For a brief time, I was here; and, for a brief time, I mattered. – Harlan Ellison
I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality lately.
It’s been hard not to, with loss after loss of so many creative voices this year, artists whose words and song and performance had become touchstones throughout my life. And even then, the losses sort of blend into the background of your day as you go on about your business. Because after all, what else can you do?
And then you get some news that grabs you by the shoulders and drives its knee into your sternum, just to make sure you’re paying attention.
Early in the morning of Saturday, May 14, 2016, writer, artist and animator Darwyn Cooke left us at the brutally unfair age of 53.
Darwyn was the gold standard in comics, a singular voice who so transparently loved the medium and its history that it was apparent in every frame and figure he drew, yet always with his own distinctive style that kept it from being mere maudlin nostalgia. Darwyn’s work transported us to a past that never really existed, but that we’d all like to think took place, a cool, badass fifties populated by square-jawed heroes in roaring V-8 Chevys, and spunky dames with a twinkle in their eye and a mean right cross.
Darwyn came late to comics after a brief dalliance with the form in 1985, before working in magazine art direction and graphic design for over a decade. In the late ‘90s Darwyn began working at Warner Animation, storyboarding the legendary BATMAN and SUPERMAN animated series, and animating the fantastic opening title sequence for the much underrated BATMAN BEYOND series.
Not long after, Darwyn began to find comics work with DC Comics, where he would publish BATMAN: EGO, the first of his projects he would both write and draw. After trying out a few projects at Marvel like X-FORCE and WOLVERINE/DOOP, Darwyn settled in at DC first with a run on CATWOMAN with writer Ed Brubaker, which revitalized Selina Kyle with a sleek and elegant new costume that remains the character’s most popular look to this day.
Darwyn followed that up with SELINA’S BIG SCORE, a prequel to his Catwoman work, then set to work on the project that would be his most popular and influential: THE NEW FRONTIER.
DC: THE NEW FRONTIER is an absolute joy, a period piece taking place in the 1950s that set about re-introducing all of DC’s Silver Age heroes in the historical context in which they were originally created, and wrapping it all up in a great science-fiction mystery that’s at once epic in scope and subtly creepy.
THE NEW FRONTIER is that rare gem of a book you can give to a kid or a grandfather, and they’ll both enjoy it and find plenty to take away. It was here that we first saw Darwyn Cooke’s now iconic representations of Superman and Wonder Woman, with his Wonder Woman especially something of a revelation: this was how Diana was supposed to look: fierce, an Amazon, formidable, but always smiling.
Another of the most striking subplots in THE NEW FRONTIER involved a new character Darwyn created, “John Henry,” a Black vigilante operating in the South, fighting against the Klansmen that murdered his family. The way Cooke uses the classic folk poem of John Henry as contrast against the tragedy of his character’s fate is brilliant; it gets to me every time. As talented an artist as Darwyn was, he was no less impressive as a writer.
I would put THE NEW FRONTIER up there with WATCHMEN, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and KINGDOM COME as one of the absolute must-read DC works ever published, and by far the best adapted to film, with the animated feature capturing the book beautifully, and it’s no surprise, as Darwyn was heavily involved in its production.
After THE NEW FRONTIER, Darwyn shifted focus to another, more personal dream project: adapting Donald Westlake’s PARKER crime novels to comics.
Working with IDW Publishing and editor Scott Dunbier, Darwyn created what I think stand as his best work, brilliant adaptations of THE HUNTER, THE OUTFIT, THE SCORE and SLAYGROUND, each in a single-color palette that show off Darwyn’s layouts and illustrations to best effect. I worked as Darwyn’s copy-editor on these four books (although he certainly didn’t need much correcting), and getting to see the pages in progress as he was finishing each book up was such a privilege; it was like a master class in storytelling.
I could go on and on about how great his work was, about his later projects like THE SPIRIT and TWILIGHT CHILDREN, and what an influence it’s had on me, but I feel like others have said it already, and more eloquently than I could, especially those who were lucky enough to know him better than I did. As it is, I feel like we live in a smaller, less joyful world for Darwyn’s absence, and we can only take solace in the work he left behind, which will live on long after we’re all gone.
In the words of the great Mr. Ellison, for a brief time Darwyn Cooke was here, and goddamn it, he mattered.
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