There are artists, and then there are comic book artists. Purely and simply, Darwyn Cooke was a comic book artist.
Darwyn Cooke passed away last Saturday, a victim of a particularly aggressive form of cancer, and since that time tributes have been appearing all over the place to his talent and the impact he had on comic books and on animation. Even if you didn’t know who Cooke was, one look at his artwork would tell you that his talent was something special.
Comic book art is not like other art. It is different from illustration or painting. Comic book artists’ work must “move”. The sequential drawing have to move the story forward, but each individual panel has to have a sense of movement within it. Comic book artists need to be able to convey movement, tension and emotion.
Cooke was a master at that. His style was deceptively simply. He had the quality that all great comic book artists have. His art was not over-rendered or hyper realistic. His lines were strong and bold, much like the characters that he depicted.
Comic book artists have to be able to create a reality within the panels that is stylized and yet recognizable to the reader as an analog of the real world. Cooke struck that balance masterfully in the same way that comic book legends like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner and Alex Toth did generations before. His work was distinctive. His figures were rendered in a stylized fashion but were never less than fully realistic and alive. His art popped off the page with bold strokes and yet his figures were capable of expressing the subtlest of emotions to the reader.
He began working at Warner Brothers animation underneath Bruce Timm. He did storyboards for both the Batman and Superman animated series before DC Comics approached his about a comic book project. Batman: Ego, a graphic novel, was published in 2000. Its success led him to more freelance work with DC and Marvel, but for the most part Cooke stuck with DC. His passion for the DC characters was clearly evident in the work he did on revamping Catwoman and eventually to his mini-series Justice League: New Frontier which bridged the gap between the end of the golden age comic titles and the beginning of the silver age titles. The story, which was set in the 1950s, featured dozens of super-hero characters and drew inspiration from the comic books and movies of the period
Cooke’s work reached an artistic apex in 2009 when he began producing a series of adaptations of Donald E. Westlakes’ Parker novels. Cooke’s style perfectly captured the noir feeling of the Parker novels and is considered to be some of his finest work. He would release four adaptation of the Parker novels ending in 2013 with Slayground.
Cooke was the writer/artist of Before Watchmen: Minutemen and the writer of Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre in 2012–2013 and in April of 2014, he released a Batman Beyond animated short celebrating the 75th anniversary of Batman.
On May 13, 2016, Cooke’s wife announced on his official blog that he was battling an “aggressive” form of cancer. Cooke died the next morning on May 14, 2016.
It’s always a tragedy when a talented artist passes away to early in his career. If one hadn’t known of Cooke’s work before now just looking at it one can easily see the tremendous potential that was still unrealized at the time of his passing. There is a lot of his work available to us and I would urge you to pick some of it up. Look at it closely. If you are an artist study the technique and marvel at the simplicity of his lines which end up saying so much. If you are just a fan of comic books then pick up his work and experience the joy with which he managed to infuse into every panel.
Goodbye, Darwyn. You will be missed.