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"You ought to kill me," she said hopelessly.
"Maybe I will."
Her head sagged down her chest. Her voice was almost inaudible. "I keep taking pills," she murmered. "Every night. If I don't take the pills, I don't sleep. I think about you."
"And how I'm coming for you?"
"No, and how you're dead. And I wish it was me."
"Take too many pills," he suggested.
If you know about the character's history, the impact of Darwyn Cooke's Parker graphic novel hits long before you even see the book. The character, created by the late Donald Westlake and featured in 40 crime novels written under the Richard Stark pseudonym, has been adapted multiple times before--played by actors like Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Anna Karina, Mel Gibson and Chow Yun-Fat--and yet this is the first time that Westlake allowed anyone to use the Parker name. Think about that for a second. Darwyn Cooke was able to get something denied to Mel Gibson. It's enough to make you believe that the idealists are right, and that quality matters more than celebrity, money, and popularity.
At the same time, there's a dark left turn when you turn down that mental road--does that mean that Darwyn Cooke bowed down to Westlake? Does Cooke's admitted reverence for Parker's creator, combined with Westlake's acquiescence, mean that the comic adaptation of Parker will be the "graphic novel" equivalent of one of those mass market prose adaptations of a blockbuster film? Adaptations are a tricky business--compulsive fidelity to source material rarely produces something that's more than a clumsy approximation of the original, and yet whenever an adaptation deviates severely from its source text, the cries of "the book was wayyyy better" haunt the streets.
, the first of Westlake's Parker novels, has been adapted before, most memorably in the John Boorman film Point Blank
, and most recently in the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback
. Both those two present an interesting lens to cast the story against: Point Blank
is faithful in fits and starts, and yet it finds most of its success in its lyrical mirroring of French New Wave films. Payback
--which, surprisingly, was re-released to movie theaters only a few years ago in a strangely-edited "Director's Cut" that more closely cloned the original book--doesn't succeed at all, despite hewing closer to the book's language and plot than Point Blank
. Now we have Darwyn Cooke's version of that same story, one that stays so tightly to the book that the comic's actual name is Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter
. The question has to be asked: is this really necessary? Is Cooke wasting his time using his skills as a cartoonist on a pumped-up version of a fan note to one of his favorite writers?
Not at all.
"She's dead. So is your fat pansy. You can be dead, too, if you want."
Stegman licked his lips. He turned his head and nodded at the small stone buildings out at the end of the pier. "There's people there," he said. "All I got to do is holler."
"You'd never get it out. Take a deep breath and you're dead. Open your mouth wide and you're dead."
Stegman looked back at him. "I don't see no gun," he said. "I don't see no weapons."
Parker held up his hands. "You see two of them," he said. "They're all I need."
Parker wasn't the first of this type of grit-covered protagonist, but he's one of the purest expressions we've got. Like the men at the center of a Michael Mann film, or Matt Damon's Jason Bourne character, Parker is the sort of man/machine combination that surrenders totally to the job at hand, obstacles be damned. Efficiency, succinctness and a fundamental lack of emotion: these are their primary tools, supplemented by the sort of only-in-fiction physical power that allows them to incapacitate anyone they run into, usually with one punch. Their only weakness--one which forms the center of the first Parker novel, and operates as the impetus for failure in many of Mann's films--is emotional attachment, often to a woman. That's not to say the books are sexist, although that argument has some plausibility, but that these stories work as a sort of emotional wish fulfillment to a certain personality. Feelings--unpredictable, messy and useless when it comes to control fantasies--wouldn't it be nice if one could just turn them off when they get in the way? For Parker, the answer resounds as an unequivocal "yes", and that's what The Hunter
circles around. A man who can do anything, as long as he doesn't make the mistake of loving a woman ever again. He tried it out. Didn't fit.
The opening to The Hunter
consists of the reader's introduction to Parker, a character who speaks only one line of dialog--a curt "go to hell", directed at a random good samaritan--for the first 21 pages. The reader doesn't see his face until page 20. And after that one page, the reader barely ever sees him again. Now, sure--he's in the book, he's on almost every page. But you don't really see him
anymore. You catch a glimpse of his hands, going to work, a sliver of a face caught in Cooke's blue and black shadows, read a snarling line of dialog that cuts across the page with pure efficiency, but that one page--where a dirty, sweat-stained Parker uses a wretched bar bathroom to clean himself up enough to scam some gullible banktellers--is one of the last times that you'll see Parker as a man, like the ones you know. From there until the final pages, you see a job, a simple one.
The story of The Hunter
is one you probably already know--the man betrayed by the woman he trusted, the double cross, the left-for-dead. That's the crime genre for you though, it's not a field designed to be "turned on its ear". It ain't broke. Don't fix it. The task that Cooke laid out for himself (a task that will eventually see three more of these Parker hardcovers) wasn't an easy one. The Parker books aren't sacrosanct texts, the library of film adaptations refutes that, but they also aren't books that clamor for expansion--part of the delight found in the books is the absence of filler, the rarity of exaggerated description. They aren't books that need embellishment.
Cooke's solution--and it's as necessary as it is, at times, painful--is to be brutally efficient himself. His Hunter
is colored only in a blue that works to make the black and white look like handpainted steel. The comic distills entire sequences down to one line, working to make Westlake's story that much more concise, that much more efficient. The ending of Cooke's story is one that Stark purists will probably question--I'm not sure about it myself--but it's an understandable change that's worthy of debate, not dismissal. There is, however, one distinct change that isn't attributable to editing decisions, and while this little column is already long enough, it's worth pointing out.
This sequence isn't in the book, and as Cooke explained to Tom Spurgeon and Ed Brubaker earlier this year
, he included it because he was "looking for a compact way in four panels to get across the fact that she haunts his sleep or his dreams." It's an interpretation that Cooke came up with himsef, a simple silent insert designed to get across the importance of this one particular moment in the book. The moment--where the Parker character expresses fear--is an incredibly important one, not just for the Hunter
story, but for the many books to follow. Parker doesn't get scared. This is it.
There's no question in my mind that The Hunter is one of the best comics I'll read this year. As an unabashed fan of both the Parker novels and of Darwyn Cooke's comics, I've looked forward to it with the same kind of anticipation I imagine a million young women have for a glimpse of the greasy locks of Robert Pattinson. After finally getting a chance to read it, I think that anticipation has been well met. It's a great comic. But this page--and Cooke's desire to add something to the story that a novel never could've--makes me even more excited to see what's coming next.
Tucker Stone's writing can be found in print from time to time. He currently blogs about comics at The Factual Opinion and Savage Critics.
This Ship Is Totally Sinking is © Tucker Stone, 2010