Let’s just cut to the chase right off the bat: Darwyn Cooke was cool.
That’s not just a subjective opinion about my feelings about the output of the Canadian cartoonist, animator and illustrator — although it’s entirely true that I think that Cooke’s art is, indeed, wonderful — but an effort to describe the aesthetic that Cooke projected in his work. From his Catwoman artwork through his adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, and everything in between — DC: The New Frontier, The Twilight Children, his revival of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and far more — Cooke created a specific brand that felt effortlessly beautiful, alive, and at ease with itself. In other words, cool.
Although he was primarily known as a comic book creator at the time of his death in 2016, Cooke’s arrival in the industry was somewhat delayed, and the result of a circuitous route; his first comics work was published in DC’s New Talent Showcase #19 in 1985, but he wouldn’t return to comics for another 15 years afterwards. (Maybe it was the fact that the splash page to his story was redrawn by editor Sal Amendola, or his glacially slow process that saw him producing just one page a week for very little money.)
Instead, he went into the magazine world, working as a designer, art director and illustrator, honing skills that would later serve him well on future projects, before landing a freelance gig with Warner Bros. Animation as a storyboard artist and later, director. Working with such greats as Bruce Timm, and Alan Burnett, Cooke was part of the team for The New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series before creating the opening titles for 1999’s Batman Beyond solo. After leaving Warner Bros. he stayed in animation for a year, working on Sony’s short-lived Men in Black: The Series, before returning to his first love: comics.
Cooke’s comics career is, essentially, the result of an accident; DC art director Mark Chiarello found a long-forgotten pitch for a Batman story the artist had submitted in the early ‘90s and hired him almost immediately to expand it into the 2000 graphic novel Batman: Ego. From there, he worked with Ed Brubaker on Catwoman, before writing and drawing what might be his magnum opus: 2004’s DC: The New Frontier.
The New Frontier feels like the perfect marriage of Cooke’s interests, in many ways: set in the mid-20th century, it allowed Cooke the chance to indulge a clear passion for mid-century design and illustration — the covers, especially, offered the opportunity to channel his inner Saul Bass and Milton Glaser, amongst others — as well as create a tribute to the characters and creators who’d inspired him as a child. There are clear influences from Joe Kubert, Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, and more to be found in the art, even as Cooke retains his visual voice through the whole thing, telling a story that mixes voices as diverse as Frank Miller and H.P. Lovecraft. At over 300 pages, the six-part series was a massive undertaking for any creator, never mind one relatively new to the industry, but again, Cooke made it look easy — and made the various DC heroes that star in it cool in a way that they had never quite managed before.
Cooke would return to The New Frontier a couple of times in the years following; firstly, to create new material for an oversized collection of the series, which included an annotations section filled with ephemera and more direct tributes to the inspirations behind the work, and secondly, for a one-shot comic book that accompanied the series’ adaptation into animation, which revealed just how willing he was to play with expectations and let others stretch his work in new directions. (J. Bone’s cartoonish Wonder Woman and Black Canary, punching out men in a proto-Playboy club while Gloria Steinem looked on, remains an iconoclastic joy, years later.)
If The New Frontier can be challenged by any other title in Cooke’s back catalog in terms of defining works, it would be IDW Publishing’s adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Cooke was responsible for every aspect of the four Parker graphic novels — The Hunter, The Outfit, The Score, and Slayground — published between 2009 and 2013, and again, the project displayed Cooke’s mid-century sense of design and style throughout, right down to the two-color printing process that recalled magazine illustration of the so-called atomic age. Even for those who don’t particularly enjoy the crime genre, there’s all manner of pleasure to be found in all four books for anyone who appreciates design and illustration. (Especially those who think that the 1950s and early ‘60s were highpoints for both, as Cooke did; I’m one of those people.)
It may be a cliche, given Cooke’s love of mid-century pop culture, to liken him to the Rat Pack, the iconic — and, admittedly, somewhat dated — clique of singers that defined the very notion of cool to a whole host of Americans more than half a century ago. It’s not an entirely incorrect comparison, though: both emphasized a practiced laissez faire attitude that undercut their obvious talents and effort in an attempt to make everything seem laidback and easy. Such an attitude is as much a gift to the audience as the work itself, letting them feel as if they’re enjoying something that just happened, and was no trouble at all, allowing the reader or listener to be guilt-free as they appreciate what’s before them.
Cooke’s work still feels like an effortless expression of joy that was meant to be shared and enjoyed — but, just as importantly, didn’t really demand that the audience did either. That disinterest, the lack of neediness to be liked, was as much a part of Cooke’s appeal as what he left on the page. As beautiful as his work was — and it was — his attitude was the final ingredient that emphasized a clear and simple truth: Darwyn Cooke was, and will remain, unmistakably cool.