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Superhero illustrator Darwyn Cooke draws on 1980s Toronto for his Revengeance series

neYou can tell by the way Darwyn Cooke raves about the design elements of an old Toronto coffee shop that he spent his early creative career as a magazine art director. The Lite Bite Coffee Shop, which resided at the downtown corner of Queen and Spadina in the 1980s, features prominently in Cooke’s new three-issue comic, Revengeance (Image Comics), the first of which appears in June.

“I’m using real Toronto places, like the Stem and the Gem Bar & Grill. There was a joint back then on Isabella called the Domino Club, a punk venue. It was maybe 30 feet square and had stainless-steel floors, full of kids dressed like animals throwing bottles at each other.”

Cooke, 52, now resides in Nova Scotia, but 30 years ago worked in the Hogtown office for Music Express magazine. That lively stretch of his twenties is a loose inspiration for Revengeance.

“The arts scene in Toronto back then was great,” he recalls. “There was Reactor studios; Paul Rivoche was doing incredible work. I think the city has a reputation for being uptight and closed off, but if you were in certain circles it was an incredible place. For me it was a time of wild adventure.”

But he’s quick to qualify: though there are autobiographical notes in Revengeance, the main character, Joe Malarky, isn’t actually Darwyn Cooke. “He’s the most callous and entertaining parts of me, boiled down into a little piece of dark matter,” says Cooke. “And while the story is going to be a noir thriller, it’s surreal – it goes into areas of humour, darkness, and delusion that will, I think, distinguish it. The hero – protagonist is probably a better word – is a very liberal, non-violent guy.”

Crime drama is a familiar genre for the award-winning artist and writer, who worked in animation and on superhero material for DC comics, including the 2001 redesign of Catwoman. From 2009 to 2013, he wrote and illustrated four graphic novels for IDW Publishing adapted from Donald Westlake’s (writing as Richard Stark) hard-boiled Parker books. Revengeance is Cooke’s first creator-owned series.

Artist Michael Cho – the creative mind behind Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes (Drawn & Quarterly), a collection of drawings of Toronto – has known Cooke for a decade, and calls him a master.

“He’s one of the best cartoonists working today,” says Cho. “He’s fundamentally strong and has a unique voice.”

The two artists share similar inspirations, including the work of Frank Robbins, Milton Caniff, and Jack Kirby. Cooke also credits David Lynch as an influence on Revengeance, particularly the filmmaker’s book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity.

“Lynch explains his creative process, how he has certain thoughts that lead him in certain directions,” Cooke says. “I was quite taken by it, so I took this basic thriller plot and applied that kind of thinking.

“I thought, ‘This is going to be more personal than I’d originally expected.’ I decided to place it in a world I knew and had been a part of.” – Carsten Knox

This story appeared in Q&Q’s graphica spotlight in the May 2015 print issue.