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Comic-con 2009

Noir zone

Hard-boiled crime punches up the world of graphic novels.

July 20, 2009|Geoff Boucher

Even when the movies ended up bad -- and they usually did -- crime novelist Donald E. Westlake never had a problem taking Hollywood money for his ideas. But with his signature creation, the ruthless career criminal known simply as Parker, Westlake insisted that the names be changed to protect the guilty.

Westlake, who died at age 75 last New Year's Eve, saw seven movies made from his Parker novels (which were all published under his pseudonym Richard Stark), but in each film the main character's name was changed; even when Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall or Mel Gibson was in the role, Westlake wouldn't entrust his favorite brand name to anyone else. That changed, though, in the final months of Westlake's life in an unexpected way that had nothing to do with Hollywood.

A Nova Scotia-based illustrator named Darwyn Cooke and a San Diego book editor named Scott Dunbier convinced the aging author that the ideal visual medium for his terse, bare-knuckled tales of mayhem was the graphic novel. And, after Westlake saw Cooke's spare and stylized artwork (think somewhere between the vintage cool of "Mad Men" and the storytelling flair of Milton Caniff's "Steve Canyon" comic strips), he enthusiastically agreed. The result hit shelves last week: the 144-page graphic novel "The Hunter" (IDW Publishing, $24.99 hardcover), a meticulously faithful adaptation of the 1962 novel of the same name that introduced the scowling Parker.

The Cooke adaptation is already being hailed as a masterpiece by key tastemakers in the comics world and later this week it will meet the public in a major way as Cooke and Dunbier take it to Comic-Con International in San Diego, the massive pop-culture expo that is a sort of Cannes for capes or a Sundance for sci-fi. Cooke will be on two panels, including a Thursday program titled "A Darker Shade of Ink: Crime and Noir in Comics."

That might conjure up memories of the infamously lurid EC Comics of the 1950s, but hard-boiled crime is heating up in the word-balloon medium. Superheroes still dominate comics, but "The Hunter" is part of a surge in noir-minded projects that owe far more to the bloodied pulp of Westlake, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson than they do to the cosmic melodramas of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.

Next month, DC Comics, publisher of the bright-hued Superman, is launching a new imprint called Vertigo Crime that will be populated by bloodthirsty lovers and mob enforcers. The first releases are the sexed-up murder tale "Filthy Rich" by Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos and "Dark Entries," a locked-room mystery written by the Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin.

Vertigo Crime hopes to match the high standards and low morals established by "Criminal," the 3-year-old series by Ed Brubaker for Marvel Comics imprint Icon that presents a tapestry of interwoven underworld tales that had a body count and multigeneration ruination rivaling those of "GoodFellas." There's also the horror noir of Steve Niles, whose Cal McDonald is a drug-addled version of Lew Archer roaming a (literally) haunted L.A. in the series "Criminal Macabre."

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Showtime again?

Hollywood has been watching with interest. "A History of Violence" and "Road to Perdition," both well-regarded films, were adaptations of crime comics and in September comes "Whiteout," a blood-in-the-snow serial killer story based on the 1999 Oni Press series by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber. There are at least half a dozen more in the pipeline, perhaps most interesting among them David Fincher's long-discussed adaptation of the true-crime series "Torso."

Cooke's pen-and-ink Parker may well lead to a new round of Westlake curiosity in Hollywood. (In a coincidence, there's a stir of film interest in another 1960s tough guy, author John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee.) If Cooke puts Parker back on screen, it would be poetic justice; the artist became a Westlake fan after watching a late-night rerun of John Boorman's 1967 classic "Point Blank," regarded as Hollywood's best take on the cruel charisma of the novels.

"The movie just blew my head apart," Cooke said, chuckling. "There's only been a few movies that really rocked me. When I watched 'Point Blank,' I felt like I was seeing a whole new way to do a movie. Lee Marvin was so brilliant in it and the story was very simple -- a crime story, a genre story -- but it was so compelling."

"The Hunter" (the first of four Parker adaptations planned by Cooke) tells the tale of a battered and betrayed professional criminal named Parker who methodically seeks vengeance and dismantles anything (and anyone) in his way. Westlake once told an interviewer that Parker was an "unreconstructed guy from a much harder age" and cited as compass point his own father, who once responded to an oncoming heart attack by reaching for a bottle of rye.

Cooke said the lean Westlake prose is ideal for the graphic novel medium.

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