Quarantine Book Club – Batman: Ego

Welcome back to the Batman News Quarantine Book Club! This week, we’re gonna be discussing Batman: Ego – written and illustrated by the late, great, Darwyn Cooke. The Deluxe Hardcover that you will find this in does have other stories in it, but today we will only be focusing on the one comic. We have plans to cover collections that include the other “tails” at a later date – including Selina’s Big Score and the Batman: Black & White stories – as we felt those stories would work better within the context of other trades. So, with that out of the way, here is our discussion of Ego! It may be short, but as you’ll soon see, there’s plenty to unpack.

Josh: Alright, I want to start this discussion the same way we started our discussion for Batman: Prey. Any initial thoughts on selecting this book?

Casper: It’s a less straightforward Batman story, and those are, generally speaking, the kind of Batman stories that I like. The shorter, done-in-one kind of stuff that just focuses on a specific concept or character, but still leaves room for experimental storytelling.

Nick: Ego is the definitive “I swear I’ll get around to this” book for me. Darwyn Cooke is my hero – something I’m going to get into later – and you’d think that working for a Batman News site would make this an easy buy. But, mainly for expendable income reasons, this book continued to remain on the shelves of my LCS as the thing I’d keep looking at and saying “next time” to. I’m glad that we picked it, because it gave me an excuse to buckle down and read it. The hardcover is now my next buy at my LCS.

Josh: I love that. This was honestly a story that I kept putting off as well, but eventually read a few years ago. And there wasn’t a hesitation to read it or anything, but I already had Catwoman: Tale of the Catwoman and Batman: Black & White, so it was hard for me to justify buying a book when I already owned most of what was included. 

Is this anyone else’s first time reading Ego? 

Michael: I was very excited when this book was chosen since I’ve had the deluxe hardcover sitting on my shelf for three years waiting to be read. I have no excuse why it took me so long to actually read it. I love Cooke’s work and was interested to see his earlier work.

Matina: It’s also my first time reading it. You know, we’re only two weeks into our Quarantine Book Club and it’s already making me realize just how much of Batman I still have to read and explore and how new I still feel to all this. But, that’s something that I love about it too, because now I don’t have the excuse of not having time, or of being distracted by new comics coming out. With the book club I’m finally settling in and reading books I should have read long ago and exploring Batman’s history in a way I always say I want to, but never make the time for. 

Josh: Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly why we wanted to do this, and why we are choosing such specific books. When you’ve got your day-to-day life with work, school, family, and responsibilities to cover new releases, it can be difficult to find time to designate for other tasks. 

Alright, let’s go ahead and get started. So, Batman: Ego starts off with an injured Batman chasing a crook. Nobody major, just some low-level, street-criminal that works for the Joker. We don’t get any context as to what’s taken place prior to this, we’re just thrown right into the mix. At first, it appears as though it’s going to be your typical “Batman chases down a mugger,” but things quickly, and unexpectedly, shift once Batman catches up to the criminal. 

Michael:  It’s a really fantastic opening since it tackles the fallout of a main rogue’s plan which we don’t always see. Things usually begin and end with the Joker when he’s involved. 

Nick: I had to think about this for a moment, because I wondered to myself how likely a “small” event like this would be what sets the story into motion – compared to the bombastic things that Batman does on the scale of the Justice League, for example. But then, I remembered the breakdown I had when I had to stay a few extra hours in at work on a day that I just wasn’t prepared for, and this hit particularly close to home when viewed through that lens. 

To clarify, I don’t want to downplay the severity of what happens, but it’s definitely a more personal and grimier look at the world of Gotham, compared to the actions of the city’s supercriminals. The book points this out, I think, and I like the contrast that it makes there. I think seeing Batman being hit so deeply by things of a more intimate scale reminds him of why he’s fighting his crusade, and it reminds us of why it’s so important, beyond the stars and stripes of caped crusaders.

