Loss is hard, there’s no denying that. Even when you don’t personally know someone, just being an admirer of their work makes their passing hit you on an emotional level. With the death of a talent like Darwyn Cooke, whose inimitable and immediately recognizable style brought with it a sense of hope and optimism no matter what he was involved in, the industry will never be the same. While mourning is always acceptable in the grieving process, we should still take the time to celebrate great talent by enjoying their body of work.
While Cooke’s most well-known work was DC: The New Frontier, a book that featured Batman but could hardly be called a “Batman book,” his comics debut was a one-shot titled Batman: Ego. Taking place early in Batman’s career, it details a confrontation Bruce Wayne has with his alter-ego “the Batman” over the efficacy of his war on crime.
After a thrilling opening sequence where an injured Batman subdues the Joker and his gang, Bats tracks down the getaway driver and saves him from a suicide attempt, only for the thug to kill himself anyway. Weary and in the throes of ennui (there’s that square in case you’re playing Batman News Comic Section Bingo™), he makes his way back to the Batcave whilst lamenting his seemingly pointless mission. Exhausted and at the end of his rope, it is then that Bruce is confronted by his Ego.
From here, Bruce and the personified Batman identity discuss the admirability and ultimate folly of Bruce’s vow to rid Gotham of crime.
While nothing is truly groundbreaking or shocking, I at least appreciate that Cooke doesn’t fall into the narrative cliches I was expecting. There are points where it felt that the dialogue was going to be revealed to be a dream, a derivation of A Christmas Carol, and even a hallucination from a toxin, but no, it’s much more straightforward than that: this is simply a man wrestling with himself, trying to overcome his self-doubts.
Cooke poses several questions: is the fight worth it? Does Batman make a difference? Does Robin represent what would have happened had Batman had someone to guide him and channel his grief, or is he a terrifying example of child endangerment? Are criminals and madmen like the Joker or Two-Face a response to the presence of Batman, or would they have risen up anyway?
At this point these themes and questions are almost old-hat, so looking at it a decade and a half later makes Ego feel like just one more story amongst blockbuster films and epic comic runs. Where Cooke excels narratively, though, is in the smaller details, the pieces that make up the whole. There’s a pretty great line where Bruce calls himself out on the Batman existing because of the lure of the spotlight:
And far and away my favorite: a scene shared between the Waynes, happy and loving as a family should be.
There are parallels with the overarching narrative, of course, but what I love about this is it isn’t simply another setup for Thomas and Martha’s tragic end. True, the pearls are a recurring image, and that specter always looms over flashbacks like these, but ultimately it’s about a boy who loves his parents and how they love him and each other in return. It may be a “plot device,” but for once the Waynes feel like people instead of prey.
Not surprisingly, the real draw here is Cooke’s retro, Silver Agey artistic style, and on that front he absolutely delivers. Cooke was an animator, so like Bruce Timm his pencils and layouts have a cinematic, storyboarded quality to them. He knows how panels should flow, and can tell more of a story in a wordless chase than some writers can tell with a wall of text.
As far as the questions he raises, does Cooke attempt to answer them? Not really. Then again, few writers can answer those questions satisfactorily, so ultimately Cooke has to compromise. It’s a good one, though:
This reminded me of one of the best scenes in The New Frontier, and certainly Batman’s best moment in that story: after stopping a criminal, he attempts to save a child who begins crying in terror. Realizing that he doesn’t want the innocent to fear him, just the guilty, Batman changes his costume by adding the yellow oval symbol and going with a blue and grey color scheme. It’s then that he also takes on Robin as a partner, showing that even in darkness and danger there is hope. As flawed as Ego is as a narrative, it maintains the optimism of Cooke’s best work, and resolves with that most unshakeable of feelings: hope.
- You want to read a pretty good Batman story.
- You want to look at a really great looking Batman story.
- Darwyn Cooke.
- Check out DC: The New Frontier too, if you haven’t already. I’ll admit, it took a while for me to get into it and it’s ultimately a Green Lantern and kind-of a Martian Manhunter story, but it’s essential reading and worth having in your collection.
Overall: Not quite as deep as it could have been, Ego is nonetheless good enough of a read that it’s worth tracking down. The psychology of it is a little worn out at this point, but the gorgeous artwork and overall sense of optimism makes it stand above other, much more cynical works. There’s a place for that, for sure, but this isn’t it, and sometimes you need to be reminded that even Batman is ultimately good and a beacon of hope.