When Darwyn Cooke passed away at the all-too-young age of 53 in May 2016, he left behind a legacy of great stories and even greater artwork. In the wake of his passing, DC has wisely opted to re-release several of his most beloved stories so fans can experience them anew. While he was best known for DC: The New Frontier, Cooke had also written and illustrated several Batman-specific stories over the years. This collection, Batman: Ego and Other Tails, collects these stories in an attractive and very affordable package.  I’m revisiting this review for the newly released Deluxe Edition, which has some additional stories and bonus illustrations.

The original release had a wonderful introduction from Cooke himself where he discussed his lifelong love of Batman and appraises each of the stories herein.  It’s still included in this re-release, but now serves as an afterward.  It still stands on its own merits as a great read, but viewing it after his tragic passing makes it all the more moving and melancholy.

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Along with the fantastic afterword and the title story, Cooke’s Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score is included, appropriate given his legendary relaunch of the character with Ed Brubaker back in 2001. There are also several shorts from the “Black and White” header in Batman: Gotham Knights and select backups from his work on Solo.  The new release also collects “Crime Convention” from Batman/The Spirit #1 and “Killin’ Time,” a short story from the Harley Quinn Holiday Special #1, as well as a brand new introduction from Amanda Conner.

Batman: Ego

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I covered this in full about a month ago, and my thoughts on it haven’t changed. Funny enough, Cooke’s own thoughts mirror my own pretty closely: he viewed it as “an earnest yet flawed first effort,” and I’d say that’s pretty fair.

When you cover the psychology of a character, it’s always tricky because one wrong move can make the whole narrative completely fall apart. Be it from getting too heavy-handed or on the nose with the parallels you draw or projecting your own views or past on the character, a psychological examination requires a deft hand to insure that the story is gripping and true without becoming overbearing from psychobabble. Cooke mostly sidesteps these issues, though he does stumble with some of the questions he poses. They’re good questions to ask, such as “is the fight worth it?” and “does Batman create the monsters he fights?”, though Cooke doesn’t answer most of them outright.

What he does well is giving us great little moments with Bruce, either as a boy before his parents were killed or later on in his crusade against crime.

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Given that he has such an extensive background in animation, the visual storytelling here often trumps the written narrative with entire stories being told in single panels. Cooke had a fantastic eye for movement, and his Silver Age-inspired style certainly evokes the feeling of old comics and even cartoon serials such as Max Fleischer’s Superman shorts.

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Even if his reach slightly exceeded his grasp, Ego is still a good story and a pretty great debut. If nothing else, it introduced a new talent with a distinctive style and hinted at greater things to come.

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“Here Be Monsters”

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While pursuing a criminal known as Madame X, Batman becomes exposed to a hallucinogen and must work through its effects before his quarry escapes.

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It’s short and sweet, and a nice companion piece to Ego to boot. Working from Paul Grist’s script, Cooke uses his two-tone palette to great effect in showing the macabre visions Bruce experiences. There isn’t much to it, and that’s alright; this is lean, efficient storytelling. Grist gets in some good lines (I loved “something to hold on to”) and the visuals often look like storyboards for The Animated Series. Maybe not worth price of admission but a good jaunt nonetheless.

Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score

image imageThe basic heist formula is pretty simple:

  1. You meet your main player, the mastermind behind the plan.
  2. You meet the mark, be it a person or location.
  3. The plan is outlined, including additional members of the team with unique skills.
  4. The plan is executed, typically with twists, turns, and other surprises.

What makes a heist caper good is in how it treats the characters and in how well it keeps the audience on its toes.

By that criteria, Selina’s Big Score is a pretty good heist.

Divided into four sections, each chapter focuses on the character or event of its title: “Selina” follows Selina, of course, as she returns to Gotham after time away and formulates the plan for the score; “Stark” details James Stark, Selina’s main point of contact for the heist and a man with whom she shares a complicated history; “Slam” covers the investigation of private eye Slam Bradley, a character I’ll discuss more later but whose involvement made me about a thousand times more involved in the story; and “Score” is where the job and its aftermath are played out.

When it focuses on the job itself and the immediate events, this is a great read, thanks in no small part to Cooke’s obvious affection for the title character. Selina has her characteristic charm but is still vulnerable after earlier events that are hinted at without being fully explained, so the story itself isn’t as self-contained as I thought it was going to be. There’s hardly a point you’ll feel lost, but certain narrative aspects feel like part of a larger run as opposed to a standalone one-shot. Regardless, it’s still a well-plotted story that’s more about Selina’s relationships than the job itself.

