A Singular Talent, Cooke Effortlessly Captured What Makes Comics Special.
With an art style that’s both classic and timeless, Darwyn Cooke was one of the most influential creators in recent comic book history. His singular vision as an artist and writer made him stand out in the industry. Rather than bringing superheroes down to earth through deconstruction, Cooke sought to remind us why we looked up to them in the first place.
Born on November 16, 1962, Darwyn Cooke first discovered comics as a child. However, he didn’t fall in love with the medium until he bought an issue of Spider-Man as a teenager. He attended George Brown College in Toronto but only for a year before being expelled.
In 1985, he ventured to the New York City DC Comics office to pursue his dream of working in comics. This resulted in his first published work, a five-page crime story with no dialogue called “The Private Eye.” However, like many people inevitably do, Cooke learned that dreams don’t always pay well. At the time, he earned a rate of $35 a page, and because he produced about a page a week, Cooke decided that it was simply not enough money. Additionally, his father, a construction worker, also disapproved of his plan to pursue a career in comics. Because of this, Cooke stayed in Canada and worked as a magazine art director and graphic and product designer for the next 15 years.
Eventually, Cooke realized that pushing your dreams aside is not so easy. In 1996, he successfully applied to become a storyboard artist for the Warner Brothers animated Batman and Superman series. Initially, Cooke worked remotely from Toronto, but when he met his colleagues at San Diego Comic-Con, they persuaded him to move to Los Angeles. Although hesitant to live in LA, Cooke didn’t want to pass up what he described as “an opportunity to be a part of something that was never going to come around again this way.”
In 1999, Cooke designed and animated the opening sequence for Batman Beyond on his personal computer using Adobe After effects. Although he didn’t appreciate the network’s interference, Cooke was still proud of the show. After Batman Beyond, he spent a year as a director for Men in Black: The Animated Series.
However, as fate would have it, one day, DC comics art director Mark Chiarello stumbled upon the proposal that Cooke submitted for the storyboard artist job. Impressed with what he saw, Chiarello hired Cooke to write and illustrate what would become Batman: Ego. The graphic novel, released in 2000, became one of his most iconic works.
At 37 years old, Cooke returned to comics where he would leave an indelible mark. In 2001, he teamed up with writer Ed Brubaker for an iconic four-issue run on Detective Comics, called “Trail of the Catwoman.” The story, which revamped the character, was a smashing success and led to a new Catwoman series. Following his stint on the title, Cooke, created what he described as the “single thing I did that I liked most,” the graphic novel Selina’s Big Score.
However, his next project, 2004’s DC: The New Frontier, would become his most iconic work. The six-issue miniseries was a multifaceted, exciting, moving, and genuinely gripping tale connecting the end of the DC golden age with the silver age. The story united some of DC’s most prominent characters with some of its lesser-known ones for a thrilling, action-packed adventure that reminded readers why they fell in love with comics in the first place.
In 2006, he teamed up with writer Jeph Loeb for a Batman/The Spirit crossover. Afterward, Cooke wrote and illustrated an ongoing Spirit series. Although drawing The Spirit was a childhood dream of Cooke’s when the time came, he found it incredibly intimidating to “step into Will Eisner’s shoes.”
Later that year, he teamed up with artist Tim Sale for a six-issue story arc on the series Superman Confidential. Initially, Cooke was apprehensive about taking on such an iconic character, worrying that he lacked a “creative hook.” However, he and Sale decided to explore Superman’s early days when the character was still uncertain about the extent of his invulnerability. In 2007, he won the Joe Shuster Award for “Outstanding Canadian Comic Book Writer” for his work on Superman Confidential.
Cooke also worked on some Marvel titles, including Spider-Man’s Tangled Web. However, his relationship with Marvel soured after a fallout with the then Senior editor, Alex Alonso. In 2009, Cooke teamed up with IDW for four Parker graphic novels. Donald Westlake introduced the character in a series of books he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Between 2009 and 2013, Darwyn cooked adapted The Hunter, The Outfit, The Score, and Slayground, handling all of the books’ art and design.
