Writer/artist Darwyn Cooke talks Before Watchmen and creating strong heroines
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Darwyn Cooke broke into the superhero scene by working on two of its biggest characters, Superman and Batman, outside of comic books. As a storyboard artist on The New Batman/Superman Adventures animated series, Cooke honed the classic, cinematic style that made him a unique voice in superhero comics. Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score and DC: The New Frontier have become modern DC classics, and his adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker stories earned him an Eisner Award for best writer/artist last year. This summer sees the release of Cooke’s latest Parker graphic novel, along with two of the creator’s biggest projects to date: the Watchmen prequels Minutemen (which Cooke is writing and drawing) and Silk Spectre (which he’s co-writing with artist Amanda Conner). Cooke spoke to The A.V. Club about his initial reactions to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking work, how he feels about depictions of women in superhero comics, and how he prepared for the wave of controversy after the Before Watchmen announcement.
The A.V. Club: What was your first comic-book experience?
Darwyn Cooke: You know, that’s impossible for me to say, because I’m sure I saw comic books before this memory, but one of my earliest memories was—I was maybe 7 or 8; my folks had rented a cottage for a few weeks in the summer for a holiday, and my father had to work every week, so he just came up on the weekends. There wasn’t a lot to do. We were pretty cut off, and you’d go swimming and fishing and what-have-you, but a lot of spare time for a kid, and they had three comic books in this cottage. One of them was a Mad Magazine from 1964, one of them was an Archie, and the third one had the cover ripped off, and all it said, in giant letters, on the first page was “Task Force X,” and it showed these two G.I.s in the ocean, floating in a giant turtle shell, firing machine guns at a brontosaurus. And that was it. [Laughs.] That comic book had everything I needed in it. It had G.I.s. It had dinosaurs. That was it. That’s my first real conscious memory of a comic book.
AVC: What were the first superheroes you were really attracted to?
DC: My mother tells me Batman was big. I was a very small child during the Adam West show, and contrary to the way TV is today, the old Batman show in the ’60s had two episodes a week. On Tuesday, they’d give you the setup episode with a cliffhanger, and then Thursday, they’d give you the resolution. My mother tells me there was a two-month period where I wouldn’t speak to her directly because the only thing I had ever entrusted her with was getting me into the house at 7 o’clock for Batman, and one night she forgot to call me in from playing. I missed the show, and I wouldn’t speak to her for two months, apparently. I don’t remember any of this, but that was clearly the point where I was hooked, beyond even love of my mother.
AVC: When did you decide to pursue a career in illustration and design?
DC: I decided quite young, 13 or 14, I wanted to be a comic-book artist. I literally spent the remainder of my teenage years working toward that goal, and at the age of 20, moved to New York and managed to sell a sample story I had done to DC Comics. I thought, “Well, here I go. Here’s my career starting off.” But it wasn’t meant to be. At that time, they paid entry-level talent $35 a page, and Canadian money was actually worth way more than American money. It took me a week to draw a page back then—when I was that young—and it became apparent to me very quickly that I was working for $35 a week, which, when I exchanged, became $22. [Laughs.] So as much as you may want to do something, fiscal reality sets in. This was before everyone just lived with their parents until they were 40, so I had to find a way to make a living. I’ve always been certain I would end up with a career in the arts on some level, and I ended up getting into graphic design and art direction in order to make a living. But it always kept me close enough to it that I could keep my eye on it, and when I had an opportunity, I left what I was doing behind to pursue it.
AVC: Who would you consider your major artistic influences, both in comics and outside of comics?
DC: You gotta to give it to Picasso on top, I guess. He’s always been the guy to me, even since I was a kid. I’ve always stood in awe of his ability, not necessarily to be the most original man on the scene, but to be able to see what was going on around him and find a way to articulate it while staying true to himself. I think Picasso, in many ways, relates directly to comics, the idea of cartooning, or stripping something down to its essentials. When Picasso was 13, he was able to duplicate the Dutch masters’ paintings with such accuracy that his father, a professional painter at the time, looked at his kid’s work, went into his studio, took all his paints and brushes, and gave them to his son and never painted again. Then we watch this guy in the trajectory of his career, and by the time he’s 90, he’s back to drawing like a 5-year-old; it’s a fascinating arc. I am endlessly fascinated by that guy, and I would say he’s probably been the greatest influence on me. Just the way he lived his life, other than the way he treated the women in his life. [Laughs.] But the way he approached his art and the way he lived it all, I’d say he was a gigantic influence.
Within the world of comics, it’s a long, long list. You know how this goes. On any given day, if I ask you “What’s your favorite movie?” there’s a chance you might give me a different answer.
AVC: How did you get involved in The New Batman Adventures, and what did that experience in television animation teach you?