Matina:  I feel that, Nick. Just seeing Bruce already hurt, already tired, and then dealing with something he wasn’t expecting is so human. It is that feeling of breaking down at work when one more thing is put on your plate, and it’s a great way to set up the battle Bruce will have with himself later because he’s in this place where he’s struggling with one thing after another, that culminates in the one thing he’s set out to prevent: A family being torn apart. 

Josh: Exactly! It’s even more impactful when it’s revealed how this family – the criminal’s family – is torn apart. 

Michael: Yeah, it’s genuinely shocking when the thug kills himself, especially when we learn that he killed his own family beforehand. I sometimes grow weary when writers poke holes in Batman’s mission, but this set up feels incredibly organic.

Josh: The murder/suicide reveal is definitely one of those moments that demands your attention. It’s not something that’s common in comic books, but it’s also completely believable if you try to look at the Joker realistically. The entire reveal is unsettling, but, at the same time, is completely captivating. 

Matina: I really enjoyed this aspect of the story. It’s easy to view the guys working for Joker as just thugs, but here we kind of get to know this guy. He’s humanized in his fear for himself, his fear for his family, and in the acknowledgement of what would have happened to him after Batman was done with him. 

Casper: Yeah, having the criminal turn out to be an actual character and not just another random goon adds a lot to Gotham as a city. This is a place full of people, all with different lives and struggles, and I feel like sometimes writers and artists forget to show that aspect these days. It seems that nowadays there’s a lot of focus on supervillains, but not really on the people who live in the city (even if they are goons). And when we do see people, half the time they’re faceless, nameless cultists! What’s up with that? But Ego handles this pretty well. It’s a good hook to the story.

Josh: I think that’s the real treat here. Cooke manages to create so much back story and characterization with roughly a single line. It’s incredible how effective it is, and how much that single moment forces you to look at so many things from a different perspective. We get to see a new side of the horrors that Batman encounters. We learn the reality of some of these criminals, and we get a reminder of how demented the Joker is. 

Nick: I really like the role of the Joker in this story – Cooke really leans into the character as a monster and something singularly unnatural, and it manages to give the Joker’s role a serious weight without him speaking a single line.

Josh: Yes!

Casper: It also helps that the book starts off in this kind of grounded way before the “psychotic slide into the heart of darkness” itself starts, because now readers first see something a little bit more familiar, and before they know it, they’ll be drawn into the story proper.

Josh: I didn’t think of that, Casper, but you’re absolutely right. The “psychotic slide into the heart of darkness” being what takes place when Batman returns to the Batcave. Due to his loss of blood, Bruce starts to hallucinate, and in his hallucination, he comes face to face with… Batman. 

Casper: I don’t think it’s just due to his loss of blood. I feel like something in Bruce snaps, and that’s what causes this psychotic break, and the loss of blood kind of makes that worse. But it’s possible to have hallucinations during a psychotic break and physically be fine, that’s what’s scary about it. 

Josh: Very true.

Casper: Now, I wouldn’t say that this is particularly a horror story, but there’s definitely something deeply unsettling about all of this. It’s a psychedelic story in the etymological sense of the word: Bruce is confronted with a visual manifestation of his psyche. And the fact that this manifestation presents itself as a monstrous version of that part of his psyche that he calls Batman, and then starts to urge Bruce to start killing villains like the Joker, makes for a very dark and twisted encounter. Had a different artist illustrated this book — someone like Dave McKean, for example — this would have been more obvious. But still, to me, this story has nightmarish qualities, which gives the story weight and impact, and it’s not just another examination of Bruce’s psyche or his origin like so many others. I love that about this book. It’s different. It’s original. 

Michael: I definitely get horror vibes throughout the book which is impressive given Cooke’s style is cartoony and not your more traditional nightmarish aesthetic, like a McKean. I think the loss of blood is a clever way to give a more practical reason for Bruce’s hallucinations, but it definitely comes hand in hand with a psychotic break due to witnessing the culmination of a murder-suicide. What really made this story stand out to me was Bruce’s acceptance of his psyche and making a deal with himself. A lot of other stories would end with the main character defeating his demons and coming out a “better” person. This take is a lot more mature in saying that people, oftentimes, need to accept who they are and be their best possible self, not merely reinvent which won’t last.

Casper: Bruce making a pact with the Batman entity is such a simple but highly effective way to examine his mind, his inner demons, and the core of his character.

Nick: What I loved about this was the fact that it wasn’t played as a plot-driven event – Bruce briefly asks if this is something to do with Scarecrow, I think, but it’s quickly abandoned for what it actually is: a visualization of Bruce’s introspection. I honestly got the sense that he has a conversation similar to this most every day. It was interesting to see that the one subject he wouldn’t even debate was the matter of Robin, even with his own inner self. I have to wonder if there’s something to read into, there.

Michael: It’s a very risky game Cooke plays here too by not going the plot-driven route. Extended dream sequences, which this basically operates as, can become grating incredibly quick, but his artistic craft elevates it. There are times where it feels a little stuck to me, but those moments pass by quickly. And yes, bringing Robin up only to immediately dismiss it is an interesting wrinkle, also as if Bruce can’t justify his usage of Robin quite yet.

Nick: Or Darywn can’t? I’m not sure, but I like how it’s brought up as a concept that lingers in his mind, that he doesn’t feel like he’s comfortable facing.

Michael: I also think that the scenes we get in Bruce’s childhood are absolutely stellar, especially with his relationship with his father. It’s always a little disappointing that Martha seems to be forgotten in the larger themes at play, but the correlation between Thomas’ career as a doctor and Bruce’s career of beating thugs up is really interesting.

Josh: I completely agree! I don’t want to say that I took moments like this for granted in the past, but so many stories have essentially trashed Thomas Wayne’s character the past few years, that returning to this is incredibly refreshing. 

I want to circle back to what Casper said about  this story examining the core of Bruce/ Batman. One of the reasons that I really like Ego is because it delves into Batman’s code. I feel like we always see people discussing how far Batman will or won’t go – especially when movies are released – and this book, in my opinion, provides the most definitive answer. 

Casper: Yeah, I agree about this probably being the most definitive answer. A lot of other books, and movies, are kind of clumsy about it sometimes. They just sort of repeat each other on that front and don’t really put a new spin on it, and as a result it’s just not very interesting to me anymore. But Ego is one of those stories where I actually like this examination of the code and where I don’t mind seeing the origin once again. The reason is that this book focuses more on the events that surround the origin and the code, rather than the origin and the code themselves, and then from that, we organically arrive at the answer to why Batman doesn’t kill.

Michael: Some writers do have a tendency to question Batman’s moral code by having him nearly break it, like Tom King’s War of Jokes and Riddles. That approach can work, but what makes Ego’s take more interesting is that it’s not about Batman acting out against his code, but him questioning whether or not it even works. His mission inadvertently results in the murder of an innocent family, which would shake anyone’s moral code.

Matina: Yeah! I love that it’s a conversation where he’s really testing his decision and beliefs up until now with what he’s faced. It’s very much a visual and physical representation of what I think a lot of people do when they’re grappling with their own struggles, and being able to look at it that way makes Bruce, as well as what he does, more relatable to readers. 

Josh: Not only does it make him relatable, but it shows that it’s not an easy decision for him. It also answers why he sticks to his code when so many push the idea that more citizens would be saved if he did kill villains like the Joker. In the same respect, Cooke manages to even explain why Bruce allows anti-heroes such as Red Hood, Katana, and Huntress to “cross the line” without bringing them down. Don’t get me wrong, he makes them follow his code when they’re working together, but then he doesn’t stop them when they ultimately decide to go that far on their own. The idea that he doesn’t stop them because he knows that to some degree, they’re right, but he just can’t bring himself to do it, is incredibly deep. 

