Monday, January 22, 2007

Graphic Lit: An interview with Darwyn Cooke


Some comic characters, like Superman, are ever adaptable, able to take on an endless variety of writers and artists with little harm to their core concept.

Others, however, will be forever associated with their original creator.

Take “The Spirit” for example. Created in 1940 by the late comics legend Will Eisner, the blue-masked crimefighter is the artist’s best-known work and the one that in a large part helped to shape his reputation. You can’t think of one without conjuring up the other.

That hasn’t stopped DC from trying to revive the character though. Written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, who recently won accolades for his iconic superhero tale “The New Frontier,” “The Spirit” is an attempt to introduce the crimefighter to a new audience.

Why would Cooke attempt to take on a character so closely associated with one of the most beloved and respected cartoonists in comicdom? I called him at his home in Nova Scotia, Canada, to find out.

Q: What made you decide to take on a project like this?

A: I don’t know. [laughter] A suicidal streak? Masochistic tendency? I’m not sure.

Honestly, [Eisner’s] always been one of my favorite creators and it’s always been one of my favorite strips. It was gonna get done with or without me.

Q: How did the project come about?

A: This is something that Will had been talking about to DC for years and years. You can go back 20 years ago — he and Denny O’Neil were gonna do a Batman crossover. There’ve been many attempts to get this together.

I think in the last year of his life he and Denis Kitchen had been negotiating with DC and when he went in for his surgery. I believe he wanted to have all of his affairs in order because he realized there was a risk. And so all these deals were finalized before he went in. And, you know, the worst possible thing happened.

Q: How did you come on to the project?

A: My editor at the time Mark Chirello phoned me about it. After “New Frontier,” which I had just completed for DC, I was lucky enough that they thought I’d kind of guy who had the sensibility to tackle it.

Q: How has the reception been on the series so far?

A: You know, it’s the kind of thing where I’m going to get a mixed response no matter what I do. Fortunately, the real key here was to try to attract new people to the character. Those people coming to it fresh seem to be incredibly positive about it. Most of the negative stuff I hear, it’s from people who have a very fixed idea of what this strip should be and whether it should be done at all.

Q: It seems like you’re walking a real fine line. On the on hand if you go too far afield people are going to be upset because it’s not The Spirit they remember. But if you go too much on the other side you’re going to be accused of doing an homage.

A: Precisely.

Q: How do you stay on that line?

A: I think the trick with it is placing it in the here and now. It took me awhile to accept the project, and it wasn’t until I realized ... because I knew there was nothing I could do to top what Will had done. It’s just ridiculous to even consider it. But I saw some room to play if we brought it into today’s world.

There was definitely precedent for that. The few times that Will did revisit the character after it’s initial run, he would always place it in the era in which he had done it. In the ¤’60s he did some work for Harvey Comics with the Spirit, and I believe he did a political story for one of the magazines in New York and those stories took place in the present day as opposed to back in the early ’50s or late ’40s.

Taking my cue from that I thought, “If I move it up to today at least I’ve got new subject matter. New stories and new types of people that I can bring into the strip.”

Q: What elements of Eisner’s original work are a must for you to incorporate into
the new series and what new elements are you bringing to it to make it your own?

A: The number one element of his work that I want to make sure comes across is the humanity. The humanity that the strip characterized. His whole approach to people and his ability to make us care about them. I think if I’m bringing anything to it it’s just a slightly fresh
sensibility, one that’s maybe more informed by cinema than theater.

I think the other thing I’m bringing to it is I’m staying with the stand-alone story idea, but at
22 pages I have a little more room to look at the quieter moments or the beats between the action with the characters. Maybe present a more fully-rounded story.

Q: There’ve been a number of artists that have tried to tackle comics known for a particular artist, I’m thinking of Plastic Man in particular. Is there anything you specifically tried to avoid to keep it from seeing, like I said earlier, like a simple homage?