DC: [Deadpan.] Well, it embittered me for the rest of my life and completely ruined any youthful optimism I… [Laughs.] No. I got involved in that in the least likely way imaginable. I saw an ad saying they needed people to work on the show and I applied. There was literally an ad. I went to the comics store one day, in like, ’97, and the back page of The Comics Journal was a Bruce Timm-drawn ad showing Superman and Batman at a drawing table saying, “We need you to work on Superman And Batman Adventures, we need storyboard artists, designers, blah, blah blah.” At that point, I thought that show had people lined up around the block to work on it, that it’d be impossible to get in to work on it. I saw they needed people, and I was a big fan of the show, and really well-versed in terms of what they were doing visually, the history behind it, so I put a sample together, Bruce hired me, and that was that.
AVC: You loved Batman as a kid. As an adult, what attracts you to Batman, Catwoman, and Gotham in general?
DC: The same thing, you know? I don’t want to get all old man-y about it, but I don’t think we need all the sexuality and stuff. I really think that as we grow older, often our desire to keep these characters close to us can maybe taint them for the younger people who have yet to experience them, and I think that’s a little selfish of us. Because as much as I love Batman now, I don’t love him anywhere near the way I loved him when I was 8. [Laughs.] I think it’s incumbent upon us to do our best to make sure that kids are still able to enjoy that stuff. I hope we never get to a point where it is taken completely away from them.
AVC: The Catwoman redesign is one of the best superhero costumes ever. Could you walk us through the design process of that costume, and the things you’re trying to hit on when you’re working on a superhero costume? All the Minutemen had those goofy designs by Dave Gibbons. How do you make that look real?
DC: Starting with Catwoman, [writer] Ed [Brubaker] and I both—right off the bat when they threw us together—we both were not happy with what was in the book as it stood. We saw her as a function for male readers, and we wanted to negate that and see what we could do with the female audience. That automatically took us into this area where we would have to redesign her look if we want any credibility with women. At that point my first thought was, “She has to look sexy, because women won’t accept her being unattractive, but you also have to look functional.” There has to be a realistic aspect to it, something that women can look at and go, “Well, it’s both. I could do that. And wow, she’s not wearing heels. There’s no push-up bra attached to it.” And Ed’s wife had a wonderful notion that instead of a mask, she wore an aviator helmet and goggles, and I thought that was brilliant. So taking Ed’s wife’s inspiration and the notion of [Catwoman] being attractive and yet, not being a joke, not being a pole rider, that’s where we ended up. Ed and I did it for a little while, and the minute I left everyone started pulling her zipper down to her belly button, and that was that.
Definitely, with Catwoman in particular, you’re trying to find a way to physically manifest the essence of their personality visually. I think what we did with Selina is a perfect example of that.
AVC: What is the creative process like for an issue that you’re both writing and drawing? How does your script change when you’re working with a different artist?
DC: Well, with a different artist, you’re often far more locked-in. You have to make story determinations up front in order for the artist to understand what it is he’s working on and get involved in the story. You can’t leave a lot of open-ended area there. Now, oddly enough, the exception is the way [artist] Amanda [Conner] and I are doing Silk Spectre. I can leave a lot of things open-ended, because we have a collaborative back-and-forth. But it’s a very different thing from working on my own. When I’m the writer/artist, I literally have until the day I have to submit the work to approve the script. In many-hands comics, there’s a final script produced, approved, and then it’s sent to the artist. I’m working from an outline as an artist, and nothing’s been written in stone yet, so opportunities will present themselves on the board, and I will take them, and then the writer has to adjust. Or, quite often, the artist is rolling along, and then the writer in me realizes something, and the artist is forced to accept the fact that we have to throw away the last two pages we drew because the writer has had a better idea. It’s a far more dynamic situation than it is when you’re producing a script for an artist to take and execute. I have no respect for myself, so I’m constantly arguing with myself. The artist argues with the writer; the writer argues with the artist. And if something goes bad, then the artist blames the writer in me, and the writer blames the artist in me.
AVC: What were your reactions when you read Watchmen for the first time?
DC: I was really impressed. I don’t consider it perfect or the masterpiece that some do, but I was mightily impressed. And I can remember, you know, how rare it is that anything you read can really actually move you—maybe once—but I can remember three, four times in Watchmen where as I read it, I was dramatically moved by what they’d put together. I think it’s an astounding achievement, especially when you consider the time they put it together. And yeah, it’s something I guess we all look at from a construction standpoint, and we all stand in awe of it.
AVC: How did you brace yourself for the controversy that would come with the Before Watchmen announcement?
DC: I didn’t, really. I knew there would be a certain amount of it. In all honesty, I didn’t expect, “Poor Alan Moore.” I just didn’t expect that. So that sort of took me by surprise. I certainly expected people to have an opinion about whether this beloved material should be explored any further, and I believe that that’s a question, but it’s also a challenge that I’m happy to meet. All the stuff with Alan, I didn’t count on that or really give it much thought. It’s now an incredibly large issue. So, it is what it is. I guess the most important thing for me, and it’s funny because I have some friends in the business who I have an incredible amount of respect for, and they completely disagree with me on this thing. However, we all realize that we’re disagreeing about a comic book. Not about whether or not children should be allowed to eat. Not about whether we should be blocking the sun, so that Muslims don’t get any sun. We’re not burning the Koran. We’re producing a comic book here, and let’s keep it all in perspective.
