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Batman: Ego (and Other Tails) (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

“It’s at times like this…. In the cold… in the dark… I feel that I’m losing my way.”

– Batman’s opening monologue, Ego

Few modern comic book artists and writers are as respected as Darwyn Cooke. The illustrator began his career on Batman: The Animated Series, and then expanded out into the comic books that inspired it. He’s worked on any number of iconic projects, including the miniseries New Frontier and the adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker books. This summer, he’s a major part of DC’s Before Watchmen initiative, writing Silk Spectre and writing and illustrating The Minutemen. Batman: Ego and Other Tails collects the bulk of the writer/illustrator’s work on the Caped Crusader, with Selina’s Big Score included for good measure. In his introduction, the writer confesses that the story was”an earnest yet flawed first effort”, and it seems like he’s being remarkably fair.

He’s created a monster!

Cooke positions an interesting idea at the heart of Ego. What if Batman and Bruce Wayne could have a conversation? What would that be like? What would each half expect or demand from the other, and how would they compromise? It’s a clever idea, and it’s one that seems remarkable relevant to the Dark Knight in the modern age. Cooke’s New Frontier seemed to make his position on the character clear – rejecting the excessively dark portrayal of Batman that followed Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. Cooke’s portrayal of Batman seems remarkably consistent, as Ego affords the writer and artist the opportunity to strike a balance between the darker and lighter portrayals of the character.

I’ve read a lot of Batman books lately, and it is absolutely amazing how large a shadow that Frank Miller’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader cast, and how strongly recent creators seem to be trying to pull away from that dark and gritty portrayal. Especially in the last decade, it seems that most Batman writers have put in considerable effort to divert the character away from the “Batjerk” portrayal of the nineties, where the character was excessively violent, aggressive and cynical. (Hell, he was occasionally borderline psychotic.) A lot of this stems from Frank Miller’s decision to portray Bruce as struggling with his more cynical and violent impulses, rather than portraying Batman as a well-rounded individual.

Joker’s on him…

Cooke’s Ego seems to explore that post-Miller portrayal, in the same way that Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin or Doug Moench’s Prey might attempt to. When Cooke separates the Batman from Bruce and gives it a pure form, it sounds a lot like Frank Miller’s grizzled old Batman. “You think you know pain, you coward?” it goads Bruce by way of introduction. “I will show you pain.” Even from the introductory monologue, Bruce speaks in a voice quite similar to the one that Frank Miller gave him, speaking of his “mission” in the almost religious tones that Miller’s Bruce used. (Indeed, the demonic personification of Batman muses, “But lately you’ve been lacking faith.”) Cooke’s Bruce worries. “That the city I’ve given myself to — threatens to crush me — with the weight of my commitment to her.”

Cooke clearly sets his story in the era after Year One. That is the case literally (Bruce identifies it as the third year of his mission), but also metaphorically. The story is set in an especially dark and violent Gotham, albeit one populated with Batman’s colourful freaks. It opens with the Joker’s henchman killing his family and committing suicide, afraid of what his boss will do to them. This isn’t a fun adventure. This isn’t kooky comic book shenanigans. Batman himself lays out the scene, “The Joker. A looting and killing spree at a charity ball. 27 dead. What horrifies me most — is I seem to be getting used to it. The pain. The death. Not numb, but used to it.”

Dive in!

Cooke presents us with a Bruce who might be acclimatising to the brutality and the horror of it. Many commentators would argue that this more grounded approach to the character ended up sucking the fun out of the Batman stories, making them unpleasant to read, too dark for fans. There was a time when the more outlandish aspects of the character – the Bat-giro, for example, or even Robin – were downplayed because they somehow undermined the grave seriousness of a man who fought crime in his underwear.

The embodiment of Batman, divorced from Bruce, seems to outline this position, attacking Bruce for toys and trinkets like the Batmobile or the Batsignal, items that take away from the more grim and dark portrayal. “However, it wasn’t long before your vanity and need for approval — yielded to the call of celebrity. I have endured this, as well as your somewhat pitiful need for companionship.”

