A Bullet In A Bed

Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit – adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke

[This was originally published on the web on FA Online, via the good graces of the late great Martin Skidmore. As it has since seemingly fallen into oblivion (and I’m quite fond of it), I’ve decided to reprint it here.]

Appropriately, we’ll begin at the beginning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up above is the first page proper of Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit and a fine page it is. It quite befits the tale to follow, grabbing you, poor reader, by the lapels and shoving you into a slowly moving black car headed toward some unknown and isolated location a few miles outside city limits. It has, as they say, “chops”.

To begin with, there’s the obvious focal point: the eruption from the pillow. There’s plenty of details compelling your eye there – the blue shade of watercolor slanting from the left edge of the page downwards which delineates the black above from everything below, the woman’s right arm which angles you directly towards it, her leg beneath the sheets poised like a pinball paddle to kick your attention back up should you by chance stray. The trajectory of the explosion is an exclamation mark which more than counterbalances Westlake’s ever understated prose and the stunning little grace note of those three feathers floating above make an especially lovely set of ellipses.*

If the image is likely to deliver the opening wallop, that caption throws it into further relief, calling your attention to the sheet’s movement below the pillow – it’d be easy without any further context to label it the vagaries of a bullet in a bed, but the narration leaves no doubt that there’s another force at play causing movement in the scene, just beyond the right edge of the panel and you, reader, must turn the page (now!) to glimpse what’s to come. The page gets a great deal of its cumulative impact by what isn’t there, a very fine bit of cartoonist’s sleight of hand that makes you fully feel the impact of the absent figures – the acting figure and the reacting figure, both unseen but completely felt within a very discrete space.

And beyond the internal workings of this piece (thankfully, I doubt my powers of perception are keen enough to wreck anyone’s enjoyment), there’s the actual substance. The image, as is, is of unbalance: we’re afforded a symmetrical view of a setting – picture, cabinets, bed – which frames a scene of turmoil, with the harsh off-kilter light emanating from the left edge of the page leaving everything within those very orderly parameters in flux and the bed set in disarray. Every detail points up the central fact of the scene – stability has been disrupted.

Mind you, stability rarely reigns when a bed is nearby in a Parker novel – more often than not a scene in a bedroom will soon mean trouble for whoever resides there, a fate often ushered in by Parker himself, a man with no bed but many beds, all ephemeral and ready to be abandoned. Parker is, very simply, a professional thief, with an emphasis on the adjective; he exists for the reader only in action and beyond his appetites, occasionally alluded to but rarely glanced upon – women and nice temporary five-star backgrounds to accompany those women – his inner life revolves entirely around the goal at hand, the prize to be won or the prey to be stalked.

A great deal of the pleasure of Donald Westlake’s Parker books (written under the nom de plume of Richard Stark, as the unwieldly IDW titles are careful to remind us) comes from watching a man who knows what he’s doing do what he does. It’s no accident that those who stand in Parker’s path are immediately associated with recreation – sex, of course, but also the fink dispatched at his poker game, the head of the outfit first seen engaged in a game of Monopoly (insert capitalist subtext here) with his bodyguards, the second-in-command practicing his golf game. And all the while Parker works works works – methodically taking notes, watching for patterns, and setting his traps; the heart of The Outfit is embodied in those scenes where Parker does just that, with two set pieces near the beginning and the end, Cooke’s pages laid out with terse panels of tiny observations, meaningless when seen out of context but each an element ready to be placed in an equation for our ubercompetent superthief to solve. Never let it be said that there’s no place for the work ethic in the crime genre!

And with no small ambition to guide that ethic along:

He’d… write letters to every man he’d ever worked with. He’d tell them the Outfit hit him for forty-five G’s – do him a favor and hit them back when you get the chance.

At least half these men were just like Parker – they already had an Outfit job cased. All they needed was an excuse to go take it.

Those are quotes from Cooke’s earlier adaptation, The Hunter, and they serve as a nice summary for The Outfit, the plan Parker puts into action when the Outfit comes a callin’, courtesy of that moment posted above – the fuse lit in one book exploding into all sorts of hi-jinks in the next. As such, the books work quite well in tandem, although Westlake’s original sequence of publication differed somewhat – when Parker first laid his eyes on the prize of pulp stardom, both books were bridged by another title, The Man With The Getaway Face; that book, for the purposes of plot (i.e. Parker being the titular “man”, with a new surgically-gotten face designed to evade any unwanted consequences from his shenanigans in The Hunter), is enfolded into this version of The Outfit as prologue, boiled down to a bare bones essence of thirty some pages, a good chunk of which are silent.

On the evidence given, it’s not too difficult to see the appeal of Cooke’s abridgement, beyond plot mechanics and Cooke’s own cheery admission of just liking The Outfit a whole lot more. If The Man With The Getaway Face is, at bottom, a basic tale of a heist gone awry (replete with that always helpful moral, reiterated from The Hunter, of “Never trust a woman”), a more rarefied air flows between The Hunter and The Outfit, one of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, take-downs and negotiations. As a duo, they’re only incidentally crime books, more often showcases for how one small independent businessman can take a bloated conglomerate (the eponymous “Outfit”) down a notch, with crime being their common trade. Jurisprudence, that structural necessity of the genre, is virtually nonexistent in this war between the good capitalists who get their hands dirty and the bad capitalists who indolently play games – it makes a perfunctory appearance via the jail square on that Monopoly board and is never again acknowledged.

