If you don't know by now that comic books are the perfect delivery system for fast-moving genre fiction, you're probably the sort of hopeless person who skips over the cartoons in The New Yorker because they get in the way of the articles. It was 80 years ago that comics erupted from the same rich soil as pulp fiction, and in the decades since—from EC Comics in the 1950s to the romance manga comics of today—the medium has perfected the quick and dirty sci-fi, romance, western, and military adventure story.
But comics have an especially long and intense relationship with crime fiction, the most popular recent example being Sin City, Frank Miller's bizarre Spillane pastiche. This month, DC Comics launches a new crime imprint (called Vertigo Crime) with two terse, overly serious black-and-white volumes written by Brian Azzarello and Ian Rankin. Even the titles of those books—Filthy Rich and Dark Entries—are unimaginative and humorless. Meanwhile, small comics publisher IDW has put out a sharp noir thriller that makes those books look like Beetle Bailey.
Richard Stark's 1960s novels about a coolly brutal criminal named Parker are classics of the crime genre. They've been adapted into film twice, not that you'd necessarily know: Donald E. Westlake, the author who wrote as Stark, refused to allow the filmmakers to use the name Parker for the protagonists of either film. He didn't believe they were true enough to the criminal-minded predator who plows through the books, scattering murder and destruction in his wake. Before his death, though, Westlake eagerly gave his blessing to Darwyn Cooke's Parker adaptations, which begin this month with IDW's The Hunter.
Cooke draws in a cartoony style that at first glance might look more suitable for a Jonny Quest–style adventure strip, but it perfectly fits the efficient Parker: He's a lean collection of sharp pen-scratches, not one line out of place. The book begins with a nearly wordless 20-page sequence of Parker walking into a city, creating a new identity, and looking for revenge. What follows, as he quadruple-crosses the people who double-crossed him, is pure sadistic mayhem. The Hunter quickly becomes a cascade of sex, murder, and international intrigue, and you just have to root for our antihero—he's just so goddamned good at what he does: "As far as Parker was concerned, the only thing wrong with the job was Mal. Blowhards and cowards were liabilities and Parker had evaded the law this long by systematically canceling his liabilities as soon as possible."
Cooke is a master at the underappreciated art of adaptation: He keeps a great deal of Westlake's text and doesn't shy away from the nasty truth of the books (for instance: Parker tortures a leggy blonde until she agrees to play along with his revenge scheme). Illustrated in black and white and a cool, atomic blue, The Hunter has a stylized air. It seems to take place in a perennial dusk at the end of a long, hot day—and without the color red or detailed line work, the reader is forced to become Parker's accomplice in supplying the gore. Crime comics simply don't get better than this.