Comic book artist Darwyn Cooke passed away last Saturday, May 14, at the age of 53, shortly after his family announced that he was undergoing palliative care for an aggressive form of cancer. However, unlike the other beloved artists we’ve lost this year—David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Prince—Darwyn Cooke was far from a household name outside the comics community.
Which is a bit of a paradox. Too much has been written about the dominance of comic book films at the box office. As top earners, films built on the foundations of Marvel, DC, and to lesser extent, Dark Horse, have redefined popular cinema.
On top of that, comic books still have strong showings on their second cross-media platform (after radio): television. Sure, there are the superhero-centric shows of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Agents of SHIELD, but consider all of the cartoons as well. And one cannot forget that most popular of all comic book shows: The Walking Dead and its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, inspired by one of Image’s longest-ongoing series.
Despite how popular comic book adaptions are in the wider culture today, it’s strange how little attention the creators behind these books receive. This is the second tragedy behind Cooke’s death, after the more pressing one suffered by his friends, family, and loved ones.
Cooke was an artist’s artist. His work wasn’t widespread or widely known outside the insular world of actual comic book fans. He didn’t ascend to corporate-suit status like famed X-Men artist Jim Lee or writer Geoff Johns at DC, nor artist Joe Quesada, former editor-in-chief at Marvel. He also didn’t get the rock-star image of Frank Miller, the mystical transcendence and adulation of writer Grant Morrison (the subject of my forthcoming book from Sequart), nor the infamy of crusty hermit Alan Moore.
Though Cooke’s career was idiosyncratic and far from company-man status, he wasn’t lauded as an independent outsider, either, like Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Robert Crumb, or Los Bros Hernandez.
So, what is it about Darwyn Cooke that makes him important?
The passing of Darwyn Cooke is the passing of an artist passionate about comics, not as a career (he was not a draftsman churning out content solely for the bills), nor as a gateway to more “respectable” forms of art (think of directors that started with commercials and went on to make movies that were largely commercials *koff* Michael Bay *koff* Zack Snyder), but as a creator who loved both the medium and its characters.
Cooke’s style could best be described as retro-modern. He preferred clean, simple lines, slightly blocky but with minimally exaggerated anatomy, along with bold, bright colors. His figure work looks ripped from the pages of the 40s and 50s, minus the printing errors and ink drops. One might mistake his work for the far more widely known animator Bruce Timm, brainchild of the beloved DC Animated Universe.
Unlike many of his peers, Cooke’s work appears fully formed and stays that way throughout his career. Compare that with, say, Jack Kirby’s more traditional bell curve: a spaghetti-at-the-wall beginning, a confident apex, and a gradual decline as age and hours hunched over a drafting table or MacBook take their toll. Instead, Cooke delivered Cooke and fans knew what to expect. There are very few experiments in his style aside from the noir strokes and coloration of his adaptions of Richard Stark’s Parker novels for IDW.
The most widely known of Cooke’s bibliography is 2004’s DC: The New Frontier, adapted into an incredibly enjoyable animated film in 2008. The limited series, six issues in total, is a flashback to the period when superhero comics, in the view of many, were at their least-cool: the 1950s and very early 1960s. Superman was a cornball and palled around with Jimmy Olsen, playing jokes on Lois Lane. Batman was embroiled in silly adventures where he traveled into space or became Zebra Batman or Rainbow Batman. Wonder Woman was reduced to being a secretary for super groups like the Justice League.
Darwyn Cooke’s superheroes were not cool. Being cool seems to be the guiding ethos that’s overtaken superhero comics and superhero films. Starting in the 80s (via the aforementioned Frank Miller and Alan Moore), cool became associated with violence, gritted teeth, cynicism masquerading as maturity, imagination deferred in favor of reality. That’s a stereotype, though, and there are plenty of examples to puncture that inflated thought bubble.
Cooke’s key work skipped all of that. His characters, whether in DC: The New Frontier, his work on Catwoman with writer Ed Brubaker, his numerous covers, or the occasional guest spots in books ranging from Jonah Hex to Green Lantern, were too busy being icons to worry about being cool. Cooke’s style was lovingly self-conscious of being a comic book. It captured that peculiar mix of inspiration and innocence mixed with maturity that more comics, and their adaptations, should aspire to.
More importantly, he understood superheroes. Consider this report on Hal Jordan, pre-Green Lantern, from his commanding officer, as he flies over Korea in DC: The New Frontier:
“Airman Jordan is without question, the most naturally gifted pilot I have ever known. The issue is his refusal to use lethal force during enemy engagements.”
Though Jordan eventually exercises his abilities to use lethal force after he’s shot down solely for survival, he ends up in the psych ward, a black mark during the 1950s. Jordan lives with this as he rebuilds his career until chosen by Abin Sur, the Green Lantern of Sector 2814, encompassing our planet and countless more.
Carol Ferris, Jordan’s boss and love interest is somewhat skeptical of him. Before the climactic battle with an ancient entity that seeks to wipe out humankind, Ferris notes, “Hal the pacifist is going down there to get killed by that thing.”
His response: “What would you have me do? Or do you think I’m a coward as well?”
Cooke places Jordan’s story at the core of his most noted work. It features a damaged fighter pilot who refuses to kill unless it’s solely for survival who becomes an intergalactic cop clad in black and green with a magic wish ring.
Why is this important?
It shows a mature understanding of superheroes that doesn’t devolve into easily marketable approaches. Anyone who has known a solider coming back from combat can understand Jordan’s stance. Cooke’s work is uncool in the best way, as it doesn’t need to strike a pose. It is retro-modern, and that’s his true contribution.
Cooke’s artwork and writing are timeless. We witness both the past, present, and perhaps the future all at once in his illustrations. As kids we are reminded. As adults we are reassured. As parents we want to share. These images and feelings are not hip, nor something the wine and cheese crowd would cluster around. But Cooke’s love for what makes superheroes super, his eagerness to show their willingness to become more than their earthly bounds, to become heroes, is what makes his work fantastic.
Aforementioned comic writer Grant Morrison has stated that Superman is “more real than he is” since the character will go on living well after Morrison’s dead. Understanding and conveying what makes a superhero tick is a scratch at immortality.
Darwyn Cooke’s work places that observation at the core, harking back to the past while speaking to the future. Comic books are timeless, encapsulated mainly in their adaptations where we lose sight of the creators, workers, and laborers behind them. But we should never lose sight of the people like Darwyn Cooke who brought these visions into life.
I'm an adjunct lecturer at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and a Ph.D. student of Literacy and Language at Cardinal Stritch University. I live next door to Milwaukee as a Chicago transplant. My writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, Jacobin, Guernica, PopMatters, several anthologies, and elsewhere.