Sometimes it’s not the story itself but how the story is told that counts. In The Outfit, Darwyn Cooke doesn’t let himself be hemmed in by Richard Stark’s original story, stuck producing merely a straight-forward, by-the-facts adaptation of popular novels. Cooke’s first Stark adaptation, The Hunter, was a strong retelling of one of the author’s novels, striking in the way it portrayed Parker’s intensity as a man who simply was driven to get the money that was owed him and whoever got in his way was in trouble. Cooke’s own approach in retelling The Hunter was as directed and unrelenting as Parker’s quest to get his money. Like Parker, Cooke was a man on a mission and no one was going to get in Cooke’s way. His mission continues in The Outfit, his followup adaptation that continues to display the absolute forcefulness of Parker, a character that you simply don’t want to cross.
The weakest part of The Outfit is the story itself. A few months ago, IDW and Cooke released The Man With The Getaway Face, a brief excerpt from the beginning of The Outfit that showed Parker getting back into business after the events of The Hunter, setting up and pulling off a heist. The Hunter demonstrated the drive and determination of Parker but The Man With the Getaway Face showed Parker on the job, scoping out a potential job. More than the first book, The Man With The Getaway Face showed us how Parker’s mind worked. With that short story now injected into the beginning of The Outfit, Cooke shows us how Parker analyzes, studies and prepares for a job. And it’s just more than where is the money and how can Parker get it. We see how Parker looks at his partners and accomplices, how he sizes them up and decides if he can trust them or not. The first book showed what happened if you screwed Parker; this short story showed how Parker actually worked and why he was one of the best at what he did.
As this short-story-within-a-story progresses, we learn more about Parker than we do in the rest of The Outfit. We learn that he can trust another person, a partner, and that he can be more than a lone gunman on the hunt. He can be a schemer and a plotter. He can take on a job that isn’t personal or just about revenge. Those are all things we learn about him in the space of about 25 pages. We see Parker on a job as a methodical, calculating and cautious man. And then, after we learn all of that, The Outfit just become The Hunter Part Deux as it becomes all about a personal revenge score for Parker and retreads the plot of the first book.
After the portion of the book that is The Man With The Getaway Face, The Outfit becomes Parker against the mob again. The 25 pages of Parker on an honest-to-goodness job are far more intriguing that most of The Outfit because it showed us something we had not seen about Parker in the first book. After that, The Outfit is about Parker hunting down a man, much in the same way that he hunted down his money in The Hunter.
The more fascinating portions of The Outfit are four story vignettes that have nothing to do directly with the actions of Parker. To distract the mob from his own actions, Parker sends old accomplices and allies after the mob, telling them that now would be a good time to pull off the hits that they always wanted to try but never thought that they could actually do successfully. By striking the mob on multiple fronts, Parker hoped to weaken and distract them from his own actions. Through four short stories told in different methods and styles, Cooke shows us how a mob gambling or money laundering operation works and then shows us how, if one was so inclined, they could knock over that operation.
These short parts of The Outfit are great because Cooke doesn’t have to worry about characterization or really advancing a plot. He can continue to demonstrate what a wonderful and versatile cartoonist he is but even this part gets off with a rocky start. The first job, a couple of guys robbing a gambling den, appears to be from Richard Stark’s own prose, just with illustrations by Cooke. Trying to look like an old true-crime magazine article, this prose piece kills off any momentum that Cooke was developing as it just completely loses the characteristics of Cooke’s own storytelling style. The way that Cooke tells the story, particularly some of the inventiveness in how he decides to draw or frame a scene, is abandoned for a section and Stark’s own terse prose takes over. Cooke has his own rhythm and cadence that he’s established in the beginning of this book and in The Hunter. Cooke doesn’t tell a story through words; that’s a novelist’s job. Cooke is a cartoonist who tells stories through pictures, not just illustrations.
The other heists are drawn in various retro styles but they retain Cooke’s dynamic line. Parker’s story is a heavy, thick and permanent line while the line that Cooke uses in these side stories is lighter, airier and more cartoony line. These stories aren’t Parker’s story but they are part of Parker’s world. Cooke is one of the few artists right now who can use distinct styles to tell different stories but still retain the basic characteristics of his own artwork so that no matter how different one page may look from another, they are all still Darwyn Cooke pages.
In 2009, The Hunter was a punch in the gut as Cooke told the story of a nasty and strong man. With The Outfit, there’s a feeling of familiarity; we know the character and what he’s capable of. The story is not as strong or revelatory as the first Parker book but it is still entertaining to watch Cooke tell the story; to see the choices he makes as he adapts Richard Stark’s novel into a comic book. Even as Parker’s story settles into an established mode, Cooke’s storytelling becomes more adaptive and expressive to the stories’ needs.