Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter
Adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke
IDW, 144 pp.
In the Indy's look at the best books from 2008, I named the University of Chicago Press' reissues of Donald Westlake's crime books that he wrote as Richard Stark as one of the best of the year; days after that review was published, Westlake passed away. But before his death, he approved cartoonist Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of his books, and the first release should only fuel his posthumous reputation.
Donald Westlake was known for his comic, witty thrillers; under the pen name of Stark, he scripted ruthless, pared-down tales of a professional thief known only as Parker. Cooke, a longtime Stark fan best known for his 1950s-themed DC Comics series The New Frontier, hasn't so much adapted Stark's prose as literally translated it into a visual format.
The Hunter, the first Parker tale, chronicles his ruthless path of vengeance after being left for dead by his wife and his partner. It's been adapted into films, most notably John Boorman's Point Blank and Brian Helgeland's Payback, but none has completely captured Parker's sheer ruthlessness. (Payback, which starred Mel Gibson, was notoriously recut to make the main character more sympathetic, though a director's cut last year rectified that.) But Cooke retains Stark's hard-boiled character, so much that this is the only adaptation where Westlake allowed the character to be called by his original name, as opposed to Point Blank's "Walker" or Payback's "Porter."
Cooke's take on The Hunter renders the tale in stark black-and-white with blue tones, contributing to the dreamlike atmosphere. His figures have the curves and squiggly features of animation, which add to the fluid action of the time-hopping tale. He lets the tale stay visual; the bravura opening sequence is reminiscent of the camera-as-POV from the 1947 film of Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake, only revealing Parker when he looks in the mirror.
The sequences showing the details of the heists are quickly condensed using prose; other sequences erupt into startling splash pages that enhance the unexpected violence. And Cooke doesn't shy away from the scenes that portray Parker as a cold bastard; he's equally violent toward women and men, and his moments of conscience are fleeting.
The Hunter might be the best adaptation of a crime novel into comics since David Mazzucchelli's take on Paul Auster's City of Glass. (Mazzucchelli also has new work out this summer with the superlative Asterios Polyp.) IDW currently plans to do at least four Cooke adaptations of Stark, and the University of Chicago Press is approaching the halfway mark on its Stark reprints. There couldn't be a better tribute to one of crime fiction's grand masters.
Incidentally, Raleigh-based TwoMorrows Publishing has a Modern Masters collection of Cooke's work coming out in late August; preorders are available at www.twomorrows.com.