Nick: This is the interesting thing, because I had a slightly different read of Cooke’s interpretation of the code – it’s probably the one point in the story that I don’t agree with 100%. Not to say it’s an invalid take; it’s certainly more well-thought-out than many of the stories that try to address his code, but at the end of the day the story still lets it boil down to “this is the only thing that differentiates us from the villains”. It paints a vivid picture of why Bruce feels that way – what the impact of death has on him, and why killing is such an inherent sin to him – but I don’t think it takes the time to truly explain why there’s no difference in Bruce killing vs, say, a cop shooting a criminal in self-defense (although you could certainly debate the logistics of that too). 

I love the “Batman doesn’t kill” rule, but that’s mainly because, as Josh said, it’s a personal decision that Bruce makes, knowing he wouldn’t survive that, mentally. This isn’t much of a critique I suppose, because Cooke still acknowledges it by the wonderful thought experiment he has with killing the Joker – but that’s played more in visuals than it is in dialogue, and I would have liked a clearer ending to this debate, if Batman’s code is the thesis statement of the story. As it stands, it basically ends with Bruce saying, “I’ll let you stay, but no killing. Deal? Deal.” 

Michael: It’s definitely a somewhat laser-focused investigation on why Batman doesn’t kill as opposed to examining why killing is wrong in general. If Cooke thinks Batman not killing villains makes him serve as a symbol of good to the citizens of Gotham, I am definitely curious how Cooke feels about cops in general. Perhaps, as Josh mentioned, Batman knows that vigilantes or cops that do kill villains are ultimately correct in doing so. Not because it’s morally right, but because only Batman is able to protect the innocent without killing in the process.

Nick: That’s the way I like to read it too, and I do definitely think Cooke was going in that direction, even if I’m not positive he entirely got there. For new readers though, I can’t think of a better book about Batman vs killing. I’m not fixed on this opinion, honestly, so I’m happy to discuss it in the comments.

Josh: And maybe that was intentional? Maybe the point was for this to be left open to a degree? I mean, it definitely got us talking.

Josh: Alright, we keep talking about the craft implemented in this story, but we haven’t really taken the time to talk about the man behind it, Darwyn Cooke. We’ve discussed a lot of details that make Cooke’s script for Ego so good and effective, but I want to talk about his art as well. 

When I first started reading comics, I didn’t have a full understanding or appreciation of Cooke’s art. It was just because of my personal taste at the time, and I wanted that more realistic look. That’s changed so much now, because I’ve grown to look at Cooke as one of the best artists that has ever worked in comics. While he may not have the most realistic looking art, or the most detailed, he still manages to accomplish more with his art than most artists today. 

Casper: I think he definitely accomplishes more than most artists today. For me, that’s because less realistic but very stylish art like Darwyn’s has more of an emotional impact to me than more realistic art. It’s hard to explain why, but I feel like this kind of art only needs a few simple cues to convey certain emotions, whereas more realistic art becomes more complex, and therefore doesn’t have that instantaneous connection. For example, in this book, the shape of Batman’s eyes and mouth immediately tells me if he’s sad, angry, distressed, or even amused. A realistic art style would’ve been able to pull this off as well, of course, but it’s just harder to do and less direct. I don’t know if I’m making any sense, but I’m trying!

Michael: You’re making perfect sense. I totally agree with what you’re saying. I do like realistic art of course, as it is a joy to look over and be impressed by its sheer amount of detail. The greats, like a Bernie Wrightson, manage to imbue their work with both emotion and realism, but many can’t. I’ve always preferred a more cartoony style, like Cooke’s, since it lets you pick up on visual cues instantly and keep a fast pace for the book.

