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Trouble with Comics

Christopher Allen and Alan David Doane Review The Outfit

Note: Even though we’ve been working on Comic Book Galaxy together for a decade, Chris Allen and I didn’t co-write our first article together until 2004. We did it a couple more times and then laid off until now, because nothing was good enough to rouse the sleeping giant of our two towering comics intellects working in tandem (and also because we were deeply ashamed of the effete logo our efforts had been slapped with by the asshole publisher of the site). With the publication of Parker: The Outfit, that has all changed, and we’ve got the band back together to jointly twist your arms into buying one of the best crime graphic novels yet published. We had so much fun that we’re gonna do it again. See ya in 2015, pally.Alan David Doane

CA:
I’m sure most folks know this, but The Outfit is Darwyn Cooke’s second and latest adaptation of one of Donald Westlake’s Parker crime novels. Actually, I think I read he condensed another, less interesting novel in here as well. Now, I’m a pulp crime fiction fan, but I admit I haven’t gotten to much Westlake yet, and what I have read wasn’t in the Parker series. But, Alan, I think I recall you’ve read a bunch of them. What do you think of Cooke’s take on this one?

ADD: Cooke’s first Parker outing, Parker: The Hunter was actually my first exposure to Westlake’s writing in print, although I had been exposed to his storytelling via the amazing movie Point Blank, which was also based on The Hunter. I liked but didn’t love The Hunter, but was definitely intrigued by Westlake’s prose, and so sought out a bunch of his novels from my local library, and really developed an appreciation for his style, which I’d call Heist Procedural for lack of a better term. And The Outfit translates that style and Westlake’s unique expression of it brilliantly, far better than The Hunter, making it the comics adaptation version of the better second film, like Superman II or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

CA: Not that I would have suggested Cooke model The Hunter on the brilliant Point Blank at all, but it does show that one can add other elements to Westlake’s story (in the case of the film, the late ’60s psychedelic touches) as long as one adheres to the basic story. You can’t leave that film not knowing that Lee Marvin’s character wants his money and will do anything to get it. He may seem almost foolishly principled, but you know he means it, and that if he’s hurting over his betrayal he will never show it.

In Cooke’s version of The Hunter, he got all that right, but perhaps he was almost too faithful. Fans of books freak out when chunks of plot or whole characters don’t make it into a film adapation, but the film has to work on its own, and The Lord of the Rings aside, most films would be agonizingly long and boring if utterly faithful to their books. But while Cooke was faithful, there were some distracting elements that somewhat undercut the brutally spare story. Offhand, without having read the book in a year, I recall the opening sequence with Parker walking determinedly and a woman in a car checking him out with desire in her eyes, when it would have been more effective for her to be fearful. Parker is not going to be anyone’s boyfriend, not anymore.

There were also some set dressing such as specific types of early ’60s furniture, that were distracting in some scenes as well. The Hunter was good, but it’s not until The Outfit where Cooke seems confident enough to be free to open up and try different stylistic tactics to make the book more than another respectable, unsurprising adaptation.

ADD: Maybe it’s just Cooke becoming more seasoned as a writer/artist. When I first really became aware of him, on Catwoman with writer Ed Brubaker, I thought he was the best new comic book artist to come along in forever, with a classic style that demonstrated a profound appreciation for storytelling over superficial flash. The fact that he was replacing the absolutely talent-free Jim Balent as Catwoman's artist of record, I am sure, had at least something to do with it, but Cooke very obviously had serious chops right out of the gate.

Unfortunately, Cooke’s career path was not 100 percent onward and upward after his initial splash with Catwoman. As fun as New Frontier was, it never really felt like it coalesced into a comic for the ages like I thought it was going to, and Cooke’s 12 issues on The Spirit mostly felt like a well-intentioned misfire, with the exception of the superb final issue.

