This interview originally appeared in The Comics Journal #285 (October 2007).
Darwyn Cooke knew he was right. After years spent sparring with DC’s editorial office over the direction of his stories, the Canadian-born creator dug his feet in, outlasted editorial interference and somehow managed to produce a string of uncompromising takes on some of DC Comics most enduring superheroes. From Selina’s Big Score to DC: The New Frontier, to The Spirit, to Superman Confidential, Cooke’s hopeful, silver-tinged comics have resonated with fans and critics, earning him an Eisner award for his work on New Frontier in 2005 and a reputation as a full-service writer-artist.
The oldest of three Toronto sons, Cooke’s imaginative storytelling was fueled by hot plastic toys, the funny yarns his grandfather would tell him and a collection of comics built on garage sales and chance. He always enjoyed drawing and “making stuff,” but when Cooke was 13, a reprint of Spectacular Spider-Man #2 and a Batman tale called “Night of the Stalker” gave his creativity focus and ignited the enthusiasm that became his career.
A handful of years later, bat signal burning brightly in his veins, Cooke made a bold trek to New York City and sold his first story to DC Comics, which appeared in New Talent Showcase #19. But it would be another 17 years before he would take the full plunge into the comics field. Soon after his discovery as a DC New Talent, Cooke slipped into the parallel dimensions of art direction and then animation, working on the critically acclaimed animated series Batman, Superman and Batman Beyond. He still pitched comic book stories, but nothing ever seemed to come from them.
Then one day, Cooke received a phone call green-lighting Batman: Ego, a book he had pitched four years earlier. Since then, Cooke has dedicated himself to doing comics and doing them his way. He’s often had to wait years for approvals, he’s been typecast as an animation artist, and his strong opinions have strained relationships with fellow creators, editors and publishers. But Cooke’s unwavering belief in his own instincts has time and again proven to be right.
This July, I talked to Cooke about growing up in Canada, his career in animation and comics, and whether or not he can actually take anyone in a fight.
MARKISAN NASO: You were born and raised in Canada. Where exactly did you grow up and what was it like there?
DARWYN COOKE: I was born in Toronto, Canada, which is a province of Ontario. I guess I was about 6 or 7 when we moved to a suburb outside Toronto. I am the oldest of three sons. They got us out of the city and out into the suburbs for probably a typical upbringing at that time.
NASO: OK. So what did you guys do for fun there, what did your parents do?
COOKE: You find it’s something that you have to remind young people about, but all we had was an aerial on the television and we got the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and we got Buffalo 29, a channel out of Buffalo. Very little television. Hockey, of course, was huge when I was young. It was a big part of our lives. This was at a time in North America when there were a lot of young families having children. We grew up on a street that was full of kids. Every house had two, three, four children in it. These were safe neighborhoods at that point in time; there was very little talk of any sort of crime in an area like this. I remember childhood being this incredibly open experience where we all were outside playing all the time. On a very typical street, I suppose. The guys would all go off to work in the morning. The mothers would come out to the ends of their driveways with their cups of tea to discuss the politics of the street and what was going on while we went about our business playing. We grew up by a river and a lot of woods. It was a great place to be a little kid.
NASO: What are the “politics of the street”? Just what’s going on in the neighborhood?
COOKE: You know how mothers get. The mother is always the one that shoots to the window when she hears a noise out on the street. She never just stands there at the window; you’ll notice it’s a covert glance [laughter]. “Did you hear what so-and-so did?” It seemed like a far more open time in terms of community and neighborhoods, and maybe this is just my experience. Everybody on the street knew each other, and everybody was in constant contact with each other. I can remember my parents and the young families on the street, and they’d walk across the street if they saw another couple out on the porch. It would lead to a sense that we were all in something together. So it was a very safe, a very cool place.
NASO: Very community-oriented.
NASO: So when and why were you drawn to comic books? What comic books did you read growing up?
COOKE: As a kid I was turned on to comic books the way most kids like myself were when I was very young. The comics I remember are Casper, and Richie Rich, and Hot Stuff — that little devil character that they had. All those Harvey comics. I remember when I as little kid, that was the stuff they started us out with. Archie was cool as well. My mother was quite young at the time, and I remember she would read Archie, as well.
NASO: Was she the one that got you into the comics then?
COOKE: I don’t know. I couldn’t say for sure. I do know that probably the thing that got me into comics the most wasn’t comics at all. It was the Adam West Batman show. I was 4 or 5 when that debuted.
NASO: How did you feel when you first saw it?
COOKE: My actual memories are pretty indistinct, but my mother claims that I insisted — it was on twice a week at 7 o’ clock — and if I was playing outside, I had to be brought in and put in front of the television in time to see it. She forgot one time, she tells me, and I wouldn’t speak to her for close to a week. It was apparently very important to me. The oldest drawings I have in my possession are drawings, one of Batman and one of Robin, that were done on construction paper with crayons when I was 5. My grandmother had kept these. They’re the oldest drawings I have and I’m glad. So it’s pretty interesting.
NASO: It’s great that you still have them.
COOKE: I wouldn’t, except that my grandmother had saved them all those years, and when she passed away it was part of the things that she passed on to me.
NASO: So you started drawing when you were around 5. Did you continue with it through childhood?
COOKE: I always enjoyed drawing. And to be even more open, just creative things, making stuff. I love to make stuff.
NASO: What kind of things did you make when you were young?
COOKE: When you’re a kid and you’re going to school in grade one and two, they turn you on to that stuff like papier-maché.
