Remembering Darwyn Cooke: How Going Solo for ‘Solo’ Made Him Stand Out

If given the chance, don’t hesitate to go full auteur.

Darwyn died on the 14th of May this year, just a day after he and his family revealed he was undertaking palliative care after a bout of cancer. Even though the comic community braced for the worst, we had no idea the worst would come within in 24 hours. We mourned, people shared stories, I balled like a fucking baby. I needed to get something out at the time – I wrote this elsewhere:

I’ve seen this link upwards of 100 times in the past few hours and that’s a lowball estimate. Every time I do I hope to god that it’s a horrible April Fools joke, but it’s sadly not the case. Every time I see it, I just want to close the curtains, curl up and block it out because there’s no way that this can be true. Not Darwyn, please not Darwyn.

In 2004, he created The New Frontier, a story about the 1950’s when theCold War raged, minorities were persecuted, the Korean War left battlefields bloody and your neighbour could be a Communist if McCarthy decided they were.

The world had gone from the biggest war it had ever known and instead of striving to right the wrongs that led it down that path, it toed the line of an even bigger war that would surely bring annihilation.

Someone once asked me what made this book so special and I shot back

‘Optimism’

The book is vibrant, dripping with energy and hope. It’s the light amidst all the darkness. The characters smile. It’s a love letter, scratch that, it’s THE love letter to comics and heroes no matter who they are. When I’ve been having a bad day, it’s simply been enough to pick it off the shelf and look at. It’s one of my favourite things. Period.

It feels like I’ve been crying for two hours because of the news, I started writing something here that could just have easily been ‘fuck cancer’, but I broke down in the middle of it and just stared up at the ceiling. And there it was. Directly ahead – my copy of the New Frontier. I took it off the shelf and found his annotations at the back where he explains his process and the detail he put into the book. And for a moment, there were still tears, but there was also some optimism. His work is immortal, his layouts, his anatomy, his plotting, the subtle beats that make the work so rich for rereading

I don’t know if he or his family will see this. I don’t know whether writing this is more to express my sympathies or to try and make sense of how cruel the world can be. What I do know is that in the time I’ve been writing this, the New Frontier reaffirmed to me what I told that person when they asked me about what makes it so special. It’s a book about optimism. Of how the world can move from the dark and drab into the colour and joy.

Thank you, Darwyn Cooke.

I’ll concede it’s somewhat melodramatic, but like I said New Frontier is my favourite thing to ever come from DC so I hope you’ll understand where the reaction came from. I just wanted to share it in case I ever lose where I made the post originally.

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Now to crack on with the piece.

[WARNING: The following will be discussing Solo #5 in extensive depth, each story contained within the covers is explored and analysed. Consider this your spoiler warning. Should you wish to buy the issue then the following link will direct you to Comixology where you can do so.]

https://www.comixology.co.uk/Solo-2004-2006-5/digital-comic/373729?ref=c2VyaWVzL3ZpZXcvZGVza3RvcC9ncmlkTGlzdC9Jc3N1ZXM

Making Your Voice Heard

Comics are inherently a collaborative medium – writers, artists, colourists, letterers and editors work in unison to make them. You’ll find some people write and draw like Frank Miller in his legendary Daredevil run and The Dark Knight Returns. Jeff Lemire has a slew of creator owned works, some of which he’s done all bar the lettering for, but it’s rare to find a book in which a single person has done everything. To my knowledge, the closest you can get at Marvel is Kaare Andrew’s Iron Fist: The Living Weapon where he did all bar the lettering, Spider-Man: Fever by Brendan McCarthy, but even then he was assisted by Steve Cook or Weapon X by Barry Windsor Smith which has letters by James R. Novak. Outside of the big 2 you could look to webcomics like Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona for example where Noelle did everything.

Obviously being made by one person doesn’t make it inherently better than a book produced by a creative team, but it does infer auteurship. You can have auteurs that just write and draw because of the way their voice comes through like Miller in the same way that the Coen’s write the screenplays and direct, but don’t hold the boom mics on set. However, it’s easier to define something as someone’s singular vision when they’re responsible for every part of it.

Solo was an endeavor by Mark Chiarello where comic creators were given 48 pages to do whatever they want. The book is 12 issues of creators going wild without restriction.

Regardless of whether I like something, I can’t help but admire when someone swings for the fences – The Neon Demon is unapologetically Refn, I consider Avengers: Age of Ultron the superior Avengers movie because of how it’s distinctly Joss and as a result, the closest an MCU movie has gotten to being a [insert name here] movie over a Marvel movie since Iron Man set the house style (I’d say more on this next week, but I’ll play it safe and say I aim to get it our by the end of the month). I think  Mr. Robot has gone massively off the rails from a story perspective, but I have to salute Sam Esmail for putting everything into making it his show from being the showrunner to being the eye behind the camera.

