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.