The New Design Frontiers of Darwyn Cooke’s Comic Book Art

Darwyn Cooke at the Long Beach Comic Con, 2011. Photo: M. Dooley.

Darwyn Cooke at the Long Beach Comic Con, 2011. Photo: M. Dooley.

When artist, writer and animator Darwyn Cooke died on Saturday, the enormous outpouring of sorrow from the comic book media was immediate and heartfelt. The graphic design community shares a great loss as well: Cooke’s flair for cartooning was possessed of a unique, masterful dexterity and versatility. His extraordinary visual narrative skills are readily apparent in his panel compositions and page layouts, which are further enriched by his ingenious rendering of characters, costumes, and backgrounds and his rich, nuanced line and color treatments. His stand-alone illustrations, some of which I used to top my Print feature on Criterion Video’s best packaging design, are also artfully innovative. DC Comics’ Mark Chiarello cited Cooke as a primary influence on his own sensibilities in this article about how comics strongly influence designers.

I’ve gathered together tributes and remembrances from a dozen or so of Cooke associates, friends, and admirers, to share with those who also knew and respected his considerable graphic skills as well as those who might not yet be familiar with this singular, exceptional talent.

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Gilbert Hernandez

alternative comic book artist and co-creator of the pioneering Love and Rockets comics series

When [DC Comics editor] Shelly Bond was at Vertigo she called to tell me Darwyn wanted to collaborate with me. I was happy to do it because I knew he would surely do a bang-up job on it. Well, he went beyond my expectations and completed the book [Twilight Children] beautifully.

I met him at New York Comic Con 2015 and we became fast friends. When I headed out for the airport to go home, he gave me a loving bear hug that suggested maybe we’ll see each other again. Months later when I found out just how ill he was, that hug has so much more meaning now. What a guy. God bless.

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Arlen Schumer

illustrator, author, lecturer, comics art historian, pop culture expert

Darwyn Cooke appeared full-blown out of the starting gate with his graphic novel Batman: Ego in 2000, kind of like the great comic book artist Walt Simonson did almost three decades prior with his Manhunter feature for DC Comics. No messy years of watching Cooke develop in public, like we had to with Simonson’s peers Bernie Wrightson, Michael Kaluta, and Howard Chaykin.

No, Cooke’s confident and classy craft and style arrived in toto, an immediately accessible, heady brew of surface influences and a more underlying foundation of far-ranging graphic sensibilities. Most obvious are the big and blocky Bruce Timm Batman: The Animated Series – and no surprise, since Cooke worked with Timm on the 1992-7 show – and the chiaroscuro stylings of “the thinking man’s artist,” Alex Toth, himself an influence on Timm. Cooke also drew from great, early 20th Century graphic design: from Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus to the 1950s Atomic Age of Googie architecture and retro-futurism, à la Dean Motter’s Mr. X; from mid-century populuxe magazine, typography, and book design to UPA’s abstract cartoon graphics and Saul Bass’ bold movie posters.

And Cooke could write. And write well. His magnum opus graphic novel The New Frontier will keep the magic and spirit of the Silver Age of comics alive forever.

Cooke was as much of an illustrator as he was a comic book artist, because you could see his deep study of the masters of the Golden Age of magazine illustration like Robert Fawcett, Albert Dorne, and Robert McGinnis in every cover, panel, page and poster Cooke created; such a mountain of work produced in only a brief decade and a half that it seems, in retrospect, as if Cooke knew he was living on borrowed time.

And we were the richer for it.

The immeasurable loss of Cooke at the early age of 52 is “our” loss of Prince at 57; like him, Cooke was a multi-faceted polymath, the likes of which we, too, will never see again.

And we are the lesser for it.

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Rian Hughes

director of Device: Type, Design, and Image

Darwyn was one of the new breed of artists that had a strong graphic sensibility, and who was instrumental in pushing back against the hyper-detailed and sometimes confusing style that had become the norm.

