Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke
The Hunter (Book One), starring Richard Stark’s Parker, by Darwyn Cooke is one of the best graphic adaptations of a novel you could ever get your hands on. The main character is as tough as they come. Women shudder and men cower when Parker passes — even if he’s in a good mood, which is rarely. But wait until he’s in a bad mood. Like in this book. Like when he wants what’s his. And somebody else has got it. If you like crime fiction or noir film, this graphic novel should go at the top of your “to read” list.
Richard Stark is actually the pseudonym for Donald Westlake, a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America who has written under a variety of names. His Parker series is about a criminal with almost no redeemable qualities. Westlake’s ability to get us to read about such a character and care at all is one of the most fascinating aspects of this series. The first novel — The Hunter — was adapted into films in the sixties and the late nineties. Lee Marvin first played him in Point Blank, and Mel Gibson played him in Payback (my favorite Gibson movie — don’t miss this one. Seriously.). But Westlake refused to let the name Parker be used in adaptations. In the first movie he was Walker, and in the second he was Porter. And then comic book artist and writer Darwyn Cooke came along.
In a previous column, I’ve written about Darwyn Cooke’s ability to capture the past with nostalgia, particularly in rewriting the main DC characters and DC history in The New Frontier. Westlake seemed to agree that Cooke has a wonderful ability to write and draw the American past because before he died in 2008, he gave Cooke permission to use the name Parker in his 2009 adaptation of the original 1962 novel. It’s a shame that Westlake didn’t get to see this novel published (and the two follow-up Parker adaptations that Cooke has completed) — it’s an absolutely perfect adaptation.
Even if you judge this book by its cover, it’s top-notch: the main character, Parker, sits on a bed in the shadows, gun in hand, and a dead woman is stretched out next to him with scattered pills on the bedside table. Pull the cover off, and you’ve got what looks like a vintage crime fiction hardback with Parker silhouetted on the front, bottom-right cover. But wait until you open the book.
The architectural images throughout transport the reader to the sixties. The first two-page spread is of the New York skyline in 1962, and the buildings throughout the book allow us to take a trip through the city with Parker as the urban hunter seeks his prey. Cooke, however, doesn’t just use the large-scale buildings to create this nostalgic atmosphere; he pays attention to 60s’ décor and smaller details, including bottles, glassware, bead curtains, and chairs. The clothes, too, transport us to another time.
The feeling that we’ve traveled to the past is also conveyed through the simple color palette — a variation on black and white. The paper is winter-white and looks like an old, faded 1960s paperback. The ink is blue-black with only variations of darkness for shadow and light. I’m generally not a huge fan of black-and-white comics and graphic novels, but in this book, it is effective in conveying the past, particularly in contrast to the colored image of Parker on the front cover.
In terms of story-telling, Cooke uses a variety of effective techniques. The first is visual: At times we see Parker from an outsider’s perspective; at other times, we see the world through his eyes and watch people’s varying and shifting reactions to him, as if they were reactions to us. This technique is subtle and is an excellent example of the type of artistic maneuver possible in comics in a way not possible in other narrative art forms. Other story-telling techniques include flashbacks, including an extensive flashback in which we get a lot of narrative text in relation to image to tell the story of the original caper that leads to Parker’s desire for revenge. At other times, the story slows down and we get only a few words per image on each page. Cooke allows his narrative some breathing room, as the pacing is purposely inconsistent in a good way so that he can manage to tell an entire text-only novel through a well-balanced graphic novel.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but just when you think it’s over, it gets better. Even Parker realizes that the first part of his revenge plan doesn’t quite satisfy: “it was too easy, and it wasn’t enough. He wanted his money. He wanted his share.” That’s when we start cheering on a guy we should despise because he seeks revenge on some people we despise even more. Cooke allows us to see why the Parker novels, like best crime fiction, calls into question our own ethical values since we want a bad guy to win because we like him better than someone else. These novels seem to ask us a crucial question of moral philosophy: How far can our ethical systems bend in response to a hypothetical (fictional) context before they break? So while the plot is fun, it’s not without its purpose. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this five-star adaptation.