Best Shots Extra: Darwyn Cooke's SOLO #5

"Solo #5" preview
Credit: Darwyn Cooke (DC Comics)
Credit: Darwyn Cooke (DC Comics)

Solo #5
Written, Illustrated and Lettered by Darwyn Cooke
Published by DC Comics
Review By David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

By the time you read this, it’ll have been hours, maybe even days, since the comics industry was stunned by the announcement of acclaimed writer and artist Darwyn Cooke’s passing at the age of 53. While other websites and publishers have reported the news and made their extensive, oftentimes poetic statements about Cooke’s life and talent and integrity and generosity to friends and strangers alike, I stood back, and did what I’ve always done — I read.

Of course, when it comes to Darwyn Cooke, it’s not “just” reading. Cooke’s bibliography reads like a best-of list spanning the last 15 years, from his breakout graphic novel Batman: Ego to his final work at Vertigo with Gilbert Hernandez, the small-town sci-fi drama The Twilight Children. Everyone has their favorite Darwyn Cooke comic book story — some will choose his daring reimagining of Selina Kyle with Ed Brubaker in Catwoman, others will praise his hopeful and cohesive reimagining of the DC Universe in The New Frontier, while others still will gravitate towards his beautifully rendered adaptations of Donald Westlake’s Parker at IDW Publishing.

But for me, feverishly reading through all of Cooke’s various works, there was one single story that stood out to me as the most appropriate to revisit, particularly with this news still fresh in my mind — Solo #5. Written, drawn and lettered all by Cooke in 2005, this one-man-band effort not only won Cooke one of his many Eisners, but this surreal, almost prescient work also feels the most reflective of both Cooke’s path as a human being and of his sheer potential and range as an artist.

Credit: Darwyn Cooke (DC Comics)

Maybe it’s coincidence. Or maybe it’s the sad news coloring my perspective. But the moment that Slam Bradley and King Faraday walk into Jimmy’s 24-7 — a dark but beautifully blue-lit dive located “a hard left at Nexus and Continuity” — it feels like what you might imagine would be Cooke’s noirish take on the afterlife, filled with classy dames and glasses full of gin. “The place I’m taking you isn’t on any maps,” Slam says as he leads King into this surreal nightclub, populated with gumshoes and Super-Friends alike. “It’s kinda out of this universe.”

And as we learn, Slam — perhaps the closest avatar of Cooke’s own brand of old-school roughness and charm — has something on his mind. He’s waiting for a woman, but when you’re reading the book today, it almost feels like Slam — and perhaps Cooke himself — is waiting for something else entirely. There’s an air of nervousness and anticipation to Slam’s demeanor as he slinks into the shadows, but also one of finality and acceptance. Again, maybe it’s just me — but it’s an eerie feeling reading this framing sequence, almost as if Cooke, knowing his end would someday come, was creating a time capsule for his readers, a secret meaning that could only be truly unlocked after his death.

Or perhaps it’s because of the retrospective nature of Cooke’s second chapter, “World’s Window,” a scratchy and yellow-tinged portrait of the artist as a young man, almost as if Cooke’s life was flashing before our eyes. Every artist has his story, but seeing the innocence that Cooke imbues his younger self with is immediately endearing. But it’s the sheer economy of storytelling — the mastery of comic books as a form — that makes this story so surprising, with the younger Darwyn transforming from budding golfer to enthusiastic art student in the span of a single panel, filled with balloons ranging from discussions about charcoal to how “burnt amber is a funny name.” And looking at the author as an adult, “World’s Window” also gives us a taste of Cooke’s artistic versatility. As a contrast to the moody colors of Jimmy’s, “World’s Window” is almost abstract in its relative simplicity, with sharp, methodical linework cutting across the yellow wash, sometimes coming across as geometric in their precision. Even the palette comes across as a deliberate decision, almost as if Cooke decided to draw this autobiographical tale on the nearest legal notepad.

If “World’s Window” is about innocence, as the next bit of framing at Jimmy’s shows, Cooke’s next story is about wounds. “King of America,” a spy story featuring New Frontier supporting character King Faraday, feels the closest in DNA to Cooke’s maturation as an artist with the Parker series. “It sure looked like Heaven — tropical locale, a beautiful girl and a fat expense account,” Cooke narrates, in his hardboiled, Mickey Spillane-style voice. “There were a few small problems—the girl had married a killer, the expense account was CIA, and my wife was lurking around the corner.” Set in Cuba in 1956, “King of America” feels like a classic spy thriller ripped from the pages of a dime-store pulp novel, but there are some fascinating choices in both content and form that make this story a worthy addition to the Solo collection.