Uncluttered dynamic layouts, clean expressive linework, clear storytelling: the very essence of what comics should be. I think the background in animation and graphic design certainly informed his approach.

Last year I briefly spoke with him at the Lakes [International Comic Art] Festival [Kendal, England], where he told me that it was his first trip to the UK. Sadly, it was to be his only trip.

An inspiration, and it makes me what to stop doing the design and just go back to drawing comics again.

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J. David Spurlock

author, historian, artists’ rights advocate

There are few relatively new talents who rise to join the pantheon of the all-time great comic book creators. Though my late friend Darwyn Cooke had been interested in comic books for decades, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that he finally burst upon the comic book scene and into pop culture’s collective consciousness.

After working through the 1980s and ’90s in Canada as a magazine art director, graphic designer, and on some TV commercials, he came to work with Bruce Timm on Animation projects including Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series. By 1999, when he animated the brilliant main title design for Batman Beyond, DC Comics finally figured out there was a new genius around that loved comics.

Batman: Ego, then a fabulous recasting of Catwoman, followed, and shortly thereafter was the related graphic novel, Selina’s Big Score. Cooke’s next major project is the now landmark classic, The New Frontier, which originally ran as a six-issue miniseries and bridged the end of the golden and the start of the silver age for DC. That work alone forever established Cooke’s position in the history of comics. Many projects and awards ensued, including his take on Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter and a favorite of mine, his Solo issue for DC.

On the surface, his art could be compared with Bruce Timm in that he found a sweet spot between cartoon and illustration, or a style which perfectly incorporated both the dynamics of Jack Kirby with the draftsmanship of Alex Toth or Wallace Wood. I once told him, “you are like the Wallace Wood of a new generation.” He scoffed and made some joke about drinking. I said, “No, I mean you bridge humor and adventure in a way that so few people have, that you can count them on your fingers.”

Separate from the work, there is the man. We came to know each other through mutual friends like Mark Chiarello, Jimmy Palmiotti, Dave Johnson, Amanda Conner, and the great Steranko. I don’t know if I will ever see any of them again without thinking of Darwyn. He was smart, savvy, tough, smooth, sharp, sophisticated, real, genuine. We frequently talked about doing a book together, on his career. He said, “We’ll do it. We have plenty of time. I have lots of books in me.” I’ve lost many great talents who I was close with, like Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Joe Orlando, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, and Jeffrey Jones. But Darwyn was so young, actually younger than me. it stirs up different emotions, and a different sense of loss that I may not have felt since the passing of Dave Stevens.

The world doesn’t just need more talented creators like Darwyn. We need more human beings like Darwyn.

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Denis Kitchen

underground cartoonist, publisher, author, agent, founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Darwyn was an astounding, versatile creator who remained modest in the face of all accolades and awards. In person, he was one of the sweetest, and most genuine people, one I always looked forward to talking with at shows where we overlapped.

I had breakfast with him in October in New York, discussing comics, of course, and his recent collaboration with Gilbert Hernandez, and how he maneuvered that pairing with DC Comics. But we also talked about life in general, something that isn’t always easy with many self-involved comics creators. Talking to Darwyn was an adventure that could go in any direction.

Not long after that last conversation I followed up in an email about a possible project. I was surprised and disappointed that I never got a reply. I was about to follow up again when I learned about his fight with cancer. I’m terribly sad for his widow and close friends, and the industry has lost a giant.

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Mike Lynch

magazine cartoonist for the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, etc., and national representative for the National Cartoonists Society

Darwyn Cooke’s passing is a shocker. We wuz robbed out of decades of some of the best comics ever.

When I think of Cooke, I think of him as one of the bulwarks of comic book and cartoon storytelling, along with Alex Toth, Will Eisner, Roy Crane. His heroes – Parker, Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, Catwoman – were of the old school: they were sunny, fun and smart. This was the comic book as Indiana Jones. His lightning-in-the-bottle ink lines danced with energy and echoed the classic adventure strip look of Milt Caniff or Frank Robbins.

