Darwyn Cooke was a cartoonist of extraordinary integrity. His commitment to producing the absolute best stories he could tell, his honesty in expressing the stirring hopes and fears we all share through the four-color characters that inhabited his comics, his utter confidence in the profoundly clean and lucid aesthetic that was his art style and his alone, and his righteous fury at the entrenched troubles afflicting the industry he dearly loved combined to form a talent so unique that his loss will follow us forever.
Darwyn died two weeks ago, on May 14, at the age of 53 from lung cancer. I never met the man, I’m sad to say, but, like many, knew him through his work – his dynamic reinvention of Catwoman with Ed Brubaker, his lively turn at Will Eisner’s The Spirit, his beautiful and uncompromising adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker books, his sweeping Eisenhower-era DC epic The New Frontier.
Though Darwyn is gone, the extraordinary work he produced will remain honored as long as there are comics. Writer Adam McGovern and I asked several pros, from intimate friends to great admirers, what Darwyn meant to the industry and to them.
Dean Haspiel (The Red Hook, Billy Dogma):
When mainstream comics no longer looked like that or could be like that, Darwyn Cooke proved them otherwise. Brave and bold. Classic and classy. Darwyn was a giant and his comics were timeless. I’ll always appreciate The Fox cover he did for my term on the series and cherish that he reached out to tell me how much he dug what I did on CUBA: My Revolution. It was like being officially anointed by a comix god, the likes of Kirby, Kubert, Caniff, Eisner and Toth.
Adam McGovern (Nightworld, Dr. Id):
Darwyn Cooke gave me the confirmation and commandment for all my writing. From the dais of a small room at a Philly comic-con, midway through his magnum opus (well, one of them) The New Frontier, with probably fewer than 15 people in the room, he said that a story, to him, is something where “a character takes a journey, and at the end they find out something about themselves that they’d never known.” This definition not of surface spectacle but interior evolution truly spoke to me – I’d always gone where my characters’ emotions led them, rather than placing them in a set “three-act” structure to navigate – and I’d do that all the more as Paolo Leandri and I plotted our first Nightworld series. What changes is not the world, but you – how you view it, what you do about it.
Darwyn, of course, changed comics forever while reclaiming some of their most foundational strengths and joys. And his story-structure and sense of visual appeal – inner feelings and unpredictable motives notwithstanding – were second to none. Playful in its design shorthand yet superlatively perceptive in its portrayal of moods. Utopian in its upbeat mod-deco references yet unsparingly honest about what humanity can be up against (see John Henry’s arc in New Frontier – an offering of witness from a white child of the Civil Rights era who, at that same long-ago con panel, humbly said he had to tell that part of the story and could only hope he’d gotten it right). A clear eye for the best in the past to reach back for, and the most promising of the future to reach toward. We have to imagine a future without him, now. But we are changed, for the better, for seeing where his vision led.
Tom Peyer (Captain Kid, Hourman):
I never met Darwyn, but friends who knew him tell me I really would have enjoyed him. When I heard he was gone I checked out some interviews on YouTube and, yeah, I would have. He was clearly smart, charming, and sure of himself – all magnetic qualities. But I guess we did have sort of a personal connection: he obviously loved the comics I love the most. Late 50s-early 60s DC. Even less-remembered stuff, like the original Suicide Squad, Gunner & Sarge, Challengers. When he used those characters in New Frontier they still inhabited the clear, open-for-color world of those great old covers, yet they all possessed a new energy, a new humanity. They were magnetic, like Darwyn Cooke.
Steve Rude: (Nexus, World’s Finest):
I first met Darwyn at the San Diego Comic Con back in the early 2000’s. We both had similar reputations as being “difficult to work with,” and had a feeling that when we finally met, we’d get along famously. And we did. With our first encounter, we almost bumped into each other at one of the convention restrooms, him leaving, me entering. We stopped, looked at each other, and for some reason, started laughing. We didn’t need to exchange a single word. That’s my greatest memory of Darwyn. Two of a kind, him and I.
