In Memory of Darwyn Cooke: 9 of His Greatest Comics Contributions

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On May 14th, celebrated comic book artist Darwyn Cooke passed away at 53 after a long battle with cancer. I was absolutely devastated to learn about his passing. He has always been one of my favorite comic book artists- he made irreplaceable contributions to the superhero genre and his work always had a sense of joy and hope instilled into it.

He had no need to pander or preen because his work spoke for itself. There was retro feel to it, but he combined it with a very modern sensibility and careful thoughtfulness that offered an entirely new take on old characters. Cooke was one of those creators that gave me hope for the superhero comic genre as a whole- there was a warmth about the things he created that gave the sense that anyone was welcome in his world of heroes.

I would like to honor Darwyn Cooke by going over some of his most prominent, lasting contributions to the world of comics and superhero animation. It would be impossible to encapsulate his entire body of work in a single article, but I’d like to bring awareness to some of his accomplishments nevertheless. Please feel free to discuss this great man and his great works in the comments.

  1. Darwyn Cooke's Work on Superman and Batman: The Animates Series

    Darwyn Cooke was hired by Warner Bros Animation in the 1990’s, where he worked on various DC superhero properties. Cooke worked as a storyboard artist for both the Superman and Batman animated series. He worked on beloved episodes like “Legends of the Dark Knight” and “The Ultimate Thrill”. Here is an example of one of his storyboards for "Legends of the Dark Knight":

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  2. Darwyn Cooke's Work on Batman Beyond

    He certainly left his footprint on Batman Beyond, as he designed the entire opening title sequence. The opening is perfect for the series, combining a film noir sensibility with a cyberpunk aesthetic. The sequence is fast-paced and frenetic in a way that makes it extremely memorable.

    In addition to designing the title sequence for the series, Cooke continued his Batman Beyond work in 2014 by producing an entire animated short celebrating the 75th anniversary of Batman. In addition to being an fun, action-packed short, the piece cleverly pays tribute to many different versions of Batman. Among others, can spot Christopher Nolan’s Batman, the Batman: The Brave and the Bold version, one from the cartoon The Batman, Frank Miller’s version, the Adam West Batman and of course, the original 1939 Batman.

     

  3. Darwyn Cooke's Work on Justice League Unlimited

    Cooke also worked on the cartoon Justice League Unlimited, writing the teleplay for the episode "Task Force X". This episode focused on the DC Animated Universe’s version of the Suicide Squad, as the criminals Deadshot, Plastique, Clock King and Captain Boomerang are recruited from prison by the government representative Rick Flagg to infiltrate the headquarters of the Justice League. It was a memorable and interesting episode of the series.

  4. Batman: Ego

    Darwyn Cooke’s first big break in comic books was his one-shot story Batman: Ego. The story’s success led to him getting lots of other work, and it’s easy to see why. The story features amazing, noir-ish art and focuses mostly on being a psychological examination of Batman. Bruce struggles with himself, wondering whether he’s even making a positive impact on Gotham or if all he’s done is make things worse. Bruce Wayne literally comes face to face the “Batman” part of himself, in all its monstrous glory.

  5. Darwyn Cooke's Catwoman

    It’s not a stretch to say Darwyn Cooke’s redesign of Catwoman may have saved the character.  As I’ve previously discussed, Catwoman spent solid decades in the pits of fashion before Cooke got a hold of her, with her costumes being one ridiculous and often ridiculously sexualized mess of purple latex after another.

    The 1993 Catwoman series had its good points on occasion, but for the most part descended into classless drek. As Ed Brubaker put it, “they were doing a storyline where Catwoman went to jail and got in naked shower fights”. Brubaker through the book was too focused on cheesecake and was not really attractive to female readers, so when he was asked to take over the series, he wanted to get a new artist who could redesign the character and do her justice. He realized the perfect artist for this was Darwyn Cooke. Cooke gave Catwoman a stylish, functional costume and a sleek aesthetic. When Cooke sent his Catwoman design and artwork in, DC was so excited by his work that they decided to relaunch the series.

    Cooke's Catwoman character sheet

    Brubaker and Cooke’s revamp of Catwoman completely revitalized and redefined the character. She was now a firmly street-level anti-hero, an unreliable ally to Batman rather than his sexy rival. She got an entirely new supporting cast and got back to her roots as a classy cat burglar who helped the underdog. This took the character from being a small part of the Bat-Mythos to being a big and popular player in the DC Universe.  

    Brubaker names Cooke as being a very collaborative part of the storytelling process of the relaunch saying “Darwyn was a really interesting artist to work with, because I would give him a script, and he’d call me up and say, “I fit these three pages into one page, and then I drew this crazy dream sequence and I sketched some dialogue in that you can do whatever you want with.”

     Brubaker feels he owes the trajectory of his career to Cooke’s work on the book, saying that “If I had not met him at Comic-Con that year, I have no idea what my career would be right now.”

  6. The New Frontier

    Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier is perhaps his magnum opus, and it definitely belongs on any list of great comics. The series is set in an alternate universe of 1953-1960 and it explored post World-War II tension and Cold War paranoia through the lens of DC Comics superheroes. The series focused on several characters, including those of Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, etc), showing them struggling to transition into a new era. The series dealt with many social issues as well. Racial tension was explored through the storyline of John Henry Irons, who faced off against the Klan after they slaughtered his family.

    Cooke managed to harken back to the early history of comics while exploring the characters in a more complex, socially-conscious way and his wonderful retro art was perfect for the job. His characterization was especially on point, his heroes were all likeable, yet often conflicted. He managed to distill many conflicting versions and backstories into distinct, memorable stories. His depiction of the Superman vs Batman fight in his New Frontier special shows he understands the characters far better than the DC cinematic universe.

     (Who would TRULY win in Superman vs Batman? Wonder Woman, obviously, because she's sick of that crap.)

    From the Justice League: New Frontier Special

    One particularly memorable scene in the series is one where Wonder Woman faces off against Superman.

    Wonder Woman found some women being abused by soldiers, freed them from their imprisonment and allowed them to make the decision of what to do with their captors (they killed them). Superman believes such violence only adds to a cycle of hatred and is unjust, but Diana faces him down, telling him he is unaware of how brutal the situation is and she is concerned with allowing these women justice and a chance to empower themselves.  It perfectly represents the different moral viewpoints of the characters, differenting them while still showing them both as heroic.

    From The New Frontier

    Once again Cooke’s character designs stand out. Cooke’s Wonder Woman is something I’ve always adored in particular and it’s on of his favorite designs as well. In his work, the essence of Wonder Woman really pops off the page- she looks intimidating, tall and Amazonian, as she should,  yet still full of love and joy. His style really suits her.

    Cooke's design sheet for Wonder Woman

    Cooke’s New Frontier did not shy away from darkness, but it ultimately had a welcoming, hopeful outlook. It’s a story of transition and transformation that explores the growth and change of the medium of comics and the world as a whole.

    The book won an Eisner award among several others, and was adapted into a direct-to-video animated feature in 2008.

  7. Darwyn Cooke's The Spirit

    Darwyn Cooke truly proved he was the master of reinventing characters with his take on Will Eisner’s The Spirit. His revitalization of the Spirit is the best one the classic character has gotten. He kept the fun, pulpy elements of the character while updating it for modern audiences in a seamless way. He removed the infamous racial stereotype characteristics from The Spirit’s partner, Ebony White, still including him as a competent, fun character and put a new spin on the many ladies of mystery The Spirit encounters. It was his work that actually introduced me to the character to begin with, and I think it was an excellent entry point.

  8. Darwyn Cooke's Parker: The Hunter

    In 2009, Darwyn Cook proved that he was talented at adaptation in addition to everything else. He adapted the Parker novels by Donald E. Westlake, starting with The Hunter. His Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter was praised for distilling the novel down to its’ essence with masterful storytelling. The story itself contains very few words, showing the power of visuals in comics.

  9. Before Watchmen: The Minutemen

    The Before Watchmen project was received with controversy thanks to Alan Moore’s objections to it. But Cooke’s The Minutemen miniseries is noted as being a standout for the project. It was hailed as fleshing out the story of the hero team that looms like a spectre in the original comic, allowing readers to sympathize with their struggles while still knowing their grisly fates. It was true to the depressing nature of the Watchmen world while still having real heart to it.