Matina: I’ve also always leaned more towards preferring a more cartoony style in art, and Cooke’s just hits all the right notes for me. I love how it gives me a feeling rather than laying everything out. He creates the right cues in expressions, shadows, and body language to pull me into the story in a way that leaves me knowing exactly what the characters are feeling and thinking. And I think in a story that focuses so closely on Bruce’s own internal battle, keying in on the characters and their emotions is so important. I love the settings, but this story has me here for what’s going on with Bruce vs Batman, so it’s their emotions and reactions I want to see play out on the page.

Josh: Cooke’s style allows for serious moments to feel more striking as well. Michael touched on this earlier with the suicide, but he’s absolutely right. When you have a cartoonish or wholesome aesthetic, when you encounter something as dark and real as suicide, it really hits you because it’s so unexpected. 

Casper: I’d also like to add that the way Darwyn Cooke draws Gotham and the cave is pure magic. This is what I imagine Gotham looks like when I close my eyes, and it’s so immersive that I get completely pulled into whatever story it is that he’s telling. The real world just disappears for a moment. His Gotham looks so beautiful, dreamy, gothic and even a little bit gritty at the same time. That’s not a mean feat, you know? To combine all those elements in one solid vision of this city.

Michael: It’s beautiful stuff all around. I think what really helps Cooke’s work is his expert use of negative space. His environments benefit from that, but even his design on Batman himself. There’s a great splash page from the POV of a criminal where Batman grabs “you” and forces his hand into your face. Batman’s glove isn’t all that incredibly detailed, but most of it is just immense blackness that engulfs you. Batman’s cowl being nothing more than blackness with Bruce’s eyes and teeth shining through also makes him seem more monstrous. Oftentimes, we have criminals talking up how Batman doesn’t look like a man at all and Cooke’s version is one of the few renditions that truly makes him look inhuman.

Josh: I completely agree! I think this is due to Cooke’s stylization of the characters. Everything is so distinct without being overly detailed, and that allows the thematic nature of the characters to shine through. He’s literally using visual storytelling to help identify each character’s archetype. 

Michael: Cooke distills each character into their iconography. There’s never a moment where you don’t know who someone is or what they’re feeling. Gordon has glasses and mustache, Bullock has his hat and cigar etc. I love when character designs just accept their iconic status and lean into them rather than finding a new angle. More often than not, the redesigns are…worse.

Josh: I could easily think of multiple examples to prove you correct. Well, maybe not prove since art is subjective, but support the notion at the very least. 

Michael: The palette of Ego is overwhelmingly grey, which does call to mind the animated series, but serves another purpose too. Whenever there’s a glimmer of hope in the book, the brighter or warmer colors stand out all the more. Robin’s brief appearance feels like a breath of fresh air amidst the darkness as do the few scenes we get in Bruce’s childhood. The splash page we get of Bruce with his parents on Christmas morning is breathtaking on its own accord, but particularly in juxtaposition with most of the other scenes.

Josh: I’m glad you mentioned Batman the Animated Series, because Cooke was actually responsible for creating storyboards for the show. Bruce Timm gets so much credit for what he created, but we honestly don’t know how much of the style and aesthetic of the show was actually because of Cooke. 

But yes, the similarities are apparent in the coloring, character design, and even the look of the city – all of which we’ve called attention to. And everything Cooke does, visually, has purpose. You may not realize it, but there are various art guides for other books and characters that he’s worked on that establish this. It’s honestly incredible. 

Michael: Agreed.

Josh: Something that we haven’t really touched on, but that I think Cooke masters, are his layouts. Similar to his design and aesthetic, his overall layouts are incredibly simple, but then he’ll embellish the hell out of a page when he needs to deliver something impactful!

Michael: Cooke primarily uses grids and breaks them up with the occasional splash page. It’s a simple, but effective technique on a pure aesthetic level. However, his usage of grids really works on a deeper level as I think it conveys the prison of the mind Bruce finds himself in. Grids being a literal “cell” for its characters isn’t all that new, but seeing Bruce stuck in a single panel while his “ego” takes up several panels is a striking image that elevates the overall theme. It also allows Cooke to pull off a few great sequential moments, especially in quieter moments where he visualizes Bruce’s inner turmoil as he talks through his problems.