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Dan Greenfield

editor-in-chief and publisher of the comics culture blog 13th Dimension

I can only speak to Darwyn Cooke as a layman. I’m not an artist. But I know how art makes me feel and that’s the core of Cooke’s appeal: The emotional impact of his work. We ran a piece at 13th Dimension where I asked a number of creators about their views and I was especially taken with what cartoonist Bill Walko said. Anything you need to know about Cooke you can see in his variant covers for DC Comics from December 2014. Some of them were bold, iconic images. Others were wordless, single-panel stories. Perspectives changed. Some were loud, others quiet. But each one not only conveyed a thorough understanding of what made the subjects so appealing, they also made you as a viewer feel it, whether it was exciting, sad, gentle, romantic, frightened, exuberant, relieved. It’s all there, infused with drama, pathos and humor. It’s incredible that an artist could understand all this so profoundly.

More than that, he changed the business. Cooke’s style was frowned upon in an industry that in the ’90s featured art that was rendered to death. Comics were filled with soulless, stunted art. Cooke came along – and I understand it wasn’t easy for him – and told the world that comics could be done in a completely different way. He didn’t invent cartooning, obviously, and you can see Alex Toth and Will Eisner, obviously, in his creative DNA. But he brought back what was essentially a lost art in terms of comic books and paved the way for many others, whether they work for the Big Two or now find themselves at Image or IDW or Boom! or Oni or wherever. Comics now are filled with a wide array of gorgeous, artistic styles and I trace it to Cooke’s shattering of the ink ceiling.

Neal Adams, whose style is the polar opposite of Cooke’s, is my favorite artist ever. But there’s a whole bunch of artists working today who I wish I could draw like. Some are Cooke contemporaries and some followed his footsteps, directly or indirectly: Mike Allred, Cliff Chiang, Dave Bullock, Michael Cho, all have that cartoony-graphic design quality that Cooke had. And I think we’re all the better for their success.

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Craig Yoe

author, editor, art director, graphic designer, cartoonist, comics historian

Darwyn Cooke was leaving as I was sitting down at a convention table so we just exchanged nods.

I loved his work. His superheroes fought hard, faced dark times, felt grim pain like all the others do today. But also they smiled, they laughed, they shared simple love. They brought joy. These superheroes inspired; Darwyn often drew them from a ground level perspective which was fitting because you could look up to his heroes! These qualities were brought back from the Golden Age of comics by Darwyn Cooke seemingly all by his lonesome. He was the voice of one calling in the wilderness.

Now he has left the table for good without me ever being able to thank him for creating superheroes that lived up to their name. I fear there is no one to take up his mantle.

But we can hope.

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Jon B. Cooke

editor of Comic Book Creator magazine and producer-writer of Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist

Ed Piskor, the Hip Hop Family Tree comic book artist phenom, shared the other day on Facebook: “Darwyn Cooke told me once, ‘Ed, you can either make the best comics to your ability or you can be a good boy for your editors.'”

Despite being one of this age’s great cartoonists, let’s be honest: the late, great Darwyn Cooke, who made some of the best comics of our time, was rarely a good boy. However deceptively simple his artistry, he was an equally complex human being, one who would leave his primary publisher in a huff and go off to produce a series of graphic novels about a 1960s hard-boiled detective. And while I was never working in the DC editorial office and thus any target of his pique, I’ll venture to suggest the comics world is much better off for that complexity.

But, whether or not anger and obstinance can be a factor in cutting short a life, such personal intricacies do come at a cost. It’s hard to say. But I could always intimately relate to Darwyn, ever since our marathon interview session conducted for March 2004’s Comic Book Artist. Beyond our same last name and consistently misspelled first names, we shared similar experiences working in advertising and a love for Alex Toth and Jack Kirby. We developed a brotherly bond, and had a mutual empathy when recognizing perhaps in one another hurts that were still raw from long ago. We also had our own long-standing romances with cigarettes and alcohol. We were both wounded bad boys yet still somehow survived to do good work. And we both were passionate about comics.