NASO: Popsicle sticks and glue?
COOKE: Exactly. Also, let’s face it, man, they were manlier times. They weren’t afraid to give kids things like wood-burning kits. And I remember there were things called Creepy Crawlers from Mattel, and they were basically lead plates that had molds of insects, and you would heat them up enough to melt this toxic plastic stuff into the molds to make your own toxic rubber insects. But these things got really hot! I remember I was a Boy Scout too, and you learned how to use a knife and a hatchet and these things as a kid.
NASO: It definitely seems like parents are more worried about their kids. They don’t let them do certain things.
COOKE: There’s a lack of confidence in children, I think, and their ability to be responsible if things are introduced to them the right way.
NASO: So any adverse effects from the Crawlers today?
COOKE: [Laughter.] That remains to be seen, I guess. So far, so good. Yeah man, that game Operation? You know, the game where you can electrocute yourself if you’re wrong?
NASO: Yeah, they would never put something out like that today. Do they even make Operation anymore?
COOKE: I don’t know. It seems to me that if they did, instead of electrocuting you it would probably say in a very soft voice, “That’s OK, try again.” [Laughter.]
NASO: Positive reinforcement.
NASO: As you got older, what artists influenced your drawing or creating?
COOKE: Frankly, when I was really young, no. I’d say the closest thing to an artist that I could say influenced me when I was really young would have been Charles Schulz, or maybe Dan DeCarlo. Because that’s what I was consuming. The first time I encountered what I’ll call modern comic-book art as we know it, it was again through TV. I became aware of the Marvel superheroes cartoons. They were really poorly done cartoons from the ’60s. It was probably the first time I had seen Kirby’s work, and Ditko’s work, sort of mutilated and thrown up on the screen. It didn’t make much of an impression because the cartoons were so crappy.
What it came down to was — I believe I was 13, which makes it ’74 or ’75 — I went to visit my aunt and uncle and cousins in a town called Sudbury, which is way north in Canada. It’s a mining town; they mine nickel. My uncle was a tire salesman for Firestone — he had a franchise, I believe. Anyway, I was up there for three weeks in the summer and I got incredibly friggin’ bored, at one point. And I wound up buying a comic book, which I hadn’t done in years, and it was a Spider-Man comic. And it just so happened to be a reprint of — I don’t know if you remember this — in the late ’60s Marvel made a brief attempt do to a magazine version of Spider-Man that had painted covers [The Spectacular Spider-Man]. The second issue had this incredible story: It’s Stan Lee and John Romita at the peak of their power. It’s the story where Norman Osborne flips out. A lot of the first Spider-Man movie was based on this comic. It blew my mind. It’s just a fantastic comic book!
I was the perfect age. I had been drawing for years and not really knowing what it was I wanted to do with it, as much as I knew I loved to do it, and it was my hobby. It told me what I was doing, and why, all of a sudden. It just snapped in like that. The next day, I went back to the drugstore and I bought Bristol board, and three big, fat, probably toxic markers, full of lead. Xylene, whatever that stuff was. A red one, a blue one and a black one. I went back and I spent the next three days just swiping these incredible Johnny Romita drawings. Doing them really big on Bristol board and then coloring them with magic markers. That’s kind of where the hook was at, definitely.
NASO: It seems like a lot of people, when they start drawing, they get influenced by comics or other art and then they copy it. How do you get to move beyond that? Where’s the point where you think you’re capable of drawing in your own style?
COOKE: It’s a good question. A lot of guys will give you a lot of good reasons for it. You know what I find the No. 1 reason is, though? You’re finally in and you’re working regularly, and you have to work at a speed where you don’t have time to screw around looking at other stuff. I think that’s when a lot of guys find their own style. When you’re young, especially when you’re say 13 — and now let’s keep in mind that today’s 13 is not that 13. Rotary telephones ... we didn’t even have an answering machine! There was no such thing as FedEx. There were no computers. Videocassette recorders hadn’t yet become something that the public could consume. At that time, that one comic book that you found on the newsstand — the importance you place on that thing, if it made that connection to you, is hard to understand these days, with this wealth of choice around you. But in a situation like this where, when you go home, there’s a black-and-white TV with a government station, Channel 9, and fuzzy-snow reception of Buffalo, that comic book becomes something you spend dozens and dozens of hours of your life with. You don’t have 100 other ones to look at, so you tear it apart and put it back together, and see how it was drawn. You analyze it, and back then there were no comic stores, so you had to build up your collection through garage sales and through chance.
NASO: Kids today don’t seem, to me, to be as creative because they’ve got all these video games, and everything is just handed to them. Do you think maybe they have lost something because of all the technology?
COOKE: You know what I take it back to? Remember when they started making those action-figure toys that had a single action? Like his arm would throw a ball or his gun would fire a pink missile. It’s like they reduced the toy to one function. It was no longer an open-ended concept. They closed off the concept. Do you see a staging down where less and less of the child has to be brought into play and more and more of the play is constructed for the child’s experience? As opposed to creating for themselves? The question remains, is that going to lead to enhanced creativity in other levels? We have yet to see where that will fall out.
NASO: You see kids who are whizzes on computers and they learned that from a very young age. But it’s a different kind of creativity to me.