The Knight is always darkest just before the dawn…

Cooke, in fairness to him, does lay down any number of valid criticisms of the Batman mythos, and they’re all very clever and very thoughtful. At one point, Batman lays a very direct accusation at Bruce concerning the Joker. “Every time we catch him and allow him to live, he breaks free to kill again. All of this horror and tragedy in the service of your ‘code of honour.’ Or could it be that the great Batman needs his archnemesis in order to feel complete?”

Of course the Joker continues to live and he can’t die. He was supposed to die way back in his first story, but it was thought that he’d make a great recurring menace. Since then, Batman can’t kill him because the character is simply too popular. The Batman’s meta-textual accusation – that “Batman needs his archnemesis” – is completely valid, but it seems wrong to blame Bruce or Batman for that. They are just characters caught in a scripted adventure, they aren’t real. Problems like this and the reckless endangerment of Robin only become concerns if you expect the character to be handled with a sort of a grim realism.

Beware the Batman…

That’s arguably the greatest problem with Cooke’s Ego. He raises all these valid points that are easily dismissed by the fact that Batman is a fantasy figure, but he can’t really address them in-story. The criticisms are perfectly valid inside the fictional universe, even though they are silly outside of it. Confronted with the Joker’s damage, the best response Bruce can offer is at best half-hearted. “Everybody lives in harm’s way,” Bruce remarks. “Tragedy strikes indiscriminately.” It almost sounds is if Bruce is arguing “sh!t happens.”

In the context of the story itself, it seems like exactly the sort of rationalisation that the demonic Batman would offer to explain or indulge his own thirst for violence and vengeance. If Peter Parker adopted the same approach, he never would have become Spider-Man. Uncle Ben getting shot by a thief he didn’t stop would just have been bad luck. Cooke writes this as if it were a revelation and it somehow renders all of the criticisms he has offered as moot. I’m not convinced that the argument holds water. Indeed, despite the fact that Cooke seems to paint this as turning point, it seems that a lot of these criticisms are left unresolved and uncontested.

Unarmed and dangerous…

To be perfectly fair, there are moments when Bruce seems to almost grasp that truth – to become (even fleetingly) aware of his nature as a comic book character trapped within a status quo that he must rationalise to himself. Bruce seems to have noticed that the only thing that truly changes is his own identity. “I realised long ago that I can’t change the world — in three years I’ve come to realise that I can’t appreciably change this city — I’ve begun to wonder if the only thing I can change is myself.”

Given the many iterations of Batman, from Adam West’s Camp Crusader to Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, that’s a very astute observation. Batman seems to change from generation to generation, writer to writer, even if the world around him remains relatively consistent – it only really changes to reflect his characterisation. Cooke never really dwells on the point, and I can understand why. It could distract away from the story at hand. Still, it feels as though he has raised all these criticisms without rebuking them.

Freaking out…

More successful, however, it the way that Cooke handles the Bruce and Batman dichotomy. Since Miller got his hands on the character – with Bruce hearing whispers in the empty Wayne Manor in The Dark Knight Returns – the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Batman has been almost as interesting as the dynamic between the Hulk and Bruce Banner. Both have very different needs and goals, which are almost mutually exclusive. Each is a burden on the either, but neither can exist alone.

Much like Batman: Vampire or Batman R.I.P., Cooke seems to suggest Batman’s character would benefit greatly from a tighter integration of the two identities. Batman without Bruce is a very bad idea, even if he might suggest it. “Therefore, although we share a host body, I suggest we accept that we are separate entities — you are not responsible for my actions — any more than I am responsible for yours.”Cooke correctly identifies it as poor decision, one that would cost the character his humanity and probably push him to some very dark places.

