Period pieces are a tricky business. Even if the author lived through it, the ability to bring the cultural and emotional nuances of a given era into written form for a new generation can be challenging. Not unlike how those born after 1985 never had the same emotional connection to Michael Jackson as the prior generation, attempting to immerse oneself in a specific time period can be a detaching experience by it’s very nature. Mostly, the problem comes down to details.
Anyone can write a sweeping epic dated in the early 17th century when pirates roamed the seven seas and empires were quickly gaining momentum around the globe. Not everyone can create effective narratives through subtle minutiae and analytical insights into things like wealth and power, class inequality, or universal human nature. Similar to how Mad Men became a sensation for it’s dour–yet hauntingly accurate–depictions of the same era, Darwyn Cooke’s Parker series has consistently brought readers excitingly bleak, rapturously dark stories that effectively use the time period to bring meaning to the story, instead of resting on the fact.
The first in the series, The Hunter, set a bar for 60s period pieces in comicbooks, mostly because of Cooke’s uncanny ability to convey that era in America’s history. Cooke achieves this not only through his narrative skills, but also because of his amazingly appropriate neo-retro art style that’s made him famous in recent years. After re-upping Parker with a nationwide criminal syndicate in The Outfit, Cooke returns this summer with The Score, the third in his series of Parker adaptations of novels by seminal crime-writer Richard Stark. While the plot of this original graphic novel isn’t directly connected to the first two books, The Score stands out as the best Parker story yet.
A cardinal sin of storytelling is to tell the audience something rather than show them; it’s far more effective to describe a character’s insane actions than to simply explain that the character is mentally unstable. One of the best parts of the Parker series has been how much Cooke lets his art do the talking. As writer and artist, Cooke has the ability to more precisely leverage the words he writers with the pictures he draws, playing one off the other for more dramatic nuance.
The opening scene of The Score illustrates this fact perfectly. Parker is being followed by a rather ordinary looking fellow through the streets of Jersey City for six pages before any words appear on the page. We get to watch as Parker evades his stalker, little by little, until the master thief makes his move. Unexpectedly, Cooke’s ability to show rather than tell is even stronger in The Score than in either The Hunter or The Outfit, both of which feature much more dialogue. With less space to stretch his legs artistically, Cooke succeeds in continuing to utilize his art just as much as his words.
The Score is about the biggest heist of Parker’s career. After an exhausting series of events with the Outfit, Parker is content to stay out of the limelight (so to speak) for a while. Only when he is presented with a job so big he wouldn’t have to work for years does he raise an eyebrow and agree to hear the plan out. Parker is such an exceptional character because he’s pragmatic.
Too often, logical reasoning gets pushed to the wayside to make way for a scintillating story or plot twist that doesn’t pay off as much as the author would like to believe. Richard Stark’s characterization of Parker makes him as stoic a man as one can be, trading in all forms of emotional attachment for peace of mind. (Of course, if you read The Hunter, you know what happened when Parker did have an emotional connection and how badly it ended.) He never lets his guard down, and never makes stupid mistakes. Some may argue this point would be a flaw in the character, akin to how Superman barely has any weaknesses. In fact, Parker’s strengths become his weaknesses as he cuts out more and more people he considers untrustworthy.
The plan involves robbing an entire town in six hours. It’s a mining town is isolated, located miles away from the any other city and built in a box-canyon, resulting in a single route in or out. Because of its unique location, all the calls are routed through the small phone company, any alarm simply notifies the police. Everyone, uses the same bank. The job is complicated, including tasks such as securing the entire police station, monitoring all calls in and out of the town, breaking into safes, avoiding the state trooper barracks six miles down the road, finding and securing a safe location for the days after the heist, and keeping the public none the wiser throughout it all. Imagine Ocean’s Eleven except way, way less self-obsessed and flashy.
In any other plot-driven narrative, character development would get lost in the meticulous story planning and advancement. Fortunately, Cooke masterfully conveys the minor quirks and intricacies of even minor characters like Cho, Grofield, Wycza, Wiss, Palm, Elkins, Chambers, “Pop”, and Salsa. Yes, none of these men get first names, but why would they? In Parker’s world of secrets and shadow operations, knowing someone’s real identity is as much of a liability as not trusting them at all. We don’t need to know their real names to form emotional connections with these characters. Where Parker provides the cold, steely logic in the group, the supporting cast brings humanity and diversity. In earlier books, there were good guys (more or less) and bad guys. This time, Parker and his friends are less noble in their causes, leading to moments of ethical relativism.
Throughout it all, Cooke keeps things simple. Much like Parker, Cooke only uses the words he absolutely needs to, and only when it’s necessary. And while the artwork is full, rich, and textured, it only shows us what we need to see. The tale unfolds in a fairly predictable way, so it becomes the detail and the style that really make The Score so fantastic. The twists and turns in the plan offer some interesting narrative mechanics, but even then, the focus stays on Parker and his interactions with those around him. There is no “MAJOR DEATH!” or “HUGE SHAKE-UP!” at the end. There are no scenes of decadent parties or celebrations in honor of a job well done. These men understand their place in the world, a world where what they do is illegal and how they accomplish what they do can sometimes become violent and deadly. They don’t vilify themselves or each other, but they also don’t fool themselves into thinking that what they do is good, in the strictest sense of the word.
The Score succeeds on every front: as a solid period piece, as an excellent adaptation of a fantastic book, and as a solid graphic experience of the 60s through the lens of a quiet, unyielding thief with nothing to lose. Richard Stark’s source material provides the content, but Darwyn Cooke’s nigh perfect handling of said material is breathtaking. Cooke mirrors the minimalism of the era through controlled and paced dialogue, monochrome panels that somehow have more life than most color-filled pages these days, and overall mood and style. This original graphic novel stands on it’s own as a monumental achievement, even if you haven’t read the first two books. A library of Parker novels means that Cooke has plenty of material to play with. Hopefully, he’ll continue this excellent series that sets a palpable example for how comicbooks can be done right.