Farewell to Jim Cooke, the Greatest Art Director Alive

Illustration: Angelica Alzona

If you’ve ever enjoyed the art on any of our websites in their various iterations over the past decade, you have one man to thank: creative director, illustrator, designer, and art team father-of-four Jim Cooke.

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Jim built Gizmodo Media’s identity from the ground up, creating a distinct and dynamic visual language that worked seamlessly with the voice of over half a dozen sites. Starting in 2006 as a freelance illustrator for Deadspin, he soon became the creative director for the entire Gawker network and eventually turned his one-man operation into a full-fledged art department.

The first thing we have to mention is the sheer amount of work the man has done in the past decade, sometimes toiling away on—we shit you not—seven pieces in a single day, many in less than an hour. Jim consistently pumped out work that ranged from brilliant, to poignant, to truly disturbing with a speed and precision we’re sure he sold his soul for. If there were an Olympic medal for illustration, he’d have several.

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You might know Jim from the time he accidentally became an international symbol of women’s reproductive freedom. Or maybe he’s the guy that carved “Blood Week” into his own thigh for Deadspin. You probably don’t know him as a Karaoke superstar, but from our experience, we think that’s for the best. We know him as the quiet, endlessly humble man that single-handedly created the industry’s best (and only) in-house art team of its kind.

Each and every one of the sites lost a piece of its soul last Friday. We won’t be the same without you, Jim.

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Angelica Alzona, Deputy Art Director

I knew two modes of Jim. First, the gentle, dadly one, fidgeting if we stared at him all at once. A few drinks in at the Deadspin Awards, reminiscing about the wild old Gawker days of his 20s. Standing patiently in line at Dave & Busters during an art team outing, kid in tow, just to watch me play a clumsy round of DDR. Sending us wild photos from Providence of his chaotic son doing chaotic things.

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Then there’s Powerhouse Jim: focused and decisive, solving every problem that came in with deftness and wit, who held our work to the high standard he knew we were capable of.

Illustrators 60 Award Ceremony, 2018

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Jim has had an immeasurable impact on my process. Squint and you’ll see Jim in the way I think, the way I work, my approach to every piece. He always pushed me to go further, to not settle for the obvious solution. He was brilliant, adaptive, unbound to any style or method. He knows that a story’s illustration is not meant to be redundant, but complementary.

Jim, you’ve been both a mentor and a friend. Thank you for the past four and a half years. I’m the artist I am today because of you.

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Elena Scotti, Photo Director

I’m not sure what to say. I still can’t believe our fearless leader and father of the art department is gone. I remember the first time I ever met Jim, it was at the holiday party in 2016 and he was dressed as a skeleton that he’d painted himself, obviously. This was one of Victor’s parties, iykyk:

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I don’t think I ever told Jim this but when I was starting out working as an intern I’d always check out Gawker and all the other sites to read the awesome work they were doing, but mainly I was there to see what Jim was making. When I found out I was going to be joining his team I couldn’t believe it. This person whose work I admired and followed for years was going to be my boss. As you can imagine, I was incredibly nervous and equally as excited. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Jim for almost four years. In that time I learned more from him than I ever did from any professor or any class I’ve ever taken. I’m so grateful for everything Jim’s taught me I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank him enough.

Illustration: Elena Scotti

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Everyone here is going to tell you how incredibly talented Jim Cooke is and they’ll also probably tell you how his work made this company special. And they’re going to tell you how he has this amazing ability to elevate every story he touches with even the most simple illustration. All of this is true. But what they might not tell you is how he does it. How he can somehow thoughtfully work on ten different things at once while also giving art direction and managing a team of people without ever complaining or breaking a sweat. Even after he’d left New York and was working remotely he was somehow still able to give the same level of art direction that he gave us in person. He’s that good. And in the last few months, he was doing it all with two kids at home. Jim’s the type of guy who isn’t phased by anything though. He’s casually brilliant, has the patience of a saint and a sense of humor that’s gross yet refined at the same time. I’m really going to miss working with him. I just hope that wherever Jim lands next they know how lucky they are to have him. Thank you so much for everything. I really don’t know what we’re gonna do without you. <3

Chelsea Beck, Staff Illustrator

I tried to spoof Jim’s iconic, unhinged Blood Week badge by carving his name into my thigh. This is how far I got.

