Little change of format today. You all know I mainly write about indie comics, but from time to time I dip my toes into the DC well. Today is one of those days, because an author I have very mixed feelings about wrote a book that deals with my favorite Batman villain of all time, and honestly, I have thoughts about it I need to share.
If you’re not interested in my backstory, skip to the blurb to get my specific feedback about the book itself. Otherwise hang on, because I have a lot to say today.
Tom King is a challenging author for me. Some authors I love everything from. Some authors I hate everything. So authors are just ok.
But King is one of those rare authors whose work, to me, is either the greatest thing I have ever read, or the worst abomination to ever blight the good face of comics. I always try to read what he writes, and it’s usually written well, and his win/ lose ratio for me is usually more in the win category, but he’s burned me enough that I still have some apprehension when I hear him announce a new project, especially when that project directly relates to a character I love.
Case in point: I really enjoyed the vast majority of his early run on Batman. Unlike Marvel and DC, I like it when characters actually change and develop in a realistic way. I like the idea of characters falling in love and getting married. I don’t even like Spider-Man but I was pissed when they retconned away the marriage. I did read Batwoman and was even more furious when they chickened out of that wedding altogether.
So when Tom King laid the groundwork for Batman and Catwoman I was all in because, sweet lord above, Batman might actually develop as a character! I never read Superman until Rebirth, but watching Superman as a father and as a husband really spoke to me, and I was all in on that book until Bendis came along and ruined it all (that’s right, shots fired), so I was ready to see new dynamics with Batman and the Bat-Family, and when it all fizzled out, well, I was pretty much through with the rest of that run.
It wasn’t just the marriage though; the seeds of my discontentment were planted before with a storyline that is as well known as it is infamous, The War of Jokes and Riddles.
When this storyline started, I was all in. I really enjoyed a lot of the character development at the start, the new approach to the characters, the small surprises layered throughout, and most of all, the fact that Riddler was getting some time in the sun. He’d been pretty absent since Zero Year, and I was excited to see him back in the book
See, Riddler, as I already said, is my favourite Batman villain. I grew up watching the 1960s Batman show on reruns, and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler was absolutely captivating to me as a bad guy. He had violent mood swings, diabolical plans, and basically made the other villains look like idiots in comparison. I also loved that Batman never actually solved the majority of the riddles (Robin did), which made him, to me, the actual threat to Batman, compared to all the rest.
I was 15 when Batman Forever came out, and a huge Jim Carrey fan, and so that movie further cemented my love of the Riddler in my brain. