Remembering Darwyn Cooke and His Example of Cantankerous Kindness

I lost a friend early this morning.  Others lost an industry giant.  Others lost a colleague.  And some lost a man who was as close to them as family.  What we all gained from knowing him in any way, however, is immeasurable.

Darwyn Cooke, the creator of DC Comics The New Frontier, the Parker graphic novels, and The Spirit revival, was taken from this world by cancer at the age of 53.  I haven’t seen anyone connected to comic books who isn’t grieving.  But the stories have already started as well, because Darwyn was a storyteller in his personal life as well as his work: he just knew how to frame things for maximum impact.

One of the things Darwyn gave me in his too-short life was an example of shouldering withering criticism in the process of creating art.  After The Spirit had been announced, but before the series was released, other creators were cornering him at events and verbally abusing him for what they believed was an artistic desecration.  Darwyn just put his head down, cursed a blue streak as was his way, and did the work.  He had an ironclad integrity.  Now I see that series praised by mourning fans, which is a testament to that integrity.

Darwyn was not what many would call a “nice guy” because he was far too principled.  He would tell you if he thought you were wrong.  He would tell you firmly if he thought you were being unethical or half-assing something.  But he believed in people, believed in kindness, and believed in comics.  So he found a way to speak fondly of some very challenging people, because he saw the good as well as the bad, and decided for himself whether the sum of it all made sense to him.

He had enough wisdom to see people for who they were and accepted their faults even if he didn’t like them.  He did so much free cover work, helped other artists, and offered that sincere form of support that is so rare in an industry where your student today can become your competition tomorrow.  He told some stories that were important to the people around him, because if it was important to them, it was important to him.

He believed we should always keep a portion of comics books as something for children, that not everything needed to be dark to be good.  He had a clear artistic style that matched the way he saw the world — clean, to the point, but whimsical and accessible.  He was a man decidedly contented with “enough”.

It wasn’t that Darwyn Cooke had no fucks to give.  It was that all his fucks were tied up in things that mattered, so he didn’t have any to spare on nonsense.  That legacy will continue through his absolutely wonderful wife Marsha, who won’t even rent you a fuck, never mind give you one.  Darwyn’s choice of spouse said a lot about the man he was: he was a man who truly loved strong women and wasn’t the least bit threatened by us.

The proof of that for me is found in another fond memory that happened after I’d been publicly shamed by an influential blogger connected to a local “comics as art” organization.  I appeared as a presenter at an awards show called the Joe Shuster Awards or “JSA”.  At the time, I was a comedy performer, so the expectation was that Ed the Sock and I would show up and make people laugh.  So we dressed up like the Golden Age Flash and Power Girl — JSA.  Get it?  The blogger determined this was a “disgusting display”, because… yeah.  I’m anatomically similar to Power Girl.  This “artistic” blogger didn’t see a woman who clearly loved comics, even a character who, at that time, wasn’t terribly well known.  He just saw tits.

It hurt.  A lot.  Body shaming always hurts, no matter how much you try to stop it.

But Darwyn Cooke managed to heal a lot of that hurt just by being himself.  I was at a convention party, I believe it was in Calgary, and I heard someone behind me yell “HEY KERZNER!  I HEAR YOUR TITS ARE TOO BIG FOR [the event that had slammed me]!”  I turned around and there was Darwyn Cooke, head peeking over a half wall like something out of a Frank Cho parody sketch, grinning like the little devil that he was.

I laughed.  I still laugh thinking about that.  That was Darwyn Cooke: he appreciated people for who they were, even if that “who they were” defied the norm.  And he didn’t care who knew.

He felt no need to ignore the realities of my anatomy.  Instead, he accepted reality for what it was, and made it pretty clear that anyone who couldn’t do the same was being stupid.  It was a rare moment of acceptance… real acceptance… that wasn’t just a politically correct “we need more women in comics” platitude.  If I could only keep just one memory of him, it would be that one.  “My tits are too big for ______” has become my way of laughing off those in science fiction, comic books, and video games who continue to treat me like the town whore.

The flip side of “no one is immune to criticism” is that “no one should expect praise”.  This leads to a system of feedback that is skewed toward the negative, and is less useful as a result.  On the bright side, praise becomes more powerful, because it isn’t considered mandatory.  So I will hold in my heart those very Cooke moments of crusty, caustic praise.  Because they were real.

Many people have their own equally meaningful, funny stories about Darwyn.  Perhaps it’s true that only the good die young, because you’d be hard pressed to find a better, more authentic person than Darwyn Cooke.