Kelley Jones (Batman, Swamp Thing):
I have no heartfelt stories of Darwyn, because I never met him. I have no anecdotes or telling tales that illuminate him as a person. Neither do I know much about him…I was raising kids and doing comics so there wasn’t much time to meet him, or anyone for that matter, over the course of the past decade plus. Comic drawing is a lonely business (if you want to produce anything that is!). [And] for me, when I’m not doing it, I…don’t read comics. I want to just get away from the whole thing, if you know what I mean. Recharge the battery.
So, you may ask, what the hell are you writing about him for? Well…that’s a good question.
Darwyn’s drawings…I can’t remember [when I first saw them]. I can tell you I liked them…right off the bat. The Spirit to be exact. They were fun.
Fun…think of that, in this day and age.
I don’t want to go into the nuts and bolts of his stuff (trust me, his nuts and bolts were awesome). I just had a good time reading his stuff – reading his comics. Reading them while waiting to pick up my kids from school. Reading them when I should have been doing whatever my wife told me to do. I read them after telling the kids to be quiet, because daddy was reading a comic. They were the kind of books that I showed to other parents waiting at the school for our children to be let out – the kind of people that were ready to pounce and call me ‘nerd,’ and ask if I needed help reading them. After a few thumbs of some pages of Darwyn’s book, they furrowed their brows and said these weren’t what they thought they’d be. “These are…kinda cool…can I read that after you?”
If you haven’t ever read a Darwyn Cooke story, I won’t say “Shame on you! Don’t you know he’s a legend!?”
I would say that I envy you, because you’re going to get to have that great experience of discovery.
Darwyn Cooke. I knew him only by his work. Only by his really fun comics. No heartfelt stories about the man himself. Just that when I heard he died…well…it broke my heart.
JG Jones (Strange Fruit, Final Crisis):
It must have been some night in 2001, nothing special. I got a call from Mark Chiarello over at DC. He was showing around a new artist, and wanted me to join them for dinner in Manhattan. “Yeah, sounds great. I could stand to step away from the drawing table for a while.” Some little joint downtown, SOHO, I think. “If I’m a little late on the train, go ahead and start without me.”
Needn’t have worried about that. No one had to tell The Man when to start. By the time my train dumped me off near the restaurant, several dead soldiers in the form of upright martini glasses littered the battlefield, and the General was rounding into form.
Kicked back in the vinyl booth, he was wearing a t-shirt and suit jacket, jeans, and these pointy leather shoes with silver buckles on the sides. His face was wearing a big, crooked grin, and he greeted me like he knew me already. “Jones! We been waiting for you! I’m starved. The fuck took you so long?”
I settled in and slowly began to understand. When you are with The Man, you are along for the ride – the kind of ride where you go to the Grand Canyon and they put you in one of those little inflatable boats and send you down the rapids. Everyone laughed a lot, and we had a hell of a good time, but this dude is poking at me all night, testing, looking for an opening, jabbing, breaking balls. Is this some kind of a test? I don’t even know this guy, but he’s at it all night trying to get a rise out of me.
I refused the bait. This is a guy Chiarello wants at DC so badly, they’ve brought him down from Toronto to wine and dine him. Tells me this Catwoman book The Man is doing with Ed Brubaker is going to set people over on their ear. I’m not looking to get into a scuffle with this dude that Chiarello is so eager to work with. Besides, the guy is smart as hell and funny. Sure, he’s riding me, calling me a redneck and whatnot, but he does it in a goodnatured manner, so, what the hell. Take the ribbing and smile, right?
There were a lot more of those dead soldiers on the table top by the time Mark called it. “School night. I have shut it down. Thanks for coming.” We reeled out onto the sidewalk in search of cabs and trains, and have a smoke while we flag one down.
“There’s one. I got it, here ya go. You remember the hotel?”
