Celebrated comic book artist, writer, and animator Darwyn Cooke died this morning less than 24 hours after his wife, Marsha revealed that Cooke was receiving palliative care for an “aggressive cancer.” He was 53 years old.
Cooke was only active in comics for about 16 years, and yet he left behind a legacy that goes far beyond the printed page. I’ve been covering comics for a long time, but I never had the pleasure of meeting him. The closest I came to that was in 2005, at a convention where he reportedly confronted one of the most powerful men in comics. I didn’t see the incident, so I can’t say for sure what happened, but it was all that anyone in the press could talk about in the days and weeks that followed. His fearlessness was stunning, as he had seemingly ensured that he would never work for one of the biggest comic publishers again. And he never had to.
Comics had always been a passion of Cooke’s, and that translated into his lush ink lines, his attention to detail, and the spark of life that he brought to each character. His style blended a classic silver age aesthetic with a modern eye towards art. His covers and pages were uniquely beautiful and visually arresting; you should be able to recognize one of his original pieces from across the room. No one else could match his distinct approach.
Cooke wasn’t just a great artist. His writing was the equal of his artistic skills, and he demonstrated that to full effect in 2004 with his masterpiece, DC: The New Frontier. In it, he revisited the iconic DC heroes of the Golden and Silver Age in a story that took place from the ‘50s to 1960, infusing his tale with touches of real history and politics that made it a richer story. The New Frontier was a massive hit with fans and critics, and it also claimed the Eisner Awards for Best Limited Series, Best Coloring, and Best Publication Design. Cooke later produced an adaptation of The New Frontier as an animated film, but the best incarnation of that story is still the original miniseries. I highly recommend buying the Absolute Edition, which reprinted the miniseries in a larger format. It’s simply breathtaking.
Before he successfully entered the comic book industry, Cooke had made his name in animation as a storyboard artist for Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series. And if you’ve ever seen the opening sequence for Batman Beyond, then you’ve seen his work. He designed the main titles.
In 2001, Cooke had an acclaimed run on Catwoman with writer Ed Brubaker that modernized Selina Kyle and revitalized the character. He went on to write and draw the original graphic novel, Selina’s Big Score, which served as a prequel for that series.
Perhaps that fueled his desire to do more than just comics about superheroes. In 2009, Cooke partnered with IDW Publishing to adapt a few of the Parker crime novels by Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake). For these adaptations, his lines and colors were even more sparse and he underscored his mastery of the format with images that told the story in long stretches of silence. His depiction of the characters conveyed every aspect of their state of mind even if we didn’t see the words that went with them.
But Cooke wasn’t done with superheroes, as he was one of the few comic creators who dared to revisit Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen in the Before Watchmen event, lending the project a greater legitimacy. He wrote and drew the Before Watchmen: Minutemen miniseries and co-wrote the Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre mini.
Cooke’s final comic book project was the recently released miniseries The Twilight Children with writer Gilbert Hernandez. It was an unconventional story that mixed sci-fi and magic realism, and it wasn’t universally beloved. However, it was still an essential piece of his artistic legacy, and well worth a read.
In the comic press, we’re used to saying goodbye to the titans of the industry. A lot of the men and women who built the medium have passed on after leading long lives. This one is particularly painful because Cooke was still at the height of his powers with so many potential stories left to tell. 53 years…it’s just not enough time. Talents like him don’t come along very often, and the comic book medium is poorer for his passing.
Cooke’s family is expected to release an official statement about his death later today. The family has asked Cooke’s fans who wish to honor his memory and his legacy to make donations to the Canadian Cancer Society and The Hero Initiative.
Share some of your favorite Cooke memories with us in the comment section. We’d love to hear them.
Featured Image: DC Comics
Images: Flickr user Pat Lolka/DC Comics/IDW/Vertigo Comics