Book Reviews: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke; 'Britten and Brülightly,' by Hannah Berry; 'Dead, She Said,' by Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson

By Douglas Wolk
Sunday, June 14, 2009

THE HUNTER Richard Stark's Parker By Darwyn Cooke IDW. 140 pp. $24.99

The Parker novels that the late Donald Westlake wrote under the name Richard Stark stand near the pinnacle of English-language crime fiction: swift, bleak, riveting stories about an infinitely crafty man slashing his way through an irredeemable world. They're not the likeliest candidates for comics adaptations -- half the fun is Westlake's chiseled prose style -- but Darwyn Cooke's take on the series' first volume, "The Hunter" (forthcoming on July 22), is a near-perfect match of artist and character.

Cooke's a powerful enough cartoonist that his images do most of the heavy lifting here. His version of the story opens with a bravura, nearly wordless 20-page sequence. It's 1962, and Parker is stalking across a bridge into New York City, preparing to scam his way into a new identity. When we finally see his face (a revelation Cooke cunningly delays), his disheveled hair and expression of cold-eyed fury reveal as much about his cruelty and unknowability as any description Westlake could have written.

Parker (no first name) is a heist man whose partners on his last job betrayed him, made his wife shoot him and left him for dead. He has come back to the city to take what's rightfully his -- well, "rightfully" as far as he's concerned -- and to slaughter everybody who gets in the way of his revenge before he goes off to enjoy the fruits of his labor. (In Parker's world, a comfortable hotel suite, a curvy blonde and a stiff drink are the predator's reward.) And slaughter he does: He kills people for, variously, personal satisfaction, self-preservation and emphasis.

Cooke has a particular gift for the space-age designs and stripped-down chiaroscuro that were in vogue a half-century ago -- he previously explored them in his "DC: The New Frontier" comics -- and his loose, ragged slashes of black and cobalt blue evoke the ascendancy of Hugh Hefner so powerfully you can almost hear a walking jazz bass. At times, he seems to be demonstrating how few brushstrokes it can take to communicate a precise degree of amoral machismo. Parker's a very bad man, but it's hard to take your eyes off him.

BRITTEN AND BRÜLIGHTLY By Hannah Berry Metropolitan. Unpaginated. Paperback, $20

Fernández Britten, the sunken-eyed P.I. at the center of Hannah Berry's first graphic novel, "Britten and Brülightly," actually does want to do good in the world, but being a detective isn't really a way to accomplish that: All he does is tell people awful truths, and it has led him to develop something of a death wish. His horny, irritable partner, Stewart Brülightly, is a bag of tea -- literally -- which is both a gesture of surreal whimsy and a suggestion that Britten may not be an entirely reliable narrator.

Berry's story grabs and gently wrings every noir trope within reach, beginning with the hard-faced babe who hires Britten to prove that her fiancé's death -- which sure looked like suicide -- was actually foul play. As the detective and his faithful teabag wander through a city where it's almost always drizzling, they encounter sleazy businessmen, uncover a blackmail-and-murder plot so Byzantine it threatens to collapse into a black hole, and sink into inescapable existential despair. (Berry's watercolor palette, heavy on the greens and blues, makes all of her scenery seem residually damp, musty and underlit.) The mystery story gradually inverts itself into an assault on the entire premise of mystery stories -- that the discovery of truth brings disinfecting sunlight -- as Britten comes to discover that enlightenment and clarity can cause nothing but heartbreak and calamity, and that "absolute morality is a luxury for the short-sighted."

DEAD, SHE SAID By Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson IDW. 104 pp. $19.99

Some noir heroes make it out of their story alive; some don't. Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson's "Dead, She Said" resolves that particular tension by having detective Joe Coogan wake up dead -- and somehow conscious anyway and in a very bad mood -- on the first page. It's a cute premise, but the joke wears thin quickly, especially after the plot meanders off into tedious business in volving a mad scientist and his man-eating giant ants. The 70-page story is padded out to book length with various 35- to 40-year-old Wrightson drawings of monsters and a dopey twist-ending tale originally published in 1972.

Wrightson is best known for drawing supernatural horror stories -- particularly the original "Swamp Thing" series in the early '70s, in which he imbued a dark green pile of moss and muck with genuinely soulful dolorousness.

None of the human characters get that much artistic sympathy here; Wrightson saves his most atmospheric artwork for the book's Lovecraftian creatures and B-movie lab equipment. (The heavy-handed coloring, which casts a thick veil of dingy murk over Wrightson's feathery linework, doesn't help.) And despite the battered fedoras and Venetian-blind shadows that parade across the page, Niles's story lacks one crucial component of a resonant noir: He never blurs the line between his righteous, if stinkily decomposing, hero and the inhuman bad guys, or suggests that the terrible decay might really be lurking in his readers' sympathies. --

Douglas Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean."

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