A: It’s funny, I learned a lot of my visual storytelling tricks from Eisner. But I’ve sort of consciously avoided dipping into that bag on the strip. I didn’t want to make it look like I’m deliberately aping his approach. ... That’s a hard question. [laughs]


Q: I’m just curious as to how conscious that was and what you were thinking of to not going to make it seem like “Darwyn Cooke by way of Will Eisner.”

A: I’ve had to restrain myself basically. Once I construct the plot, I’ll look at a scene and go, “Oh wow, I know exactly what I can do with that,” but it’s because I know Will did it before. I’m sort of trying to strenuously avoid that.

The other thing, and this is probably the only place I’d find criticism unfair, most of the guys who are looking at the strip first issue are saying it’s not as good as the old stuff and it’s like
you know there were about 600 of those stories and nobody remembers any of the first four or five years of them.

I couldn’t in issue one do a “Gerhardt Schnobble” or a “Ten Minutes.” because we have to get comfortable with our cast first and set the lay of the land. I think we’ll see more experimental storytelling in the second half of the first year on, once everyone’s a little more comfortable with the character.

Q: Speaking of characters, let’s talk about Ebony for a minute. Obviously he’s a pretty integral character to the original series but updating him would prove to be
tricky. How important was it to you that he be included in the series and can you talk about the ways you went about changing him?

A: It was incredibly important to me that he was a part of it but it was certainly one of the most difficult things to decide how he was going to be a part of it. I found the few times I have dealt with issues like racism, I found from a storytelling point of view I like to address it head on. I knew that Ebony was going to be an issue. So off the bat I knew I wasn’t going to make him fall for what I call the “Poochie syndrome.” The obvious thing to do would have been to make him like Dave Chappelle, give him a certain dress and a certain patois.

Avoiding that right off the bat I realized I wanted to have him save the day in the first book and come out of nowhere. But again, the issue of racism and the world the Spirit inhabits was such
an issue for the readers, I thought it would be a great idea to have Ginger Coffee be a key part of the entire first issue because we deal with all those issues before Ebony even gets on stage. When we do see Ebony, automatically the black woman in the scene throws it right out there at us. So we’re not jumping around it, it’s thrown right out there on the table. And we have our two guys defuse it in a very clever and offhand way. To me, that clears the decks and now we move forward.

Q: Are there any other traditional Spirit characters you plan on using?

A: Absolutely. We’re going to see practically all of the characters that made a mark in the original series. In issue three, that’s when we get into what happened with Denny, his origin. So we see Dr. Cobra in there. Issue four we’ve got Silk Satin and the Octopus. Issue five, Carrion.

I’ve gotta say, with some of these characters, we couldn’t just take them out of whole cloth as they were and insert them into what we’re doing. And Carrion’s one of the characters we’ve
adjusted to a certain degree. We’ve tweaked out the type of crime he’s into a little bit. I think it’s very fitting and I think it’s going to be well received.

Q: What was the necessity of changing him?


A: Well, there’s the knickerbocker pants, the stovepipe top hat and the great coat. Those elements, as iconic as they are, they really ....

Q: date him?


A: Yeah, and you know it’s funny because I don’t mind Denny being dated with the hat and the suit and everything and we will address that continually. But that’s what he is. I’ve sort of decided that he’s an anachronism that exists in a very modern world. So Carrion officially has to be contemporized in order for it all to work together.

Q: Now each issue is going to be self-contained more or less?


A: That’s right.


Q: That’s very different from how a lot of superhero
comics are being done nowadays.

A: You’re absolutely right. I think the first thing to keep in mind is “The Spirit” isn’t necessarily a superhero comic. He has a mask, but that’s it. It’s really a human drama with a crime emphasis. But it’s got the room for humor. He did musicals! He did stories that took the form of a children’s book. I think it’s a far more open-ended proposition for one.

And secondly, my entire career in this business I’ve been trying to clear out a corner for myself. And to a great degree, that’s meant when everybody’s turning right, turn left. So hyperrealistic
art is the order of the day and I keep my work simple and clean and cartoon based. So that the people who do want that, they flock to it. I think that the same exists for the type of story.