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I had to dig pretty far back in my files to find it, but in March of 2016, when I was an art school senior, I wrote a fake cover letter to “Mr. Cooke” (lol) for my “dream job” which was… as it turns out, the job I’d have in about a year and a half from then. On the morning of my interview in October 2017, I nervously ran through my favorite Gawker pieces in my head, hoping to impress my would-be boss with my crazed interest. I was familiar with his work but had no real concept of Jim as a person. Based on what I’d seen of his illustration, I was expecting a flamboyant genius New York artist type in thick glasses who would immediately judge me based on my portfolio’s lack of dick jokes. What I got instead was a disarmingly nervous guy in jeans with the energy of a friendly dad standing behind you in line at the grocery store picking up a six-pack.

While Jim himself was kind of a surprise, working under him was far more challenging, rewarding, and fun than what I had imagined when I wrote that weird cover letter. At the risk of getting too goopy and blowing my whole cover as a giant pain in the ass, Jim has always been my hero and through the last three years of working with him I’ve maintained that he’s the artist I hope to be someday. I’ll be lucky if I get halfway there.

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Ben Currie, Staff Illustrator

Illustration: Ben Currie

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Jim is such an amazing person and the best boss that I’ve ever had. He is the most hardworking person that I have ever had the pleasure of working with, and it has been an honor learning from him. I will miss his kickass art direction, but I will miss his awkward dad jokes even more. I will always be grateful to him for giving me a chance and welcoming me into the art fam. This job changed my life. Love ya Jim, and the warmest of wishes for whatever comes next.

Stephen Totilo, Editor-in-Chief, Kotaku

Jim Cooke, like many people who’ve worked at this company over the years, was (and is) the best in their field. The best art director. The best person to field such extremely professional requests as “Sorry, we ran a story 10 minutes ago that looks like shit. Can you help me in some way?” The best person to make me feel like I am losing my mind when I mention a very popular thing about video games that causes him to look at me blankly (okay, maybe that’s actually John Cook, no relation).

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Jim was making art for Gawker Media sites since the Denton days, initially working with just for the allegedly cool sites. You know: Gawker, Jezebel, and Deadspin. Let’s just assume they needed more help. Eventually, though, Jim got a broader mandate and a bigger team, and Kotaku was graced with myriad excellent illustrations by Jim and his crew.

Thank you, Jim, for literally making us look better.

Tom Scocca, Former Gawker Editor

Jim Cooke was the most talented person at Gawker Media, but also almost certainly the most professional and unquestionably the possessor of the finest editorial judgment. Nobody did better work, or more work, or did it longer, and nobody else came remotely close to doing it for the benefit of so many other people—whether they were one-shot freelancers or fellow Gawker longtimers, whether they were writing diligently reported investigations or wrenching personal essays or unhinged jeremiads or goofball quick blogs. Weekend after weekend, with a grueling week behind him, he would turn his attention to the Saturday essays, usually by writers he’d never met, often new to professional writing and at their most vulnerable, and he’d find a way to give them something sensitive and distinctive and true. Everything he touched (and he had a hand in a truly indefensible volume of work) came out better than before, often better than it deserved to be: given extra wit, extra courage, extra grace, extra beauty, extra horror.

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I could dig through the back numbers for hours, pulling out examples of his illustration—the Fetus McNugget comes immediately to mind—but a gallery of curated masterpieces would miss the incredible, everyday consistency and range, and the collaborative experience of having Jim reach into the confused minds around him and pull out the clearest possible image, again and again. The process itself of working with Jim was the highlight, and it went on continuously. So instead, I’m just pulling up some more or less randomly selected emails of Jim in action.

