book review, crime, darwyn cooke, donald westlake, first issue, graphic novel, indie box, Indie Comics, parker, richard stark, the hunter
Reading The Hunter sheds light on how much Donald Westlake’s series of Parker novels influenced the ultra-gritty Sin City series by Frank Miller. It seems fair to say that the style of Sin City also influenced Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of its predecessor, bringing it all full-circle.
For example, Cooke sometimes fills a page with a single image and a column of narration on the side, something Miller often did, especially in the first Sin City volume The Hard Goodbye, and which John Byrne later parodied in She-Hulk.
Cooke also shows a fondness for the BAM sound effect rendered in blocky lettering when a pistol fires.
It’s a classic sound that brings to mind Miller’s iconic pages from the sixth issue of The Hard Goodbye where the sound effect becomes the frames for the action, and it reminds us that Westlake’s Parker and Miller’s Marv are cut from the same cloth.
If you crave stories with empowered women, then Parker isn’t for you. Parker’s world is a man’s world. Women are trotted onstage mostly for sex and betrayal. In Cooke’s four volumes, the woman with the most agency and initiative is Alma in The Outfit, since she sets up the heist while having her own secret plans. She wants to be a femme fatale, but her treachery does not end well for her.
Despite depicting a few variations on the female form, Cooke seems to have a default idea about what a beautiful woman looks like, and the faces of women in The Hunter often resemble faces he’s drawn before in his superhero comics. The face of the woman who betrayed Parker could easily be Cooke’s Wonder Woman or Catwoman, and that makes her feel a bit generic.
Oddly, that works for The Hunter, because Westlake built the story around characters who don’t run very deep—whether male or female. They are more like archetypal examples of the tropes of hard-boiled detective and crime fiction, as if they are so primal to the genre that they need little exploration. The Hunter is unconcerned with delving into what makes them unique, remaining entirely focused on the relentless advance of the revenge plot. If you want well-rounded female characters with depth and agency, go read some Greg Rucka or Gail Simone stories—because it ain’t happening in Parker!
This criticism didn’t stop me from being totally caught up in the story. What I love about Cooke’s adaptation of The Hunter is how he chooses when to tell the story wordlessly and when to deliver exposition. We get some narration and one brief line of dialogue on the first page, and then nearly twenty-five pages of story told without a single word or sound effect. But in those wordless pages, all the action is so clear, expressive, and compelling that it comes as a shock when words once again appear on the page.
I also love how Cooke’s stripped-down approach to visuals honors Westlake’s stripped-down approach to prose for Parker. Compared to Westlake’s more lighthearted Dortmunder novels, the sentences in the Parker series are much leaner and tighter. Cooke’s artwork echoes that with a kind of minimalism, a simplicity that only conveys the bare essence of details to create the mood and tell the story. Panels lack borders, and thick shadows and bright light do almost all the work of defining images without lines. Cooke might depict the ironwork on a bridge by only inking its shadows and never drawing the outline of the overall shapes. While I love the detailed linework of artists such as Juan Jose Ryp, Geoff Darrow, or Steve McNiven, Cooke creates compelling environments and people using light, shadow, and monochromatic midtones.
The Outfit relies entirely on purple, and The Score uses a warm, dirty yellow that suits the setting in a hot desert mining town. While Sin City did something similar in a few volumes, those colors were more like occasional highlights than Cooke’s creative midtones.
It would have been fun to see another volume in red. The end of the fourth volume did promise another return of Parker. Sadly, Cooke was taken from us by cancer in 2016 at only fifty-three years old, and we never saw a fifth Parker adaptation.
Volumes two through four had interesting moments. The Outfit abruptly interrupts the established visual style to insert a series of explanations about a series of crimes. We get a multi-page newspaper article about a casino robbery, cartoon guides to horse-race gambling and smuggling cash on airplane flights to pay for heroin, and several pages of how to operate an illegal “numbers” betting operation. Everything I previously knew about “numbers running” came from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, so it was interesting to get Westlake’s rundown on these vintage illegal enterprises.
The fourth and final volume, Slayground, traps Parker in an abandoned amusement park where he comes up with clever ways to use the environment against gangsters who want his money from a job he narrowly escaped. One of his ideas is spraying a blob of paint on every surface in the hall of mirrors, then luring someone in. I’ve seen so many hall-of-mirrors scenes in movies that I hoped to never see one again, but this was a brilliant take that restored my faith in reflective surfaces.
Slayground also delivers powerful moments of cinematic, wordless storytelling such as a four-panel page of a car we just saw lose control on the icy roads on the previous page, and now goes tumbling over our heads into the distance. You can almost feel the impact.
But of all four tales, my favorite is the first: a relentless revenge over a double-cross that made a heist go horribly wrong. It’s harder than hard-boiled and blacker than noir, a morally vacant tale about a repulsive protagonist who gets the job done with his hands.
It’s no spoiler to tell you that Parker makes it out of The Hunter alive. Westlake wrote twenty-four of these novels, and Cooke adapted four. At this point, you go into the series knowing the stakes are not life-or-death for Parker.
That does lower the dramatic tension. If you know the main character can’t be killed, then that lowers your investment in his success. In a series such as Sin City or Criminal, where individual stories are told out of order, a character might very well meet their end in any particular episode—and often does. Investment is high. You never know what’s coming next.
With Parker, we know he is unstoppable. The fun comes not from wondering whether he will live or die, but discovering how he bends circumstances to his will no matter what life throws at him. Parker’s world is a grim place, and he is not a role model nor even likeable. But he is enjoyable as an immovable object in a world of irresistible forces, or maybe the other way around. He possesses a singular focus and physical strength, and a superior insight into his amoral world of crime, lies, and power that helps him make it out alive—and, if he’s lucky, with a bit of money in his pocket.
Collector’s Guide: You can currently get the complete four-volume set of Cooke’s Parker adaptations in digital format for about $40 through Kindle/Comixology. Each volume was also printed in hardcover and paperback editions.