Parker: The Hunter (2009), page 132 panel 1. Drawn by Darwyn Cooke.
"Style" in comics -- especially American comics -- especially American action comics -- is a tricky proposition. Once an artist decides to put some fighting or shooting or running into their book, they enter the place in the medium where tradition is solidest and most entrenched. Small wonder: for decades there have been artists working at it in the pages of innumerable books per month, whittling the dynamics of movement, impact, speed, and tension down to a grammar. The fact that virtually every new action artist takes something of his predecessors' approaches rather than reinventing the wheel adds to the fundamental difficulty of making a unique action book. No matter what gets tried, it seems, there's always some Kirby or Caniff or John Byrne or Steranko that leaks in. And even when a seemingly new approach arises, there's always some less popular progenitor behind it, or maybe a few chromosomes from an artist whose work lies beyond the sphere of fighting comics. That's the trouble with new work done in an old idiom; and there have probably been more fight scenes drawn in American comics history than anything else.
So yeah, "style" is a tough thing for the action artist, rarely coming out in the construction or the tonality or even the nuts-and-bolts stuff like layouts and panel compositions. What distinguishes the material is almost always the drawing itself, the shapes and lines an artist uses to say the same things so many have already said. There are, after all, infinite ways to make a muscle pump or a punch hit hard, and despite photoreferencing and swipes and the tyranny of "house styles", no two are alike.
Darwyn Cooke is a great example of what I'm talking about. His immaculate cartooning wallows in the stylisms of Toth, Kirby, Kurtzman, and Bruce Timm, not Frank Millerishly remixing or transposing them so much as synthesizing. Cooke's art goes to the bones of his influences, a hard rendering of their common interests in thick inks, explosive movement, controlled pacing, and layouts that move the story along rather than drawing attention to themselves. What small bits of style are lost in the boiling down are made up with Warner animation bounce and space age ad-art cool lines.
Such a well-formed, considered mode of drawing leaves little room for tonal variation. Cooke works within such defined parameters that his art's only stylistic shifts are those between the slick and the rough, between the fluid, graceful cartooning of Batman Ego and the blunt brush-blasts of Parker. His career has largely been a migration from the former to the latter, thin lines and languid figures lost to simplified forms and a handmade look along the way. The panel above is some of the roughest Cooke we've seen yet. Chunky chiaroscuro inks blare off the page with no need for texture or holding lines, the brushstrokes snapped brutally down with the controlled fury of a master. Cooke's evocation of three distinct planes of depth without varying the quality of his marks between them is impressive, especially when you consider most panels stop at two. His ability to construct an immediately legible picture using only a swirl of thickly spotted blacks is also pretty incredible; all we get is a splash of white light to draw the eye and an over-roughened brushstroke on the back of the trailing coat, but the conviction of the inking is such that we can still immediately distinguish man from machinery.
Cooke's use of blue ink for shading also deserves mention. Not only does it have a vastly stronger visual kick than the gray tones of your typical B&W comic, the vitality of color is much more successful at evoking the sliding grays and flickering shadows of the vintage noir films The Hunter is so indebted to. Cooke's art moves, and where gray would pin it down, the color speeds along with it. But the blues do more than attest to Cooke's design/color sense -- they allow his art its fierceness and spontaneity by taking over the burden of implying depth, shade, and weight. Notice the use of the blues here: the extreme foreground is darkened so that your eye slips right into the white at the center of the panel, where the color now works to isolate the figure against the blank background. By leaving these burdens to the shading tone, Cooke the markmaker is set free to construct a symphony of whites and blacks, rough-hewn but placed with an elegant grace that speaks to the slick stylist at work. Here, Cooke transcends his influences not with layout or composition but with the sheer force of his drawing and the skill behind it. It might just be another picture of a man running, but all the same it's more than that.