This was supposed to be a different post entirely. Following up The Killing Joke in continuity, I ought to be writing about A Death In The Family. While I will discuss that controversial classic next week, I am not talking about it now, because I want to talk instead about Darwyn Cooke, an unparalleled titan of comics storytelling who passed away on May 14. But I haven’t suspended continuity only because I want to eulogize Darwyn Cooke by discussing his 2000 Batman graphic novel Ego – no, I don’t want to write about A Death In The Family, because, like The Killing Joke preceding it, it worked to push superhero storytelling further into a relentless grimness to which Cooke’s work was a welcome antidote.
Darwyn Cooke’s visual stylings evoke a bygone time – his art is like the Golden Age perfected, with all the same wide-eyed wonder and bombast, but with a more dynamic understanding of human figures and a more sophisticated knowledge of visual storytelling. Like any master of a given craft, Cooke made comics look easy, achieving more with fewer lines than most draftsmen could accomplish with near-photorealism. Somehow, he accomplished a similar result in his writing – spare and concise, he nevertheless possessed an uncanny understanding of any character he wrote. Consider his superhero opus, DC: The New Frontier – juggling an enormous cast of DC’s superheroes, he managed to capture each character at their best and most iconic, crafting the single greatest Justice League story ever committed to paper. In that book, and in Batman: Ego, he understands that the core of the best superhero stories is as deceptively simple as his art: hope.
Therein lies a peculiarity in Darwyn Cooke’s work: while his visuals evoke the past, that core theme which pervades almost all his work in the superhero genre is focused firmly forward. Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company represents a similar dichotomy, and their Grisette, part of their Farm Table series, is the aspect rooted in the past. By their own description, beers in this series “are sessionable beers inspired by tradition and brewed true to a classic style.” Inspired by tradition and in a classic style are comfortable descriptors of Cooke’s work on Ego – his clear graphic style bears much of the same styling as Batman: The Animated Series, while his fondness for the nine-panel-grid layout recalls Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and the narration and lettering recalls Frank Miller’s Year One. Darwyn Cooke’s work is not derivative of these things, mind you – not even a little bit – but are used as knowing homages, graphically representing the grim “now” in order to move beyond and deconstruct it. Consider the opening narration: “It’s at times like this . . . In the cold . . . in the dark. . . I feel that I’m losing my way. That the city I’ve given myself to threatens to crush me with the weight of my commitment to her.” Sure, it could be read literally, but it is also remarkably accurate if viewed as a rumination upon the tone of Batman comics following the bleak and joyless 1990s (to which books like The Killing Joke and A Death In The Family provided the foundation).
Though an entirely different context, Beau’s observed something similar in a recent promotional video. “Craft beer is not an industry,” they proclaim. “It’s an ideal. It’s a movement. It began as a counterculture to mainstream, generic light lagers, and it still is.” Like Ego, Beau’s is aware that exists in a slightly bleak paradigm, but – and again, like Ego – they look forward with unprecedented optimism. While they might be brewing beer which harkens back to classic styles, Beau’s decisively moved to secure their future last week – rather than selling to one of the larger conglomerates to facilitate their ongoing growth, they are selling their brewery to their own employees, allowing the company to remain independent even as it grows and expands. Father-and-son founders Tim and Steve Beauchesne understand what makes craft beer craft, just as Darwyn Cooke shows in Ego just what makes Batman a hero.
Having just foiled another plot by the Joker, Batman, exhausted and bleeding out from a gunshot, is chasing down one loose end – the Joker’s escaped getaway driver, who, just the night previous, Batman had persuaded to reveal the Joker’s plan. Fearing retribution from the Joker and justice from Batman, this getaway driver opts instead to kill himself. Returning to the Batcave, Bruce Wayne ponders giving up as Batman, holding himself responsible for the thug’s suicide and doubting if the good he does as Batman is worth the cost. Slipping into delirium from pain and blood loss, Bruce finds himself confronted by his own monstrous ego, visualized as a nightmarish rendition of his own Batman identity. What then follows is part debate, part journey through Bruce Wayne’s psyche, letting Cooke examine what makes Batman (and Bruce Wayne) tick. The Batman persona is harsh, violent, and uncompromising – it thinks it would do better without Bruce Wayne’s concern for human life and self-doubt over consequences. With this conceit, Darwyn Cooke literally lets Bruce Wayne confront the near-psychopathic Frank Miller-inspired Dark Knight. While most writers accept the notion that Bruce Wayne is the facade and Batman is the true identity, Cooke disagrees – Batman is something raw, elemental, and brutal inside Bruce Wayne; without Bruce, Batman would scarcely be human at all, and Cooke is interested in rectifying the two personalities.
That push-and-pull between past glory and future promise creeps into a lot of Darwyn Cooke’s work – the aforementioned DC: The New Frontier, for sure, and his two Before Watchmen series, Minutemen and Silk Spectre. Never is it quite as explicit or literal as it is in Batman: Ego, however. The past always offers some allure in his work, and in light of his passing, it would be easy to feel that the past is indeed better than what the future can offer – the future, after all, doesn’t have Darwyn Cooke in it. Certainly, Beau’s Farm Table Grisette lures us backward, offering a light, slightly floral beer, balanced and entirely refreshing, no gimmick or hook offered and none needed. But the promise of the past is false, as Darwyn Cooke writes in Ego: “We cannot change the past. All we can do is protect others and allow them the chance for the happiness that we’ll never have.”
Which, really, is what makes Batman a hero – it isn’t the tragedy of his own past, some grim vendetta which he can never resolve. It is hope. Mike Allred, a fellow comic artist and friend of Cooke’s, wrote upon his passing: “Darwyn always inspired me to reach higher time and again. I imagine he had that affect on countless creators . . . He lifted us all.” Thus, it wasn’t just through the stories he told and the characters he portrayed, he himself inspired both those who knew him personally and those, like myself, who only knew him through his work. A comic book created by Darwyn Cooke can make a person believe the world of tomorrow may prove to be something wondrous, and if that world must be one without Darwyn Cooke, may it at least be one he helped inspire.