“Thanks, Jones.” Opening the door, The Man sticks out his hand. I take it, but pull him in close, conspiratorially.
“It was great to meet you, but do me a favor…”
“I don’t know how they dress in Toronto, but next time you come to MY town, I’d appreciate it if you left the little buckle-over Peter Pan slippers in Canada and put on some big boy shoes, eh?”
He tensed, balled his free hand into a fist, and that swerving smile skewed downward into something red and angry. I waited, still in the grip of the handshake. Next second, the smile returned, bigger than ever. The Man threw his head back and roared with laughter.
He gave me a drunken embrace, and now we were both grinning. “You’re alright, JG.”
I guess I passed the test. My reward? I got to call The Man my friend from that day on.
Jimmy Palmiotti (Harley Quinn, Jonah Hex):
To say the last few days have been rough since Darwyn’s departure is the understatement of all understatements. Amanda put it perfectly, saying she has “crying diarrhea” that just hits her at any moment’s notice and without warning, no matter where she is.
This whole thing has been especially hard because anyone that knows us, knows we have so much “Darwyn” in our home, it’s insane. It’s like he planned it over 14 years, slowly moving bits and pieces of himself into our home, to secretly make sure we never, for a second, forget he is watching over us. I really expect him at any time to just walk up on the deck outside, light up a cigarette and wave a sweet “hello” to us while we sit inside, something he has done a number of times.
Sit on the toilet in my bathroom and staring right back at you from the opposite wall is a panel from Jonah Hex 50, the one with Hex sitting next to a cannon aimed at a bad guy walking out of an outhouse. Stay in my guest room and right there on the wall is a beautiful color Catwoman piece he dedicated to Amanda, his true artistic sister in so many ways. Step out to one of the many decks of my house and there, waiting for your dirty martinis and after hours get together, is the beautiful vintage wooden table he tracked down and purchased for us one Christmas. Amanda’s office, special edition Darwyn Cooke toys, my office, every single book he has ever done, Last Resort covers, original art, and it goes on and on.
My living room, the original page from Harley Quinn #0 where he drew a more glamorous wedding adventure which ends with Amanda in a wedding dress protecting me by punching out Catwoman and Harley while exclaiming, “ I’m Amanda Conner, bitches!” Yes, he wrote that part. He actually ignored everything Amanda and I asked him to illustrate and just handed in whatever he liked. I wanted to kill him
when he told me he just did his own thing, and then the page came in and it was brilliant on a million levels. The always-great part about writing for Darwyn was that he always did his own thing and made it better.
Darwyn loved our angular mid-century home and above all, loved us, and it was never something he didn’t make abundantly clear to us at all times. He was like a tall skinny Tootsie Pop, hard on the outside but soft and mushy on the inside. I can write this now, because if he heard me say that while he was alive, he would look at me in disgust and tell me to stop thinking with my vagina, but I also know he would have loved it and smiled about it later.
So anyway, the point of this is, my house is now friggin’ haunted by Darwyn Cooke and I am okay with that.
Thanks Tootsie Pop.
Mike Allred (Madman, Silver Surfer):
Catharsis. Writing down memories of Darwyn Cooke, and taking pictures of pictures. I finally found a memory I feel comfortable sharing publicly. Especially since it bookends recent history.
Years ago (shortly after Ed Brubaker and Dar did Catwoman), Darwyn had told us (Not ask. He TOLD us.) he was coming to stay with us at our house in Eugene, Oregon. Laura and I had just bought a tiny little cabin on the coast. Actually it was on a lake connected to the ocean, in that we could kayak through the dunes to get to beaches that were rarely populated. There were no roads there, you either kayaked (often dragging the kayak over sand bars), or you hiked over miles of sand dunes to get to these very remote beaches. Like being on another planet (of the Apes).
