Reviewed by Chris Bolton
In Roman Polanski's classic Chinatown, Noah Cross (John Huston) tells detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." Screenwriter Robert Towne might have added pulp writers to that list. Churn out lurid mass-market tales in disreputable genres long enough, and you might just get your own Library of America hardcover. (Hey, if it could happen to H. P. Lovecraft...)
Witness Richard Stark, the pen name of Donald E. Westlake. Westlake started out writing short stories for pulp magazines in the waning heyday of that market, gradually becoming known for his popular Dortmunder series, and more recently for stand-alone thrillers like The Hook and The Ax. From 1962 to 1974, Westlake (as Stark) published 20 hardboiled crime novels about a professional thief named Parker, who was so cold-blooded he made reptiles shiver. The first volume, The Hunter, has been filmed twice: first as Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin, then as Payback (1999) starring Mel Gibson. Around the time the latter film hit theaters, Westlake re-emerged as Stark and published eight more Parker novels until Westlake's death last December.
Long out of print, the entire series is being reissued by the University of Chicago Press. Their edition of The Hunter features a back-cover rave from Booker Prize winner John Banville. How's that for respectable?
Completing Parker's acceptance into the mainstream, IDW has published a graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter written and illustrated by comics superstar Darwyn Cooke. Granted, comics used to be considered its own slum, but now NPR has stories about them, the New York Times has a bestseller list for graphic novels, and books like The Hunter are published in handsome hardcover editions that can be read on a bus without hiding behind a Faulkner dust jacket.
A former animator who worked with the legendary Bruce Timm on the highly regarded Batman: The Animated Series, Cooke became a superstar in the comics field with his work on DC: New Frontier and a revamp of Will Eisner's classic The Spirit. He brings a cartoonish, Art Deco flavor to his work that will remind fans of Timm's own style. Cooke's art has a period touch that is right at home in the early-'60s noir that Parker inhabited so perfectly (think Mad Men with guns blazing).
I cannot imagine a comic creator more ideally suited to adapt the Parker novels than Cooke. The Hunter opens with a beautiful, almost wordless sequence in which Parker stalks across the George Washington Bridge on foot, making his way back to New York City with one thing on his mind: revenge. After his last job, Parker was betrayed and left for dead by his cheating wife, Lynn, and his two-faced partner, Mal. Anyone who thinks death is enough to stop Parker isn't thinking straight.
In a handful of virtuoso pages, Cooke indelibly establishes Parker's character without even showing his face, mainly depicting others' reactions: the woman driver who sees Parker walking and speeds up to get away from him, the waitress who offers a cigarette and gets a faceful of smoke (and no tip) for her kindness. Parker doesn't flinch as he charges into the Department of Motor Vehicles, takes what he needs, and crafts a fake ID in a public restroom. The man is a force of nature, stripped of charm or nuance, almost completely unsympathetic; in fact, he'd been planning to turn against Mal before Mal beat him to it.
Stark wrote in a stripped-down style completely devoid of the flourishes that made Chandler and Hammett so popular. Cooke has reproduced much of Stark's short, punchy dialogue, as when Parker greets his wife with a crack across the face, sending her sprawling:
Parker: Get up. Cover yourself.
Lynn: You'll kill me.
Parker: Maybe not. Get up. Make coffee. Move it.
Cooke melds his own, dynamic style with Stark's spare, hard language. Here's Stark depicting Lynn's attempted seduction:
She had opened her robe. He looked at her, and the desire stabbed him once more, stronger than the last time....
She said, "Will you stay in here?"
He shook his head. "For you, that tree is dead."
In Cooke's version, Lynn stands beside Parker in one panel, her robe slipping over her shoulders, and asks, "Will you stay in here?" In the next panel, Parker yanks the rotary phone out of the wall hard enough to send a lamp flying. The next panel has Parker gone from the room and Lynn slumped at the end of the bed, her face buried in her arm, as Parker's dialogue seeps in from behind the door: "For you, that tree is dead." Same words, stronger images.
I couldn't honestly tell you which version I prefer. Stark's novel is hardboiled perfection, distilling the genre to its most essential, delicious ingredients. But Cooke's graphic novel is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, equally spare yet visually arresting, filled with small but powerful touches and simple but evocative linework that will be studied by generations of aspiring comic artists.
Unfortunately, there are times when Cooke swaps the comic format for what amounts to an illustrated storybook approach, juxtaposing a single image with swatches of Stark's narrative. I can only assume he wanted to faithfully replicate Stark's voice (or perhaps he was pushing deadline and needed to hurry the story forward). Whatever the reason, this technique grinds the narrative to a halt. One page contains a single illustration of a woman lying unconscious in a beauty parlor, Parker's silhouette moving across the storefront window in the background, with Stark's text along the left-hand margin:
She opened the door and he clipped her, base knuckles against the tip of her chin. Her eyes rolled back and she fell like a piece of glass.
In the dark he unplugged two dryers and ripped the cords loose at their bases.
The woman hadn't moved. He tied her arms and ankles and used a piece of her slip to gag her.
Reading that, I wished Cooke had shown us the scene rather than having it told to us. Luckily, there are only a handful of these lapses, and Cooke picks up the pace with another gorgeously drawn scene of Parker relentlessly exacting his brutal vengeance.
It's hard to imagine a more ideal stylistic fit than Richard Stark and Darwyn Cooke, and even harder to suppress a thrill of excitement when the final page promises: "Parker will return, Summer 2010."
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Chris Bolton co-created the web-comic Smash and wrote and directed the web-series Wage Slaves, which premiered in July 2009. His short story set in Powell's City of Books can be found in Portland Noir.
Books mentioned in this post