Similarities end there. Darwyn was a brilliant cartoonist and expert storyteller who did great work. Me, I can’t separate the man from the material. I love them equally. His smile was ready but his eyes would betray a sadness. But we didn’t have to talk about life’s hurts because we shared the same antidote. We could escape and enthuse with one another about the connection that brought us together: a mutual appreciation for the wonder and awe of comic books.

Godspeed, brother. We’ll talk Toth and Kirby again, I know.

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Kenny Keil

creator of Tales to Suffice and cartoonist for Mad, The Devastator, etc.

Without question, Darwyn Cooke was one of the best to ever do it. Every image he produced left me a little bit changed. His work has power, it has joy, and good god, does it have style.

New Frontier along with his Parker series helped to define my sense of what a comic can and should be. Those books are masterclasses in storytelling, illustration, and design. And the truth is, you don’t even need to study them that hard to get it. Cooke put so much into his pages, you can’t help but have a little bit of it rub off on you. Simply reading his comics will make you a better artist, and probably a cooler person in general.

I’m heartbroken by his passing, but so thankful that he ever existed in the first place. We were not owed a Darwyn Cooke. We got one anyway. What an amazing gift.

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Andrew Farago

curator of the Cartoon Art Museum

Was Darwyn Cooke the greatest talent to hit mainstream comics this millennium? That’s up for debate, but his name’s on a very short list.  From Batman Beyond to Catwoman to The New Frontier and Richard Stark’s Parker and one of his final works, Twilight Children with Gilbert Hernandez, Cooke was a restless creator, and he leaves behind a body of work that artists and fans will be studying and enjoying for generations to come.

In 2008, I interviewed Darwyn just before the release of the animated adaptation of The New Frontier, and asked him about his year-long run on Will Eisner’s The Spirit, a project he jokingly referred to as “a suicide mission,” reviving an iconic character so strongly associated with his original creator. I asked him if he was satisfied with his work on the series, and his answer could easily be applied to his entire creative career:

“I think this is true of anyone who’s really trying to achieve something creatively: you’re never completely happy with what you’ve done. You’re very happy when you see that there are other people who enjoy it. That’s the most important thing. If I’ve got readers responding to the work, that makes me happy. When I look at my own work, I always see what I could have done better, things I could have done to make it stronger, so as a creator, it’s an ongoing critical process for me. I pull it apart, I see the flaws, and I continue to try to make the work better.”

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R.C. Harvey

cartoonist, comics historian, critic

Darwyn was a gifted comics storyteller, better than most. And at the time he first emerged, he astonished with the simplicity and expressiveness of his visuals. I’ll miss his work.

I didn’t know him, but years ago, at the beginning of his fame, he passed by my table in Artists Alley at the ChicagoCon and thanked me for some complimentary things I’d written about his work. Nice. Not everyone does that.

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Charles Hatfield

CSU Northridge professor and President of the Comics Studies Society

What is cartooning?

Cartooning is where the history of design funnels into storytelling. Cartooning is where illustration leans toward picture writing. Cartooning is concision and elegance. Cartooning is a self-deprecating, story-driven art that prizes clarity over flash, and yet makes room for personal flair. Cartooning is an art whose great practitioners leave unmistakable images burned into the mind’s eye.

Cartooning is Darwyn Cooke. The history of 20th century design lives on in his 21st century comics. RIP.

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One thought on “The New Design Frontiers of Darwyn Cooke’s Comic Book Art

  1. arlenschumer

    Michael Dooley, I cannot tell you how proud & honored I am to be part of the most beautifully-put together compendium of Cooke’s work, eulogized by such an august body of mourners! As an aside, one of the highlights of my 24 years of going to the San Diego Comicon was sharing a joint with Cooke on the terrace of the Windham Hotel, and me getting to pretty much tell him what I just wrote. That might remain the highlight of those 24 years.

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