Crossing a New Frontier: RIP Darwyn Cooke

Though he was far less known than others who have been taken away from us already this bastard year, Darwyn Cooke was another artist that the world can ill-afford to do without. Only yesterday it was being announced that he was battling an aggressive cancer, and today that battle is done and we must accept that there will be nothing more of his unique viewpoint.

Cooke, aged 53, was a Canadian artist and writer of comic books and graphic novels. He first attempted to break into the industry in the mid-Eighties but was forced into advertising to survive. In the Nineties, he was part of DC animation studios before selling a Batman GN and establishing a name for himself.

In the early 2000s, he was jointly responsible for a new approach and look for Catwomen, designing the costume that persists to today, but his place in comic book history was assured by the 2004 DC series, The New Frontier, originally published as six Prestige format issues and collected into two Graphic Novels that everybody interested in DC Comics, and everyone else too, should have as an integral part of their collections.

The New Frontier essentially retold DC’s story of the Fifties. Cooke adopted a broad, expressive cartoon approach, eschewing complex story-telling techniques for a three-horizontal panel per page grid that never wavered. It threw the emphasis onto the story, which encompassed every aspect of the era. We see Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman dealing with the issues of the Cold War. We see Hal Jordan emerging from Korea and being selected for a top secret programme. We see The new Flash trying to keep his footing in an age that has banned super-heroes. We see J’onn J’onzz trying to fit in on an Earth that can only see him as alien, as monster.

Cooke got everything in, and got everything right. It looked, it read, it smelled like the Fifties. All those series that DC pushed out in those years when superheroes were unwanted, they all tie together to create a picture, a cohesive, intelligible, familiar and utterly human picture. It was a work of art and genius, and Cooke’s name will be remembered forever for it.

His style was distinctive: slick, rounded, always completely believable. He adapted a number of Donald Westlake’s ‘Parker’ hard-boiled crime novels as graphic novels, and though I have not had the chance to read any, I can think of no-one better to put that man into the visual medium.

Hell, again. Another one. I’m going to read The New Frontier now. Near the end there’s a moment that will twist my heart towards tears. I know this, because it always does. Superman is dead, and Lois Lane is consumed by grief, and getting through it  by focusing on her job. Then Aquaman brings him back from the water. With a line for a mouth and an oval for the outline of a face, Cooke puts Lois’s heart on paper in a way that a thousand photorealist artists couldn’t get near if they pencilled for months.

The man who could do that deserved longer. Much, much longer.


6 thoughts on “Crossing a New Frontier: RIP Darwyn Cooke

  1. Very bad news. I’ve never read New Frontier but everything I’ve heard it sounds like the type of story I would enjoy…

  2. Can’t recommend it highly enough. Re-read it last night and parts of it were exceptionally poignant in the light of our loss. You don’t need to be as familiar with the period as I am to enjoy it, though it does help to have original comics to think back to.

    1. To be fair as a comic fan, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve also never read (hold jaw before it drops to the floor), Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Maus among many other classics….

  3. Well, you are somewhat younger than me, so you weren’t around when they were coming out…

    Dark Knight Returns hasn’t worn at all well (do not read DKII. Seriously). Watchman is still worth it, though it no longer has the transgressive element that made it awesome initially: too man people have followed through those doors. Maus, though: Maus will be around 200 years from now. So you’ve time yet. But read it: it’s reputation isn’t overstated in any way.

    1. I’ve actually got a copy of the Dark Knight Returns and have been picking up Dark Knight III (and might have an issue or two of II), I’ve just never got around to reading….

      I’d chalk some of it up to when I was younger, for whatever reason I didn’t like trades, I preferred single issues and still do to a degree. But they’re all, as well as others on my list…

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