Richard Stark's Parker, Book One: The Hunter
Posted 23 nov 2009
Writer: Darwyn Cooke (adapting the prose novel)
Artist: Darwyn Cooke
5.00 out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by Adam McGovern
In comics like The Spirit and Catwoman Darwyn Cooke composed a memorial to the lyricism and squalor of the eternal North American city and its hopeful, desperate denizens, a full-color film noir using timeless hipster high design for both eloquent cartoon charm and brutal essentialist shorthand in a way that was unprecedented for comics and is still unsurpassed.
So he’s perfect to adapt the novels of single-named everycrook Parker, the existential savage who first stalked the shadows of the JFK era’s optimistic metropolises in books by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), who towered in the sidelines of genre during the apex of the American literary novelist.
The Hunter’s dazzling Rat Pack/Mad Men-vintage setting is the landscape for a cross-continent odyssey of vengeance by master-thief Parker against a former partner who almost mortally betrayed him. In a tour de force of cinematic storytelling, Cooke leaves almost all text out of the first 30 pages, packing incident, atmosphere and telling detail into sequences worth thousands of words. Parker is a disciplined predator who stays unnoticed and whose face Cooke doesn’t fully show us ’til Page 20, by which time he’s built both a deep point-of-view identification and a boundless sense of displaced unease.
“Parker’s an elegant psycho who takes as much as he feels he needs, while the guys who cross him are scumbags who take as much as you’ve got.”
Parker pays unexpected visits to former allies and the friends of his enemy, tightening one net while another closes around him. Cooke’s ritzy locales and mythic urban no-man’s-lands form a hypnotic backdrop and sharp contrast for the feral narrative at the story’s core. Still, though a constitutional outsider, Parker exists in the rigidly structured pre-counterculture era, and very much keeps within the lines, though he lives on the wrong side of them; stealing what won’t be missed and skimming from the illegal activities that official society conducts but never acknowledges, Parker operates in the margins that authority can’t admit exist.
Parker kills remorselessly but discriminately, dispatching guards, revolutionary gunrunners and rival gangsters who essentially wear the uniforms of crime and punishment. The “innocent” – bystanders, conventional crime victims – are as ignorant of his existence as he wants them to stay. He’s in a secret war against respectable society, a one-man insurgency in which mob muscle and law officers alike have volunteered for harm’s way but the everyday citizen is typically as untouched and unknowing as he or she wants to stay, too.
Stark worked the special trick of giving Parker layers that we ourselves don’t see, creating a character opaque yet still rich; Cooke picks up on this by depicting Parker half the time as a looming shadow, a hard mouth, a single peering eye, masterfully making him both indistinct and unmistakable; Parker is all the people in the back of your mind and the corner of your eye.
Stark and Cooke keep you rooting for Parker while not at all liking him because for him the jungle has laws, not just edicts – he drifts from resort to penthouse living off ill-gotten riches and pulling another invisible job when the till runs low, with a distinguishing consciousness of sustainable yield – Parker’s an elegant psycho who takes as much as he feels he needs, while the guys who cross him are scumbags who take as much as you’ve got.
As the plot intensifies Parker’s war takes some civilian casualties – shop owners unlucky enough to be where he needs a perfect lookout site; compromised but essentially victimized prostitute snitches – and his mission creeps upward from the minor mob boss who betrayed him to a monolithic chain of command who, in a telling moment of postwar discontent on Stark’s part, openly compare themselves to a corporate hierarchy.
Parker lives off their grid and threatens them with his shadowy army of loosely allied irregulars, independent loners who siphon from the surplus of a staggeringly prosperous society, and the mob is unnerved by their untraceability even as it can in turn threaten to exploit their invisibility by making them vanish for real. With guns to the heads of mob lieutenants and tense phone standoffs with the guys who hold the purse, Parker is brutally drawing spheres of influence, and Cooke’s stylish minimal spaces form an ironic frame around these barbaric war councils. The boxes and boomerangs of those penthouses and boardrooms sketch a buoyant retro future that we know is doomed, and Parker’s quest runs out to the edge of civilization in a bleak end-of-the-line subway station and the construction site beyond. The story reverts to the near-silence of its first many pages, with a masterful chase scene relying on Cooke’s talents at building tension through sheer choreography and expression. It’s no spoiler to say simply that by the end Parker has made a separate peace, but this “hero” drives off into a weak moonlight, his mind set on an American dream of leisure and bounty that it seems anyone would kill for.
He’s riding toward a whole series of these groundbreaking graphic reinventions. Stark died a year before we got to see this first one (though hopefully not before he did), but the road Cooke has paved for his creation holds nothing but promise.