COOKE: Yes it is. I believe it is as well. It’s like the first chapter in New Frontier is called “Analogue Heroes” because we have to remind ourselves that it was only just a heartbeat ago that none of this was here. And think about how difficult certain things were without all of this. I don’t know, I think that every generation finds its own way. Personally, I would say it’s certainly ruining a lot of kids’ ability to appreciate the world they live in in a more one-on-one way. You look at the statistics regarding gameplay, and let’s just say internet and what I’ll call “second-hand experience” — the numbers are staggering. That was time that kids used to spend playing.
NASO: So when did you start coming up with actual stories?
COOKE: I think that a lot of that had to do with having an appetite for taking in tales. As a kid I was a voracious reader. I loved all that serial-adventure stuff for kids like Hardy Boys, I chewed through all of that stuff. And a big part of it had to do with my family. My grandfather and my father were both master storytellers. You could sit around a table and they could make anything interesting simply by the way they told it. I learned a lot just listening to those two guys. They were always funny, always engaging, and they really did have a knack for it. I think I really did pick up a lot of it right there. The rest of it ... I was one of those culture junkies as a kid. I went to movies all the time. I read constantly. Comic books, television shows ... whenever I saw something or read something that I thought was good, I tried to back up and figure out why I thought it was good. What was it that made this good? Everything was OK to me because even the junk I thought was all right. But when something stood out, you went, “Wait a minute, why is that good?”
NASO: And it sounds like you learned something from the bad ones too.
COOKE: Actually you learn a lot more from the really bad stuff, or the stuff that was almost good. When you look at something that’s brilliant, it just diminishes you and makes you think, “Oh, what’s the use?” [Laughter.]
NASO: Also I really appreciate that you took the time to listen to the stories from the people in your family. Again, a lot of kids don’t take the time to get to know their grandparents, and they’ve got so many great stories. I know my grandfather used to tell me amazing tales.
COOKE: The important thing was they didn’t tell us boring stories, and that’s part of what made them good storytellers. They didn’t drone on about stuff they knew we wouldn’t care about. It was something they knew would be of interest to us, or something relevant to what was being said. It was always humor. My grandfather, in particular, he had a way around a story so that when you got to the end you knew what the hell he was talking about. There would always be an element to the story that didn’t make sense until you had all the pieces in your hand. I remember that, and thinking, wow, that’s great when you can do that.
NASO: Were any of your other family members artists?
COOKE: My mother would doodle, but no, not really. But my other grandfather, who passed away when I was quite young, he was apparently a fairly creative fellow. If I’m a madman, apparently, this is where it traces from. He was a Canadian soldier in WWII, he was part of the invasion of Italy, and he came back and was basically a jack of all trades. Homebuilder, furniture, he could do all kinds of stuff, and he was a crazy man. My mother tells me about going to a stock-car race when she was 9, and they were all there, and Dad gets up to go to the washroom. Excuses himself from the grandstand, and the next thing they know, he has entered the family sedan in the race and is down on the field. That’s the kind of guy he was, always nipping from the bottle and going off and doing nutty things.
NASO: Taking chances.
COOKE: Yeah, obviously a troubled guy. He ended up estranged from my grandmother, which was rare in those days. But he was just too much for her to deal with.
NASO: Well, it sounds like you are real close to your family, I assume that they encouraged your interest in art? Can you talk about what they thought of you, working on your drawings and stories?
COOKE: It’s funny, again, we’re going back to a time — late ’60s in Canada — working-class family ... they thought it was great. But I think my dad would have been much happier if I was more interested in hockey. My brother Kenny loved hockey, and they were far more interested in that kind of stuff. That doesn’t mean they discouraged me, not at all. They definitely did encourage me, but it wasn’t vocal in any regard. Back in those days, it was always the last thing a parent wanted to find out: “Oh, no, the kid wants to be an artist.” At that point in time, it was all about “go to college, get a job.” That was the mantra that we grew up with. “Be better than us. We had to leave high school. You’re going to go to college, you’re going to get a job.” And when they hear “artist,” [laughter] from that point of view at that point in history it’s like a hobby. They were proud of my talent, definitely, but...
NASO: So when did you decide you wanted to write and draw comics professionally, that you knew that art was going to be your career?
COOKE: It was definitely buying that Spider-Man comic book that I mentioned earlier. I got back from that trip to Sudbury, I got home a week later and I went to a local store to look at the comics they had. The second comic I bought was “Night of the Stalker” which is this Batman comic that I adapted in Solo and it’s my favorite Batman story of all time. It happened to be the second comic I bought. That did it. From that point on I knew that this was the thing I wanted to do.
NASO: What was it about that comic that really struck you?
COOKE: DC was doing 100-page comics at that time. This was a detective comic, and it featured Batman. Because it was a hundred-pager it was 50¢, but I saw that it featured a bunch of these other characters and I thought, “Oh, this is cool, I can get a lot of stuff out of this one book. And I get a Batman story.” So I take it home, and I sit down to read this thing. And again, at this point, my perception is the Adam West Batman. And this is the Neal Adams-era Batman. So basically the story is about Batman watching some gangsters come out of a bank. And they shoot a couple that are in their way. And as they get away Batman realizes that these guys have just orphaned a young boy in the process of their robbery. And the story is just one of those systematic stories where Batman picks these guys off one by one. It’s a total mindfuck. It’s really brilliantly done, and in the end, it pays itself off properly. You get to the end, and I can remember this sneaking up on me ... Batman didn’t say a fucking word in that story! And you go back and you check, and he doesn’t have any dialogue, he doesn’t say a word. This is the perfect Batman story. That’s what did it. After that, I was completely and utterly sure that this was the most exciting thing in the world.
