Slayground is the fourth adaptation by Darwyn Cooke of one of the Parker-themed crime novels of “Richard Stark” (Donald Westlake) to the graphic novel format. As in the previous three instances, Cooke proves himself to be simply one of the best comic book creators currently working, fashioning with seeming effortlessness a brilliant, gripping retelling that honors Westlake’s original while bringing to the table all the unique pleasures of the graphic novel medium.
Westlake’s novel occurs in the long-running series after a dozen or so predecessors, and, as Charles Ardai mentions in his introduction to the 2010 reprinting, innovates the usual formula. Stark gives us Parker, our criminal antihero, on his lonesome, instead of in a gang effort. The caper this time is exiguous, a throwaway incident that propels Parker into a trap. Fleeing a crashed getaway vehicle and the cops soon to arrive, Parker immures himself in the nearest available refuge, a winter-blanketed, shut-down amusement park named Fun Island. Local crooks and two corrupt cops spot him going to ground with his haul of $73,000 and determine to have it for themselves. What follows is a kind of surreal, ironic, urbanized take on “The Most Dangerous Game.” Human predators and prey stalking and being stalked in a setting ostensibly devoted to tepid amusements.
With his usual verbal skill and economy, Westlake conjures up the enclosed venue with vivid tactile imagery. He breaks away from Parker’s point of view for a long section in which we get to know the bad guys intimately. Then he returns the camera to Parker’s shoulders for the rest of the unpredictable cat-and-mouse hunt. And Westlake is careful to stack the odds against the brutal Parker so as to engender sympathy and concern.
Cooke emulates the Master but adds his own storytelling fillips, both verbal and visual. Most of the dialogue and narration is lifted straight from Westlake’s text in judiciously selected pieces. But new additions enhance the characterization and action. For instance, we know the accomplice Grofield better when Cooke has him flippantly address the getaway driver with, “Twice around the park, driver. We’re new in town.” Likewise, Cooke changes the identity of one of the mobsters to make the emotional resonances of the vendetta against Parker stronger. He also takes a couple of scenes that are underplayed and less dramatic in the Westlake book — Parker’s capture of the cops; an electrocution; Parker’s rooftop escape — and jazzes them up with extra physical action.
How does Cooke manage to compress over 180 pages of wordage into roughly 80 pages of comic?By overlapping words and pictures to do double duty.For instance, in the original novel Parker discovers a box of knives that will come into play. That scene takes up about half a page of words. In Cooke’s version, the knife business takes up merely two panels — and the accompanying text is about something else entirely, delivering extra information painlessly. This condensation and overlapping allows for some clever new bits, such as the fold-out map and brochure for Fun Island, which Westlake can only hint at.
Cooke’s character designs are as awesome as always, with Parker his usual stoic loner self — but with those humanizing moments of vulnerability, such as on the pages where he’s naked and hallucinating after his ice water dip. All the mooks sport a gallery of unforgettable faces. And big shots Lozini senior and junior are old-school ethnic without being stereotypes. My favorite design is perhaps that of the younger cop, who reminds me of Joe Palooka or Little Abner or some Eisneresque flatfoot. And the characteristic tinted color scheme this time around employs a classic gray-blue tint that aids in evoking the wintry vibe.
This book, a bit shorter than the other adaptations, is fleshed out with a separate story, “The 7eventh,” which has Parker stalking his victim through a construction site, in a wry flipbook inversion of the main tale. But the main story is so suspenseful and wrenching and satisfying, thanks to Westlake’s original genius and Cooke’s simpatico craft (missing only a few femmes fatales for perfection), that the extra sideshow feels like one of the less-visited pavilions at the slayground.