So the cabin became a regular swing trip. My favorite thing to do with Darwyn at the cabin was sit on the floor around this big coffee table (one of the few pieces of furniture) and just draw. It reminded me of my childhood and how my big brother, Lee, and I would lay on the floor drawing, creating characters and making our comics for hours. Darwyn got the idea for each of us to start drawing something and then swap. And so then I would finish drawing his drawing, and he mine. A lot of those drawings remain unfinished, but for me, invaluable.
During one of these cabin drawing sessions our affection for the Adam West Batman came up, and so, I drew a portrait of Adam West. Darwyn said, “gimme that”. And then he inked it up into what was then and will always be my favorite Adam West Batman image.
Later, we were both on a project for DC called SOLO, originated by Mark Chiarello. One of the many things Darwyn and I both agreed on: We LOVE Mark Chiarello! When Mark calls, you know the answer will always be, “Yes, I’d love to!”
This was a series where Mark invited a different artist to do whatever they wanted in a single big fat issue. Many of our mutual pals, like Paul Pope (who I mention because he’s someone Darwyn and I often talked about. A lot.), were each given their own “Solo” issue. And some robust efforts for everyone to outdo each other (in a very friendly inspired way) kicked in making this series one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of.
For my cover I light boxed the head Dar and I did together and drew Batman’s body doing “the Batusi”. This remains one of most favorite covers for any number of reasons, but mostly since it represents my affection for both Darwyn and Adam West.
The cover was used for solicitations, but then likeness rights became a concern. I had to replace it, and so drew other characters doing “the Batusi”, Hourman, Mister Miracle, and Wonder Girl (who were all in my issue) desperate to find a worthy replacement. Wonder Girl won the cover, Hourman and Mister Miracle found space in the endpapers. The portrait Darwyn inked was allowed on the back cover, after his eyes were whited out.
Many years later (about three years ago?) , DC secured the rights to the Batman TV Show likenesses, and Mark Chiarello wanted to use my original, but replaced, “Batman Batusi” cover for the big fancy shmancy hard cover collection of SOLO. Almost simultaneously, I was asked to draw the covers for the TV Show inspired Batman’66 series. Then Mark asked me to do variant covers for almost every DC title with a Batman’66 theme in a single month. I was incredibly proud of all the covers, but then Darwyn Cooke got his month of covers and he smoked me, making me want another go round. Man, oh man, his covers were beautiful, punchy, and powerful. Darwyn always inspired me to reach higher time and time again. I imagine he had that affect on countless creators. I know he did. And I know for a fact that all of his couple dozen “best friends” would agree. He lifted us all.
Joseph Illidge (Solarman, Batman):
I had forgotten, after learning that a supervillain raped a superhero’s wife.
After someone wearing an “S” on his chest ripped the arms off of a teenage warrior.
After a superhero was shot in the head.
After a protector dressed as a bat picked up a gun.
I had forgotten that the superhero universe of my childhood, in which Leagues, Legions, and Societies reigned as the guardians of freedom and morality in the past, present, and far-future, was a special place of magic, wonder, and dreams.
My mind was clouded with the cynicism of the times, and the reflection of such in stories featuring beloved characters with global iconic power.
I had forgotten all of this for so long…until I read The New Frontier.
It was the graphic narrative of heroic fantasy.
The war between primary colors and bright skies against muted colors and the night.
Between the heroic ideal and the abuse of authority.
Between humanity’s fearful prejudices and its capacity to accept all beings regardless of their ethnicity or planet of origin.
Words like “Super” and “Wonder” were more than just pieces of a trademark.
Losers were courageous, the unknown was challenged, and all of the heroes came together to fight a common foe.
The New Frontier was my gateway back to the splendor and grandeur of the superhero.
It was a product of love that restored my faith.
Darwyn Cooke was its writer and illustrator, and to him I will always be thankful.
His passing is our loss, but his legacy is our gain…and his gift.
To trick arrows and power rings, to magic lassos and dogs with capes, to invisible planes and alien detectives.
To the skies and the stars…and a true artist who passed beyond the veil to find his place among the cosmos.