NASO: Were you shocked? You knew Batman from Adam West. How did you feel when you realized there were different ways of presenting the character?
COOKE: It was all perfect timing for me. Here I was, I was 13. I’m at the age where I shouldn’t be looking at comics. In that day and age, by 13, you should be well past that stuff, sonny boy. And here I was just discovering it. Seeing it as art, and exciting stories. I’m nervous about the idea of even liking them. I’d never stopped to think about a character in that sort of realistic or adult fashion. So it was the perfect time for me to experience it that way. It was like, “Wow, this is something I can grow into; it’s not just kid’s stuff.”
NASO: Did you study art in school?
COOKE: Well we had our regular art class in public and high school. I took as many art classes as I could in high school. I think one of the most important art classes I ever had ... in grade four they were experimenting with new and modern education methods at this point in time. My grade four class was selected for an experiment. I don’t know if they’d do something like that these days. We had 28 kids in the class, so they created six different centers with a certain number of seats. There was a list on the blackboard where you could sign in to any center you wanted. There was math center, spelling center, reading center, art center, history center, project center, this kind of stuff. I guess they were charting our interests over time. This was for a whole year. So, dude, I was in art center and project center forever [laughter]! And honestly, there was no direction whatsoever about where you went every day when you went into that class. If you could get into that center, you could stay there as long as you wanted. It would get to the point where you would feel guilty and go to math center once a week as penance for being able to enjoy school so much. I think there was a real explosion of creativity at that point in my life.
NASO: Sounds like that came at the perfect time for you.
COOKE: I feel like a lot of where I’ve ended up has to do with timing. Things come along at the right time and you get swept up in them. It’s never purer than it is when you’re young, when you’re going through these things for the first time.
NASO: Most superhero comics are published in America. Did you think you would have to leave Canada to pursue that interest in art?
COOKE: My first foray into comics came when I was 20, and I had just finished up with art college. I flew out to New York, and DC was starting up the New Talent Showcase where they were actively soliciting new people. I took a sample down there, to New York. And the editor of the book, coincidentally, was the guy who drew that Batman story “Night of the Stalker.”
NASO: That must have been great for you!
COOKE: Incredible. This was a day I will never forget. I remember I was sweating through this cheap suit I had gotten. Back then, they still had to wear ties at DC, jacket and tie. It was like a real office [laughs]. He took me in and he looked at the sample, and you could tell he liked it, but — and again, this shows where my head was at — this was a private-eye story. Not the superhero thing. He seemed to quite like it, and then — again, luck and timing — Julie Schwartz walks into the room to ask Sal a question. He’s like the granddaddy, he’s the big man at the time. Sal shows him my work and says, “Julie, look at this stuff. I think this kid’s pretty good. But he doesn’t draw the superheroes. What should we do with him?”
And Julie said, “Buy this,” and walked out of the room. They got me a voucher, and I remember half an hour later I was standing out on the street in New York, going “Wow! Incredible!” and thinking it was the beginning of a long and fruitful career in comics. So little did I know [laughter].
NASO: Did you get a chance to tell him that the Batman story had really affected you, and made you want to do this?
COOKE: I was not cocky. I was not the person I am now. I was scared to death. It was the first time I had been away from my family on my own, I was in New York, and New York then was not the New York it is now. So it was kind of a scary, exhilarating experience, but I was a lot quieter and just keeping my mouth shut, hoping everything would work out. A girl from my high school had become a model, and she was living down there, so I knew one person down there. That gave me enough gumption to go down and give it a shot.
NASO: That’s stuff our grandfathers used to do.
COOKE: It seemed like the only way. I guess I’ve always seen it that way. You just have to do something and then go, and say, “Here it is.” I’ve approached everything that way.
NASO: You went to America, and New York, to show your work. What cultural differences did you see then between Canada and America? What differences do you see now?
COOKE: Back then I was stunned by the size of New York City. I’d been to Florida with my folks as a kid, but you’re in that insulated environment where you’re on a holiday. My impression of Americans up until that point was simply, “Wow, these people sure do know how to fill a plate with food when you go to a restaurant, and they’re always polite.” [Laughter.] New York kind of changed that a little bit. I did get to experience some pretty wild stuff there. Jimmy Palmiotti, a dear friend of mine, calls Canada “America’s Hat.” [Laughter.] I ended up buying him a hat with a Canadian flag on it, and writing “America’s Hat.” There are so many similarities between us in terms of the culture that we consume, and the basics of the way we go about our lives. I think, ideologically, there are some real, essential differences between us as nations.
NASO: Such as?
COOKE: I think we’ve always been a more naturally inclusive place. When we were kids in school, the way they explained it to us was that Canada was made up of what they called the “cultural mosaic,” and America was the called the “melting pot.” Which is to say that when you go to America, you become an American. You assume the language and the custom and the culture and the food of the country.
COOKE: Whereas in Canada, the cultural differences were encouraged because of the variety they bring to our lives. I know that’s very broad, what I just said, but ... we’ve never attacked another country [laughter]. I’m clearly in love with the promise of America, and a lot of the things that I think have made it great. But at this point in time, there’s a great deal that you guys should be asking yourselves. Because I’m not sure you guys know who you are anymore. Only somebody naïve would think that Americans have never tortured somebody during times of war. I’m sure during World War II it happened, I’m sure it’s happened many, many times. Out of necessity, and on a personal level. But when you get to a point where you see that this is something that legislation is being massaged to accommodate, and where facilities are being used for that kind of thing, that’s the point where you’ve got to stop and go, “Whoa, wait a minute, who are we and what do we stand for? Because we put a certain message out there.”