But perhaps his most controversial project was Before Watchmen, which ran from 2012 to 2013. This consisted of eight limited-run series, totaling 37 issues. They served as prequels to the seminal limited series, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which debuted in 1986. Because Watchmen is such an essential part of comic book history and highly regarded, the prequels caused controversy.
Many readers were up in arms before a single issue even hit the stands. However, because it was such an expansive project that included many creators, the quality varied wildly between different series. Some of it was as bad as people predicted it would be and validated fans’ fears. But Darwyn Cooke’s contributions The Minutemen and Silk Spectre were among the highlights. He wrote and illustrated The Minute Men and wrote Silk Spectre with Amanda Conner handling the art.
In 2016, Cooke teamed up with Gilbert Hernandez for a four-issue limited series, The Twilight Children, released by Vertigo Comics. The story, written by Henandez, is set in a small Latin American fishing village and has science fiction and magic realism elements. Cooke provided the artwork. Throughout his career, Cooke won just about every award in the industry, including the Eisner, the comic book equivalent of an Oscar. This is by no means a comprehensive list of Cooke’s work because that would require its own article.
There are some artists whose work instantly grabs you by the collar and shakes you until you can’t look away. You fall in love with it at first sight and wonder how you ever lived without it. Darwyn Cooke was not one of those artists for me. It seems crazy to think that there was a time when I didn’t love his art. But life is like that sometimes; we look back unable to understand our younger selves. We can’t reconcile the person we once were with the one we’ve become.
That’s how I feel when I think about my early dismissal of Cooke’s work. It doesn’t make sense to me, but alas, that was the case. I’ll chalk it up to being young and dumb. But the fact is that when I first encountered his work, it didn’t do much for me. I thought it was too cartoony and brushed it aside without giving it much thought. Over the years, I had a similar reaction whenever I saw his art. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City from Long Island in 2007 for college that I fell in love with Cooke’s work.
I grew up in a small town, Hampton Bays, that only had one comic book store. It was a small, tight place that was barely bigger than a walk-in closet, but it was one of my favorite places as a kid. My cousin and I used to go in there every week and spend what little money we had on as many comics as we could afford. Of course, being young kids in the 90s, we gravitated to mainstream superhero comics of the gritted teeth and bulging muscle variety. It was a fun time, but eventually, it did what time always does, it ended.
Like many comic book stores, it closed in the early 2000s, if I recall correctly. Unable to get my fix, I stopped reading and eventually fell out of love with comics. When I moved to New York City, I became friends with one of those rare native New Yorkers that knew all of the cool spots. He wasn’t into comic books, but when he noticed my X-Men t-shirt, he offered to show me a comic book store. I hadn’t read comics in at least a few years by then, but I immediately jumped at the opportunity.
Up until this point, I had only ever been inside one comic book store before. I assumed they were all small, stuffy rooms with new comics on the back wall and boxes filled with back issues on the floor, watched over by an ill-tempered, judgmental guy behind the counter. So, when we walked in, I was shocked to see that it was a large, well-lit store filled with comics, statues, movies, and all other kinds of merchandise. Perhaps most surprising was the number of people there. My childhood experiences left me expecting to find a near desolate place, so I was genuinely shocked by how crowded the place was.
It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with comic books again. It almost felt like coming home. I began by picking up back issues of old storylines I loved as a child. I was a man on a mission, and my first mission was to collect every issue of the 90s seminal story Age of Apocalypse. I’m sad to say I never did finish that mission, but I got damn close.
Exploring comic book stores and…regular book stores became one of my favorite pastimes. And while on one of those trips, while perusing through shelves with headphones on, a book caught my eye. The cover contained an illustration of abstract buildings reaching towards the red sky, and it immediately captivated me even if I didn’t know what I was looking at. I grabbed it and stared at it as if trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together visually.
I noticed the iconic batman logo in the center and worked from there. After closer inspection, I saw Batman, barely distinguishable from the background. It looked like he was trapped, a victim of some villainous contraption. I scanned the cover for more clues and saw the word “Batman” on top of the cover, so subtle it was easy to miss, and on the bottom was the word, Ego. Understandably, I was intrigued and began flipping through it. The first thing that caught my eye was the art style that reminded me of the 90s Batman Animated Series that I loved as a child. So, of course, I had to pick it up.