Note: memorial donations can be made to the Canadian Cancer Society and/or the Hero Initiative.

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Why Frank Cho’s Work is Feminist

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You may have noticed that there’s something of an ongoing brouhaha surrounding the work of comic book artist and writer Frank Cho. It seems every time he does something involving a woman these days, someone screams. It’s fashionable to label Frank a misogynist over some parody covers, but I know the guy, both personally and professionally, and the dude can be in a room full of naked women and keep his eyes on their faces unless there’s a punchline to be had.

I know this because I’ve actually been in a room with Frank involving multiple naked women. He was a guest on Ed and Red’s Night Party. We had him draw Dean, the pig character from Liberty Meadows, on a topless woman’s back. It was meta, get it? It’s also really damned hard to create art on a surface at isn’t flat, or even uniform.

Another funny, spur of the moment thing happened on that show. For the episode, I cosplayed Brandy from Liberty Meadows, and we got a “Beltsville” t-shirt screen printed from a place down the street. Unfortunately, said shirt was proportioned for a woman who was a B-cup, and when I put it on, the screen printed letters tore, leaving white marks wherever the shirt’s weave had caused a faultline. It looked like crap, so we turned it into content. We had Frank fill in the white parts of the letters with sharpie, because he was a “professional”.

This, it turned out, left black sharpie marks on the white bra I was wearing underneath the shirt, because the marker bled. Frank, being Frank, turned those spots into eyeballs, so that I could look back at guys staring at my chest.

That’s the Frank Cho I know: funny, clever, appreciative of other people’s work, and very much aware that women who look a certain way get treated like we don’t have faces.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to provide another side to the whole “Frank Cho is a misogynist” thing that isn’t just more angry shouting, but I just keep coming back to personal memories involving Frank and his work. I still remember the first time I saw a Liberty Meadows book, in Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles. I bought it because I’m a sucker for cartoon animals, but also because it was the story of a busty woman who had no idea how attractive she was, and the short nerdy vet who harboured a secret love for her.

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Brandy was like no other woman in comics I’d ever encountered. She wasn’t a superhero. She was goofy and klutzy. She was insecure about her weight. And she was in on the various zany jokes instead of being the typical killer of fun. Liberty Meadows was a combination of all the great parts of the Sunday funnies page without the horrible elements – the constant digs at Cathy in various Liberty Meadows strips showed that I wasn’t alone in my annoyance at that level of female neurosis.

Liberty Meadows was elegant, silly, smart, and fun. It was a comic strip that allowed its female lead to be beautiful, flawed, slapstick, smart and fun all at the same time, and that was something I desperately needed as a woman trying to find my place in television comedy. Throughout my career, I have run into various brick walls because most media properties don’t allow women to be all these things at once. In fact, it’s usually a paradigm of “Smart, glamorous, or funny. Pick two.” Call it the “Big Bang Triangle” if you will. Penny is funny and and object of desire, but she’s a waitress when everyone else is a scientist. Amy, on the other hand, is funny and smart, but dressed deliberately dumpy. Bernadette, similarly, has an affected voice and thick glasses so that she’s not TOO pretty, or TOO smart, because she plays up the funny. The media considers it unfeminine if a woman is TOO MUCH.

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Frank Cho doesn’t sacrifice a woman’s beauty or sexuality for intelligence or the ability to take part in comedy, and I love him for that. His parody covers are continuing his tradition in this regard, and people who claim they’re misogynist are just flat out wrong. If anything, they’re poking fun at how freaked out our society gets over boobs. Try living with a gigantic pair: you realize how absurd it is the first time you get smacked in the face with your own breast. Yes. This has happened to me more than once.

Feminism isn’t about protecting women from the big bad world or putting us on an unnatural pedestal.  Feminism is about equality between men and women.  So essentially, if Deadpool is allowed to do it, some female character should have license to do it too.

Men are allowed to be naked, loud and obscene for the sake of comedy. Look at South Park, Family Guy, and Seth Rogan’s stuff. Frank Cho is one of the few creators out there who dares to let women be the star in that kind of comedy, instead of the disapproving wife/mom or the object of sexual conquest. Frank draws women who laugh at themselves, and the ridiculousness of the current nerd paradigm, without making these women seem like the kind of women the world laughs at too. He gives us license to laugh at ourselves in a world that conspires to tear down our self esteem.

And if that isn’t progressive; if that isn’t FEMINIST; I don’t know what is.

(PS: if this article does well enough, I’ll tell the behind the scenes story of where those pics of Frank signing my butt came from.)

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