NASO: We’re so inherently violent. I don’t know how that changes.
COOKE: You want to know an astonishing thing? I’d never believe this if I hadn’t seen the statistics. Per capita, Canadians own more guns. But we only use them to hunt animals out in the woods and shit. We actually own more guns.
NASO: Yes, and you have less violent gun deaths. Michael Moore’s film, Bowling For Columbine, talked about that.
COOKE: Yes; that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true, that it’s in a Michael Moore film. But this does happen to be a fact. And this is fascinating because I’ve always assumed that the amount of gun violence could be directly linked to the accessibility of guns. But, clearly not the case. Something else is predisposing it.
NASO: It just seems like Canada feels more of a sense of community than here. Americans just seem afraid of everything.
COOKE: Well, a lot of it has to do with the way the media reacts to things. There are generational biases at work, now. People are born into things that have nothing to do with them and are carrying the torch for shit that should have been abandoned a long time ago. And yeah, I lived in L.A. for couple years, and I found some of the things I encountered down there kind of disheartening. [Laughter.] Bracket, laughter, bracket!
INTO THE REAL WORLD
NASO: Let’s move on to your career. In your 20s you worked as an art director for a music magazine. How did that come about?
COOKE: Yeah, what happened was, I was going to college for a two-year course in graphic design. They kicked me out after the first year.
COOKE: I spent more time enjoying college than I did on my work.
NASO: Ogling girls and throwin’ back some bourbon?
COOKE: Yes, and generally learning how to live. That’s fact. I ended up working in a pub as a waiter for a year. And that’s when I got the comic-book work together. And it really didn’t go anywhere. And I was working at this bar, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, having a good time. There was a couple that came into the bar, every night practically, and it turned out they were the editor and art director, co-owners of this magazine, called the New Music Express, which was a version of England’s New Musical Express or something. Turns out, one night, they were saying they’d come in late because they had had to work late, because they got rid of their art director. So I went out the next day and I bought a copy of the magazine. Then I took a couple weeks at home using way-old markers and what I’d learned in college, and I redesigned the magazine. And then one night when they came in, I said, “Hey, would you take a look at this stuff?” And they ended up hiring me on. I was there for four years; it was a great time.
NASO: Did they incorporate your redesigns?
COOKE: Yeah, I was basically made the art director of the magazine, and they let me run with it from that point on. At the time, it was a black-and-white, tabloid-sized thing. Over four years, we went to full color and got American distribution, and it was just a great experience at that age. My God, people in interviews always say, “Was it breaking your heart in your 20s that you weren’t doing comics?” It’s like, are you out of your mind? I could go to any concert I wanted to, I got to do photo-shoots with incredible stars I would have never met otherwise, I got to be involved in all kinds of things. What a great scene!
NASO: What stars did you meet?
COOKE: Let’s see, Robert Plant, which, you know, huge! David Bowie.
NASO: Did this magazine cover all kinds of music?
COOKE: Yeah, it was all contemporary music. Which at that time, which is 1984, ’85, we’re talking about the tail end of punk, and British shit was coming out then. Music Express covered all the mainstream popular music across the board. And then we had a smaller magazine, called Metallion, which was a heavy-metal magazine that we put out every other month. That concentrated on all that heavy shit, like Metallica, Anthrax, Pantera. All that stuff went into Metallion.
NASO: What music were you into at that period?
COOKE: Pretty much everything but metal. The Clash was probably my favorite band. I was one of those guys ... I would throw down in a bar [laughter] if anyone talked shit about the Clash. I thought they were the greatest. Paul Weller, he had a band called The Jam and then a band called Style Council. Loved that stuff, too. Right across the board, I wasn’t really stuck in anything. So I would have the Marvin Gaye playing, and then go to the Van Halen show.
NASO: Is that what you still listen to?
COOKE: It’s funny, I don’t listen to music the way I used to. That’s for sure. I don’t pursue or keep up with it. Lately, I find if I like something, I like it. I’ve been listening to this Amy Winehouse lately.
NASO: Yeah, a lot of people have been telling me about her.
COOKE: Fuck dude, check that out. It could be such crap, but it’s not [laughter]. If they had had Beyonce’s arranger, it would just be the same old junk, but this woman is really talented, the lyrics are great, fresh arrangements. A lot of the stuff I listen to now is soundtrack stuff. I really like that Dave Mason, the guy who does all the Soderbergh films like Oceans 11 and Out of Sight. There’s a guy named Hans Zimmer. A lot of John Woo stuff. I find that stuff is a lot easier to work to.
NASO: So you do listen to music when you’re working.
COOKE: Sometimes. I’ll often listen to it first thing in the morning to kind of get myself revved up. I love Curtis Mayfield.
NASO: So you worked for this music magazine for four years, and then you got into animation after that. How did that come about?
COOKE: Actually, you missed one step. The icing on the cake was, I left the music magazine to work at a fashion magazine. I spent two years doing that type of work. I thought the music thing was fun, and then came the models [laughter].
NASO: What was that like?
COOKE: It was the best. It was absolutely the best job I could have possibly had at the age of 25.
NASO: What did you do for that magazine?
COOKE: I was an associate art director at Flair magazine here in Canada, so that involved design and layout on the pages, but also photo shoots.
NASO: That sounds pretty fun.
