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Parker: The Hunter
posted November 4, 2009


Creators: Darwyn Cooke, Richard Stark
Publishing Information: IDW, hardcover, 144 pages, July 2009, $24.99
Ordering Numbers: 1600104932 (ISBN10) 9781600104930 (ISBN13)

The post-release dialogue surrounding Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Richard Stark's first Parker novel, The Hunter, has been nearly as fascinating as the book itself. One camp of reviewers praised the book so effusively in terms of its perfectly realized and yet without any word that actually described what they experienced that it made you suspect Darwyn Cooke is the only cartoonist with whom they're familiar that regularly draws people in a coat and tie. For another group of critics, The Hunter ran into difficulties in part because Cooke failed to match Stark's legendarily lean and muscular prose with the same display of out-sized personality that the better film adaptations let slam upon the table in response.

imageThe two great distinguishing elements of Darwyn Cooke's affectionate adaptation of the iconic crime novel is that the cartoonist decided to bring as much of the book as possible onto the page and that he remained Darwyn Cooke the whole time doing so. The latter is obvious from the start. Cooke is a cartoonist with a background in animation who developed his comic book chops and significant fan base folding superhero stories into various cousin genres, infusing the costumed characters in them with an energy and speed based on fluidity rather than stop and start contrasts, and reworking their costumes into classic advertising illustration versions of the original designs. In the process, he reintroduced most of the characters he used to a range of storytelling techniques that have been mostly set aside following Jack Kirby's mid-'60s thunderclap and the multiple acolytes who have been interpreting the King ever since. In many of the better efforts, it was like each character Cooke used got to spend an encouraging evening with a friend of their father.

In The Hunter, the result of Cooke's specific cartooning skill set is a comic pulsating with energy based on the collision of surface elements as much as it burns at the core of any one character or even situation. His Parker is appropriately handsome and rough-looking yet slippery, almost forgettable out of the immediate context into which he's been placed. The criminal's famously over-sized hands look like they might shatter stone rather than simply look right slipped around a fat neck or two. Cooke's women are nearly all icons of loveliness and his set pieces are decorated -- maybe designed is the comics equivalent? -- in an almost symbolic way emblematic of a specific time period as opposed to the kind of layering of time and date and place with which most art directors achieve a more lived-in effect. You read Cooke's pages with the imagined accompaniment of a jazz trio: unless it's being walked through, sat upon or struck, elements of the world on display hardly exist. Even the action scenes bounce a bit higher than expected. When Parker confronts Mal Resnick it's as if Resnick is pushed by the force of air across the room towards his gun. It's more difficult to ascribe a quality to some of Parker's other physical confrontations with various mob lackeys, but they all fall down. It's a very charged adaptation as a result, with at least one unexpected outcome in that it's funnier in spots than it has any right to be, particularly in the all-too-justified swagger that Parker has when confronting threats to his physical well-being.

If Cooke had limited himself the way John Boorman's lovely film adaptation Point Blank had, to a reading of The Hunter as an extended second act, a character study more than a progression of plot points, I think his cartooning might have overpowered certain elements of the prose and shortchanged others, including the uglier, more complex character issues. If there's a weak spot in The Hunter, it's in some of what film or stage would call the scene to scene work, his ability to have those character inhabit a space and act as agents on their own behalf merely by pressing their underlying desires. But, as mentioned earlier, Cooke adapts the entire book, and in remaining faithful to that task Cooke finds a way to create a rhythm and instances of modulation within his wicked, smart, and I suspect not all the way formed style. The Hunter contains a few sparse instances of story that indicate what we're seeing are foundational experiences -- an origin story, if you insist -- that Cooke is able tease out through visual flourish, as in the "ghost" of his wife that appears briefly, or the shadows of leaves across her face foreshadowing knife wounds inflicted a few panels later, or the monstrous vision of Parker entering a penthouse window. These decisions by Cooke call into question how static a character Parker is, how much and how crucially he may change in at least this volume from the moment we meet him to the moment he speeds off into the night.

imageAlthough many might find any reading that engages a wider theme slightly heretical, The Hunter in Cooke's hands appears to touch on our embrace of certain ways of living and how we envision ourselves through those choices and what both may cost us. Over the course of events depicted in The Hunter's primary narrative through-line, Parker gradually fools himself into thinking he's retrieving a way of life he's forever lost, that he's getting the band back together even as he buries its individual members. The book's key moment is when Parker moves from a specific goal (finding Mal Resnick) with a clear psychological component (revenge) to in what many ways is an arbitrary goal (retrieving his money) with nebulous motivation (getting back into his groove). Cooke facilitates this potentially psychologically rich enterprise of figuring out why the latter satisfies when the former did not by soaking the scenes set in the recent past with an almost over-ripe pungency -- a map marking a big score could have come right out of a B-movie starring Jeffrey Hunter; the job itself is given the sheen of heroic accomplishment -- and then clamping down on visual flourishes in those key moments where Parker, like it or not, rips himself further and further away from this way of experiencing the world even while pursuing its return. He's resetting the mechanism of his life by punching the body of the clock until it complies.

Our initial vision of Parker in the mirror, then, doesn't just reward our curiosity about how the character looks, or even serve solely as a peak moment where we're confronted with his considerable rage, it also stops dead the swing and motion of his re-entry into the big city. Parker fails to fully settle into either woman's apartment he visits and stands out in bold relief against the used car lot where he presses his plan of attack. His first attempt to reach his former partner and betrayer ends in a series of panels dominated by abrupt, vertical lines. When Parker finally kills Mal Resnick, it's perhaps the most visually miserable page in the book rather than the work's operatic highlight. I'd suggest this is because Parker is no longer invested in that moment of revenge, even as it's happening. As our lead becomes more and more focused on a rudimentary aspect of what's been lost -- the money -- the settings become more sterile and generic, a reflection of Parker's growing monomania. The final conflict isn't really a conflict at all, it's an almost plodding push through a series of agreements, luggage, henchmen and reversals. We don't get to share in Parker's confidence and certainty in the book's last third, and the reader may feel almost dragged along several paces over his left shoulder in the book's final 20 pages. The last physical confrontation in the book hinges on the character's ability to slip out of the spotlight and into the background, far from the kind of personal Armageddon we've been conditioned to expect between resolute hero and inexhaustible villain.

In the end, Parker loses everything except one personally determined element. He wins. Darwyn Cooke suppresses everything that satisfies -- including I think some of his own deeply ingrained artistic impulses -- except when the moment overwhelms that restraint. He and The Hunter flower.