But reading recent interviews with the cartoonist, one gets the sense that Cooke is coming to grips with his talent and his place in comics, and is maturing as both an artist and a businessman. I definitely look forward to more Parker, but I am also excited at the thought of his Cooke might apply the lessons he’s learned so far to whatever it is that he chooses to do afterward. And if nothing else, when all is said and done, we will all have a gorgeous set of thrilling Parker hardcovers to enjoy as comics and fetish art-objects. There’s not many creators that can propose such a project and then see it through to a satisfying fruition, but two volumes in, I have no doubt Cooke can do it, and he seems to have found the right partners in the folks at IDW to help him get it done.

CA: I don’t mean to break the illusion that we’re having a real time conversation here, with you sitting on my lap in that red leather clawfoot chair, but I must admit that between the time I wrote the first paragraph and now I’ve read one of the later Parker novels, Backflash (I also had nine meals, two shits, two bottles of wine, four beers, four orgasms and a pound of bacon — those last two items at the same time, with a call from my Grandma). Um, Parker. So, what I’m saying is, reading this novel, which is one of the last of ‘em from Westlake, makes me realize how well-suited Parker’s world is to comics, because essentially he doesn’t change. Like Peter Parker, he does pick up a woman here and there, but while he has a girlfriend of sorts in that 1998 book, she ultimately doesn’t mean much more to him or the book than a researcher, a helpmate to make the latest heist go over. The status quo doesn’t change much.

That gives me a new perspective on The Outfit, because I realize here even more than I did just comparing it to The Hunter, that Cooke is going for broke (or close to) in trying to come up with different ways to tell the story. Let’s face it: he could have probably just adapted The Man with the Getaway Face as an entire graphic novel and it would have been fine. He could have adapted that with The Outfit as he did here, but in the same style as he used on The Hunter, and that would have been good, too. But what he does, and I believe he mentions this in Tom Spurgeon’s interview, he comes up with different cartooning styles for each heist. See, The Outfit is rather challenging in that it’s not one job. What Parker is trying to do here is really annoy the crime syndicate (The Outfit) by robbing their various enterprises until they give up on trying to kill him. It’s different from The Hunter in that it’s not about revenge and not really about money — it’s harassment. That’s less exciting on one level and yet more relateable, as we’ve all fucked with someone even if we didn’t exact the revenge we craved (Rose Kennedy escaped my clutches too soon). 

As a guy who grew up a little later but nonetheless absorbed some of these cartooning styles through, say, early Al Jaffee paperbacks, I loved the early ’60s gnomish figures and gray wash stylings Cooke brought to some of these sequences, and he also did a terrific job capturing the coldhearted, zaftig waitress who gets what’s coming to her in the condensed Getaway Face sequence. The whole book is a stylistic tour-de-force that’s got a kind of sharkskin Rat Pack zing-a-ding-ding insouciance yet never getting too far away from the heart of Westlake’s Parker, which is that he’s a cool son-of-a-bitch who’s all about the job and his own self-preservation, yet under no illusions that the latest score will bring any happiness. The rare (only) two page spread on pages 130-131 is amazing: Parker sitting alone in the dark on the diving board of a covered motel pool. No pleasure here, just business, and don’t try to lift the cover before daylight. He’s not only the straw that stirs the drink but the ice cube that always floats on top and never melts. The cover says (shows) it all: this is not a man with features and the soul showing through his eyes; he’s an abstraction, a composite of hard angles that can’t be reduced by science or emotion. 

The Hunter was a modest success but The Outfit is a triumph. One is a feather in one’s cap and the other is the entire pheasant. It’s exhilarating and troubling at the same time, because after reading that Parker novel, Backflash, near the end of the line, one realizes that Westlake chose to work within himself in the series. Cooke has vowed to do at least one more Parker book, perhaps two. What to do as an encore for a character who doesn’t grow? I’m looking forward to how Cooke responds to the bar he’s set so much higher here. At the same time, given the relative stasis of the source material, as entertaining and tightly wound as it is, I think when he decides it’s time to move on, we can look forward to even better and more surprising work. Maybe something with a less assured character, or one of a fainter masculinity. At the very least, don’t they have crime in Canada? Where’s The Salty Poutine Score

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Buy Parker: The Outfit from Amazon.com. A copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review.