COOKE: The music magazine had been fun, but it had always been kind of an indy, guerrilla outfit. We never had budgets for creativity, we had to make our own funds, so to speak. At the fashion magazine I got to learn what it was like to go out and take pictures with a real budget, and a professional crew. I learned an incredible amount there about the way a production operates. It was out of there that I finally went out on my own and started a small company as a freelance graphic designer and art director. That led to animation.
NASO: Why did you decide that you wanted to start your own company?
COOKE: I think that as we compose our profiles here this afternoon on the telephone, a picture of a guy who doesn’t fit the corporate mold will probably emerge. I just wasn’t so aware of it at the time. At the time, you’re just doing things as you do them, in a sequence that seems to make sense. But it was the first time I’d stopped and looked and said, “I think I’d much rather try to do my own thing.” Based on the skills I had developed up to that point that I could make a living with, that meant a graphic-design studio.
NASO: What was it like when you first started that, and how long did you work as a freelance artist?
COOKE: It was really exciting. It was great to have a studio. There were a lot of problems with economics: You’re dealing with smaller clients, you’re trying to get paid. A lot of my clients were smaller fashion places that would go in and out of business. It was rough and it was a bunch of hard lessons in the degree to which you can take people on faith, or what it is you’re really dealing with when you’re out there on your own. It was a great deal of fun and it gave me the skills to move forward in any direction I wanted to, because I always knew, “OK, I know what it’s like to be out on my own and have to try to make it happen. I think I can do that.” It gave me the confidence to go out and try the other things that I wanted to do.
NASO: It sounds like it’s the beginning of you wanting to take ownership of your work.
COOKE: At that point in time, no. I was living in a very commercial world. What I was doing was either a magazine layout that would get flipped through, consumed and discarded, or it was advertising through and through. So there’s a sales agenda behind what I was doing. I couldn’t look at it as taking ownership and I certainly didn’t at that point. I just thought, “Shit, I can do this better and cheaper than these other guys.”
THE BAT & THE BOY SCOUT
NASO: How did you get involved with the WB animation team then?
COOKE: I started using a computer in ’86. The woman who ran the music magazine was, in her own way, a very forward-thinking woman. She hooked us up with a rudimentary network and typesetting system. So I learned how to use a computer fairly early on, so I had no fear of it. I remember as I got into doing more advertising work, I realized that there was a lot of animation being produced for commercials. Animation had always been another lifetime love, something I had been into since I was a kid, and had studied. Around that time I got hold of what they call a “presentation reel,” that shows you a studio’s commercials. And this animation studio had used Adobe Premier to do a beer commercial, and when I saw it I went, “Shit! They found a way to do this without a camera stand and all that film and stuff. They’re doing it on the computer.” It was very primitive at that point, but it was achievable. I researched it, and I went to one of the people I’d been doing work for because I knew they got animated work done from other people, and I said, “I can do better for you price-wise, and I want the work. Can we talk about it?” That got me into animating, through the studio. We never made any money. Back then the technology changed every six months so drastically, you had to re-fit yourself completely. We didn’t really make any dough, but we made a lot of work.
NASO: And you got the experience.
COOKE: Again, all of this, little do you know, is leading somewhere as you go through it. You’re just trying to get through it. At that point, I wasn’t keeping up with comics regularly, I would drop into the store maybe four times a year. In this regard, the Journal has a lot to do with it. I picked up a Comics Journal at the store one day, and on the inside back cover was an ad for the WB shows. It was a Bruce Timm illustration of Superman and Batman at a drawing table saying, “We need artists for this show,” and it said they wanted designers, storyboard artists, et cetera. And I thought “Holy Shit!” because I would have thought they had everybody they needed and more. I would have thought guys were lined up around the block to work on it.
So I go home, and I immediately whipped up a little sequence. At that time I had just bought the Batman: Animated book. It had a few samples of Bruce’s storyboards, so I could see the format that they used. There was enough of the screen direction written on it that I could see the language they were using, so I just went ahead and did one. I inked it up, and I made it look as slick as I could at the time. I made it as close to Bruce’s work as possible. Sent it down there, and bang, they phoned me and said, “Yeah, do you want to work on the show?”
NASO: Did you have to move to America to do this?
COOKE: No, for the first little while, I freelanced for them from Toronto. What ended up happening was, I had to make a choice between what I was doing and pursuing the storyboards. It was like, drawing Batman for comics would be great … I had already pitched at this point and gotten very little response from DC. It didn’t go anywhere. And this happens a couple years later, and now all of a sudden, I’m working on this show, which I think is 100 times better than the comics, so I was happier than hell about it and really proud to be a part of it. I remember it was the first time where I was doing something where I knew in my heart I felt like, “I want to be doing this 100 percent.” Not “I’m going to make this as creative as I can, I’ll do what I can with this.” It was like, “Man, I am exactly where I want to be.”
NASO: So did you become full-time with them?
COOKE: Yeah, eventually. I met all the guys in San Diego that year I flew down for the convention, and they’re a pretty good bunch of guys. The production manager asked me if I was interested in coming down to work there, in the studio, and I told him I had to think about it. I really didn’t want to live in America, I’m going to be quite honest with you. I’m Canadian. I love being a Canadian. And L.A.? There’s two quotes I’d like to throw out there about L.A., and one is from David Lee Roth: “If you look at the United States as a board game, and you picked it up and shook it, all the loose pieces would fall into California.” [Laughter.] David Bowie was a little more succinct, he said, “That place should be wiped off the face of the fucking earth.” [More laughter.] Hey there, Mr. Editor, make sure you put the laughter in after that one. But honestly, I had no desire to actually live in L.A. But I knew, it was the first time I realized that I was being handed an opportunity to be a part of something that was never going to come around again this way.