Or perhaps I’m just interpretation-happy. The Outfit is, more obviously, a well-tuned piece of pulp, a highly-regulated hunk of invisible craftsmanship on Westlake’s part designed to be gulped down in as minimal an amount of sittings as possible. And, in bringing it to the current format, Cooke remains who he is – if you had little patience for the retro-aesthetics or storyboarding tics for which our interpreter is synonymous, well, there’s the door, pal.

And yes, the styles do mesh, as every commentator is required to note when speaking of this merger – Cooke’s perpetual project of zeroing in on the essence of midcentury pop finds a completely apposite milieu in the Parker novels. Which isn’t to say that certain caveats don’t apply; there’s always the danger of an interpreter shellac-ing the source material in their sensibility, the vulnerable pre-existing text refitted with an unnecessary frame more ornamental than functional and occasionally at cross-purposes with the original. That gets skirted here, but the tendency does make itself known; Cooke’s glee is palpable when rendering the precise designs of the late fifties and early sixties, whether rigging up his own bar signs or nailing the font on a Timex watch in its pared down minimalism – his occasional indulgence culminating in a page which consists of nothing but lovingly drawn road signs for inns and gas stations all of which nearly crowd out the narrative caption at the left hand side of the page.

Yet it’s a happy marriage for the most part, with nothing else as oppressive in terms of mannerism; Cooke dives into the book and reacts to the text with the instincts of a cartoonist, divining motifs and thinking through the storytelling logic of each moment. The format and design from The Hunter are repeated here (natch) – both works shaded different tints of muted blue, as if in reflection of the cold unyielding anger that Westlake saw in Parker, and the negative space on each panel bleeding out into the white edge of the page. It is a gorgeous thing, rife with Cooke’s preferred four-tiered layouts, each tier, more often than not, devoted to a single sequence, gesture, or visual motif. It’s not uncommon among cartoonists, but it really pops out here, the logic of the page on display and nary a muddling of the narrative. It may be a holdover from his time in animation, but there’s something especially amazing about the three-panel-to-a-tier sequences that Cooke is prone to every few pages, specifically those of equal size, with the rhythm of the actions portrayed played out at a metronomic beat which sticks in the memory: it’s there on page 42 when Parker dispatches the woman escaping from her vehicle; on page 132, when the POV pans back from the bound driver; and there’s a wonderful Eisnerian variation of it on page 62, as the light from a bar door opening in the first frame flows into the discontinuous next panel of an overhead shot of the bar.

But no matter what finesse an artist brings to it, transition from one medium to another is always bumpy, and one of the neat characteristics of Cooke’s adaptations is how, occasionally, the seams show in the end product – in both books, the give and take inherent in the process results, every twenty pages or so, in neatly designed splash pages which compress as much information as you need to get by – the decoded/annotated letter from an associate telling of a further venture, Parker’s movement across the east coast depicted via an Esso travel map, and many another – sudden disruptions in Cooke’s progress that make you crane your neck back at the original Westlake/Stark text. Cooke, however, remains the man with the plan with the turn-the-page momentum of the book undisturbed.

It’s not too difficult to see these overt bits of formalism as precursors, semi-conscious or otherwise, of The Outfit‘s third (but not final) act, a rapid array of stylistic shifts depicting Parker’s cohorts in crime descending en masse upon the Outfit’s operations. They’re great little set pieces, each immersing you in a process – how the well-oiled mechanisms of organized crime work – and then showing you how it gets destabilized by some blue collar thief with a little ambition; here, with our central character largely absent, Cooke casts aside his default naturalism in favor of a scene-specific style: storybook illustration, a text-dominant tabloid format (font and everything!) et al., every few pages another fireworks display for Cooke to set off, a different set of stage directions to frame around huge dollops of Westlake’s prose. It’s a sight to behold, gimmicky in description but a bravura performance in each case, all with attendant punch lines as dry as fine wine.**

And finally, we return to Parker on the prowl, his objective within sight. Spoilers obviously, but any such story firmly set in the purgatory of popular serialization will conclude as all such stories must – the antagonist defeated and the forces set against our hero quelled, if only for the time being. The final page, like the first, is a splash: Parker, his vengeance sated, walking away from the reader, his destination another hotel, another luxury suite, another comfortable bit of symmetry ready to be thrown off balance.

FOOTNOTES

*I’d say having the explosion pointing directly at the fedora of its intended target is probably a bit too cutesy, a bit of unnecessary symbolism distracting from the pure action of the page, with the snifter opposite another bit of clutter for the sake of equilibrium. But, overall, it works.

**In the broader context of pop culture, it’s not too difficult to see it all within a wider tradition, the Parker novels as a consistent beacon for formalists – Darwyn Cooke in good company with Jean Luc Godard and the guy who made Zardoz (Made In USA (1966, adap. of The Jugger) and Point Blank (1967, adap. of The Hunter), respectively).

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