A shot at the dark…

Indeed, the book ends on a relatively positive note, as Cooke tries to emphasise the positive aspects of Bruce Wayne’s somewhat tortured relationship with Batman. The idea that Batman isn’t just the embodiment of fear, but also a “symbol of hope.” In a manner that recalls Steve Englehart’s optimistic take on the Caped Crusader, with Cooke acknowledging Englehart as an influence, the Batman argues he has a greater purpose than merely punishing the wicked. “We cannot change the past,” the Batman tells Bruce. “All we can do is protect others and allow them the chance for the happiness that we’ll never have.” It’s a very effective idea, and I think it’s the best part of Cooke’s attempt to refocus the Caped Crusader.

It’s worth conceding that this is Cooke’s first major work on Batman, and so his writing seems a little awkward when compared with some of his later work. I know that he seems to be trying to evoke Frank Miller’s noir dialogue at various points, but there are moments where it overwhelms the work a bit. Particularly when he suggests stuff like “like each new atrocity is the echo of a pistol fired long ago — in the depths of a dry well.” In fairness to Cooke, the author seems to concede the point. “I drop the introspection,” Batman remarks towards the end of the monologue. “It’s time to go to work.”

Selina’s moonlighting…

Incidentally, I couldn’t help noticing that the number 27 recurs within the first few pages. The Joker kills 27 people, and it takes 27 hours to capture him. I might have my crazy conspiracy-theory Grant-Morrison-symbolism hat on, but I do find it interesting that 27 represents the highest level of knowledge in rupaloke, in Buddhism. Given the somewhat spiritual nature of Batman’s journey in this story, I can’t help but wonder if it was intentional. If it is, I think that Cooke deserves a fair bit of credit for subtle symbolism.

DC have collect a bunch of other Cooke-related Batman goodies here, including his contributions to Batman: Black & White as both artist and illustrator, and a short Solo story with Tim Sale featuring Catwoman. These are all solidly entertaining and engaging little stories, though I especially like Cooke’s wonderfully dark humour in Monument, a story in which Gotham decides to honour Batman with a statue… which he doesn’t seem too fond of.

Red sky at knight…

The largest extra here, however, is Selina’s Big Score, written and illustrated by Cooke. In fact, I think it’s longer than the actual title feature, and it’s more than likely DC just bumped Ego to the front because a Batman book would sell more copies. Cooke in particular seems fond of it, devoting the largest section of his introduction to it and calling it “my favourite book that I’ve written and drawn.” It is very much a noir book, without any of the meta-textualism of Ego.

Cooke worked with writer Ed Brubaker on a monthly Catwoman book, and I imagine their noir sensibilities played very well off one another. I remain somewhat disappointed that DC only released a softcover collection to celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises. They have a book featuring two well-loved creators on a character who is playing a major role in an upcoming film… and they release it in softcover instead of a prestigious hardcover collection? Sometimes the marketing on these books confuses me. It’s a shame, because I would have loved to get my hands on that.

Pearls of wisdom…

Selina’s Big Score is a nice little read, and you can really feel Cooke’s affection for the old noir archetypes seeping through. In fact, he even has a fantasy cast for the adventure including seventies icons like Burgess Meredith and Pam Grier. I’ll admit to being quite surprised at how brutal it was, with Selina and company certainly not afraid to break Batman’s “one rule.” It’s a solid story, and probably stronger than the title story, even if it lacks the same reflection and depth.

By the by, it’s nice to see Cooke’s affection for Richard Stark seeping over into his work. Selina’s Big Score features a strong supporting cast member who shares the noir author’s surname, and Cooke gives one of the goons from Deja Vu the name as well. In fact, Deja Vu is an adaptation of Engelhart’s Night of the Stalker, another example of Cooke directly acknowledging his influences and inspirations. I think the most consistent aspect of this collection is the amount of fun that Cooke has playing with these characters and archetypes, while indulging his own affections.

Boy, is his face red…

Batman: Ego might not be essential reading, but it is entertaining. In terms of execution, the title story is probably the weakest of the bunch, even if it is the deepest story in the set. Cooke perfectly evokes the classical noir aspects of the character and his world, perhaps better than any recent writer. Those who like that aspect of the character will undoubtedly be perfectly at home in this collection. I know, because I am one of them.

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