Credit: Darwyn Cooke (DC Comics)

As an undercover King tempts fate by seducing the wife of a murderous drug lord, Cooke flips the script with several thrilling double-crosses, punctuated by the most ambiguous of endings. But I think that type of frustration is intentional — coming off the childlike wonder of “World’s Window,” “King of America” feels like a thriller that turns into an examination of the unavoidable disappointments and betrayals that come on the road to adulthood. Cooke’s style also feels like classic magazine and fashion spreads, from the detail of a flowing red dress to the painterly swatches across his lines, particularly the artful use of angular shapes to show off King and his partner Gracie having a post-coital smoke. Given Cooke’s burnout after years working in magazines and advertising, using this style for this surprisingly bleak story suddenly feels like a very specific choice.

While I talk a lot about deliberateness and specificity in Darwyn Cooke’s body of work, he winds up anticipating my very sort of overanalyzation, resisting closer examination with a flurry of short cartoons in his “Funny Pages.” In some ways, it’s a respite from all the thoroughly thoughtful work that’s come before — there’s some real fan service here, like some seemingly effortlessly pinup-worthy drawings of Zatanna and Black Canary, showing that it seemed to be impossible for Cooke to goof off entirely, even if it’s for the garnish for this five-course meal of a comic book. Even throwaway gags like a Marmaduke-style single-panel comic strip featuring the Joker and Harley Quinn — “The Funnymooners” — have a semi-hidden Rick James gag in them, while there’s a thoughtful and occasionally biting timeline featuring “A Brief History of Mainstream Comics in America.”

It’s also here that I think Cooke reveals a lot more about himself than perhaps we knew. Reading this book now, perhaps it’s a stretch to read Slam’s wistful characterization as he hangs around a payphone, waiting for something that feels simultaneously distant and inevitable. But given Cooke’s own history redesigning and redefining Selina Kyle, seeing an airbrushed, almost beatific take on Catwoman — his “Solo Dreamgirl Pinup,” in addition to the ephemeral, laughing sketch of Selina just before the story unfolds — and it starts to feel like Catwoman is more than just Darwyn Cooke’s spirit animal. Her absence defines this story even more than her presence — whether you see her as fleeting artistic truth, as acceptance and celebrity in one’s chosen field, or as the finality of death itself, Cooke’s Catwoman represents something bigger and more unknowable, something that can evoke fear and anxiety as well as something more peaceful and centering.

Yet at minimum, if Catwoman represented Cooke’s first acceptance into the comic book mainstream, the next story, “Everyday Madness,” seems to zero in on Cooke’s restlessness as an artist, always looking to experiment with style and content and tone. “Everyday Madness” is Cooke going against type, blurring the line between slapstick comedy and psychological horror, as a cartoony oddball tells us he has a big problem: “My beloved vacuum cleaner is plotting to kill me.” It’s the kind of one-liner that could launch any sort of short story, but it also is a surprising amount of whimsy from Cooke, particularly as his weird protagonist describes the “molten pleasure of our forbidden volcanic desire” he shares with his pastel pink dustbuster.

If I had a word to describe Cooke’s style both in this story as well as over the course of his career, it would be “simple” — he doesn’t overcomplicate this streamlined, cartoony tale, but is so deliberate with his lines that he’s able to shore up tons of details to create some truly evocative panels, including a nightmare where a giant vacuum cleaner is threatening to swallow his lead whole. While this story evokes more of a gentle grin than laugh-out-loud comedy, seeing Cooke be so willing to stretch himself artistically makes this an unexpected but welcome twist.

But with greater exposure comes a greater responsibility to be thoughtful, sometimes even critical. Cooke was known for being opinionated and outspoken, occasionally to the point of brusqueness — he was never a diplomat, but you always knew where he stood. And with a pointed interlude back at Jimmy’s 24-7, when Slam mercilessly shuts down a clueless blonde talking about “acceptable” casualties generated in the Iraq War, Cooke makes no bones about having a strong point of view. While I wouldn’t necessarily say politics was Cooke’s defining characteristic in either this book or his oeuvre as a whole — unless you count a gag line at the beginning of the comic book where he says he wishes Dwight D. Eisenhower were still in office, or his ‘60s-era admiration of John F. Kennedy in The New Frontier — he at least uses the geopolitical sphere as story fodder for his bold and visually exciting story “The Question.”