Here’s Jim gently offering people the chance to think again about whether they want to force him to crank out a high-concept illustration on a six-sentence post that didn’t need it:

Subject: Emoji God is Dead
Date: Fri, Mar 20, 2015, 4:16 PM
To: Max, Leah, Alex, me

do you really want those hands on the time cover? I was working on the amish breastfeeding piece and didn’t see the notification.

I can do that if you want. Otherwise I’ve got an adequate man I’m going to get on next.

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Here’s Jim hearing three people say he’s done enough (or more than enough), and wondering if he should maybe do more:

Subject: Re: year in dicks
Date: Tue, Dec 30, 2014 at 2:43 PM
To: Lacey Donohue, Dayna Evans, Max Read
Jim Cooke <jimcooke@gawker.com> wrote:
I might still play with colors...
got a favorite?

Lacey Donohue <lacey.donohue@gawker.com> wrote:
jesus christ

Dayna Evans <dayna.evans@gawker.com> wrote:
yes

Max Read <max@gawker.com> wrote:
yes yes yes yes

Jim Cooke <jimcooke@gawker.com> wrote:
Soooooo I thought I’d let you see what I’m doing for this before I finish it.
I think you’ll get the idea.
iz this okay?  

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Here’s Jim, delivering the ideal illustration and needing to be talked into taking credit:

Subject: One57
Jim Cooke
Oct 27, 2014, 3:16 PM

this work?
“Photo by Getty”

Me, Oct 27, 2014, 3:18 PM:
Yes!
No other credit?

Jim Cooke, Oct 27, 2014, 3:19 PM:
eh, I guess you can throw me on there

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Here are five consecutive email subject lines about five different things Jim had to illustrate:

Subject: Black Friday
Subject: Gawker Recipe
Subject: fareed zakaria
Subject: SAUSAGE
Subject: swift

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And here is the art for a blog post I can’t even remember writing or editing. All I recall is the feeling of delight that Jim had come up with exactly what it needed, whatever it was:

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Emma Carmichael, former Editor-in-Chief of Jezebel

No offense to any of us, but it always felt like a bit of a fluke that we got to work with Jim Cooke at all—his work always made our sites better, funnier, sharper, more worthy of an audience. Every time I emailed or chatted Jim with yet another insane, inappropriate request for an illustration, I felt a small pang of guilt, and a loss for how to even frame it: how could we ask such a gentle, brilliant man to please send us something for this piece on dinosaur erotica, within the next two hours, if you don’t mind, thank you, I’m sorry, how are your wife and kids by the way? But Jim always delivered, and the sites have always been better for it. His work here over the years memorably included an international symbol of feminist protest, along with countless stunning portraits and pieces I would be lucky to hang in my own home—but I will always fondly remember the shortlived “Bad Drawings By Jim Cooke” series, in which we’d ask Jim to recreate paparazzi or press photos we’d published and then realized we weren’t allowed to publish at all. Jim hated doing these because they were never up to his standards, but they still make me laugh, and show why he was so good at this demanding and strange job. Thank you for everything Jim, and go Sox.

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Dodai Stewart, Deputy Editor at The New York Times, former Editor-in-Chief of Splinter and Deputy Editor of Jezebel

I sat next to Jim at the Jezebel desk in the 210 Elizabeth Street office. Here we are sitting next to each other in the NBC News piece The Gossip Merchant. I’m the one with the bow in my hair.

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The seating got switched. Jim wasn’t my tablemate for long. But it became clear VERY quickly that he was a dreamweaver, a magician, and one of the most brilliant and valuable coworkers I’ve ever had.

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He turned half-baked ideas into museum-worthy works of art—often in under an hour. And for the stories where we had NO IDEA what the art should be, he would go into the dark mines of his genius brain and come back with a dazzling gem. It’s impossible to articulate how powerful his art has been, how integral to my life, and how memorable.

