Parker: The Outfit, by Darwyn Cooke. IDW.
When a new Darwyn Cooke book comes out there's little question of "good or bad". It's all "how good is it?" Well, in the case of The Outfit, the answer is very, very good. Cooke's journey away from the Bruce Timm slickness of his early comics and into raw, craggy Frank Miller/Alex Toth roughness takes about six steps forward here, his brushwork looking ever more like it was ripped into the pages with a knife and his watercolor shading managing to put across more pure expression with one color than most comics ever do with the whole rainbow. More than that, Cooke's use of the comics form itself explodes off the book's pages, encompassing a barrage rapid-fire style shifts, action blocking that only finds a parallel in work from names like Eisner or Krigstein, and a synthesis between pictures and words that's tighter and more choreographed than Cooke's comics have ever been.
As for the story, it's a hard boiled crime thriller, the kind of thing that's great to read when all the beats hit right (as they do here), but not that interesting to talk about. The general feeling is that everything in this comic could only happen one way, so when it happens that way, and with a swaggering sense of style to boot, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy. So I'm not going to talk about the story other than to say that if you read it, it will be good.
I would much rather talk about this.
I won't say this is the best or even the most effective sequence in The Outfit, because y'know, that's for you to make up your own mind about, but it's certainly the one that hit me hardest. It's basically an exact re-do of a sequence from the last Parker book, The Hunter, and it goes something like "our unrelenting, merciless hero, Parker, has tracked a mob boss to his hideout, where the doomed quarry broods in what he believes to be safety until he turns around and realizes his enemy has gotten the drop on him". Yep, even down to the same splash-page reveal, but while The Hunter's sequence was merely good comics, this one is a master class on how to make the medium work to its full potential. Take a seat.
First panel (page 113.5): The first thing we see here is the word balloons, with Cooke banking on the power of blank black-and-white space to pull us in, not to mention the fact that the eye's able to glean meaning from the familiar shapes of letterforms before even the simplest of drawings. It's set up that way on purpose, because the moment of silence that elapses over the rest of this panel, between that word balloon and the gutter, is essential to the pin-sharp pacing Cook's got going here. That area of black and white leads us right down the middle of the panel to the next one, the light from the opened door and the shadow Parker casts on the mob boss (Bronson)'s jacket. It's a big minor chord struck dead-center: we can see the instrument of this man's death before he does, and that shadow falls over everything else that happens here.
It's the tension between what we can see and what the picture's subject can't that makes the rest of this panel so nervy, so full of tautness: this is a great picture of a man off in the world of his own thoughts, more so for the fact that we know he'll only be there a second longer. But for the rest of this panel, anyway, he's undisturbed, and it's perfect. The angle and the subtle preoccupation in the body language are excellently considered, but there's real meat in the rest of it. Look at just how much visual information is clustered in the direction Bronson's facing, away from us, away from Parker, away from the forward motion of the panel and back to the previous page. Literally as well as figuratively, Bronson is looking back, and the twisty, crowded mass of lawn furniture stands in for thoughts too tangled for him to notice the stark, simply-drawn reality that's crept into his office on the other side, signifying his future (or lack thereof). The black cross of shadow that the windowpane casts on his face is another excellent touch, the "window" of memory blinding Bronson to what's going on behind his back as well as providing a visual touch that strongly prefigures the marked man's impending doom.
Second panel (page 113.6): Suddenly that shadow slips across our vision too, and we're put in the same dark Bronson sees, his thoughts flashing in white script across our eyes. Cooke is really just going drill-to-bone with the tension here, stretching us thin between the knowledge that there's a gun at the back of the man whose eyes and mind we've suddenly found ourselves behind, and the concrete visual images of the narration, the reverie we can't help but slip into though we know it's someone's last. Blind, we wait. Then, a perfectly considered cold shard, a knife to the gut with that final line. Bronson doesn't feel a cold chill "up and down" his spine or "through" his spine, it's "ON" his spine, because that's exactly where Parker's physical presence shows up in the previous panel. We look back at it -- you can't help but do so, it's just set up that way. Parker is in the room with us.
Third panel (page 114): Then, BANG, good night, the reveal. This kind of shot can be corny or anticlimactic if it's done wrong, but Cooke gets everything he possibly can out of it with a pose and angle so understated-but-iconic it looks like it was carved out of wood. The lighting's what really sells this picture, though: those two circle shapes sweeping across the page to stand in for Bronson's eyeballs and our own, moving reading-direction, down and to the right, until the shock of Parker's figure standing there stops them dead on his half-revealed figure, the mass of shadow that still clings to him turning his long coat into reaper's robes. Cooke's cartooned facial expression is the picture of simplicity, getting across one thing and one thing only, but the exact right one. The framing of the figure in the white light and simple shapes outside the door is textbook, but perfectly achieved. The watercolor turns violent, brush grain becoming visible and lending the whole picture a knotty, craggy, splintering texture. The lampshade on the left doubles as a subtle bit of comic book shorthand, a starburst of Bronson's shock and surprise emanating from the same direction his eyes are moving in.
There's so much going on here, but it hits you perfectly, all at once, a single, flat sledgehammer of impact in the correct comics-panel manner. But we can't move on from there: we're drawn in by the clever little bits and the roughness of the brushstrokes, drinking in the details of the last thing Bronson will ever see, just as the doomed man himself certainly is. We escaped the blackness of his thoughts, but we can't escape the camera that centers in his shoes. And Cooke comes as close as possible to making us feel the immediacy and conviction of the moment as its victim feels them. Purely. Without thinking.
Hell of a sequence.