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The plan is as great as it is ludicrous: get on a moving train using rocket cycles, steal the product using inflatable rafts, and parachute off the train to safety and/or riches. It’s a great plan that would have played out marvelously on screen, and I wish just a bit more time had been spent on it. Instead, Cooke shifts the focus to Frank Falcone and Selina’s mole Chantel, bringing both mystery and tragedy to the story.

And that brings us to my favorite character in the story, and possibly my favorite thing about this collection: Slam Bradley. Bradley, for those who don’t know, is one of the oldest comic characters period, debuting in Detective Comics #1 back in 1937. If you’re keeping score, that makes his first appearance a year before Superman and a full two years before Batman. He’s one of those great old-fashioned characters with a fantastic name that makes the DC Universe feel a bit more grounded and relatable: he’s just a guy who’s good at his job and good with his fists.

And in the hands of a storyteller like Cooke, he’s involved in sequences like this:

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No lie, I laughed so hard at that scene. Which is kind of awful, considering a guy fell into a car…

Anyway, Bradley actually features pretty heavily in Catwoman’s solo book after Cooke and Brubaker take over, so this is a goodbye notification to the character. After decades of obscurity, it’s nice seeing an old character make a comeback, which further reinforces the legacy aspect of comics.

After such great build-up and character work, it’s disappointing how quickly the central score is executed and resolved. There’s a great sequence of three consecutive double-page spreads where the action plays out, and while those are exciting and masterfully illustrated, the job quickly turns to a fairly standard shootout. The score taking a backseat to Selina’s interactions with Stark and Slam wasn’t really surprising, especially considering the strength of the writing. I just wish a little more time was devoted to it and there had been a few more twists and surprises.

No matter, though. Lushly illustrated, deliberately paced, and cleverly plotted as it is, Selina’s Big Score is a good story that almost achieves greatness. It’s flawes strength certainly helps the collection achieve it, though.

“The Monument”

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“Epic” is an overused word, can we agree? As such, I hesitate to use it unless absolutely necessary.

With this chin, it’s necessary.

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Courtesy of Bill Wray, whose notable works include The Ren & Stimpy Show and contributions to Mad Magazine. Of course he worked in Ren & Stimpy. Of course.

This is pretty fun: after saving a prominent millionaire’s daughter, the Dark Knight is paid homage by way of a giant statue in Robinson Park. Batman wants nothing to do with this, of course, and it’s not until Hugo Strange (yay!) kidnaps Summer Gleeson (yay! For the character, not the kidnapping) that he can do anything about it.

Cooke’s script is wry and funny, and Wray’s pencils complement it nicely. It’s never so broad as to be a parody, yet it isn’t so straightforward as to be humorless. Like the Sixties Batman it’s a comedy played straight, and it’s one of the most enjoyable stories in the collection because of that.

“Date Knight”

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Now this is an interesting marrying of styles: Cooke as writer, Tim Sale as illustrator. Sale has a very unique style, and with The Long Halloween and Superman For All Seasons he’s drawn two of my favorite comics of all time. With Cooke writing, the two show what a “date” between Batman and Catwoman is like.

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The romantic tension is pretty intense, and Selina’s flirtation is sultry without being outright vulgar. Sale’s sense of movement is phenomenal, with double-page spreads following the two across Gotham in their pursuit of each other. This was reminiscent of the “Chase Me” short that was included with the (not great, but underrated) Mystery of the Batwoman DVD.

And that’s a good thing.

“Deja Vu”

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While it certainly stands on its own as a fine story, “Deja Vu” benefits from reading Cooke’s thoughts and reflections in the introduction. It’s based on “Night of the Stalker” from Detective Comics #439, which Cooke says was the first Batman comic he ever read and his favorite Batman story of all time. His love for the source is evident from the get-go, as the classic from Steve Englehart, Vin & Sal Amendola and Dick Giordano is reverently and faithfully retold with a few modern touches.

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When a robbery ends in a double homicide, leaving a young boy orphaned, Batman devotes the rest of the night to hunting down the assailants and bringing them to justice, one by one. Just as in the original, Batman is silent the duration of the story, communicating through his actions and expressions instead of his words.

