Good caper stories are always a fun read. Seeing bad people do the things we wouldn’t do gives readers (at least me, that is) a vicarious thrill that other stories can’t match. Mix in a period setting of the Nineteen-Sixties and add in the twist of a revenge thriller, and you have the makings of a great story. That’s exactly what you’ll get when you pick up Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter, the first in a series of four graphic novels adapted by the late Darwyn Cooke.
The story begins with Parker, the anti-hero thief at the center of these tales, returning to New York City after having escaped prison. His journey brings him through the city, finding and eliminating the people who betrayed him on his last job and left him to die, which include his scheming partner and unfaithful wife. As he seeks his revenge, he runs afoul of the national mob, known to Parker as “the syndicate,” who look to protect their investments and try to stop Parker from getting what he wants. Parker aims to do whatever he can to win.
Cooke stood as one of the greatest cartoonists of this generation, evoking a classic feel to the way he drew his comics and bringing a “retro” feel to the dialogue of his characters, all the while making their struggles feel real and relatable. From his works on books like Catwoman and The Spirit to his magnum opus DC: The New Frontier, Cooke’s art – both written and drawn – always spoke volumes about his talents and outlook on life. Like his other works, his adaptation of the Parker series is no different.
What differentiates Cooke’s art here is that he only uses one color throughout each book. In The Hunter, he uses different shades of blue to highlight the look of the world. Between deep navys and light teals, Cooke knows how to utilize the color scheme to reflect the characters and the world of the Sixties. Whether it be a deep shadow over one character’s face or a light shading in the air to indicate smoke, the colors help to speak volumes about the world. Cooke also manages to render this bygone era splendidly, bringing in tiny details like movie posters and billboards to help readers truly understand how New York once looked.
It is also a testament to Cooke’s storytelling abilities that the opening to the book is nearly silent, following Parker as he returns to New York and situates himself into a false identity. For a good majority of the first twenty pages, there is no dialogue or exposition given. The reader simply follows Parker on his journey, left to fill in the pieces of this mysterious character through the small actions he makes (such as not leaving a tip for his waitress or flicking a speck of dirt off the shoulder of his suit jacket). It is these small motions, which many artists fail to bring to comics, that really show the character’s personality. Yet Cooke brings them to the forefront to immediately let the reader know what kind of man they are reading about.
Cooke also knows when to bring in exposition to help lay out the backstory to the goings-on in the present. Electing to take a more novelistic approach to this, Cooke utilizes many pages to give long, exposition-heavy narratives to how the key characters of this tale arrived at where they are now. Cooke peppers in images of the action alongside the text, but has little to no actual dialogue coming from these panels. The reader must work their way through the text in order to get the full story. There are those who may not want to read so much text clumped together in a comic book, yet this style of storytelling is evocative of the novels these books are based on. Cooke manages to keep the source material in mind even as he tells the story his way.
While The Hunter tells the story of Parker’s revenge against his former partner, it is the later books that really flesh out Parker’s world. The Outfit sees Parker recruit several of his associates, including the humorous thespian-thief Grofeld, to go after the syndicate that attacked Parker in the first book. The Score follows Parker and a team of thieves as they are recruited by a surly ex-police chief to rob an entire town situated inside a canyon. Slayground follows Parker as he is trapped inside an abandoned amusement park with crooked cops on his tail, looking to take his stolen loot for themselves. The first two books are the only ones that feel like two halves of one story (which may be way they were collected together into the deluxe Martini Edition of the series), but all of them carry the same style and feel that The Hunter establishes.
Darwyn Cooke left us much too early, leaving the comic book world with a hole where a tremendous talent once was. Many point to his time at DC as being his seminal work (and I wouldn’t argue that point). Yet his work adapting Donald Westlake’s Parker books into graphic novels are something that shouldn’t be overlooked. Anyone who enjoys a classic crime caper would be a fool not to check out these books.