Friday, May 19, 2017

PARKER: THE HUNTER & PARKER: THE OUTFIT

As I confessed the other day, I had never read a single thing by Darwyn Cooke prior to this year. Somehow the guy just sort of slipped under my radar for pretty much his entire career. I'd seen his artwork now and then, and I was aware of JUSTICE LEAGUE: NEW FRONTIER, but mostly he just looked like sort of a Bruce Timm clone to me.

Nonetheless, people seemed to love the guy's work. When he died unexpectedly last spring, I made a note that I would definitely check out something he'd done, with NEW FRONTIER at the top of the list. But instead, by way of the big Comixology IDW sale back in October, I wound up reading his PARKER graphic novels first.

Parker was created by the late Donald E. Westlake under the pen name of Richard Stark, as a sort of "anti-hero" in a series of pulp novels published over the course of forty years. In 2009, Cooke began a series of four adaptations of a handful of Perker's earliest stories. The first, THE HUNTER, follows career criminal Parker on a long, bloody trail toward revenge on a man who left him for dead and the return of some stolen monies he believes are rightfully his. Parker comes into conflict with "the Outfit", a nationwide crime syndicate, and by the story's end he's recovered his cash but made a very dangerous enemy of the Outfit.

I had the weirdest experience reading this one. It is -- like all of Cooke's adaptations in this series -- divided into multiple "books". I read Book One by itself and it just wasn't doing much for me. I thought the artwork was pretty, but there were places where I found the action a little hard to follow (mainly the opening textless pages), and overall I just wasn't that engaged by the story or by the character of Parker. I put it down after that first book and wondered if I'd made a mistake in going "all in" on Cooke's PARKER stories.

Then, suddenly, when I picked up Book Two the very next day, everything clicked almost immediately into place and I found myself engrossed in the story the rest of the way through. It had somehow gone from a bit of a slog to a nonstop page-turner. I honestly don't think anything like this has ever happened to me before. I'm going to need to re-read Book One at some point to find out if I was having an off day or what!

So with THE HUNTER behind me as, ultimately, a very enjoyable experience, I looked into THE OUTFIT next. This story sees Parker, with a new face courtesy of a plastic surgeon, found and targeted once more by the Outfit, and now he must take the fight to them. He enlists a number of his fellow super-criminals to hit the Outfit's operations all across the country, and then eventually makes a deal with the organization's second-in-command: if Parker kills the man at the top, allowing this guy to slip in as top dog, and has his friends call off their war, the Outfit will leave him alone. Things proceed as planned in a very fun, fast-paced story, and Parker spends the final pages relaxing at Lake Tahoe.

There's something about THE OUTFIT that I really like, which I'm not sure I've ever commented on here: pretty much every aspect of Parker's operation goes off without a hitch. I realize that for some, this may make for poor drama -- and in many situations it would for me, too. But sometimes I just want to read about a character who's the best there is at what they do and watch them do it flawlessly. Much as it can be rewarding to see a wrench thrown into the operation and watch a protagonist overcome that wrinkle, there's something really fun for me to occasionally just see someone do everything right.

Note that I call Parker a protagonist rather than a hero, and that's with good reason. He is, like I said, an anti-hero. He has a code he seems to live by; he doesn't generally kill unless he must, but when he must, he doesn't hesitate. Indeed, he will kill allies as easily as foes if they've betrayed them. He does so more than once in these two stories, and he shows no remorse either when his wife, who apparently meant quite a bit to him, overdoses on sleeping pills after she's forced to shoot him in order to preserve her own life.

I generally don't find myself rooting for characters like this. Parker has no redeeming qualities, other than perhaps his sense of efficiency. He's a thief and a murderer and it's not like he does those things toward what he perceives as an end to benefit society, like the Punisher or someone. He's just a straight-up bad guy; a criminal and a killer with no friends who does everything for himself. He's hardly a role model.

Still, it's hard not to root for the guy. He is, after all, the protagonist of these stories, and there's something very appealing about this sort of hard-boiled criminal with a code. These first two PARKER graphic novels are adaptations of the first and third PARKER books. The next two, which we'll look at in a week, adapt the fifth and fourteenth novels in the twenty-four book series. I don't know if Cooke simply chose his four favorites to adapt or what, but in any case I look forward to seeing what happens next.

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