Nick: I wanted to save my thoughts on Darwyn Cooke to the end here, because he’s kind of been a personal hero of mine. I know Before Watchmen has been a generally maligned series, but I refuse to consider it non-canon simply because of Cooke’s work on Minutemen. For someone who was only starting to get into comic books at that point, reading a book of that quality, even jumping off of source material as astounding as Watchmen, was nothing short of eye-opening. To look into him more and discover that Cooke was responsible for much of The Animated Series and Batman Beyond – such as the 75th Anniversary Batman Beyond short – made me realize how much of the content I loved was influenced by him. Watching The New Frontier, reading content from Gods and Monsters that he helped with, having his Batman 75 cover as my Facebook cover photo for a solid year, buying his rendition of Catwoman in an action figure on the last day my old LCS was open – none of these moments are of mind-boggling importance to my life, but his work has always hit me like a freight train whenever I’ve taken the time to enjoy it. He felt like one of those legendary comic book auteurs you hear of from time to time, one of the few who’s been able to master artistry and writing all at once. It was a genuine tragedy when he passed, but I’m glad he left us with a wealth of gold like this.

Josh: I couldn’t have said it better, Nick. Alright, let’s go ahead and wrap this up. Michael, what are your overall thoughts for this book? 

Michael: Ego definitely has moments where it’s raw at the edges. Some of the writing can be a little on the nose and there are moments where it feels stuck in place. However, I think it’s a great distillation of what makes Bruce tick without completely calling into question his mission as some writers tend to do. Cooke’s art is the real showcase though and even if this deep dive into Bruce’s psyche isn’t really your cup of tea, the visuals are worth flipping through alone.

Matina: The thing I enjoyed most about Ego had to be the art. Cooke’s style is something that just clicks really well with me and made the whole experience that much more enjoyable. As for the story, I did feel like generally it dragged a little at times but I found it to be an interesting exploration of Bruce’s code and why he does what he does. I also loved how the opening really helped create a moment of reminding me of the lives of other characters in Gotham, it’s citizens and the men and women who work for the villains in the Rogues Gallery. I know the book is more about Bruce and Batman, but I always appreciate a moment that changes my thinking about stories, and the first few pages of Ego did just that for me. My recommendation is, if you want something with some really stellar art and a good exploration of Bruce and Batman give Ego a shot, it’s a quick read but one that will definitely spark interest. 

Nick: Since we’re not reviewing the entirety of the Ego novel, I don’t have to worry about if the other stories make the hardcover worth the price. This is especially good because on its own, Ego, to me, is one of those near-perfect stories: one that doesn’t need to be a ten in every category to get a ten out of ten, because what it does right makes such a splash that it’s a wonder more people don’t suggest this as one of the first books people should read to get an understanding of the real Bruce Wayne.

Casper: As tired as I am of the whole “deconstruction” trope, generally speaking, I really like how Ego pulls this off. It’s more of a psychological/psychedelic take, and it gets at the core of who Batman is pretty fast and effectively. The stylistic artwork helps to offset the more serious stuff (like suicide and psychosis) but does not take away from the horror vibes that I feel throughout the entire comic. Lastly, Cooke’s vision of Gotham City is the definitive Gotham for me.

Josh: Darwyn Cooke proves that he’s one of the best creators to ever grace the comic book industry with his comic book debut, Batman: Ego! This book helps define Batman’s code and establishes what really separates Bruce Wayne from Batman by breaking him down to his most basic psychological essence. It’s an incredibly simple concept that is executed magnificently in both script and art. If this isn’t a staple in your Batman collection, then it needs to be. 

Thanks for joining us this week! We’d love to hear your thoughts on Batman: Ego. Do you agree with our assessment? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments! Be sure to check out last week’s discussion on Batman: Prey if you haven’t already, and make sure you read up for next week’s book, Batman: The Cult!

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