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A review a day: The Outfit

Two word review: “Darwyn” and “Cooke.” Go buy!

Oh, all right, I’ll give you some more. The Outfit is the second of Darwyn Cooke’s “Parker” adaptations from IDW, and this groovy hardcover edition will set you back $24.99. But it’s a handsome Christmas gift!

I was mildly disappointed with the first adaptation of this series, because Cooke tended to overwrite it a bit and not trust his art enough to tell the story. That wasn’t as much of a problem in The Man With the Getaway Face, a brief introduction to this new volume (that’s incorporated into this book), and it’s not as much of a problem here. Either Cooke dutifully reads this blog and took my criticism to heart (let’s go with “doubtful” on that one) or he’s becoming more comfortable with both the material and his abilities. Either way, this installment is superior to the first, and the first one was pretty dang good, so that’s saying something.

The plot is your standard noir-ish kind of thing. Parker gets plastic surgery to disguise himself, realizes the bad guys from the first book are still trying to kill him, and takes vicious revenge. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – it’s a vehicle for Cooke to draw the hell out of the story and tell it in fascinating ways – and he does, on both counts. When Parker finds out the Bronson, the head of the “Outfit” – the criminal syndicate – is trying to kill him, he decides to go after Bronson himself while getting a bunch of his friends together to hit the Outfit’s businesses and put a financial hurting on Bronson. That way the second-in-command, who presumably wants Bronson’s job, won’t object too much if Parker manages to kill him. So that’s the plot.

It’s the way Cooke tells the story, however, that makes this a tremendous comic. It’s not just the art – although Cooke’s art is wonderful – but the way he changes art styles and narrative styles to engage the reader, with the amazing central part of the book the highlight. Anyone who’s read a Cooke comic knows that his storytelling is excellent, which is why his occasional tendency to overwrite is annoying. Let’s consider the first few pages of the comic: The first words in the book are “When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.” There’s nothing too impressive about that sentence (and it’s probably Richard Stark’s prose, anyway), but it’s a solid beginning. Cooke’s drawing, however, is impressive. The woman looks off to the side, frozen in fear. The pillow next to her is erupting, with a few feathers blasting away from it and a negative space explosion showing where a bullet has entered (Cooke uses a lot of negative space in this comic, which helps the style of the book very nicely). Parker is nowhere to be seen, which makes the drawing even more interesting. This is not the moment when the woman screams, which is covered in the sentence, but the moment after Parker rolls off the bed, and by linking the sentence with the image, Cooke conveys as much information as it would take Stark to write another sentence. It’s subtle things like this that make Cooke such an amazing artist – many artists would draw the scene described in the sentence, which is redundant. Cooke moves the story along. The next two pages, on which Parker takes out the hitman hired to kill him, are a ballet of violence with a wonderful zoom-in, zoom-out perspective of the “camera” – Cooke is clear with how the two men are moving, but he also interrupts the flow to show objects in the room riddled with bullets. Interestingly, he then falls back into the process of overwriting when he describes Bett Harrow, the woman in Parker’s bed. Once he dispatches Clint, the hitman, he draws Harrow with an almost unholy excitement at the violence in her eyes, yet Cooke tells us that she’s excited as well. I don’t know if Cooke feels like he needs to get as much of Stark’s prose into the book as possible, but while there are fewer places like those in the book than in the first adaptation, they’re still there, and many of the prose is unnecessary.

The Outfit is 143 pages of text (including the chapter breaks, which oughtn’t count but do). 48 of those pages (fully one-third of the book) show the various heists that Parker and his friends pull to put dents in the Outfit’s profits, and these are the most dazzling of the book. Not only are the heists ingenious (Stark’s contribution, of course, unless Cooke added some), but the way Cooke draws them are astonishing. Parker himself pulls the first job, and it’s a standard cash grab at one of the Outfit’s diners. Then the other crimes occur. For the first one, we get an article in a crime magazine, with Stark’s hardboiled prose the text and Cooke adding rough drawings. The linework in this “article” is much more solid, and Cooke uses thick, dark pencils (and some gouache, presumably) to add heavy coloring to the lines. Then comes a crime at the racetrack, the revelation of which takes place in a racing magazine. Cooke’s art in this section is much more cartoony and even a bit abstract. Next, the scheme of moving large sums of money from New York to Miami is played out in small cels, making it look almost like a cartoon (Cooke’s background in animation is very evident here) with even more childlike art – exaggerated facial features, crude backgrounds. Finally, when Parker and two accomplices hit up a gambling clearinghouse, Cooke devolves even further, with very simple pencil lines wrapped in and around text. All of these heists are laid out beautifully, and the shift in art styles is very fun to behold – Cooke obviously has fun with it as well, blending more precise drawing of the harder-edged crime (the first one is a hold-up of a casino) with the goofiness of the middle two (the second is a hold-up, but of two slightly moronic middle-men, while the third is a confidence game). It’s tremendously fun to read the middle section of the book, even though we know the book is going to take a darker turn later.

Cooke does a nice job with the climax of the book as well, putting Parker in Bronson’s room with a gun on him and then going back and showing how he and his accomplice got there. We go back to the “regular” Cooke style and get more violence, but it’s still beautiful to look at. One thing Cooke does very well is “suggest” boundaries of things – his faces, guns, cigarettes, hats – all sorts of things, really – are simply colored differently, and where we’d expect a line demarcating it from the rest of the panel we get nothing, just a change in color. He’s certainly capable of using heavy lines, and he does quite often in the book, but when we contrast that with the lack of lines in other places, it makes everything blend very well into one holistic panel, putting the characters firmly into their environment. Other artists certainly do this, but Cooke seems to do it much more and better than pretty much everyone. It’s an interesting trick, and helps make the panels where he draws (almost) every line – as when Parker shows up in Bronson’s room, almost draped in blackness – much more effective. Parker simply seems more solid and disconnected from the rest of the panel, making the entrance more dramatic. It’s a neat trick, and Cooke uses it very well.

The Outfit is an exciting enough story, and Cooke’s decision to rely less on the prose makes the book work better than the first in the series, but it’s really an artistic triumph more than a literary one. You should of course get both books, but if you can only get one, The Outfit is better than The Hunter. Let’s hope the next one will be even better than this one!

Tomorrow: Well, I’m off to Flagstaff for a few days, so it’s a good time to take a break. I’ll be back!

4 Comments

Those two words were really all I needed!

I enjoyed both books, but the descriptions of the heists really made me like this one more.

Also, while I was reading the previous book I realized that Payback with Mel Gibson had been based on the same story. That wasn’t a very good movie.

Nicely done. Greg. BTW, the guy with the goatee in that ultra devolved cartoon sequence on the plane is based on the owner of my LCS, Calum Johnson of “Strange Adventures”. He’s a huge fan of Cooke and a hell of a nice guy. Check out the dedication to “The Outfit.”

I was underwhelmed by The Hunter (I would say mostly by the plot), but I picked up the giant $2 preview of this and thought it more engaging. I will be on the lookout for this. Good marketing strategy, IDW!

The varying art styles you describe seem like an interesting technique.

Good analysis of the first panel, Greg! I might not have caught that on my own, which itself is testament to Cooke’s skill as a storyteller.

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