The character of Parker has turned out to be the perfect match for Darwyn Cooke's artistic and creative sensibilities. While it's abundantly clear that he can turn his hand to any era, Cooke's style of illustration has always had its visual roots in the mid-20th century, evoking an era of slick, exciting, jazzy cool. Additionally, although he's dabbled heavily in superheroics, his storytelling interests have always swayed towards the crime genre, from his noirish take on Catwoman, through to the detective activities the Spirit, and now onto these adaptations of Richard Stark's Parker novels. It's one of those cases where, having seen the finished work, you couldn't imagine any writer/artist other than Cooke pulling it off with such effortless brilliance.
Although it works as a standalone read, The Outfit is effectively a continuation of last year's The Hunter. Parker made his feelings clear to the Outfit last time around: leave me alone and I leave you alone. The message doesn’t seem to have sunk in properly though and Parker discovers there's a price on his head following an assassination attempt he thwarts with relative ease. He doesn't like the idea of having to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life so he sets a plan in motion. Outfit joints have previously been off limits for career thieves but Parker gets in touch with various old cronies and arranges for a host of Outfit operations to get hit at once. Understandably, the Outfit head honcho isn't pleased and redoubles his efforts to take Parker down, but Parker has other angles to work and is prepared to carry his grievances directly to the top.
Structurally, The Outfit is quite different from The Hunter, which more or less had an A to B narrative. First off, The Outfit contains an extended flashback that was previously issued as The Man With The Getaway Face earlier this year. While it was effective as a self-contained read, in this context, as part of a bigger picture, layers of the story that were previously hidden suddenly manifest themselves. Cooke breaks things up further when he tackles several of the heists performed on various Outfit establishments: one is relayed in prose with only a couple of illustrations; another employs a far more exaggerated, cartoonish art style; the last relies on stripped back linework to tell its tale.
From an artist standpoint, it's a marvellously inventive approach, showing how Cooke grasps the various possibilities the comic book medium has to offer. It does break the momentum of the story though; The Hunter felt like a hardboiled, unstoppable juggernaut, smashing its way towards its conclusion, but The Outfit - because of its structure and the portrayal of Parker as man not fuelled by the same level of violence as before - can't match the impact of the first book. It has many bruising moments, but The Hunter had you in a headlock from its opening page.
This is a minor quibble though as The Outfit is still a prime example of contemporary comics storytelling at its finest. Cooke's now halfway through his project to release four Parker graphic novels and all the signs suggest that, once completed, it will be viewed as one of the most important, vital additions to the medium in recent times. 9/10