NASO: Sounds like you’re on the cutting edge of, first of all, a legendary show, but also of this computer animation. That’s a big thing.
COOKE: It was a really great time. I ended up making the decision to move down there simply because I wanted to be able to say, 20 years later, “I was there, I was a part of it.” There will never be another place like that … the circumstances, the timing, the support we got from upstairs, the youthful energy that Paul and Bruce and Alan Burnett and Eric Radomski — people like that — brought to it, the bubble it existed in for as long as it did. All those elements, having them all come together, getting all that talent together, it was just an incredible time. So I moved down there for a while because I wanted to be a part of it. I’m really glad I did, because it was the first time I got to go into work every day doing something I loved, with guys who were more talented than me. Knew more about it than I did.
NASO: That really helps you grow as an artist.
COOKE: Oh yeah, if you have any sort of competitive streak, it really lights a fire under you. In that regard, you’d walk into work any given day, and there’s Bruce Timm, and Shane Glines, Glen Murakami, these brilliant artists. You can’t help but get excited and learn. Great time.
NASO: Let’s talk about the shows you worked on, and what you did for them.
COOKE: I guess I started on Batman. I was involved in the last Batmans, the ones that were done after the re-design. I think the re-design made it a superior-looking show.
NASO: Oh, I agree. The black outfit …
COOKE: Yes, it’s like night and day what happened with that show. Wonderful time to get involved. I was a storyboard artist, basically. I worked on four episodes of Batman. The first one was “The Ultimate Thrill,” which features Roxy Rocket. I got to do a chase scene in that, which, to this day is still one of my favorite bits of animation that I got to work on. Probably one of the things people will remember out of the work I did at this point was, I storyboarded the Frank Miller Dark Knight sequence for the animated series. That was a real challenge. I also worked on Superman, and did a handful of episodes there. I guess my favorite Superman that I got to work on was the very last one, the last show of the series. It was called “Legacy.” It’s the one where we tied up the whole Apokolips story.
NASO: Where he beats the crap out of Darkseid?
COOKE: Yes. I got to storyboard Act Three with Bruce, for that show. He did the fight with Darkseid, and I did everything that led up to it. That was really great, to work with him on that particular ending. To that series. I thought it was a terrific ending.
NASO: It was the best Superman episode.
COOKE: Dude, this is where you just have to hand it to Bruce and Paul. Man alive, they really understood how to get these characters to reach the heights of their potential. I guess after Superman, we get to Batman Beyond.
NASO: Right. You designed the opening sequence for that. Can you talk about what went into coming up with that concept and creating it?
COOKE: We’d all been down there for a while, and it was a positive work experience. So at one point — we would go out to have a cigarette — the show was beginning to be put together and Bruce said to me, “You know that stuff you do, you know that computer-animated stuff you do?” He had seen my reel of work from the commercial stuff, and some video work. He said, “Could you do that kind of thing for the show?” And we just started talking about it.
Basically, between us, Bruce had some definite ideas about what he wanted, and he had some music. Most of the introductions to an animated show, they’re clips that are pulled out of episodes, or they’re planned down to the frame, and the music is created to go with it. And that’s why, basically, they are all so lame [laughter]. If you don’t mind my saying. We went the other way. I had said to Bruce, “What if we don’t worry about shot duration so much, as we just put together a bunch of really great shots and then we edit them to the music, the way you would with a movie trailer or a rock video?” He said, yeah, that sounded fine to him. So what we did was, we started coming up with shot ideas. Tons of shot ideas. Then I would sit down and figure out how to actually execute them. For the most part, you generate one shitload of animation. All the guys in the studio who had the facility or skill got involved in a shot or two here or there. We spread a lot work out that way.
Bruce got as heavily involved as I’ve seen him get involved in anything. He had a great time with it. He took 3-D sculpts of some of the characters and shot them with a video camera. Then he’d bring it in and go, “Check this out, I shot this at home last night.” Then I would take it and import it into the computer, and filter and enhance it and put a compound camera move on it. We built the shots without any real regard for continuity. We knew we needed a couple of money shots here and there, we wanted to show some villains, we wanted to show this and that, and we built this palette. Then I sat down with the music and cut it together. We ended up with somewhere around six or eight shots that didn’t even make it in. We just ended up dumping them because there was nowhere to fit them.
If you were to sit and go through there shot by shot, you’ve got probably over 1,000 of my drawings in there. There was no budget, and at that point in time, they didn’t even know how it was being done. That whole sequence was composed in my spare bedroom on my personal Mac. They didn’t even have a Mac at Warner’s. They didn’t know you could do animation on a PC. This was something I was doing in the spare bedroom of my place. I had a video card in the machine and that would allow me to offload the clips onto a half-inch tape. Then I would just bring them into the studio. We’d take a look at that, and when the shot was approved it would get logged and we’d move on to composing the next one. For the most part, people would think when they watched it, “Oh my God, they must have marshaled all the technical forces that Warners had at their disposal to pull that off.” No, no. That’s one guy in his bedroom at home.
NASO: That’s great, that makes it better!
