Crime classic Parker is back in black

Darwyn Cooke says he's had a 30-year love affair with Richard Stark's "Parker" novels.

Story highlights

  • Richard Stark's one-named hero Parker was the star of two dozen crime-fiction books
  • Darwyn Cooke has taken up Parker's exploits in a new series of graphic novels
  • Cooke will debut his newest book, "The Score," at San Diego Comic-Con this week

Crime fiction fans know the name Parker, a single-named anti-hero of the 1960s. As a character, he's a career criminal, hired gun and professional thief, a pulp-fiction prince of America's seedy underworld. He's relentless and menacing with steely good looks. Imagine a hard-boiled Don Draper with a gun.

Parker made his debut in 1962 in Richard Stark's "The Hunter." But Stark was a pseudonym of legendary author Donald Westlake, who continued writing about Parker's criminal exploits in more than two dozen books until his death in 2008.

The character has long enjoyed cult classic status and found varying success on the big screen, portrayed by actors including Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson. More recently, Parker has found new life in a series of imaginative and stylish graphic novels from Eisner Award-winning artist and writer Darwyn Cooke. Comic fans recognize Cooke from his past success in the superhero genre, putting his own creative spin on icons like Batman, Catwoman, The Spirit and Watchmen.

In re-imagining Parker -- starting with "The Hunter" in 2009, followed by "The Outfit" and now "The Score" -- Cooke has stayed incredibly faithful to Westlake's original novels. He describes his adaptations as being like noir movies on paper. In "The Score," Cooke works in a lean palette of black, white and gold. His bold pen strokes, moody washes of color, and lean prose help the action pop off the page.

Once again, Parker has become a hit critically and financially. Cooke is already working on a fourth graphic novel, with a fifth planned. CNN caught up with the artist and author as he prepared to debut "The Score" for fans at Comic-Con in San Diego. We spoke to him at his home in Nova Scotia by phone. The following is an edited transcript:

CNN: What drew you to Parker originally?

Darwyn Cooke: I've always been a big fan of crime fiction. When I was young I started reading a lot of the classics like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich -- I could go on and on. At that time the Parker novels were out of print, but I happened to see the Lee Marvin film "Point Blank," which is one of my favorite movies, and realized later that it came from the Parker books. So I started haunting secondhand book shops and picking up the Parker novels and just completely fell in love with them. I thought they were the perfect crime novels, at least for me. So it's been kind of a 30-year love affair with the books.

CNN: Describe how you put "The Score" together.

Cooke: The first thing I do is create a working script out of a copy of the novel. I read "The Score" six or seven times, and as I'm passing through it, I'm making notes, highlighting scenes, maybe breaking a chapter down, writing down a visual cue, cutting out things that are extraneous. Then I sit down and start laying it out visually. I'm able to follow the novel very much like a script. I never type a script for Parker. I end up handwriting in pencil onto the art board right out of the novel. At that point, I start combing over it again. I'll start playing with scenes, maybe if I shuffle the order I get a more unexpected result. The process leading up to me sitting down at the art board can be as long as a year. Then I sit down at the table and it's about a four-month process. When I work on Parker, that's all I do. I just immerse myself in it.

CNN: How did you adapt your style for the Parker novels?

Cooke: I felt there was a certain fit there. I definitely did go out of my way to make what I was doing to complement the material. When Donald Westlake wrote the books, he did so under a pen name, Richard Stark. The name really describes the approach and the style of prose. So I took that as my cue. I tried to strip out a lot of things you would see in my more mainstream work, a lot of the details, the line work; I tried to break it down more into shapes and blocks of color. I didn't want to do black and white, but I knew full color was very expensive and wouldn't have been appropriate. I thought a one color approach was the perfect way to go. It allows you to get that black and white, film noir feeling from the images, but you have enough color there to give them some depth, sparkle and life that it wouldn't have otherwise. I really try to create it in the spirit it was written.

CNN: This is your third Parker adaptation. Have you changed your approach over the series?

Cooke: I'm trying to stay open to different ways to tell the story but remain incredibly faithful to the novels while I do it. There is some room for visual interpretation, but it's a balancing act. In "The Score" one of the main characters is Parker's pal, Grofield. In the novel, Donald describes him as an actor who always hears music in his head. Grofield hears background music to whatever it is he's doing, he's always dramatizing what he's doing. I picked up on that and all the scenes with Grofield start out like movie scenes featuring the kind of music he's hearing in his head as they go about this crime. Someone else will speak and the bubble pops and then we're into the reality of the situation. It's a great cue every time that Grofield comes on stage in the book. When we see the musical notes, the reader knows, OK, we're in Grofield's head now. It's something you can carry forward.

CNN: What was it like to work with author Donald Westlake?

Cooke: We had a pleasant communication together through e-mail. He was really generous with his time with me. In order for the project to go forward, he had to approve it. He really didn't at first. I think he eventually saw that we weren't interested in taking Parker and doing what we wanted with him. We were very interested in having him show us what he thought this could be or should be and taking it from there. At that point he definitely started to get more excited about it. The thing that really sold it, he asked me a few questions about how I planned to write it. I e-mailed back, "I don't plan on writing anything if I can help it. I plan on using your words wherever possible. That's the reason I'm going to do the stories in the year they were written, so that I don't have to rewrite your stories to accommodate cell phones or all the other things that have happened in the world. I want your words on the page." I think he really appreciated that. Of course I wish he had lived to see this, because I think he would have been delighted. I know his family has been very happy about all of this. We're really proud of the books and what they're doing for Donald's legacy.

Read an excerpt from "Parker: The Score."

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