. I'm standing in the bank and I'm like, "Oh..." I wrote to Duane and I'm like, "Do you see heists wherever you go at this point? Are you always looking for a score?" He said that just kind of gets in your head as a crime writer. You just start seeing the world that way.

Westlake was such an influence on so many other writers, it's kind of like looking back at Knut Hamsun or Ernest Hemingway. So many things came from him. You go through the list of characters that are based on Parker. Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs. Robert DeNiro in Heat. The list goes on and on. Any cool thief character, you're like, "Oh, they're doing a Parker."

image

COOKE: I think the other thing Criminal has that feels Westlakian to me... your what I'll call a protagonist [Brubaker laughs], they all have a moral center or their own personal sense of right and wrong.

BRUBAKER: They have a code.

COOKE: And the people around them are all over the fucking place. And the code isn't manageable when you're mixed up with those people, unless a hell of a lot of effort and sacrifice goes into it.

BRUBAKER: Yeah, that's true. I'm trying not to do Parker in these things. Leo was a conscious effort to invert Parker because I got so sick of everybody misunderstanding Parker and just writing these over the top, really violent crime books.

SPURGEON: Parker as played by Steven Seagal.

BRUBAKER: Exactly: a guy who would punch first. That's not who Parker is. Parker does the expedient thing. He also doesn't try to get himself arrested.

COOKE: I sent Westlake something in terms of a cover drawing and he wrote back and he said, "Too violent."

SCOTT DUNBIER: I remember that.

COOKE: That's how we ended up with a cover that's introspective, where he's sitting on the bed beside the body of his wife. What he said took me right there to that moment. Which is sort of like the meat of the matter there. That's his dead wife. There's his life, gone. It's all inside him. We ended up with something completely different because Westlake completely agreed. It was never about violence with him, unless that's what he had to do to get where he was going.

BRUBAKER: There's a scene in I think the first book from when he came back to the series. His pal Nick and his wife are working with him on one of the scores. Nick expects that Parker will leave him if it comes down to getting caught or helping him out of a firefight. He expects that Parker will walk away and that's part of their code. He doesn't expect that Parker would ever give him up. But Parker expects that Nick would give him up. [laughter] And it's understood he wouldn't go kill him because he knew he would give him up if the money were gone, too.

COOKE: There's a couple of books where you can see him spend the whole book making sure the guy he was with gets looked after. The book where McKay gets all fucked up. Is it The Outfit? Then there's the book where Grofield is all shot up, which is Butcher's Moon, I think. The back half of the book Parker puts months into making sure everything's okay. It's weird, because he makes that decision for himself whether you're worth that or not.

BRUBAKER: He's one of those guys if you've never fucked him over he's a good friend to have. But if it's possible you've fucked him over, you don't want to be in the same car as him.

COOKE: The other thing I noticed about this book The Hunter as I was putting it down: other than maybe Rod Serling's Patterns, that teleplay he did about corporate life in America, this is one of the first mainstream indictments of corporate culture, disguised as a book about the mob.

The plot of this book is guy gets a phone bill. There's a mistake on it. He phones the phone company and says, "You took this money off of me. It's a mistake. Give it back to me." And he goes up this chain. [Brubaker laughs] He keeps getting transferred to another department. There was a phase where I was looking at the book as sort of a dark comedy about corporate America.

SPURGEON: I'll never think of "Let me speak to your supervisor" the same way again. [laughter]

BRUBAKER: It's totally true.

COOKE: He asks the guy on the phone, "Are you going to pay me or not? Yes or no." And the guy says, "No." He says, "Hold on a minute." And then he shoots the other guy in the head. [laughter] "Hold on a minute."

BRUBAKER: That's really funny. That's true, though. He was sort of writing about corporate culture in America the same time that Philip K. Dick was doing it as sci-fi.

COOKE: I'm not well read enough to know who was mapping that terrain. But it's a real gem in that regard.

imageBRUBAKER: I'm not well read in that era, but I can't think of someone who put down the Outfit, this Chicago mob that was instrumental in starting Off-Track Betting. There's a book about them that's fascinating. They were not fucked with. They were the first time the mob decided to get together and run as a business instead of "We're all Italians" or "We're all Jews." It was, "We're going to be the best businessman." Westlake was the first to use that in fiction, I think.

I don't know where he would have gotten that from except being in the world back then. He must have had a few friends that knew that world. That was so realistic for how they actually operated, with a board of directors and meetings. "Hey, we're going to help JFK get elected." They had a major impact on American society and they were a crime syndicate. That was pretty amazing. I love when they bring Mal in and they give him the three options. They give him the one that leaves them the least on the hook, and they're still screwed.

COOKE: Everybody gets theirs.

BRUBAKER: I'm glad you're doing The Outfit if you end up doing it that way, because you'll get right to the meat of the blowback from the first book.

