During a long getaway last weekend, I somehow found the time to read all four volumes in artist Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations of Donald Westlake’s “Parker” series. Written under the pseudonym “Richard Stark,” the books center around a brutal, lone wolf thief operating in the 1960s and the loose network of felons, thugs and mobsters he associates with.
For many years I’ve had only a passing familiarity with the Parker franchise, mostly through its forays into film: last year’s disappointingly formless “Parker” starring Jason Statham and, more famously, 1967’s cult classic “Point Blank” starring Lee Marvin and directed by John Boorman (in which the character’s name was changed to “Walker”). There’s also 1999’s “Payback” starring Mel Gibson, but the less said about that the better.
Boorman’s highly influential movie has become noted for its brilliant stylization and the metaphorical liberties that it takes with the subject matter. It’s a fantastic and fascinating film, but it isn’t quite an accurate representation of the Parker universe, which is more closely tied to the gritty opportunism of film noir and the seedy underworld of post-War America. Cooke, an animator and graphic designer as well as a comic artist, has a pronounced fascination with that time period and he brings Stark’s vision to life with great gusto in a relentless barrage of visceral, elaborate comic panels rendered in vibrant two-color inks. His art is “cartoony” in that his characters’ features and figures are exaggerated, but that quality somehow only complements the grim verisimilitude of Westlake’s writing.
Cooke’s art is definitely what drew me into these works, but I was surprised to discover that the stories more than held my attention. The Parker character is a bit two-dimensional in that he is conveniently smarter, more capable and more manly than anyone around him. But Westlake’s plots wisely challenge him with complexly conjured circumstances that allow just enough of his humanity to peek through to engage readers, while letting us relish in the satisfaction of seeing an expert craftsman at work, even if that work is crime. In that way, I came to realize that Westlake’s books are precursors for the works of David Mamet and Michael Mann, both of whom have based their careers in part on exploring the notion of gifted workers applying their gifts to felonious activities. I guess I’m a bit of a sucker for this kind of thing, because I found myself deeply engaged in these books, much more so than I expected to be.
Cooke’s adaptations have garnered multiple awards and appear to have sparked new interest in the franchise. IDW Publishing has just begun re-releasing Westlake’s original novels in new, hardback editions with design and illustration by Cooke himself. The first book, “The Hunter” is out today.