Felan Reads the Comics 10: Richard Stark’s Parker

"She's dead! The bitch is dead."

On Sundays, Felan profiles his favourite comics and graphic novels from across the diverse medium’s history.

Parker is one bad motherfucker, and not in a hip, Quentin Tarantino sort of way. The coldly violent, unrepentantly criminal, borderline-sociopathic anti-hero of the series of crime novels by Richard Stark (pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) between 1962 and 2008. More people are familiar with the character than you might think, albeit by different names – Lee Marvin portrayed a version of Parker in Point Blank, and Mel Gibson did a turn in Payback, both based on the first Parker novel, The Hunter, and there are a handful of other film adaptations, including new one rumoured to star Jason Statham. Writer and illustrator Darwyn Cooke’s Richard Stark’s Parker is the first graphic novel version of the series.

Parker is in many ways an archetypal hard-boiled crime fiction protagonist – betrayed by his woman in collusion with his enemies and left for dead, and having lost his previously easy life of living in resort hotels between freelance heist jobs, he sets out for revenge and to get paid what he’s owed. Where he differs is in his coldly calculating attitude and unabashedly violent methods. There’s no real shred of honour-among-thieves in Parker’s world, and as such it’s difficult to find any redeeming qualities in him – he’s driven almost entirely by self-interest and a sense of entitlement. As the bodies pile up behind him, he marches onwards towards the vague goal of vengeance and reclaiming his comfortable life. One of the strengths of the the comic is that it doesn’t pull its punches: Parker is a pretty horrible person, and even though it’s supremely entertaining to watch him at work, it’s frequently disconcerting as well. This is particularly apparent when Parker starts cutting on his dead wife’s face to keep her photo out of the newspapers – a monstrously pragmatic act that phases him no less than making a phone call.

Parker got up on the wrong side of the bed.

Cooke’s adaptation is apparently stays very close to the Parker novels, and retains the 1960s setting, but the most immediately remarkable feature is the artwork. Cooke, who has worked on wide range of comic and animation projects over the years, is a graphic designer by trade, and it shows – he cleverly chooses to illustrate the morally ambiguous criminal underworld in the style of 1960s graphic design and advertising, using a pallet of black, white and blue throughout. In some ways Cooke’s art is similar to the work of contemporary indie comic artists operating in a nostalgic mode (fellow Canadians Seth and Michel Rabagliati in particular), but combining it with the hard-boiled crime genre gives the images a thrilling kinetic energy. This distinctive visual style contrasts wonderfully with the bursts of often-brutal violence that pepper Parker’s misadventures, and help situate the story in a very particular, iconic version of its historical moment. (Fans of Mad Men will likely appreciate this!)

All in all, Richard Stark’s Parker is a masterfully executed adaptation of a classic crime fiction series. Two of a projected four volumes, The Hunter and The Outfit, have been published so far in nicely designed hard-bound editions as well as trade paperbacks by IDW Publishing. You can find more information, and a preview, here: http://www.idwpublishing.com/catalog/book/608

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