COOKE: Yeah. Any reader who decides to pick up the second one, going "I'll give it one more shot" should be hooked. [laughs]

BRUBAKER: I don't think you're going to have anything to worry on that.

SPURGEON: That's hardly the most optimistic way of looking at it, Darwyn.

COOKE: You try to keep your expectations low. In terms of the calculation, too, part of going forward in such a big way with this is that Donald's name means so much at a bookstore. The book buyers, when they see this product, because guys like Ed and I I'll bet the corresponding marketing VPs at DC and Marvel could calculate what we're going to sell within 5000 copies.

The idea is that a bookstore buyer, no matter what category it's in, they're going to see "Richard Stark" and "Parker." They know this is a brand they see re-released every five years and sell out. There's a hope that will stimulate interest on that side of it.

BRUBAKER: If it fails, we'll only have Scott to blame.

COOKE: That's actually in the foreword to the book. [laughter] "It's Dunbier's fault."

SPURGEON: Why do you think Westlake wanted a series as opposed to a stand-alone book? Was that his way to press for a better deal?

COOKE: This is guesswork, but I would assume that he felt it had merit and that he didn't want to give up the name on a one-shot.

BRUBAKER: Also the first four or five books are basically one long story.

COOKE: That's the other thing. It's really easy to adapt in a sense because there is sort of a comic-book continuity to these books. Just enough sub-plot carries through that they connect.

imageSPURGEON: Did he see any of it?

COOKE: That's the part that breaks my heart the most. I e-mailed him on the 22nd of December [2008]. I told him I had the first part of the book finished. He used e-mail and the Internet, so I could have sent him a PDF. But I thought, you know what? I'm going to send him a nice hard copy of it all set up properly. I e-mailed him and said, "Look, I just Fed-Exed the first part of the book." One of the paintings I'd done for the development I had framed. I sent it all down to him for Christmas. He e-mails me back and said, "That's great, but I'm not going to see it until January 4th. We're going to Mexico for the holidays. I can't wait to see it. I'll talk to you when I get back." Then he passed away on the trip.

He did see a lot of developmental artwork.

BRUBAKER: Scott says he had to be swayed, but seeing your artwork was immediately like, "Oh, okay."

COOKE: He never let on. [laughter]

DUNBIER: When I sent him that first e-mail, he sent me back a long e-mail on why it wouldn't work. It was very polite. I had sent him some of the preliminary drawings that Darwyn had done. I think he used the word hothead, that this Parker was a hothead. He did say obviously this guy was very talented, they're beautiful drawings, they look great. So I figured, "Okay, let's try again." I can't remember what we sent next, but whatever it was, that one was much, much more positive. He was saying, "This is really on the right track." Then you got involved and sent him your basic proposal. His next e-mail said that he was enormously encouraged. Which was great.

COOKE: I'm sure he was thinking all kinds of things in terms of what was going to be done with his work. I told him. "I don't think I'm going to have to write more than a couple of dozen sentences for each book. Your words are there. Your dialogue for me is perfect. And when I need narrative, it's there for me. So this is not going to be an attempt to interpret your words with my words as much as bringing this whole story into another medium." I think he was happy to know that the words coming out of their mouths would be.

BRUBAKER: I'm bummed that he didn't get to see any of it because I think it's amazing. I think he would have been blown away by it. I was also bummed because I had been talking to Scott early on that I wanted to talk to Darwyn and Westlake. It was going to be my excuse to talk to the guy because I was such a huge fan.

COOKE: I have to admit, the thought of doing a signing with him was something at the end of it for me.

DUNBIER: He had agreed to do a signature in a limited edition, up to a thousand I think. He was excited about the project.

BRUBAKER: I know a lot of guys in the crime-writing field now. They all grew up worshiping him, and got to meet him at a show or at a crime convention. He'd take them all under his wing. He was this nice, forthcoming guy.

SPURGEON: That's a depressing place to end it.

COOKE: That's perfect.

*****

* The Hunter, Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark, adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke, hardcover, 144 pages, MAY090880 (Diamond Code), 9781600104930 (ISBN13), July 2009, $24.99

*****

* cover to The Hunter
* photo of Cooke provided by IDW
* photo of Brubaker by Whit Spurgeon
* array of visual reminders of the Parker character's film history, provided by IDW
* I think this may be a promotional or developmental image, but was in the material provided by IDW
* Point Blank trailer
* part of the "the tree wasn't dead" sequence
* the image that marks the shift in presentational styles, as discussed
* the Keeley's Island page discussed
* some of the preliminary imagery used to promote the project early on
* the jumping the turnstile sequence
* three of the paperback covers
* an illustrative image of the popular character, provided by IDW
* a lovely panel by Cooke bringing the reader into a scene with Outfit representatives
* photo of Westlake provided by IDW
* another attractive promotional image (below)

*****

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*****
*****
 
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