Some of us think Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) wrote some of the finest hardboiled fiction ever under the psuedonym Richard Stark, telling tales of Parker, a remorseless criminal so confidently tough, you can’t help but root for him. And some of us also think adapting literature — even pop lit like thrillers — as “graphic novels” is almost always a mistake.

How nice it is to be surprised: Artist Darwyn Cooke’s brand-new rendering of the very first Parker novel, 1962’s The Hunter, is joltingly good.

On sale today, Richard Stark’s The Hunter, “adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke,” as it says on the cover, is a tremendous feat of compression and interpretation. When Westlake wrote as Richard Stark, he wrote starkly, using minimal description and the tersest dialogue. Cooke, perhaps best known for his work on DC: The New Frontier and another remarkable adaptation, his reinvention of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, somehow pares down the story of The Hunter even more radically than the Stark novel.

The story is simple: Parker is out for revenge against someone who double-crossed and robbed him. Cooke’s drawings are severe slashes that render Parker’s face as a hatchet with expression; the women in the book have big, soft eyes and plush bodies; Parker’s male foes are beady-eyed smart-alecks who never truly comprehend Parker’s controlled fury.

Cooke may have been helped by The Hunter‘s tightly-constructed action plot. (It was nearly ready-made to become a screenplay when director John Boorman turned it into the 1967 pop-art thriller Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin.) (There was also a lousy 1999 Mel Gibson movie based on it, Payback.) But only a first-rate interpreter such as Cooke could give this book-length comic strip its relentless momentum and bone-dry humor.

Let’s hope this is the first in a series of Parker/Cooke adventures from publisher IDW Publishing.