I think a lot people miss single-issue stories, the ability to sit down and read a comic and walk away from it feeling something and it being a closed matter.

I also think, from a professional point of view, the writers have really taken to the format of writing longer stories because you don’t have to think as much. You only have to come up with one plot and you drag it out over six issues for a trade. It’s a far easier way to make
a buck. And I’m not afraid to say that.

I think a lot of the power of the strip was that it was so concise. And these days, keeping it to 22 pages and tying it all up neatly, is concise, in comparative terms.


Q: Is it tricky to have to do that, to keep it to such a short length?


A: It’s funny. I find it tricky the other way.

Q: To write something longer?

A: Bleed the story out over six issues. With the Spirit, once I decided it would be a modern-day thing, I found the ideas just flew out of me. I have a ton of them lined up here and I don’t see any shortage.


Q: You actually touched on something I was going to ask you about, which is you are unique in that your art style is about 180 degrees different from what I see in most mainstream superhero comics these days. Can you talk a little about how you consciously developed your style?

A: It had a lot less to do with what I like and intangible things I couldn’t quite escape to be honest. I’m old enough that — when Neal Adams was big? That’s when I was a kid. And Neal Adams to me was a god. And Jim Lee, Steve McNiven, Brian Hitch, all these guys, they’re students of Neal Adams. He’s the guy who started all of it. And I honestly believed that was the
only good way to do a comic book.

And then I started to discover the work of Alex Toth and Will Eisner. And while I didn’t find it as appealing to look at, I kept coming back to it. The only thing I can compare it to is you know how when you hear a song and right away you love it, but then a week later you’re sick of it? But then there’s those songs that take a little while to grow on you but that song stays with you for a long time.


As much as I liked the detailed drawing, I couldn’t escape the fact that the simpler work communicated so much clearer. When you got past the technical drawing technique, which of the two approaches gives you the most emotional depth and the most of an emotional connection to the reader?

Q: What are some of your biggest influences apart from Eisner?

A: Most of the E.C. artists, in particular Harvey Kurtzman and Johnny Craig. Probably the two biggest influences in all this mainstream I do are Alex Toth and Jack Kirby. Contemporaries?
Guys like Bruce Timm.

Q: Did you actually know Eisner at all? Did you get to meet him?

A: I met him once and it was kind of a funny story. It was at San Diego a couple of years before he passed away. That place is a zoo, I don’t know if you’ve ever been at that show but it is so crowded the only way to navigate the floor is to put your head down and go.

So I’m plowing through this crowd of people and I bang right into this guy and as I look up I see it’s this old man and I knocked him over. [laughs] And I’m helping him up and I’m asking if he’s O.K. and I realize it’s Will Eisner. I almost died.

At the time I was working at Warner Brothers on the Batman and Superman animated shows. So he looked at my name tag and it said “storyboard artist.” He said “Where do you work?
What do you do?” I said “I work on the Batman and Superman shows.” He said “you’re a story man.”

We had a great conversation. I walked him back to his booth and we chatted about story and what we were doing with the show. We had a really nice conversation that day. It could have been horrible but it worked out OK.

Q: How is the “Absolute New Frontier” collection doing?


A: We don’t have a lot of concrete sales figures yet but all indicators are it’s done alarmingly well. Better than anybody thought it would do. It made so many of the best of lists and the gift guide lists. Entertainment Weekly had it highlighted in their Christmas guide. So I think that’s driven a lot of the interest and from what I hear, the sales as well.

Q: Are you surprised by the critical reception it’s gotten?


A: Yeah. I really am. What I find most interesting is the companies, the majors’ inability to see the degree to which work like this has a market. I think a lot of people don’t know what they’re missing till they get it.

Q: Well, we could probably spend the next hour talking about that.