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As a result, I would have admired Issue 5 of Solo regardless of quality, but Darwyn is one of the best creators of the millennium and he wrote, drew, coloured and lettered the hell of it. It’s my favourite issue of the series and I first read it after he passed. At the time it helped to cope with him leaving us (the panel above made me laugh because of how comics internet has adopted the Tom King CIA meme), but, now almost four months on it’s an issue which defines his approach to comics.

The Origin Story

Everyone’s got one, but not everyone’s is tragic. World’s Window hearkens back to an idealised 1950’s suburbia bathed in golden sunlight. It’s a story which shows us how much our lives can change in an instant. Initially Darwyn is interested in golf and is gifted his own club from Jack Storms, but he stumbles across Roberta, his wife. She’s painting in the gazebo. Turns out that Darwyn also likes to draw. In the space of a panel Darwyn becomes enthralled and asks every question under the sun that he possibly could. He’s given some art supplies so he can learn to paint. Back home, the golf club is cast aside and Darwyn’s at a table. It ends by pushing in on piece of paper that’s ready to be painted on. A blank canvas. Anything is possible.

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Multiple Lies by the King of Spies

King Faraday is living the fantasy life as John King. He’s a secret spy in Cuba with a ‘wife’ and a ‘girlfriend’, his wits, charms and charisma. He gets to take down a bad guy – Javiar Manale who’s helping Castro. His girlfriend is Manale’s wife. Even when Manale knows his girlfriend is being unfaithful, King isn’t one of the people killed for her unfaithfulness.  When he’s later found out, he survives thanks to a cross from one of the men previously murdered. He survives on the faith that he will (plus Manale’s gun backfired and does the work for King). When he rushes back to the compound to crack the safe for the spoils, he’s confronted by his girlfriend and his wife who are in cahoots. Their guns trained on him. He makes a run for it. He has faith he’ll make it. Again optimism is an recurrent theme in his work.

What Are These Funny Pages Doing In My Funny Books?

A brief interlude. Pin-ups of Zatanna, Black Canary and Catwoman remind me of Phil Noto’s variants from a couple years ago capturing our heroes in subdued and candid (not that definition of candid, there are other sites for that sorta thing) moments of life. [They’re in the link dump] Zee’s and Dinah’s feel like they could be from a Justice League party when the photographer could steal a moment and them away from the crowd. Selina’s is reminiscent of a New Yorker cartoon. The rest of the stuff on the 2 page spread could be cartoons from the Sunday paper, built on short term set-up and payoff, one panel punchlines. A Brief History of Mainstream Comics in America is sobering. The industry’s survived this long, but the kids from the 40’s have moved on and the kids of the 60’s who were so desperate to stand out from their parents run the stories in the 90’s and hate the kids of the era. In present times, the damage has been done and no one’s doing anything to bring the kids back. The panel that informs us the most about Darwyn is the one about the 50’s. People burning comics. It makes sense why The New Frontier is designed to show us that superheroes endured despite America trying to suppress them.

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It’s Not So Much Attraction, So Much As It’s The Suction

Everyday Madness is like a Jimmy Olsen comic that was shot down when pitched. A man tells us a story about falling in love with his vacuum cleaner, only him to step back before it gets too serious. It can’t deal with this, steals his trousers, he kills it and flees the scene to find a tailor and a new fling.

Okay so maybe it’s a little more out there than a Jimmy Olsen comic, but seriously have you seen those issues, they’re not exactly grounded — I digress. This is my least favourite part of the book, but good god is it vibrant and dynamic. It’s also one of those surreal gags, akin to the segment of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask that stars Gene Wilder. You know the one. Where he falls in love with a sheep at the expense of his existing life and by the end the sheep is gone and he’s left with nothing. Nothing. [Editor’s note: Couldn’t resist that Willy Wonka gag]. The real difference here is that our protagonist seems doomed to repeat the cycle anew. Maybe it’s a statement on capitalism like the TV joke on the funny pages. We fall in love with our consumerist objects until they break down, but we get a new one and are impressed because it’s got a new dial or holds more songs or it’s got a new hat. Or you know, something like that.

War. What Is It Good For? That Begs The Question.

We’ll get to the stuff in Jimmy’s at the end, but just before The Infidel, Slam snaps at an Ann Coulter stand-in who dismisses the lives lost in Iraq as ‘acceptable’ even if they didn’t have WMD’s. In New Frontier, Hal Jordan finds himself fighting for his life against a Korean soldier who’s doing the same for theirs. In the frenzy, Hal forgets his Korean that will allow him to explain an armistice has been signed. Hal kills him. He did it to survive, but prior to that encounter he’d never used lethal force. After being rescued Hal speaks Korean, It translates as ‘It’s over. Make war no more’. The Question’s story is from the perspective of a man who’s been instructed by higher-ups to complete a mission in a post 9/11 world. To destroy 15 camps where the hijackers of the planes were trained. The piece asks whether a single person can act without influence from external sources. If it’s possible to focus on the absolute and objective truth over what we need to believe to get the job done. These two interludes show there’s only a select few of us to have walked the Earth that can tell us where it’s worth it. That said, Darwyn also seems to be saying if it’s worth it, why can’t we just stop? One person can’t do it,  but what if we all tried?

