Darwyn Cooke: The Hero to My Heroes
Last week, the comics community became noticeably smaller with the passing of artist Darwyn Cooke.
On Friday, Cooke’s wife Marsha announced that her husband was receiving palliative care (I had to look it up, too, it refers to a type of treatment that focuses on pain relief) for cancer. At 1:30 am EDT on Saturday, May 15th, Mr. Cooke, 53 years old, passed away.
To many of us on the far periphery, this was a shock—it happened so quickly, so unexpectedly. For his family, it must have felt like an eternity. My most sincere condolences go out to them as I write this.
I never met the man, but I’ve read the majority of his work, which shaped much of my world view of comics.
Darwyn Cooke was an incredible artist. To the untrained eye, the most casual observer, that’s an indisputable fact. His art left a mark on comic books that none of us will ever forget, and it pains me to think that I’ll never see new art from him again in my lifetime. But, when he passed—hell, when he drew his final line—the comics community lost more than an artist; we lost an advocate. When publishers increasingly targeted a tragically hilarious oxymoronic “mature” audience, Cooke maintained that they did so at the risk of alienating the all-ages market that the industry was built on. The industry’s focus on universe-spanning crossover events made them completely inaccessible to people who just wanted to buy their kids a superhero comic.
In response, Cooke created DC: The New Frontier, a mini-series set in the transitionary period between the Golden and Silver age of comics—the 1950’s. Largely out of continuity with DC’s main titles, The New Frontier told the story of the formation of the classic Justice League roster and was a celebration of everything that Cooke loved about the characters.
By drawing what I like to call “the moments in between”—the moments that remind us, “They’re just like me, so that means I can be just like them”— Cooke humanized our heroes. For an example of this, look no further than the 23 variant covers that Cooke drew for DC Comics in December of 2013. Each cover was packed with small details that worked together to tell an entire story in a single image. And while the pages inside tended to skew towards the darker, more ‘mature’ world of comics that Cooke so vocally eschewed, the covers reflected the type of comics that I wished DC was publishing at the time.
Batman—exhausted, half dressed in his costume—passed out in his recliner after a hard night of fighting an endless war on crime, while Alfred warmly covers him with a blanket. Or Superman zipping out of a window, his apartment full of unopened moving boxes, his disguise—a cheap pair of glasses—haphazardly thrown aside because someone, somewhere needed help. The Teen Titans as a rock n’ roll band, playing to throngs of fans because somewhere in that world, that scenario exists. That one is a personal favorite of mine because I refuse to believe in a world where that isn’t possible in comics.
Cooke had a knack for looking at a character and figuring out what made them tick, then deceptively drawing something so complex in so few lines that you’d get a receding hairline from tearing your hair out trying to replicate it. His Wonder Woman had mass and muscle, defying the popular conventional depiction of her as waify super-heroine. Under Cooke’s pencil, Superman stood with a posture and a reassuring smile that said “It’s going to be OK. I’m here to help.” while his Batman constantly teetered between actually scaring the crap out of you and getting a self assuring laugh out of scaring the crap out you.
To quote a good friend of mine, fellow Project-Nerd writer Alex J. Cox, “Cooke made all of these dour, dumb superheroes look fun.”
Darwyn Cooke gave my heroes something to aspire to by drawing them as he expected them to be rather than how they currently existed. He took the already exceptional and demanded that they be more—that they be “super”. For that, I will always be grateful.
Thank you, Mr. Cooke. Whatever new frontier you find yourself in next, it’s a better place because you’re there.