I was preparing a column a few weeks ago, and had second thoughts about posting it. It dealt with a project that hasn’t come to fruition. Better to put it on the back-burner -- bragging about a forthcoming project often leads to queries of “Where is it?”
Then I began reading The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pseudonym for Donald Westlake), and thought this would be an interesting book to review. But the emphasis on this site is new material – and I struck upon the happy idea of reviewing both the novel and the graphic novel together. Of course, that required more work.
In between, there were job interviews, a new part-time job, and numerous other little freelance assignments that plagued me like an infestation of gnats. A trip to Maryland for Martin Grams’s Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention also occupied my time.
I also never believed I had much to say that’s worth reading. Once I start typing, the fingers fly across the keyboard nonstop. Getting past the initial wave of self-doubt, and hammering past the wall of self-loathing, is usually the difficult part.
The Hunter featuring Parker
The Hunter is the first in a series of books by Donald Westlake, featuring the exploits of Parker, a laconic, unrepentant criminal. The novel’s plot seems straightforward enough – a double-crossed man wants his money, his wife, and his revenge – although the plot jumps from present to past, filling in details leading up to the novel’s beginning while hurtling toward its violent conclusion.
Recently, The Hunter was adapted as a graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke, whose background includes Batman: The Animated Series and the successful graphic novel The New Frontier for DC Comics. Cooke remains faithful to Westlake/Stark’s plot, admirably illustrating some of the novel's more “abstract” moments. Of course, there are slight differences as the story segues from prose to the comics medium.
The Hunter by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake), University of Chicago Press edition (2008) – originally published in 1962 by Pocket Books.
Parker arrives in New York. Short of cash and patience, he conives his way into a bank account and promptly bounces checks all over town. He hocks his gathered loot for quick cash, and then gets down to the business of tracking Mal Resnick, the man who left him for dead.
And so begins The Hunter and the odyssey of Parker through the seedy underbelly and perfumed boudoirs of Manhattan. First, he locates Lynn, his estranged wife who betrayed him. She lives comfortably in a posh apartment paid for by Mal Resnick, the greasy mastermind who contrived the arms deal that went awry.
Lynn is remorseful ... Resnick, we learn in flashback, forced Lynn to betray Parker under the threat of death. Though he nets one-hundred percent of the cash, his victory is as hollow as Lynn’s response to his touch. His debt to the Outfit repaid, and his standing returned, Resnick provides for her – through a different courier each month, keeping her at arms length.
While searching for Resnick, Parker confronts Lynn, the courier, the middle man Stegman, the madam of an escort service, and various other lowlifes. A used-car dealership serves as a front, and Parker must seek out his prey in what is essentially a criminal’s coop.
Learning of Parker's return through the grapevine, Resnick goes into hiding with a variety of beautiful hookers to distract him. He reaches out through telephone and telegram, spreading the word to be watchful for his nemesis. Having repaid a debt to The Outfit, using Parker's money, Resnick fears losing his position almost as much as he fears losing his life.
Parker’s background fills in gradually, seen through the eyes and reactions of others. The first thing that becomes painfully apparent is that everyone fears Parker.
“His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins. His hair was brown and dry and dead, blowing around his head like a poor toupee about to fly loose. His face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx. His mouth was a quick stroke, bloodless. His suit coat fluttered behind him, and his arms swung easily as he walked.”
The prose is lean, and the momentum rarely lets up. It’s a style befitting Parker, a character who rarely reflects on the past, unless it’s connected to his quest for revenge. Theft is his line of work, and murder is an occupational hazard – like real-life criminals, he lives in the moment with regard only for himself.
Parker’s laconic, snarling presence predates Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (in A Fistful of Dollars) by two years -- the public’s love affair with the anti-hero had begun. Most of Parker’s thoughts and feelings can be summarized by a glare or a tightening of the jaw. Perhaps it’s the lead character’s lack of spiritual depth that makes him an ideal character for a graphic novel or motion picture.
The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke, IDW Publishing (2009)
Comic books (a.k.a graphic novels) are a visual medium, and as the years fall off the calendar, they become increasingly visual. Influenced by outside media, more comics have demonstrated “decompressed” story-telling – the use of multiple issues to tell a story which could have been told in one or two. Video games, television, music-video style action films, and endless hours of millions of web-pages have contributed to the erosion of vocabulary. Every comic book writer’s dream of breaking into Hollywood doesn’t help.