AVC: We touched on your sexy female characters, how do you feel about the current depiction of women in superhero comics? Is Silk Spectre at all a response to that?
DC: I’d like to think so. After 10 years of doing everything I can for female characters to treat them with dignity and respect, I look at Catwoman and what I did with the women in The Spirit, Wonder Woman in New Frontier, this is important to me. I don’t think many guys are doing it properly. And I’ve always gone to great lengths to make sure that I do my best in that arena. Then you wake up one day, and there’s a website saying, “Just how rape-y will Before Watchmen be?” with one of my pieces of art under that headline. That’s disconcerting because I’ve gone out of my way to dignify women and do everything I can to combat what I see as sort of a symptomatic approach to them in these books and yet, you’re kind of lumped in with that no matter what you do. So I just have to push along and do it.
I think for me, the proof has always been at the shows. I’m a pretty ugly old man, kind of cranky. And yet I have a disproportionate number of young women who come up to me to talk to me about Catwoman and Wonder Woman and the point of difference between my version of these characters and others, so I just have to go by that. Ten years ago I used to say, “Look, I can’t do anything I wouldn’t be happy to show my grandmother.” She’s passed away since then. [Laughs.] But now, it’s the same. Now it’s, “I can’t do anything I wouldn’t show my mother or my wife and not be proud of.” On that level, you have to look at it that way.
AVC: In other interviews, you’ve said you only agreed to write Silk Spectre if Amanda Conner joined you on the project. What is it about Amanda’s art that you needed?
DC: The idea of Amanda being involved had many different aspects to it. I guess the first one was I didn’t feel like I could convincingly write a young girl at that point in her life. I knew I could create the circumstances for it, and I knew I could write a lot of the characters around it, but I was very nervous about my ability to get to the heart of who she was. When that’s the case, you realize all you have is the plot, without any heart, so Amanda is the heart of it. I knew I had something to say about Laurie, and I needed somebody to collaborate with who could help realize it. The only person I know alive that could do that was Amanda. So I kind of made it a fuck-or-walk situation, you know? [Laughs.] “We get Amanda, or I can’t do this.” So that made it incumbent upon [DC co-publisher] Dan [DiDio] to bring Amanda into it, and I had no idea whether Amanda had any affinity or interest for the material at the time. I just knew instinctively that for this to work, I had to have her working on this with me. It turned out that she’s an enormous fan of Watchmen. DC set up a continuity center for us to check details and make sure we had things right. I gave up on that six weeks ago, I just phone Amanda. I go, “Hey, did they have electric cars in 1962?” “Well, if you go to page 378 in chapter six, you’ll see…” [Laughs.] Amanda knows, literally, everything there is to know about this. She’s bringing that to it as well.
AVC: I don’t know if any of the other Before Watchmen books are doing the nine-panel grid of the original, but was that a mutual decision between you and Amanda?
DC: I have no idea who else is doing that, but that was a conscious decision that Amanda made right off the jump. I had considered such a thing for Minutemen, but Minutemen just didn’t strike me as a story that would benefit from that treatment. I figured out early on that the worst thing I could do was try to mimic Dave and Alan. I had to find a way to make the material my own. So my choice took me away from that. Amanda’s choices took her towards it. Her admiration and compatibility with that type of storytelling led her to want to work within Dave’s format as closely as she could, and I applaud her for that. [Laughs.] Go Amanda! You’ll hear me say that, like, three times a week on the phone.
AVC: What are the main goals you’re trying to accomplish with both Minutemen and Silk Spectre?
DC: You know, honestly, let’s cut through all the bullshit, and let’s just say: to tell the reader a good story. Honestly, that’s such a trite, bullshit answer, but it’s the truth of it, right? When you cut through all of this stuff, we want the reader to walk away from it feeling like they were told a good story, and that they felt something for the people that lived through it. Outside of that, it’s up to other people to decide what the thing is. When I did New Frontier, [editor] Mark Chiarello and I managed somehow to get this thing green-lit at DC, and we assumed that we were going to get to do these six issues, it would sink like a stone, no one would care, we’d get to sing our little song. And that’s what we did. And nobody did give a shit at the time. But what happened was readers felt the story. Everything that New Frontier became came out of the readers responding to it, then telling the retailers, then the retailers talking to DC. To me, that’s the most honest response. Once you cut through the hype and all the crap, and when the dust settles and people actually have time to consider the word on the page, did that story move them?
So that’s the goal. Frankly, that’s the goal every time, whether it’s the Justice League or The Spirit or Watchmen. You just try to do your level best and make sure… I know as a reader or a person that goes to a film, yeah, I want to be rocked. I want to have my expectations questioned. I want to have something happen in that story that makes me reconsider what I’ve been watching. One of my favorite films ever is The Sixth Sense. Because I’m so stupid, I didn’t realize the guy was dead until the end of it. [Laughs.] When we hit that point of the film, I’m like, blown away. And I’m blown away by the ability to tell that story and keep that from me until it was convenient to tell me. So we take Watchmen aside, characters aside, and everyone’s bullshit aside, and it comes down to that. Is the reader going to feel it? And the jury’s out on that.