COOKE: I’ll tell you, it’s working with a guy like Bruce. He had the trust, and he knew what he wanted, and he let me do it, and he didn’t ask me a bunch of questions about how. We didn’t get bogged down in the checks and balances that most of these things run through. That’s another part of what made the studio such a special place; you weren’t coming up against a lot of the nonsense.
NASO: So what did you think overall of the Batman Beyond show?
COOKE: We all thought we’d done an incredibly good job with what was kind of a disheartening mandate from the network. The show was born out of the network’s request: They wanted Batman of the future. Bruce Wayne was old hat. You can see how bad that could have gone in the hands of anybody else. As legend would have it, or as Bruce has told us, he kind of mentioned the idea that Bruce Wayne is an old guy now, and this young kid takes over the mantle, and they all thought it was kind of a cool idea, and it went from there. It was exciting.
NASO: How did you decide to actually have Bruce Wayne/Batman in there as a mentor, how did that come up?
COOKE: I think that was something Bruce came up with to help the idea make sense to him and give it a story continuity that would make it work for new and old fans. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and “Old man Wayne” was kind of a cool character. I don’t know if we exploited him as much as we could have. I do know I wanted to play him a little more sinister. I remember seeing where he’s on a cell phone talking to Terry and you can’t see what he’s doing, but he’s outside in the backyard at Wayne Manor. He’s throwing something as he’s talking, and we’re hearing these noises, and as he says goodbye and hangs up we pull out wide and we see he’s been throwing these huge roasts to his Dobermans. They’re just tearing them apart, he’s got this big pile of bloody meat out on the table that he’s throwing it to his dogs. And they were like, “Uhhh, no. We’ll take that out.” [Laughter.]
NASO: I loved Batman Beyond, but it seemed to me like there was a lot more story to tell; like it got cut off before you could have really gotten into more.
COOKE: I can’t say for sure. I do know that I remember my impressions of things better than I remember the actual facts, so let’s get that out of the way. But my understanding was that the network really disliked the show, despite the fact that it was a huge hit for them. It really rated well. But the minute they could cut it off, they did. The minute they were syndicatable, they wanted it done because it didn’t reflect what they wanted for the network at that time. They thought the show was way too violent and played it a little fast and loose.
NASO: They wanted more kid-friendly fare.
COOKE: Yes. So they wrapped that show up long before the audience was tired of it. I think the other problem was writer fatigue. I feel that by the time we got into season two with Batman Beyond, things got a little more Scooby-Doo. You watch the “Spellbinder” episode — this is for the people who know the show — it can only be one guy! You meet the high-school guidance counselor and the villain one scene apart. There’s nobody else! Jesus Christ, I guess it’s the high-school counselor! In that regard, as a board artist, you’re trying to defeat that stuff all the time. Make it exciting, make it work. If you’re given something that’s so completely stupid and nonsensical, you just try to get through it quickly and then blow something else up, fast. Distract your viewer, use Kirby’s approach, just keep moving.
NASO: Do you think there’s any chance for it to make a comeback, or another TV movie, or is Batman Beyond dead?
COOKE: I have no idea if it would ever resurface. I don’t think there’s any talk about it resurfacing, quite frankly. Warner Brothers seems to be going through a fundamental shift away from this stuff and branching out into different approaches with the characters.
NASO: It didn’t seem like DC capitalized on Batman Beyond in the comics universe. Do you feel like they could have done more with it in comics?
COOKE: I think that in the comic world, it suffered the same fate. I don’t think that DC has historically taken well to the idea of comics that involve their characters out of other media. For example, I don’t know if you remember this, but it took Bill Jemas publicly saying he was going to get the license to do a Smallville comic, that’s what forced DC eventually to do it. Here’s a hit show, number one in its time slot a lot of the time, and they don’t leverage that and seem reluctant to.
NASO: It’s crazy. I can’t believe they wouldn’t advertise the comics, any Superman comics, at the end of the show, or cross-market with the comic line.
COOKE: It has a lot to do with the cost of advertising on television and the fact that they haven’t built deals about getting that coverage. You’d think every property they sold to TV would come with a contract guarantee that they get a 10-second sting at the end of every episode. But it does seem a shame that they aren’t able to redirect audiences.
NASO: I would have liked to have seen Batman Beyond in the more mainstream DC universe, and not a separate, kid’s animated book.
COOKE: I would bet at one point, a relatively lazy comic writer will decide the event is to get rid of Batman and bring in a new one, and they’ll rip the idea off and refit it. Which is fair game. I mean, that’s all Bruce and Paul did with all of it.
NASO: A lot of people view the WB animated superhero shows as classics that really capture the essence of the comic-book characters more than the comics. What are you thoughts on the legacy of WB animation?
COOKE: When you get down to basically television animation in North America, you’ve got Hanna Barbera and you’ve got Timm and Dini. Everything else falls somewhere in between and below. Hanna Barbera figured out how to make television animation affordable enough to create. So they created the market. Unfortunately, they could never find a way to make it look good. I don’t mean stylistically. Their designs were great, but their animation was severely limited by the budget. What ended up happening was, the notion of an adventure cartoon always labored under the idea that it couldn’t be done right. And then along came Bruce and Paul and Allen, and they proved that it could be done right. They were so clearly superior to anything that had ever been done before, and to this day I think it still remains unsurpassed. There’s been other good work done since they started, but it’s all work that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for them. I don’t think you can underestimate the importance. The world standard for adventure cartooning.
NASO: I think that’s why a lot of people are excited about the DC animated films that are coming up.
COOKE: Woo hoo. I know I’m excited.
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