Publishers emphasize the “cinematic” quality of comics, the use of visuals over “verbose” dialogue and narration. The end result is usually a cheap comic making an obvious pitch to be the Next Big Thing in the local multiplex theaters. Therefore, it’s refreshing when a major talent uses the graphic novel medium to introduce hardboiled material like The Hunter to a new generation of readers.
Darwyn Cooke is one of the few professionals in comic books, these days, that can walk the tightrope between narrative and visuals. There are moments in The Hunter (IDW Publishing, 2009) which are cinematic – like the best visual moments in Will Eisner’s The Spirit – but Cooke approaches Westlake/Stark’s prose as a challenge rather than a nuisance. After establishing the graphic novel’s setting as “New York City 1962” with a double-page Manhattan skyline, Cooke starts the proverbial ball rolling with Parker on the George Washington Bridge.
Cooke uses nineteen pages of visual narrative, practically devoid of any words, to recap Parker’s Chapter One escapades -- The diner, the bank, the amassing of loot and then cash. Beginning with Chapter Two, when he confronts his duplicitous ex-wife, entire passages of dialogue and narrative are lifted from Westlake’s prose.
“You ought to kill me,” she said hopelessly.“Maybe I will.”Her head sagged down toward her chest. Her voice was almost inaudible. “I keep taking pills,” she murmured. “Every night. If I don’t take the pills, I don’t sleep. I think about you.”“And how I’m coming for you?”“No, and how you’re dead. And I wish it was me.”“Take too many pills,” he suggested.
As with any adaptation, changes will arise from one medium to another. Some dialogue is truncated, while other passages are tossed off the lifeboat. Certain long blocks of narrative are quoted faithfully, but Cooke employs visual devices to supplement the scene. While the prose describes Resnick’s hijacking plan, Cooke illustrates it with a map of North America, dotted with motion lines, scrawled notes, and cigarette butts.
In reading the graphic novel one week after the Stark paperback, the only major difference I noticed was in the story’s conclusion. Frustrated in his grab for the loot, Parker confronts the Top Man for the New York branch of “The Outfit.” There ensues yet another struggle, a cat-and-mouse game with the Mob as his opponent, before a drop point is pre-determined in Brooklyn, NY.
Darwyn Cooke brings the graphic novel – and Parker’s journey – to a violent, successful conclusion. But Stark’s novel carries the story further to an epilogue that cold-cocks both the reader and Parker. I’ve read my share of hardboiled fiction, and I didn’t see this ending coming -- you won’t either. In every other respect, the graphic novel successfully adapts this material more than Parker fans have any right to expect. Darwyn Cooke has done for The Hunter, with sequential art, what John Houston did for The Maltese Falcon in cinema. That’s high praise from me, since Hammett is my favorite author. Thanks to Cooke, I’m making room for the Parker novels – the original books and his adaptations – on the shelves of my “permanent” library.
If Cooke hoped to round up new fans for the Parker series, he succeeded with me at least.
It would be interesting to see a publisher adapt a Doc Savage or Shadow novel in this manner -- but, with over 150 novels to choose from, how would you choose one that's "worthy?"
Next Week ... I’ll write some more crusty, curmudgeonly stuff. And I’ll review Point Blank (1972), in keeping with this week’s column. It’s an early adaptation of Richard Stark’s The Hunter starring Lee Marvin as ... Walker?? Damn, they got it wrong already.
Start making plans to attend Pulp Adventurecon on Saturday, November 5th, 2011. Ramada Inn of Bordentown is located conveniently off exit 7 of the New Jersey Turnpike. It’s an annual one-day show with a big emphasis on pulp magazines and related material like vintage paperbacks, movie memorabilia, reprints, and lots more stuff. You have an interest in pulps? It’s probably there – Dashiell Hammett, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Shadow, Doc Savage, and everything in between and on the fringes. It’s a fantastic one-day show, and I’m not just saying that because I run it. Learn more at www.boldventurepress.com. Or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.