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RIP, Darwyn Cooke: How the great cartoonist changed my comics life

This art celebrates the vivid style and ever-present playfulness of cartoonist Darwyn Cooke, who died Saturday at age 53, said his wife, Marsha Cooke. (DC Entertainment via AP)

NEARLY A DECADE ago, when I thought about moving on from my love of comic books, Darwyn Cooke made sure I wouldn’t leave.

Many comic-book fans reach this crossroads at some point in adulthood: Do you keep reading — or move on? Fortunately, when I reached this point, I happened to watch a feature about a forthcoming animated movie from DC called “The New Frontier.” That feature introduced me to Darwyn Cooke, the great writer-artist who died Saturday at age 53 after battling lung cancer.

“The New Frontier” was based on a DC Comics miniseries of the same name, and one of the first things I noticed was that the film’s producers had decided to use Cooke’s exact art style for the animated movie — a too-infrequent faithfulness in animated comic-book adaptations. I was transfixed not only by the animated previews, but also by the original pages of Cooke’s artwork on the series, which served as a background in the feature. I had to get to a comic shop and get “The New Frontier.”

That became one of the most memorable decisions of my comics-reading life thus far.

RIP, Darwyn Cooke: How friends and fans are mourning a profoundly gifted comics great

When news of Cooke’s death spread this weekend, many of the tributes that flooded social media spoke of the influence and inspiration he gave to so many in the comic-book industry. And many fans posted panels from “The New Frontier.”

What made “The New Frontier” special is the same dynamic that made Cooke special: Both he and his masterpiece made reading comics fun again.

Cooke had been vocal about his feelings that the comic-book industry was becoming a darker and darker place — that it seemed less and less like a home for kids. That is an especially dispiriting thought when you consider that most of us who love comics discovered them as a child.

As if message and medium were in sync, Cooke’s brilliance was well-spotlighted by the fact that “The New Frontier” was set in a more innocent era of comics. It was a vintage mid-20th-century comics experience combined with a 21st-century storytelling approach. This unique tale helped many of us comics fans engage with an era that predated our births.

Somehow, Cooke’s artwork was timeless yet could transport you to another time.

Cooke also realized that the success of “The New Frontier” turned him into the “midcentury guy” of comics — an association that he didn’t mind too much because he was fascinated by the era.

I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Cooke multiple times. The last time I spoke with him, the interview was centered on Vertigo’s “The Twilight Children,” a project he had completed with Gilbert Hernandez. It was the type of project Cooke had longed to do for years — yet couldn’t because he was always called on to do “the type of books I do,” he told me.

“When you’re working on a mainstream book, there are certain criteria — there are certain things you have to do and you have to hit,” said Cooke, noting that “Twilight Children” was “really liberating in that those rules don’t apply here.”

Cooke’s voice reflected that sense of freedom. He loved what he did and the type of comics he was most known for, but he sounded happy to be trying something new.

And although Cooke may have helped ensure that mainstream comics didn’t lose their sense of all-ages fun, he would still tell the occasional “adult” tale. That included his work on the controversial “Before Watchmen” project from DC, as well as such works as “Parker.”

The beguiling simplicity of Cooke’s work was intriguing; his style was cartoon-y but complex. Female superheroes and supporting characters are so often “sexed up,” yet Cooke managed to draw Wonder Woman and Lois Lane in an alluring way without forfeiting or subverting their grace, glamour and class. I’m convinced that no one has drawn a more beautiful Wonder Woman.

His heroes were vintage — always conveying hope — and they frequently flashed something you see too rarely from superheroes today: a smile.

The Darwyn Cooke experience was the very best that the industry had to offer. His work made you happy, and made you remember why you fell in love with comics in the first place. To read a comic by Cooke was a cerebral experience that made it feel like reliving your first unforgettable comic-book moment.

Years ago, Mr. Darwyn Cooke was there to remind me what makes comic books so incredible.

He not only made great comics; he also made comics great.

We will miss him deeply.

Read more:

Darwyn Cooke respects the dissenters — but ‘Before Watchmen’ was too challenging to pass up

Cooke and Hernandez illuminate their beautiful ‘Twilight Children’