Darwyn Cooke’s ‘Parker: The Score’ Gives Us A Tantalizing Glimpse Into Career Thievery
One of the most popular types of stories features an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, such as John McClane in Die Hard. Most superhero stories feature extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, like when Green Lantern is trying to prevent the collapse of all reality. Another type of story features ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. A lot of low-key dramas are good examples of this, like Daniel Clowes's Ghost World or Craig Thompson's Blankets. These stories are rich because they don't star the best or brightest. They simply feature people going about their lives. Darwyn Cooke's newly released adaptation of Richard Stark's The Score is this type of story, more or less, and it's exciting because we're seeing ordinary people who are good at one specific thing going about their business.
My favorite type of ordinary people stories are ones that are simply about people who have a job, and we see them perform that job. Michael Mann has made a career out of making movies like this, such as Heat and Collateral. Those movies are simply about people who have a job to do and we get to watch them do it. There are exciting circumstances in there, sure, but the stakes remain small and extremely personal. Instead of the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of our near-perfect hero, we see normal dudes faced with death or prison. These normal dudes have a gift, of course, for killing or stealing, but they aren't super-assassins or invincible thieves. They're simply men who are good at one specific thing, and the joy we get from the story is watching them perform, or be prevented from performing, that specific thing.
Richard Stark's Parker, the protagonist of The Score, is a man who is very good at a very specific thing. Two, actually. First, he's good at hurting people. You don't want to become a problem, because if Parker has to deal with you, you aren't going to like it. Second, he's good at stealing things. He's not perfect, but he knows his way around a heist. He has a set of rules he follows, and when people prove that they are not to be trusted, or are too stupid to follow the rules, he cuts his losses and he leaves. He plays it as safe as he can, and that's why he's so good at what he does.
Alan Grofield is another character in the book, and he's good at a couple things, too. He's good at stealing, just like Parker, but he's also good at acting. In fact, you could fairly describe him as an actor who moonlights as a thief in order to put on stage shows. (He's not just an actor, you see. He's a snob who eschews TV and Hollywood in favor of the stage.) He's charming, attractive, and can talk you into doing whatever he likes. He's also the closest thing Parker has to a friend.
The Score is about Parker, Grofield, and other men who are good at one specific thing -- crowd control, weapons, whatever -- doing their thing. A man named Edgars, a newbie to the heist game, approaches Parker and friends with a plan. He's plotted a quarter million dollar heist in a little town called Copper Canyon in North Dakota. It soon becomes clear that Edgars isn't talking about knocking over a bank in a small town or ripping off a jewelry store in the middle of nowhere. He's talking about robbing the town. All of it. He wants to strip the banks, jewelry stores, and copper mine of their riches. He wants to shut down the cops, fire department, and phone company for safety. (Parker: The Score is set in 1964. Things were different then.) He wants to rob the town blind in a single night.
Having a job can feel like work, but if you're doing something you enjoy, then a challenge is irresistible. Edgars's plan is stupid, foolhardy in the extreme... but it's a challenge. It's a puzzle. How much work would it take to turn this insane plan into a nice payday? Grofield, after realizing what Edgars has in mind, says, "Ha. Fantastic." He's curious. He's already hooked.
The bulk of Parker: The Score is about the gang doing their jobs, and it's a pleasure. Parker keeps things under control while everyone splits up to take the town. Each Parker adaptation Cooke has done has had some form of centerpiece, one scene or stylistic flourish that makes the book. This time, it's seeing Grofield at work. He's an actor and a romantic, and instead of being dour-faced and serious like Parker, he approaches his job with relish. More than relish, in fact: he approaches gigs with imagination.
Grofield imagines a scenario when he's on a heist. He's a cowboy, a soldier, or a lothario. It puts him in the mood for the job, and it provides an easy narrative for him to follow. It's his Thing. Cooke chooses to render these as straightforward as possible, drawing panels full of two-fisted World War II action as if they were the most normal thing in the world. It works, and it also makes Grofield the star of the graphic novel. I found myself eager to see what Grofield was going to do next, even though I've read Richard Stark's original novel twice now. Cooke turned what I'd imagined as a simple mental game into reality, and it really, really works. It's flashy.
Cooke has created great adaptations of Stark's novels before, and Parker: The Score is no different. There's a lot going on, and a positively sprawling cast, but he keeps the focus where it needs to be by giving Parker and Grofield the lion's share of the spotlight. He doesn't give the rest of the cast short shrift, though. They aren't as important as the big men, but they don't lack for motivation or interesting gimmicks.
The big twist just before the end of the story feels abrupt, however, and ends much more quickly than I expected it to. It may be the fault of the format, since it's somewhat more palatable to spend a lot of time in a character's head in a novel, but doing so in a comic without torpedoing the pace and structure is a tall order.
Beyond that, though, things are pretty good. Cooke spends two pages on an interlude with a citizen partway through that makes for a pretty good joke and a much-needed peek at the culture of Copper Canyon. Cooke's art is as great as ever, with the bulk of the cast being caricatures of Cooke's friends and fellow artists. Late in the book are two conversations that take place almost entirely in the dark. There's barely any light to show us who is speaking, merely shadowed faces and aggressive body language, but it's as crystal clear and beautiful as anything you ever saw.
The graphic novel is actually full of minor artistic moments that look great alongside the more traditional work. Every character is introduced with a full body shot as they stand on their own name. It's done organically, so that the characters are still taking part in the conversation, and it gives us a brief glimpse into who they are at the same time. Everyone's body language and manner of speech is different. There are a handful of splash pages where Cooke pulls back from the action and focuses on just one person or one event. They look great, and create the feeling of this fully-formed world that we're only getting glimpses of elsewhere in the book. They ground the work in the style of the time period and make it easier to buy everything else.
Parker: The Score is more than worthy of standing alongside Parker: The Hunter and Parker: The Outfit, the two award-winning books that immediately precede it. It's a book about men who have a job to do, and it's nice to see not just how they approach their jobs, but also where they're willing to break their own rules and why. Parker: The Score is the story of a group of men overcoming a thrilling challenge, and Cooke's pretty great at showing us the fun and drama that comes from accepting a challenge.