Unlike the original, there isn’t any narration, so it relies on strong visual storytelling even more to convey emotion. I think it’s well-established at this point that that was Cooke’s forte. While the story is a pretty straightforward adaptation with scenes playing out almost exactly as they did in “Night of the Stalker,” Cooke opts to show the same events from different angles and points of view. It’s refreshing in that it’s not just a copy of the earlier, instead allowing for different perspectives to come through in the storytelling.

In the original, Batman shows the keys in one panel and drops them in the next, all shown from the point of view of the criminals. Cooke brilliantly shifts behind Batman when the keys drop, allowing us to see the criminals' reactions and adding to their perception of Batman as a fearsome, frightening character by making him larger than the frame.
In the original, Batman shows the keys in one panel and drops them in the next, all shown from the point of view of the criminals. Cooke brilliantly shifts begins Batman when the keys drop, allowing us to see the criminals’ reactions and adding to their perception of Batman as a fearsome, frightening character by making him larger than the frame.

If there’s one change I was upset about, it’s the omission of truly one of the coolest shots of Batman I’ve ever seen:

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Dude thinks he’s drowned Bats and is gloating about it only for those blue gloves to break the surface and drag him under. That grin Batman gives him before knocking him out? Amazing.

Either way this story’s a win through and through.

“Crime Convention”

Considering my familiarity with Will Eisner’s classic creation the Spirit consists almost solely of the hilariously/wretchedly terrible Frank Miller-helmed movie, I didn’t have a lot of foreknowledge going into this one.  To me, it was more of a curiosity than anything, but hey, seeing Cooke draw Batman again was reason enough to get me excited.

And man, can that guy draw a good Batman.

Working from a script by legend Jeph Loeb, this is a pretty fun little story that sees the titular heroes face off against some of their greatest villains.  The setting for these escapades?  Why, the Policemen’s Benevolent Association’s Annual Law Enforcement Convention in that most dangerous of locales: Hawaii.

Naturally, this convention is the target of the Octopus, the Spirit’s arch-nemesis, who plots to kill all of the nation’s best police officers while they’re gathered in one place.  It’s actually a pretty goofy story, with Commissioner Gordon and Spirit’s ally Commissioner Dolan falling in love with P’Gell and Poision Ivy, respectively.  In fact, there are a few times where Jim acts suspiciously out of character and, frankly, kind of stupid.  I’m not sure if Dolan is supposed to be a bit of an oafish doof, but Jim decidedly isn’t so seeing him willingly detonate a bomb was a bit much.  I also don’t quite buy that Catwoman or Poison Ivy would necessarily be willing accomplices to the murder of a bunch of police officers either, so that was another sticking point.

There’s lots more that’s good here, though.  It looks fantastic, as you’d expect, and I loved seeing Cooke’s take on the likes of Killer Croc and Harley Quinn.  Batman and Spirit have a good working chemistry, too, and there’s an interrogation scene that is absolutely hysterical.  In all it isn’t necessarily strong enough to sell the collection on its own, but it’s a welcome addition to an already strong group of stories.

“Killin’ Time”

This is just plain silly.

If you know me, I like Harley Quinn just fine in small doses, but as a lead character I’m not a huge fan.  So, yeah, the current Quinnassaince… isn’t my favorite thing.

Still, I can appreciate a good silly story, and Cooke certainly brings a great visual energy here.  The idea: Harley finds her first grey hair, and decides to wage war on time.

Like I said, it’s dumb, but it does allow Cooke to let loose and throw in some silly imagery.

Again, not something that would sell the book on its own, but it ends the collection on a positive note.

Bonus: Not much in the way of extras other than the introduction, some covers and “pin-ups”, but those are all pretty great.

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Value: Full Price

Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score is $7.99 by itself, and the original collection was just five bucks more for more than twice the content.  With two new stories and some bonus material, the Deluxe Edition is more than twice that at $27.19 on Amazon, but it’s still worth it.  It’s a beautiful release with hardly a stinker in the bunch, and there’s lots of re-read value.

Overall: With his solid writing skills and beautiful, unique artistic style, Darwyn Cooke took his love for the DC Universe and crafted stories full of humanity, humor, and above all hope. The stories collected here exhibit each of these traits in one way or another, and with the quality of material ranging from good to great, Batman: Ego and Other Tails is a worthy addition to any fan’s collection.  Even more than that it’s a great testament and tribute to a brilliant creator who is gone too soon.  The updated release of this Deluxe Edition goes to show just how much great material he put out, and even then it’s barely scratching the surface.

SCORE: 9/10