Out of all the stories in this issue, “The Question” is the one that relies the most on its visual razzle-dazzle, but Cooke’s use of color, contrast and design makes this story such a treat. In many ways, Cooke’s use of silhouette and shadow — punctuated by bursts of florescent fonts and digital fragments — reminds me a lot of Frank Miller, somewhere between his more polished Sin City efforts and his wilder work with Lynn Varley in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. And in certain ways, I can’t help but feel like Frank probably might have appreciated Cooke’s story, which conveys Vic Sage’s paranoiac monologues in cold typeface as he takes the fight directly to al Qaeda following 9/11.

In a post-Osama bin Laden world, this content might seem passé or simplistic especially to younger readers, even if in Cooke’s defense it doesn’t take the Islamophobic tone that Miller works like Holy Terror does. But in addition to the striking visuals and masterful use of monochromatic colors, “The Question” also seems to speak to Cooke’s individualism as a singular artist. “What can one person do? Can you turn down the noise and tear through the spin to find a shred of the truth?” Vic asks us. “Can an individual find an absolute an the conviction to act with just purpose?” Just looking at Cooke’s career, I think the answer is obvious.

Ultimately, it’s telling that the final complete story in this book — “Deja Vu,” a retelling of Steve Englehart, Vin and Sal Amendola and Dick Giordano’s classic ‘70s Batman story “Night of the Stalker” — is both the most commercially viable narrative that Cooke has to offer, but also has the least to say, instead providing a utilitarian showcase for DC’s most lucrative character. That said, just because this isn’t a purely personal work doesn’t mean that Cooke skimps out on any of his considerable technical prowess — in particular, Cooke’s use of color is so potent here, with bursts of red and yellow to contrast against the washed out grays and whites of Gotham City, while his use of eight-panel grids belies the economy of composition in his imagery and storytelling.

Credit: Darwyn Cooke (DC Comics)

With this strong visual foundation in place, Cooke provides a beautifully drawn and smoothly accessible story that fans of the Dark Knight can easily enjoy, as Batman witnesses a double-murder that bears considerable similarity to the deaths of his own parents. While the themes here are largely unspoken, there are still some great bits here, such as Batman literally pulling a shotgun to his own his head, daring a hapless crook to essentially punish him for his failure to keep the past from revisiting itself. While Cooke explored Bruce Wayne’s guilt in greater detail in his superb graphic novel Batman: Ego, just a handful of panels of Batman shamefully presenting himself to his parent’s portrait is just a superb shorthand for the Dark Knight’s deep-seated neuroses.

But at the end of the day, everything comes back to Slam and Selina, and it’s the final two interludes at Jimmy’s that feels like the most poignant parts of Solo #5. At the beginning of this book, there’s a knot in Slam’s stomach, and I can’t help but think that Cooke felt one, too, over the years. But once the fear passes, there’s an acceptance, as Slam and Selina finally meet at the end of the night, and have their long-awaited toast. “To old friends.” “Best friends.”

When Slam finally lets Selina go — when she ends the night with a tender hug, rather than breaking his heart all over again — you can’t help but hope that Cooke has found his own peace at the end of the road, his own respite from all the fear and pain and challenges that life brings all of us. And that’s what makes Solo #5 feel like such an emblematic work from a creator who produced almost nothing but emblematic works — in 48 pages, he told stories that were simultaneously so potent and exciting, but also so introspective and personal. Through both his artwork and his writing, there was such a compelling voice to this larger-than-life comics creator, and there’s no greater place to see such a diversity and evolution of his work in such a concentrated space than this.

The last line of Solo #5 is a simple one, as Slam pours himself one more drink for the road: “Y’know, Jimmy, long as we’re here… how about I tell you a story?” And with this comic book, I do believe we’ve seen much of Darwyn Cooke’s — as a beginning, a middle, and now even as an epilogue. It’s a tragedy that we now live in a world where we won’t be able to see any more Darwyn Cooke stories — but it’s such a gift to our industry as a whole that we’ve gotten to read these stories at all. And if that’s not worth raising a glass for a comic book legend, I don’t know what is.

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