Friday 1 October 2010

Review – Richard Stark's Parker: The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke

Last week I skipped going to the comic shop because there weren't that many comic books out I wanted to get, and those that were out I was pretty certain would still be on the shelves this week. And then this Thursday rolled around and I almost gave the comic shop a miss again – mostly due to lack of enthusiasm (which is an ongoing issue, as I've grumbled about before) – but on a whim changed my mind and made the trek over to Brighton. And I'm glad I did, because I ended up with two cracking graphic novels that instantly restored my faith in comics. One of those, the nineteenth volume of Fantagraphics' Mome anthology, you can read about via the effusive Tucker Stone, although I'll just say it's good to see Mome back on form (the early volumes were often searingly brilliant). The other was Darwyn Cooke's second Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake graphic novel adaptation, Parker: The Outfit.

Parker in The Outfit
For me, as for many, Cooke's previous Stark adaptation of the first Parker novel, The Hunter, was the graphic novel of last year. And in a year that saw the publication of the great David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza and Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life, that's high praise indeed. It wasn't just that it was Parker on the comics page, although that was thrill enough: it was witnessing Cooke, already a formidable cartoonist (as anyone who's read DC: The New Frontier or Catwoman: Selina's Big Score can attest), reaching new heights of storytelling confidence, adapting Stark's 1962 debut with a seamless mix of comics – often 'silent' – and prose in a period setting but without being slavishly faithful. It was a triumph.

All of which means Parker: The Outfit, which adapts the third Parker novel, with an abbreviated flashback to the second one, The Man with the Getaway Face (blogged about here), has a fair bit to live up to. So how does it stack up? To gauge that, I think we need to look at it from two interrelated but still distinct perspectives: how it works as an adaptation of the source material, and how it works as comics.

Taking the adaptation question first, as with The Hunter, Cooke has opted for a largely faithful approach. There are alterations, but nothing terribly jarring or problematic, and mostly limited to characters being switched around: Alan Grofield – renamed Grofeld for some reason; that's him on the left there – and Dan Wycza both make appearances, earlier than they did in the series of novels (probably to provide a link to the next book Cooke will be adapting, Parker #5, The Score), while Jake Menner becomes Skim Lasker for purposes of plot, and Parker, Handy and Grofeld carry out one of the heists themselves. But structurally the story remains the same: professional thief Parker is being hounded by the mobsters of the Outfit, so he sets his sights on Outfit head honcho Bronson and gets his criminal associates to take down scores on Outfit operations, further harrying Bronson.

More importantly, the tone of the novel is consummately captured. Frequently in the novels, particularly when Parker is in motion, the kinetic energy of Westlake's otherwise seemingly matter-of-fact prose is irresistible. Cooke taps into this as Parker takes down an Outfit card game, hits the Outfit-owned Three Kings bar, and harasses Bronson's subordinate Fairfax. And in each of these scenes the look and feel is spot on: the Floral Court motel and the Three Kings are pretty much as I imagined them whilst reading the novel, the minor characters are well realised, and the overall run down urban sprawl setting is perfectly Parker's world. The temporal tricks that are so familiar from the Parker books are also present and correct, with Cooke doing a bang-up job on the Stark Cutaway in Book Three (as it's called here) and the final Parker/Bronson flashback/forward. Essentially, just as Stark's The Outfit is a more satisfying story than The Hunter, so Cooke's Outfit is a better tale than his Hunter.

One thing that is interesting is how Cooke handles the succession of robberies in Book Three, and this also relates to our second question of how The Outfit works as comics. The story of each score is told in a different style, from prose lifted straight from the novel and styled as a low rent true crime rag, to magazine-style illustration and even newspaper gag cartoons. Formally, then, Cooke's The Outfit is a lot more daring than The Hunter, and by and large those choices are successful. On a purely stylistic level, I think I actually prefer the drawing in The Hunter, which is little smoother and more restrained, but there's no arguing with the fact that Cooke has really pushed himself with The Outfit, and if the end result is sometimes ever-so-slightly scruffy, that's completely understandable and probably a matter of personal preference anyway.

That's not to say there isn't some remarkable draughtsmanship on display. Some of the spreads in the book are worthy of Eisner at his best. Take a look at these two examples:

Artistically, compositionally, those pages are things of beauty. As is, incidentally, the book itself. Cooke's The Hunter was thoroughly reviewed, as I'm sure The Outfit will be, but it's rarely remarked upon how gorgeous these books are. The design and detailing is superb; I imagine Cooke had a hand in that, but publisher IDW's team should also take a bow here, because from the dustjackets to the cases to the endpapers, both The Hunter and The Outfit are fantastic to hold in your hands, flip through and pore over.

In fact, the only possible down side is the size of the books: they're around the height and width of a contemporary hardback novel, i.e. smaller than most graphic novels. On one level, for book lovers like me, that's rather attractive. But as the oversized comic book preview of The Man with the Getaway Face demonstrated, you can't beat looking at Darwyn Cooke's artwork at a larger size, and there are some pages in The Outfit that look a little cramped by comparison.

That's a minor niggle, however. Parker: The Outfit is a worthy successor to Cooke's The Hunter, and in many ways an improvement too. Taken together – and really you do have to read The Hunter before The Outfit, as there's little in the way of explanation in the latter – they're a remarkable achievement. Only thing is, we've probably got at least a year to wait for Cooke's adaptation of Parker #5, The Score. It's gonna be a loooong year...

(By the way, Trent at the indispensable Violent World of Parker has a fine review of Parker: The Outfit up here – posted a week ago, making it the first review to be published.)

1 comment:

  1. Nice review - just FYI, I read an interview where Cooke explains he always read the name Grofield as 'Grofeld', and just wrote it down like that - and nobody noticed until it was in print.

    I still haven't bought it because I think his style is all about doing comics in a quick throwaway drawing style- which I applaud, as opposed to the overly produced and painted comic-panels these days - but the price of £18.99 isn't so throwaway. I would've prefered a cheap throwaway print- I guess I'l have to wait for it.