Review: Richard Stark’s Parker: Book Two–The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke (II)

(Note: The timing on the release of Darwyn Cooke’s The Outfit was not good for me. Due to life, I did not have as much time as I needed to do a proper reading and write-up, but I wanted to get a review out before The Outfit hit the street. So I cranked out a rush job.

Now that I’ve had a chance to spend some more time with it, and with an eye towards nailing down the text of what will eventually be the permanent page in the Parker Comics section, I have revised and extended my remarks.)

The sheer brutality of The Hunter was unsustainable for a series, and Richard Stark didn’t attempt it. Rather, he took the character and universe of The Hunter and used them for more complex tales of amorality. This isn’t to say that there is no brutality in subsequent Parker novels, because certainly there is (The Sour Lemon Score and Deadly Edge, for example), but Stark wisely didn’t attempt to top the brutality of The Hunter with each subsequent novel.

In The Outfit, the first sequel to his stellar adaptation of The Hunter, Darwyn Cooke again follows Stark’s lead (although he does take a good many more liberties with the source material than he did the first time out*). Put much too simply, The Hunter is the story of a man who fights to get what he wants, where The Outfit is the story of a man who schemes to get what he wants.

The Outfit opens quite faithful to the original, with Parker surviving an Outfit assassination attempt while in the arms of Bett Harrow, a woman of convenience who turns into some unexpected trouble. When Parker stands nearly-naked above his now nearly-unconscious assailant, his face is quite different from the Parker we met in The Hunter–it’s considerably harder and much less handsome.

The reason Parker’s face is different is because he had plastic surgery, as related in the novel The Man with the Getaway Face, so that the Outfit couldn’t locate him based on physical appearance. Cooke uses Parker’s plastic surgery as a metaphor:

When I changed Parker, the idea was always to use plastic surgery as a metaphor for his emotional regression. He’s meant to look like a rawer, more stripped down version of himself. There was no one specific in mind here — it was more an exercise in imagining what could be done to alter the face I’d already designed. I thought about the surgical procedure back in 1962. Chemical peeling and less nuanced procedures just took my imagination to a more cut up, severe looking version of the man from “The Hunter.” His jaw, and most importantly, his eyes, are the same. The rest is meant to reflect a man drained of things like remorse and compassion. A loveless, unadorned man.

* * *

This is a guy who has been in love. He got up and got married. He had a honeymoon. He had friends. And what happens to him in [The Hunter] wipes all of that out.

Cooke views the events of The Hunter as transformative. They changed Parker into a machine. While this is not my interpretation (I think of Parker as always having been a machine), it’s certainly a valid one.

From there, we go to a flashback based on The Man with the Getaway Face (a section published under that title as a promotional item), which serves as a precursor to the core of the comic, a series of heists carried out by Parker and his associates against Outfit targets in order to punish them for continuing to pursue Parker (and to get money).

Those familiar with The Outfit (the novel) and other Parker books beyond The Hunter will likely relish these heist scenes. Extremely faithful to Stark (except for a couple of character substitutions), they focus on the nuts and bolts of criminal enterprises and will be great fun for lovers of crime fiction.

Those who prefer comic books or savored the brutality of Cooke’s The Hunter may have a different reaction. Some complained that The Hunter was too wordy, and those critics are bound not to like a section comprised of Stark’s prose lifted straight from the novel with Cooke providing illustrations. Some may dislike getting operational details instead of good old-fashioned ass-kicking. I hope that most do not have that reaction–four straight volumes of Parker running around beating and shooting people would have gotten old quickly, and it was wise of Cooke to throw in some variety.

Cooke adds further variety by illustrating these heists in diverse styles. He gets really out there a couple of times, including one heist drawn in a style reminiscent of Hanna-Barbera.

(Cooke seems to have a real affection for Hanna-Barbera. He selected a Hanna-Barbera styled illustration as the winner of his Draw Parker Contest.)

Draw Parker Contest winner by Scott Brothers

And when the heists are over? Then it’s time for the reckoning, which comes in grand fashion. Cooke considerably ups the violence level of the novel, appropriate for a visual adaptation. Those seeking gunplay will not be disappointed.

Cooke’s adaptation of The Outfit does not pack the same punch as The Hunter. It was never going to, as it’s a faithful adaptation and its source material didn’t pack that punch. What it lacks in to-the-gut impact, it more than makes up for in dazzling creativity. Darwyn Cooke has again provided required reading for Parker fans. This Outfit is sharp.

*None of these liberties is to the detriment of the adaptation. Jake Menner from the novel cleverly becomes Skim Lasker, which helps tie the Getaway Face section in. The car-buying scene with Handy McKay and Chemy is gone, but although it was a highlight of the novel, it was a detour and it probably wouldn’t have worked in the comic book. Most interesting to the Richard Stark fan, Alan Grofield makes his debut earlier than in the series of novels so as to set up the next volume of the comic series, The Score (purists may not like that he has become Alan Grofeld (due to an error on Cooke’s part) and moved to Virginia). And, intriguingly, Parker’s still got Bett Harrow to deal with even though The Mourner isn’t being adapted.

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