Bouncing boobs! Racist dog! Dinosaur sex! College sluts! Paula Deen! That time hurricane Sandy murdered the servers and we couldn’t blog! When I sent him weird vintage first aid kit pictograms, he understood what I was trying to say and created the logo and bandaged finger for Splinter. And over the years, his work has only gotten sharper, more indelible. He deserves an international peace prize just for the uterus drawing. The man shaped illustration on the internet. Best of luck, Jim!

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Marina Galperina, Features Editor, Gizmodo

There are things only Jim understands, in a way that you’ve never thought of until you see it and then go, “why, yes, this makes perfect sense, fucking beautiful, and what the hell is that part, wow, I’m dying!” The fact that I could interact with that understanding for my job at work was a blessing. I’m looking through the work he’s done, trying to pick my favorite pieces to reference in this blip, and I’m goddamn crying. Jim was a vital organ here. He’s forever a legend. I don’t understand what we’re supposed to do.

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Raphael Orlove, Features Editor, Jalopnik

Imagine my horror as a young intern when I was instructed, in the old Gawker Media office, to go “ask Jim Cooke” about an art question. The office was entirely open-plan. I sat in the corner by the service elevator, beside Fleshbot, the porn site. I didn’t know what he looked like, I just knew that Jim Cooke sat across the dim, dark, vaulted chamber we all shared. Jim Cooke, who sat right next to John Cook, the imposing, stern editor-in-chief of Gawker.com. I’d met neither of them before, didn’t know which was which. I knew that one of them was the right Cook(e), but asking the wrong one would be a grave embarrassment. I was already on thin ice with my boss as it was, and pressure mounted with each step echoing through the silent office. I guess I lucked out. Got the right one, and found out that Jim Cooke is actually just about the nicest, easiest person to work with anyone could imagine. He will be missed.

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Tara Jacoby, Jim’s Former Deputy

Real talk… Jim Cooke is a good guy, great dad, and an incredible illustrator/art director. Jim’s the kind of guy that’ll give you a job even though you sat through an entire in-house trial day nervously drawing and redrawing the same shitty art. He’s the kind of guy that will patiently mentor you, despite insanely tight, never-ending deadlines. He’s the kind of guy that will slip you the editorial equivalent of a dirty joke because he knows illustrating them will make your day. He’s also the kind of guy that’ll let you spend an entire workweek drawing Disney princes’ dicks, despite those aforementioned deadlines. But above all, Jim is the kind of guy who spends hours giggling over dinosaur erotica.

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Sam Woolley, Jim’s First Hire 

For my era, there are certain people who define Gawker: Biddle, AJ, Hamilton, Max, John, Caity. These people were fucking gods, but all admired one person: Jim Cooke. A lot of people use working at Gawker as a personality trait, but Jim Cooke was Gawker: the way his brain works, his eye, his ability to drink. It’s simply who he is. Jim was one of the last holdouts of the Denton / 210 Elizabeth era (the true yorker version of where these sites are now), and this company has now gutted itself of the writers and talent of a foregone era. One of Jim’s strongest qualities is his fierce loyalty to whatever company he works for. One thing that will probably not be mentioned in this roast, but I feel should be included, is how great of a dad Jim is. His oldest boy, James, would “work” in the office during vacations, and just seeing Jim who I always knew as a stern yet fair boss, be such a proud, doting and engaging father was always a nice thing. Jim doesn’t need me to say “good luck” as I’m sure any smart media company or Vice will immediately scoop him up.

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John Cook, Former Executive Editor of Gawker Media

Jim Cooke is without guile, a trusting, trusted, and true artist, capable of unlocking the most complicated and poorly conceived ideas in a moment—so fast! no one on the planet makes art so fast!—and cleanly explicating them in beautiful 16 x 9 visual poems. He applies the same level of rigor, honesty, and wit to analingus jokes that he does to stories of life and death. He is pure of heart in a Sherwood Forrest kind of way, he’s the one who can pull the sword from the rock, no one who ever worked with him was worthy of his talent, least of all the thoughtless hacks of Gawker Media, he worked harder than any of us and cared the most.

