I loved Darwyn Cooke before I knew who Darwyn Cooke actually was. Growing up on Batman: The Animated Series, there was something about those sharp lines and art deco aesthetics that couldn’t help but speak to me. It felt like a glamorous vision of a past that existed before even my parents were alive, part caramel-coloured Manhattan, part Fritz Lang mood-board.
When the series was rebooted mid-way, I was caught off guard by even crisper animation, lines smoothed further, massaging out some of the rough kinks. In the accompanying comic books, occasional covers started catching my eye more than many of the others, all seemingly signed with the same curled slash of ‘Darwyn.’ I didn’t know this Darwyn’s age, nor their gender – that pesky ‘y’ seeming so effeminate at the time. But I knew that this was somebody that was speaking to me more than other artists. Glimpsing the same ‘Darwin-with-a-y’ on the end credits of Batman, along with his credit as designer for Batman Beyond‘s glitchy, pulsating main titles, I started to create the image in my mind of this ‘Darywn Cooke’. Somebody that stuck out from a field already crowded with genius.
What made him special was his resistance to grim. Even in worlds that arrived necessarily oppressive and bleak, from the rat-infested alleys of Gotham to the corrupt, seedy underworld of Central City, Cooke expressed joy in his art. The Catwoman of Ed Brubaker’s brilliant 2001 series reboot is a prostitute turned criminal turned emotionally unravelling PTSD vigilante, but Cooke’s accompanying artwork was full of trademark levity. Cooke’s Catwoman doesn’t pounce through the air – she glides. Her suit, a gorgeous reworking of the outlandish T&A junk of Catwoman’s 90’s era, was streamlined, efficient and functional. All chunky boots, tight leather and oversized goggles. Her smile was joyous yet naughty, while Cooke’s interpretation of Selina Kyle remains as chic and effortless as a spread from an old Vanity Fair. Catwoman by way of Ava Gardner.
Cooke took those inspirations, often the Mad Men glam of the 1950’s, and transported them through the prism of modern DC. His breathtaking 2002 graphic novel Selina’s Big Score is an Ocean’s Eleven-style slab of vintage pulp fiction, only with extra Catwoman. His Eisner-winning mini-series DC: The New Frontier reconfigured the Justice League as superhero icons in the years following World War 2, forced into action at a time of Eisenhower-era corruption and Cold War paranoia. Likewise, his gorgeous Parker novels and his 2007 reboot of The Spirit both stung with the same sort of classic, golden-age glamour that became his forte. Cooke’s heroes are hard-boiled and cool, his ladies complex and shifty, his villains butt-ugly crookeds with pistols and henchmen.
Discovering his illness a day before news broke of his death, I felt more sadness than I’d have expected. This wasn’t just the death of a comic book great. For me, this was almost the death of comic books. I pick up titles here and there, usually based on artwork that most resembles Cooke’s, but it always feels like a means to keep me vaguely attached to the hobby. Keeping me on my toes until the next Darwyn Cooke title arrives.
I hope there are lost treasures out there. Some vast vault of stories and artwork ready to go. But it won’t be the same. Darwyn Cooke was a one-off. A giant within an industry that so often seems to rest on the same kind of story or the same kind of art. Once again, 2016 has lost a great.