Like many, I did not have the privilege of meeting Darwyn Cooke in person. Rather, I was introduced to him through his works, such as DC: The New Frontier, Catwoman, and his adaptations of novels by Richard Stark starring the anti-hero Parker (The Hunter, The Score, etc). My knowledge of the man himself came second-hand. At conventions, his friends colleagues such as Jimmy Palmiotti often spoke about what a great guy he was. Those that happen to own a copy of the Justice League: The New Frontier – which adapts the acclaimed miniseries – are treated to special features in which Darwyn speaks openly about how he approached each character and the connection he felt to whatever project he was working on. And, of course, there was his conviction to tell the stories that he wanted to tell, rather than bend to the will of others.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my first experiences with his work occurred years earlier, as he worked on after-school favorites like Batman: The Animated Series and the fantastic opening credits sequence for Batman Beyond. It’s a stylish, snappy, and beautifully animated sequence that that set the tone for each and every episode. Regardless of the mood I was in, seeing Darwyn’s animation flash let me know what I was in for. That’s the thing about Darwyn Cooke: he knew who his characters were to their core better than anyone else. Even for a property as fresh and unknown [at the time] as Batman Beyond, Darwyn could distill the various elements to something both intricately nuanced, but also simple with a wide appeal.
These qualities would manifest themselves in the work which would become career-defining: DC: The New Frontier. Personally, The New Frontier is perhaps the most important work in my rediscovery of the comics medium. While The Flash: Rebirth was important in my exploration of characters and concepts beyond those that dominated my childhood, The New Frontier opened my eyes to the medium’s capacity for greatness. Here were some of the oldest comic creations placed in a retro setting (late 1950s), and yet over 10 years since its original publication they still feel fresh. It’s not just DC’s star heroes that are given time in the spotlight, but those lesser known ones too. The Losers and Challengers of the Unknown, characters that have struggled to breakthrough to modern audiences, are among the book’s standouts.
Do not be mistaken, the big guns are given their chance to shine too. The Flash has several notable sequences, and plays a major role in the climax. The origin stories for Martian Manhunter and Hal Jordan serve as the book’s foundation. Superman and Wonder Woman take on leadership roles in the superhero community. And then there’s Batman, who changes from Dark Knight to Caped Crusader over the course of the 400-page story. But it isn’t the spectacle and bluster that makes these heroes shine, but the various little touches that Darwyn adds which elevate the book. One such moment occurs early in the book, as Wonder Woman and Superman share a heated moment of political discourse. As Diana stands to confront Superman face-to-face, it is revealed that she towers over the Man of Steel. As he would explain in interviews, this was a conscious decision. He rationalized that there’s no reason that Wonder Woman, coming from a race of powerful warriors, can’t be envisioned taller than the men in DC’s roster. This was just one of the forward-thinking concepts Darwyn brought to comics.
Like most of his works, Darwyn Cooke injected The New Frontier with social commentary. Yes, there are the elements of traditional superhero fare, but they are given a historical context that explores themes relevant to not only that era, but the post-9/11 world and beyond. The fall of John Henry captures the intensity of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, but it is easy to draw a line from that era to the racial tensions which have permeated in recent years from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond. The “Red Scare” and witch hunt lead by Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s crops up as well, driving the old Justice Society of America into retirement. That fear-mongering is not too different from what is playing out in the current political sphere, as a U.S. presidential candidate has called for a ban on all Muslims entering the country (a statement which has since been amended by political allies). Other sequences throughout The New Frontier recall Benjamin Franklin, who said, “The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve, nor will he ever receive, either” – clearly a defiant stance regarding the U.S. Patriot Act. One can assume a similar opinion was held regarding the NSA’s mass surveillance programs.
Regardless of what your political leanings may be, it is difficult to not admire Darwyn Cooke’s conviction. It is that conviction which lead outstanding work beyond The New Frontier. He go on to write and illustrate Selina’s Big Score, an original graphic novel that would set the tone for his run as the illustrator of Catwoman, where he would partner with writer Ed Brubaker. Not only would he give Selina a new design which to this day remains unmatched, but his collaboration with Brubaker proved to be definitive. Then, after much hesitation, he would go on to contribute to the controversial Before Watchmen books. As to why he was hesitant to take up this project, he stated “Generally, if I can’t be true to the creator’s intention and spirit, I will probably shy away from working on a character.” And even though Watchmen writer Alan Moore disavowed the project upon its announcement, Darwyn’s Minutemen (writing/art) and Silk Spectre (writing) proved to be enjoyable and reverent additions to the mythology.
Beyond DC, he spoke fondly of his time adapting the Parker novels by Richard Stark (a pseudonym for writer Donald Westlake) for IDW Publishing. Having adapted four of the classic crime novels, a fifth was planned for release in 2016, which sadly appears to no longer be the case. He also contributed to IDW’s Rocketeer Adventures,putting the titular Cliff Secord in the role of damsel in distress, while his frequent love-interest Betty does the saving. His work here, along with his work on Catwoman and The New Frontier, demonstrated his belief that women could play a larger role in comics than publishers gave them credit for.
Darwyn Cooke did not simply want to be “the retro guy.” He turned down an offer from Grant Morrison to illustrate a Golden Age themed issue of The Multiversity. As he told CBR back in 2015, “DC only brings me in when they want the old-timey, happy stuff. It’s like a novelty to them. You’ll notice I don’t do a lot of work for DC. They don’t ask me. I’ve never been asked, in the 15 years I’ve worked for them, if I wanted to do a regular book, if I wanted to try introducing a new character. They simply have no spot for me in their day-to-day operations, so I kind of work around the edges of it.” It’s unfortunate that DC (and perhaps other publishers) saw him as a novelty, because everything he touched was golden.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever see the works that Darwyn had been planning, such as Revengeance at Image. But rather than focus on what we won’t see, I’d rather keep my mind on what we’ve been given. And above all else, Darwyn’s work gave us smiles. Whether it’s a superhero adventure, or a crime thriller, there was never a doubt as to the quality of the work. And if there’s a common denominator across his works, it’s that they brought joy to everyone. That’s a gift that few people are given, and Darwyn made the most of it.