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Danielle Belton, Editor-in-Chief of The Root

I have many memories of our time together at GMG, so much amazing art! Our staffs sharing an office where my team was LOUD LOUD LOUD and you guys were just like “OMG BE QUIET!” But the love between The Root and the Art Team was so real and deep and appreciated that we commemorated that love one day by all going to the Times Square Red Lobster.

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But my most fond memory of you, and only you, will always be of the time early on in our working relationship when I called you “John” because my brain had conflated your name with that of former Gawkerite John Cook’s. Thankfully, I recovered from my “Wait? All white men aren’t named John?” disease, and I learned your proper name, then watched as this company hired exactly 12,893,487 Jims. Hell, my baby sister’s boyfriend is even named Jim. I’m surrounded! A legion of Jims. A flock of Jims. A Jim Army. A “Jarmy,” so to speak. It was as if the universe never wanted me to get your name wrong ever again by giving everyone your name. But out of all those Jims, you, Jim, are a good Jim. A great Jim. One of the best of the Jims, and I will miss you.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Jezebel Editor-in-Chief

Jim Cooke is the best art director alive, a weirdo melange of editorial intellect, gentle heart, and just absolutely disgusting chutzpah. And while he was always delighted to unleash a subtle (or not so subtle) dick joke in an illustration, it cannot be understated how mature and steadying a presence he has been for the entire newsroom through all its iterations. Similar to the way Jim’s art has elevated all our writing, his presence has inspired us to be better overall, especially in times it felt like the whole operation was about to spiral off its axis. He was the calming presence when everyone else was screaming their faces off. I can cite many examples of this through the past six years we’ve worked together, but here is the most recent and personally resonant: Somewhere between losing my mind and attempting to meticulously plan a 50-cell excel spreadsheet comprising Jezebel’s 2020 election coverage, Jim casually hit me up on a Slack DM and asked if we were planning on writing about Trump regardless of the election outcome (we were) because he “felt like drawing him again.” (One of the great indignities that this company has foisted upon Jim, a hero among heroes, is exactly how much we have all forced him to illustrate Trump over the past five years. Honestly, what the fuck!)

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Jim stayed up nearly all night, hand-drawing an iteration of our outgoing president with an iPad and some kind of technological art pen, and without fanfare sent me a piece the next day that looks like an oil painting, with a gruesome smear of face and spaghetti as hair. It’s so communicative our traumatized staff could barely look at it, and it’s one of his best renditions of Trump; the fact that he did it during his off-hours during a pandemic just shows his dedication to his craft and his dogged love of this place. Jim is the best artist and the best of friends. I simply cannot roast him, I mean look at this:

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Clover Hope, Former Jezebel Culture Editor

Jim Cooke is the best yadda yadda yadda. The thing I remember most fondly about him is the time he judged the Jezebel Olympics round where we had to draw a palm tree:

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Although I felt like my penis palm tree drawing should’ve won gold, I respect this because: 1) It was a silly task. 2) It proves how willingly Jim embraced our wildest and dumbest ideas. He approached the competition with care and empathy. Undeniably the best Jim.

Aleksander Chan, Publisher of Discourse Blog and former Editor in Chief of Splinter

Jim Cooke is a genius. He is unspeakably kind, terrifyingly tall, and unimaginably talented. What non-media people might not realize is that we don’t really tell Jim what to design—we just send him the blog post, he reads it, and then he comes up with something. Every piece of art you see from Jim comes directly from his brain and no one else’s. What the fuck! I’ve loved seeing how he looks at the world and hope someone will let him keep showing us.

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Bryan Menegus, Senior Writer, Gizmodo 

Deputy Art Director, G/O Media

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