Sometimes you realize right away that something important has entered your life. That’s how I felt when I picked up that book. As I stood in line to pay for it, I felt overcome with a genuine sense of excitement. I couldn’t wait to get home and began reading it on the subway.
Although “Ego” was the main story, the book collects some of Darwyn Cooke’s other work for DC comics. Among the stories included were Selina’s Big Score, a graphic novel which is an excellent Catwoman story, and a genuinely entertaining heist adventure. There is also a great collaboration with Tim Sale, another artist I love, called “Date Night.” There is even an adaptation from an old Batman Story by Steve Englehart and Sal Amendola. A couple of years later, I would take an art class taught by Sal Amendola at the School of Visual Arts.
This was the kind of book you can’t stop reading but also don’t want to finish. The storytelling was great, complex without the need to bring the characters down. That’s because Cooke never did what so many comic book writers tend to do; mistake pessimism for realism. In fact, it was the optimism that permeated through his work that made me love his writing so much. Unlike many writers, he genuinely cared about the characters, and because of that, you did too. He was never the kind of writer who seemed to get a perverse pleasure from torturing the characters.
And the art was beautiful and iconic. His storytelling was economical and precise. I fell in love with his work and immediately went about looking for more. To me, Darwyn Cooke wasn’t just a shining example of how great comics could be but a reminder of why I fell in love with the medium in the first place. His work always inspires me. Every time I read one of his books, I feel energized and driven to make more comics.
One of the great things about the comic book industry is that even the biggest creators are still relatively accessible. There’s always the chance you’ll get to meet and interact with one of your favorites at a comic convention. I’ve met a few creators, but I never got to meet Darwyn Cooke. However, it seems like he was a genuinely lovely guy who cared about comics and his fans.
That’s why it is all the more disappointing that he didn’t feel very welcome in the industry later in his career. Jack Kirby famously said, “comics will break your heart,” and it seems that’s just as true now as it was then.
It genuinely pains me to know that someone who did so much for the medium and whose work means so much to me and many others felt unappreciated. In the early days, comics were considered a disposable medium. Over the years, they have gained respect and legitimacy. Unfortunately, the treatment creators receive didn’t evolve at the same pace. Companies like Marvel and DC still tend to treat creators like disposable commodities. They wring them dry, then toss them aside.
In 2015, at a WonderCon panel, Darwyn Cooke was asked where he felt that he fit in the comic books industry. “I don’t know that I actually do,” he responded. I’ve watched this panel a few times because I always enjoy hearing Darwyn Cooke speak, but that still gets to me, especially now that he’s gone. He spoke about how DC comics would only bring him in when they want the “old-timey, happy stuff.” Cooke felt that his work had become almost a novelty in the industry. He explained that he was no longer doing a lot of work for DC simply because they didn’t ask him. DC comics never asked him if he wanted to do a regular, monthly, flagship book. Cooke felt that DC didn’t have a spot for him.
“Grant Morrison wanted me to work on ‘Multiversity,’ so of course, he offered me the story of the Golden Age heroes, “I wrote him a very nice thank you, ‘I’d love to work with you someday, but I’m not doing any more of that. I’ve already done it.” -Darwyn Cooke
Although he had been working for a long time and already contributed some classics, there was a sense that he still had plenty more to give. It never felt like he was past his prime as an artist or writer. So, when his wife announced that he was in palliative care after a battle with aggressive cancer, it was not only shocking but heartbreaking. I had no idea that he was even sick. It goes to show you that you never know the kind of things people are secretly struggling with. The following morning, on May 14, 2016, Cooke passed away at the age of 53.
When you look back on life, it’s interesting to see how many things result from random coincidences. If Mark Chiarello hadn’t come across Cooke’s work while throwing out old proposals, he might never have returned to comics. It almost seems like fate that Cooke returned to comics when he did. The nineties saw the industry, too often, going overboard in the attempts to appear “dark and edgy.” That’s why the optimism of Darwyn Cooke’s work couldn’t have come at a better time. In essence, he helped make comics fun again.
Over the decades, comics have evolved, changed, and, at times, even lost their way. But if we ever want to show someone or remind ourselves how great comics can be, we need only look to Darwyn Cooke.