Tangled Webs: Darwyn Cooke’s Spider-Man


SantaWriter/ artist Darwyn Cooke passed away earlier this weekend after fighting an aggressive form of cancer. He is best known for his DC work, especially the Elseworlds project New Frontier, but he also had a solid take on Spider-Man in his two issues of TANGLED WEB, holiday stories which captured his trademark storytelling abilities and sense of humor.

Darwyn Cooke tried to get into the comics industry in 1985, but went on to make a living as an art designer instead. He would work as a storyboard artist in DC’s 1990s animated series. That led to his breakout book, the one-shot BATMAN: EGO. He is credited for having a cartoony and retro style, exemplified in his best-known work, the mini-series NEW FRONTIER, which combined events from Silver Age DC with the historical context of the time. Other work included the first year of DC’s revival of Will Eisner’s THE SPIRIT, two BEFORE WATCHMEN mini-series set in the 1960s, and a series of graphic novels adapting Donald Westlake’s 1960s Parker series of crime thrillers. While he has a reputation for old-fashioned subject matter, it’s not entirely by choice. He did say in an interview that this was the main type of work he was offered.

His Tangled Web issues came at a time when Marvel spent several years consistently commissioning shorter Spider-Man stories for anthologies.  It started with the WEBSPINNERS monthly series during the 1998 relaunch, which was supposed to cover untold tales. That was followed by a succession of mini-series. The launch of TANGLED WEB coincided with the beginning of J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr’s run of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The plan was to get unconventional talent like Garth Ennis, Eduardo Risso, Paul Pope and Peter Milligan to tell stories of the people affected by Spider-Man. Cooke had two double-length issues dealing with the holidays. 

TANGLED WEB #11 was a Valentine’s Day story focusing primarily on a night when Spider-Man was passed out after a fight with the Vulture. Darwyn Cooke was credited as the penciller, with frequent collaborator Jay Bone as the inker.

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Flash Thompson and J. Jonah Jameson are both part of the story, but Cooke primarily deals with new characters: journalism intern Spencer, two employees of the Coffee Bean, and two women at the Daily Bugle who think they have a date with the absent-minded Peter Parker. If this was the first issue of a longer run, it would have been a solid introduction to a new supporting cast.

Cooke played with the form in clever ways, starting with the opening page.

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The main story is told in an exxaggerated style, even for Cooke. But then he apes other styles for sequences where two women imagine the type of guy they think Peter Parker is. They don’t know it, but they have a sense of the two sides of the wallcrawler.

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His return to TANGLED WEB was a Christmas story. This time, Jay Bone was the penciller and Darwyn Cooke was the inker. You’d think that a writer/ artist telling another extra-length holiday story might get repetitive, but Cooke has different material this time around. There are some commonalities with Jonah and Flash Thompson having major roles. However, there’s also more focus on Peter Parker, whose private life is a different place, since this is set during the marriage. The main reason for his troubles this time around is the concern that he won’t be with his wife on Christmas Eve. Spoiler: it ends up working out. 

 

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The issue includes a team-up with other superheroes, as well as some fights against them due to misundetstandings. The bad guy comes from one of their titles. A subplot involves the Fantastic Four, and Sue Storm’s friends as they try to get Christmas gifts for the likes of Black Bolt and Franklin Richards. A running gag concerns Sue’s worries that a playset of his family is not an appropriate gift for her son.

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If Cooke’s first issue would have been a strong opening for a longer run on one of the main Spider-Man titles, this would have been a great beginning for a new MARVEL TEAM-UP series.

You could hand either issue to a younger reader unfamiliar with the character, or an older reader who was around during the Silver Age, and both should be able to enjoy it. These ended up being Cooke’s main contributions to Spider-Man, although I think both will be fondly remembered years from now. He also had a nice Black Cat commission sketch.

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A retrospective image of characters he’s worked with also had Spider-Man in a central role.

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See also…

Brian Cronin covered TANGLED WEB #11 for his “Year of Good Comic Book Moments” series. 

Wildman of Spiderfan reviewed both issues.

Mark Ginnochio reviewed the Christmas issue for his Chasing Amazing blog.

Bleeding Cool listed the praise comics professionals had for Cooke when news of his medical problems and death was made public.

Cameron Stewart recalled Cooke as a friend and mentor.

Cooke did a piece about his origin story for the SOLO anthology that has been posted online.

Tom Beland, a cartoonist who has also done some scattered Spider-Man work, did a lovely tribute.

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It was based on his favorite scene from NEW FRONTIER.

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Thomas Mets isn’t going to pretend the TANGLED WEB issues are on the level of NEW FRONTIER, or even SOLO #5. But it’s still highly recommended.