Comic Artist Darwyn Cooke Perfected the Visual Language of Optimism

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Comic Artist Darwyn Cooke Perfected the Visual Language of Optimism

Darwyn Cooke perfected the visual language of optimism. Frozen in joy and drama, his superheroes reflected the splendor of a world without fear or neurosis. And with his passing, our panels are a little duller, a little darker and infinitely less interesting.

The artist passed away last Saturday at 1:30 AM after a battle with cancer.

After serving as a designer and art director, Cooke started his career with costumed men and women as an animator hired by Bruce Timm at the start of Warner Bros.’ cartoon empire. He worked on such Saturday morning staples as Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, the ridiculously underrated Men in Black: The Series and Batman Beyond.

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Cooke’s work in sequential art ignited in 2000 with Batman: Ego, a dissection of The Dark Knight as he probes the fault lines of his personality. The art embraced ‘30s art deco opulence; skyscrapers stretched into the stratosphere, casting angular puzzle-piece shadows.

He next worked under Marvel on fill-in issues and back up stories X-Force, its continuation in X-Statix, as well as the spinoff miniseries Wolverine/Doop. His classic line work assumed a pop-culture mania cross between Andy Warhol and Alfred Hitchcockn cinematography. His cover to X-Force #124 features a lounging U-Go Girl in a pose at once hopefully cinematic and vulnerable, conveying paragraphs of personality in a single frame. That skill would carry through to his future work on covers.

The majority of his output throughout the 2000s, though, took on a litany of iconic DC comics characters. Cooke partnered with writer Ed Brubaker on a series of Catwoman backups in Detective Comics in 2001 before taking over interiors, as well as writing and illustrating the original graphic novel Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score in 2002.

DC: The New Frontier stands as one of the auteur’s most memorable pieces, netting four Eisner and Harvey Awards as well as a Shuster Award. The six-chapter miniseries debuted in 2004 and captured the paranoia and nationalism of ‘50s Americana through DC’s superhero pantheon. Full of striking imagery and timeless designs, the period piece incorporated presidents and historical events for an experience that felt like a missing piece of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman’s collective mythos.

That ability to channel the past through striking, sun-struck portraits and shadow-drenched underworlds would reemerge in projects like Batman/The Spirit alongside writer Jeph Loeb, as well as a run writing and illustrating the Will Eisner’s ‘50s pulp hero on a solo title, inked by frequent collaborator J. Bone. In 2009, Cooke began adapting Donald Westlake’s (operating under the name Richard Stark) Parker novels, resulting in Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter, Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit, Richard Stark’s Parker: The Score and Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground. Published by IDW, these noir gems follow a career criminal tripping into perilous danger after he faces off against a syndicate of thieves.

The last few years marked a shift in Cooke’s attitude toward superhero comics, following his work illustrating Before Watchmen: The Minutemen and writing Before Watchmen: The Silk Spectre—two projects set between the ‘40s and ‘60s that revisit Alan Moore’s lauded conspiracy epic. Last year at the WonderCon comic convention, Cooke said that, “I can’t really read superhero comics anymore because they’re not about superheroes. They’ve become so dark and violent and sexualized.”

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That sentiment is echoed throughout a series of variant covers Cooke illustrated in December 2014, covering 23 of DC’s main comic books. Playful, romantic and undeniably human, the artist showed Alfred covering a depleted Bruce Wayne with a blanket, Superman laying his head in the lap of an enraptured Wonder Woman and The Teen Titans rocking the hell out of a stadium. It’s career-defining work that belongs framed on any wall.

Cooke planned to do more work with Parker as well as a creator-owned crime comic at Image called Revengeance, but his last work was a collaboration alongside Love and Rockets helmer Gilbert Hernandez in the Vertigo 2016 miniseries The Twilight Children. Combining soap-opera romance and science fiction, the four-chapter event was embraced by readers and critics (Paste included) for its beauty, incorporating a wonder and sensuality rare for a mainstream imprint.

The outpouring of sympathy for Cooke has been tremendous, most visibly on Twitter where professionals have noted both his fearlessness and passion. Per Cooke’s family, those seeking to make a donation can contribute to the Canadian Cancer Society and Hero Initiative.

And though we could never summarize a man’s life in a series of jpegs, we’ve added some of our favorite Cooke illustrations in the gallery above.