A Bloodied Canvas

Some events are doomed to be repeated. Some people have similar origins. A boy’s parents are gunned down simply for being in the wrong place when a trio hit a jewelry story. Batman gets there too late to save them, but he’ll be damned if the boy carries on any further down the path Bruce Wayne is stuck travelling. The gang are tormented by Batman who pursues them relentlessly through the night. From Dusk to Midnight. By the end the crooks get taken down by what’s lurking in the shadows. One admits he’s nothing. By Dawn, Bruce laments life lost. This is a story that one wishes will not be repeated through the ages.

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Last Call

Let’s jump back to the start where Slam Bradley tells a riveting tale about an Atomic Monkey and Madame X and just before we break into a surrealist Steranko spy tale — King Faraday cuts him off. Does it make for a good story? Probably, but the best ones are about people rather than plot. Those are the ones I live for. They step into Jimmy’s, a Cheers-ian paradise where you can go, all your favourites are there, everyone knows your name and you their’s. [Upon rereading, I just noticed King mentions Grace – his ‘wife’ from King of America. Even now Darwyn’s making me appreciate his craft more than I thought possible]. Jimmy’s off the map, it doesn’t have a set place, it’s timeless. We all have a place like this.

When we spend the night at Jimmy’s we see all kinds of people. We overhear parts of conversations that makes us smirk to the people we’re with, that makes us grit our teeth so our tongue doesn’t run away from us to set the record straight. We exchange stories because even if you’re alone at the moment, we’ve all got some. People assure us they’re okay while their faces betray them and say everything they don’t want to. We share moments with kindred spirits and appreciate the brief escape from whatever’s keeping us down. We share nights with those near and dear, maybe you skip out and see where the night takes you. In the end you’ve got a story. We live so we can tell people what we did. The underlying theme of this issue is story. Origin stories, the ones we embellish with little details to add more flair, the ones that don’t bear repeating, the ones ‘that you had to be there for’, the ones we treasure.

The issue is a masterpiece, that much is certain, but the pages at Jimmy’s are the opus of Solo. And that’s because it crafts some of the best back and forth. It invites you in for 6 pages and you feel like you’re there until last call. You meet characters with character. At the end of the night, you don’t want to leave. If Darwyn had wanted to write 48 pages where we filter through the patrons and just listen then I would love it just as much. This issue is a testament to stories as is, if it were 48 pages at Jimmy’s, it would be no different.

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Darwyn may no longer be with us, but we still have New Frontier which is simultaneously the best Green Lantern story, the best Martian Manhunter story and the best Justice League story. I wish they’d used this as a touchstone when making the DCEU. We still have Batman: Ego which is the definitive answer to not only should Batman kill, but also ‘Which Batman book should I read?’, we still have his art book shows how his craft can stand up on it’s own. We have his variants which represent that characters perfectly, we have his Spirit run for pulp hero perfection. We have his Catwoman redesign which is the best costume she’s had. We have Parker to show how incredible he was at taking a work and making it his own. We have Solo #5. 48 pages which are 100% him swinging for the fences so I’ll remember him as the finest auteur to ever work at DC.

Thanks for reading. Now go read everything he’s ever done.

Link Dump

https://www.comixology.co.uk/Solo-2004-2006-5/digital-comic/373729?ref=c2VyaWVzL3ZpZXcvZGVza3RvcC9ncmlkTGlzdC9Jc3N1ZXM

Darwyn’s issue of Solo available by Comixology. If you haven’t previously, I implore you read it. If you want to read the full series then you’ll need to buy the Deluxe Edition which could be on the way to being Out of Print. 

https://www.comixology.co.uk/DC-The-New-Frontier-Deluxe-Edition/digital-comic/185677?ref=c2VhcmNoL2luZGV4L2Rlc2t0b3Avc2xpZGVyTGlzdC9pdGVtU2xpZGVy

New Frontier. The finest thing DC’s published. I shouldn’t have to tell you this is worth reading. The Absolute Edition and OHC are Out of Print, but a new trade version just released and that will be available from your online retailer of choice. Also your Local Comic Store may have a copy or let you order one in.

http://comicsalliance.com/duet-on-solo-part-five-darwyn-cooke-dc-comics-anthology-mark-chiarello-review/

Comics Alliance ran a series of discussion on all 12 issues of Solo. Here’s their thoughts on Darwyn’s issue.

http://comicsalliance.com/phil-noto-marvel-variant-covers/

Phil Noto’s variants

 

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