A: Well yeah, I mean, gosh, I work for a company who, god love them, but honestly when I look at most of the moves they’re making in their main line, it’s like they have a textbook about how to destroy your brand character. “How to destroy 60 years worth of in two to three years for a sales hit.” I question in that long term.

Q: It’s been said before, but it just seems to me with the mainstream superheros,
the big two just seem to be focusing in on one audience that keeps getting older and older and demanding certain types of stories and it’s a smaller and smaller audience.

A: They have no way out of this box. The commitment it would take for them to reclaim mainstream ground, it’s insurmountable. We’ve basically got a cottage industry here now
where the people who create the product are creating it for themselves or their friends. It’s created in a way so it’s inscrutable to anybody else. And it doesn’t reflect any social trends. There’s nothing of interest to bring a consumer in.

Q: Even when there is a halfway attempt it requires so much preknowledge. I’m thinking of “Civil War” which — I hadn’t read a Marvel comic in ages before I picked that up and I was utterly baffled by who certain characters were or what they were doing. Why does Spider-Man have a different outfit? It confused me.


A: It’s so entrenched in thinking, a lot of people who picked up New Frontier in its original run saw the second issue and said “Who is Ace Morgan? I don’t know who this guy is. How am I supposed to enjoy this book?” And it’s like, “Wait a minute. So you’re telling me when you pay for a movie and sit down, the minute a character you don’t recognize comes onscreen you get up and walk out?” Is the movie supposed to freeze and give you this guy’s back story? He’s a character that’s been introduced! Read the book! So even when you don’t need that information, there’s a knee-jerk assumption. It’s a very difficult thing sometimes to think about [laughs].


Q: The superhero books are obviously aimed at the 25 and up crowd and meantime, manga has pretty much taken over the kids.

A: This is the most interesting thing. The bookstores every month publish a list of the top 100 graphic novels or top 150 selling books. You’ll see manga trades in there all the time. “Naruto” places high on that list every month.


Q: Yeah, it’s pretty much the “Naruto” list.

A: Exactly. Now try to imagine an industry where for 20 years your market shrinks every year and right down the street you can see all this growth, all this activity, all these sales. And you just completely ignore it and continue to allow your own market to contract as you stick to the thing that’s contracting it. It’s almost impossible to imagine any vital business taking this
approach.

Q: Yeah, and you don’t have to ape manga’s surface elements to get ...

A: ... I don’t think it’s the surface elements at all.

Q: No, no.


A: It’s the subject matter and the fact that it deals with issues that these people are interested in.

Q: That kids can relate to. The wish fulfillment level that a lot of the superhero books just don’t do anymore.

A: Precisely. it’s a funny thing because I find there are people in the industry who are aware of this and there are people who don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Oh well.


Q: What are you working on these days besides the Spirit?

A: Well, Warners is producing a animated version of “New Frontier.”

Q: Wow.


A: Yeah. That’s what I said. I’ve been working pretty closely on the production. Most of the guys involved in it are old cronies of mine from when I worked on the animated shows. Bruce Timm’s executive producing it.

It’s been fun. These types of things, the schedule and the budget are a real problem, but I think it’s going to be pretty good actually.

But that’s been sucking a lot of my time. Just between that and the monthly book, cause we’re well into the Spirit now, we’re into the sixth issue so that’s another thing, this shipping late nonsense. I don’t ever want to fall victim to that. I try to stay well ahead and I do have to say no to a lot of things to try to stay on track.

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114 Comments:

At 12:52 AM, Blogger Bill at Comix Connection said...

Holy mackerel, GREAT interview. Again.

Funny, Cooke likes Toth, Eisner, Kurtzman, Craig and Kirby.

Me too. And I would grudgingly add Cooke himself to the list. Only because I think he "gets it". It's all about the ink and the body language. But that doesn't mean I have to push Noel Sickels, Jordi Bernet and Milt Caniff off the list. There's plenty of room for truly great "heavy ink" artists...

At least on Earth-Bill.


Thanks for the great insight into a truly talented artist... this really made my day!
-

 
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