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Graphic Novel Review: Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke

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If ever there was a writer/artist made to adapt Donald E. Westlake’s Parker books into graphic novels, it’s Darwyn Cooke. The Canadian-born comic book artist has long shown an affinity for the crime writer’s lean hard-bitten caper novels. His 2002 Catwoman GN, Selina’s Big Score, could’ve even been a Parker book, and Cooke nailed the connection even more firmly at the time by naming one of Selina’s partners after the pseudonym Westlake used on these books and drawing him so he looked like Lee Marvin from Point Blank, the first movie made from a Parker paperback. But just because the man feels an obvious connection to the material doesn’t mean he’s the right guy for the job. Fortunately, in Cooke’s case, his skill as a scriptwriter and as a draftsman seal the deal. This is Parker as he’s meant to be seen.

The second volume in a projected series of graphic novel adaptations, Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit (IDW) follows up on The Hunter, Cooke’s retelling of the character’s debut appearance. Combining two Parker paperbacks, The Man with the Getaway Face and The Outfit, the book can’t help but come across as more episodic than the first — a fact made even more apparent by the writer/artist’s decision to depict three different capers in distinctly different storytelling styles (the most amusing being a heist done in the big-shnozzed style of a UPA cartoon) — it’s still held together by its compelling pulpish lead. As created by Westlake, Parker is a no-nonsense s.o.b. with a justifiably jaundiced eye toward his collaborators. From the opening caper in this volume, an armored car heist that ends in betrayal, his cynicism is warranted.

The motor-vating plotline in The Outfit kicks into gear quickly when our anti-hero, thinking that he has negotiated a truce with the mob after the rampaging events in the first book, rolls out of bed to escape a hitman who has shown up in his Miami hotel room. Said gunsel has been sent by vengeful East Coast boss Art Bronson, who is held up in his upstate New York, playing Monopoly with his bodyguards. Parker sets up a set of robberies to get the Outfit’s attention before going after Bronson himself. Along the way, we’re provided edifying economic dissertations on how bookmaking, money laundering, and the numbers racket worked in the early sixties. Never let it be said that pulp fiction can’t be educational.

Cooke’s art, shaded in orchid, captures the early sixties milieu beautifully: particularly the motels and diners where our outlaw characters spend so much of their lives. His Parker, wearing a new face thanks to plastic surgery, remains a believably amoral tough guy, while his visual treatment of the rest of his cast is wittily diverse. I’m especially fond of Skim, whose name right away tells you just how trustworthy he is, and his even more duplicitous waitress girlfriend Alma, who figure prominently in the armored car job. An economically worded sequence depicting that heist and its aftermath is a model of no-nonsense graphic storytelling.

Cooke has promised more Parker adaptations in the years ahead. The Outfit even ends with a Bond-ian blurb stating that “Parker will return in 2012.” At this point the artist has plans for only four adaptations of books in the twenty-plus volume series: a wise move since even the prolific Westlake took a 23-year break between Parker books in the seventies. (Leave ‘em wanting more.) Me, I’m ready to take as many of these slam-bang crime noir comics as Cooke is willing to produce.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.