Darwyn Cooke pulled off the perfect crime last year with “The Hunter,” his graphic-novel adaptation of the 1962 novel of the same name by the late, great Donald E. Westlake (an author who, just like his heist men, decided it was best to use an alias and wrote under the name Richard Stark). “The Hunter” earned Cooke an Eisner Award and a Harvey for best cartoonist, and, this week, the Nova Scotia artist becomes a true repeat offender as IDW Publishing delivers Cooke’s second hardcover Westlake adaptation, “The Outfit,” which follows the bloodied path of Parker, a career criminal with a penitentiary stare and brass-knuckles heart. Cooke, best known for “DC: The New Frontier,” will be at the New York Comic-Con this weekend, and all eyes in the industry will be on him and his new book. I caught up with him by phone recently to talk about the new work, about moving on without the input of Westlake (who died while Cooke was at work on the first book) and his decision to veer away from the original novels at some key plot moments. — Geoff Boucher
GB: “The Outfit” feels different than “The Hunter” — the rhythms are more relaxed, somehow. Do you think you approached this one with less anxiety or formality? This one seems more like Darwyn Cooke, if that makes sense.
DC: It’s difficult to judge these things objectively when you’re doing it, but that seems to be the common comment I’m hearing from the people that have seen it. I would suppose that it is. With the first book, I was really trying to get Don Westlake’s worldview across to people. The story had already been told several times in films [such as "Point Blank" and "Payback"] and what-have-you, but it had never been told down the line, so it was really important for me to do that. With “The Outfit,” I was able to sort of step back and say, ‘OK, the plan is we’re doing four books here; are there ways I can make this one stronger in terms of how it relates to the three other books?’ We don’t have, say, 20 books to get our readers acquainted with this entire world, so are there things that I can do here to help in that regard? So I changed a few things. And to be honest, I fixed a couple of tiny problems with the story that I think Donald would have giggled about if I had brought them up. ‘Oh, geez, good point…‘
GB: Can you give an example?
DC: Well, without giving too much away here: At the beginning of the book, Parker finds out that somebody has fingered him. He’s had plastic surgery, he looks different, but somebody has fingered him as the guy who [the mob wants dead and] has a contract [on his head]. We don’t know his relationship to Parker, we don’t know how he would have recognized him since he’s got a brand-new face. It’s sort of a glaring omission, but Westlake is such a great writer, you just plow through it, and you don’t really realize it until you have to go back and you pull it apart they way I had to. That led me to a scenario that I created at the end of [the chapter called] “The Man With the Getaway Face,” where we find out that Skim is still alive. That’s a way that I able to tie the stories tighter together. In my version, Skim is the one that fingers Parker. He and Handy McKay are the only two living people who knows what Parker looks like, and Parker left them for dead. So there’s a motivation for fingering Parker, and how he was able to do it is much clearer. And this way, the subsequent action between Skim and Parker resonates a lot more with the reader because the character is fully realized and part of Parker’s world.
GB: This new book really gives a greater sense of the landscape and era that Parker inhabits, and you elaborate on the workings of the Outfit’s various enterprises…
DC: And even more important than place are the characters. There’s a wonderful cast in the Parker universe, all these other thieves that he works with — they are all distinct and fascinating guys unto themselves and probably none more so than Grofield. Ilove Grofield, I love the Grofield books. I wanted people to get acquainted with the cast. … The next book that we do, “The Score,” it’s 12 guys. It’s like “The Dirty Dozen,” and to try to do each of those guys justice over the course of one graphic novel would be a lot of work. By introducing a couple of them in “The Outfit,” it also gives the readers some ownership when they get to Book 3, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s that guy.”
GB: I know how much you admired Westlake and his work — was it difficult to veer off and make a major change from what he put on the page?
DC: It’s funny. I lay awake at night wondering to what degree Donald would have argued or agreed with me. There’s a situation at the end of this story [in it's original prose version] that I have never bought, as a reader and fan. I went ahead and made a change based on my understanding of Parker as a character and everything that Donald has ever said about him. He does something at the end of the book that flies completely in the face of everything he is as a character, and I did change that. I think it makes for a more succinct and ruthless ending. But, believe me, when you’re doing these things, you have to be really careful. I hope longtime fans will see the why of what I’ve done, and I hope it strengthens the material.
GB: Can you talk a bit about the particulars of the change? We will mark it with a “spoiler alert,” as they say.
DC: Yeah, absolutely. [SPOILER ALERT:] At the end of the book, that guy Quill — you know, he’s like an accountant for the Outfit? — in the Westlake book, Parker lets him live. And it’s like, are you kidding me? He knows what Parker looks like and he works for the guy that’s trying to kill Parker. Parker has just killed eight guys in this house, so it’s not like he has an issue with that. There’s no way on earth he would let that guy live. So I had to do him in.
Darwyn Cooke will appear at the New York Comic-Con this weekend for a Saturday panel, as well as daily signing sessions and other events. A special autographed, limited edition of “The Outfit” also will be on sale. For more info, go by the IDW Publishing’s setup at Booth No. 2115 on the convention floor at the Javits Center.
– Geoff Boucher
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