Saturday, October 31, 2020

Plague Books: Stark Sixties

Richard Stark's Parker:The Hunter, Adapted and Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke, IDW Publishing, 2009

Richard Stark's Parker: The Outfit, Adapted and Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke, IDW Publishing, 2010

Richard Stark's Parker: The Score, Adapted and Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke, IDW Publishing, 2012

Richard Stark's Parker: Slayground, Adapted and Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke, IDW Publishing, 2013

Provenance: Loaned from Stan! Brown.

Review: Real good. Lemme give you the backstory.

Author Donald Westlake wrote under a wide variety of pen names to match his various styles and markets, and one of the most successful was Richard Stark, who penned a long-running series about Parker (no other name given, may not even be his real name), a successful career criminal. Parker specializes in large scale heists, then lives well off the proceeds for a few months, until the bank account drops and he goes back for another score. He ties not to kill innocents (there is a lot of knocking people on the head and tying them up), but needless to say, he ends up killing a lot of not-so-innocents. The books have been wildly popular and turned into various movies over the years.

Artist Darwyn Cooke, who passed on in 2016, has a distinctive and unique style. I always connect him with New Frontier, a DC series from 2004 but set in DC's "Silver Age" of the early 60's. In both instances he has a clean, open style and an incredibly dynamic handle on action. When Stan! lent me the books, I did not expect to see how much he translated the novels into wordless action sequences where every beat landed and carried the reader from one panel to the next.

Back to Parker of the moment. He's the guy you're rooting for, in part because the people he is up against are so much worse. He's ice-cold and callous on the job so he can relax later. In his stories, Parker is on the job, and then gets betrayed, and then gets revenge. That's the basic plot of  both The Hunter (the first of the books by Stark) and The Outfit. When I read The Hunter, it tickled a memory of an old movie with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickenson.. Point Blank. And yep, it is based on the novel. 

 In many ways, Parker is kinfolk to the Continental Op, who lives on the other side of the lawful divide. Parker lives in that twilight world of crime, where everyone is a little bit crooked, and a lot of the crooks don't even think of what they do is criminal. Maybe they drop off a briefcase. Maybe they make a call. Maybe they wait by the track for someone to make a call. They are cogs in the greater machine. They don't do well, but they get by.

And then someone gets greedy, or stupid, or crazy and it all goes to hell. In The Hunter, one of Parker's confederates betrays the rest of the crew and leaves Parker for dead - he gets revenge. In The Outfit, someone sells Parker out to help himself, and Parker brings down the entire organization on the other side. In The Score, Parker puts together a crew of people on a chancy job against a mining operation in a box canyon. In Slayground, an armored car job goes casters up and Parker is trapped in an shut-down amusement park as gunmen hunt him. Slayground also has a short backup story - The 7th, which collapses an entire novel down into a double-handful of pages without losing much of the plot. 

And Cooke is brilliant in the art. His command of the medium is perfect as wordless panels show as opposed to tell. He works with the black and white medium with its long shadows and silhouettes and makes it sing. And he gets down into the weeds of the procedure of the crimes and counter-crimes and he explains it all, summarizing the challenges and opportunities, laying out how things are supposed to go and how Parker crashes the party. His character's best weapons are knowledge and understanding of the human condition - he can kill without remorse but also knows how to calm down his targets.

Cooke also situates the work squarely in the 60s, with Esso stations and road maps and cars with big fins, Tiki decor and night clubs and risque matchbook covers. Angular clothing for the men and soft tight-fitting curves for the women. This is lightyears away from New Frontier in its darkness and brutality, but has that same openness of line and sense of hope that the Kennedy era spawned. 

Cooke passed on in 2016, so there will only be these four volumes, but that will be enough. It is strong enough to make me look for the old Stark novels themselves when I can get into the used book stores again. Or even dig up a Lee Marvin movie.

More later,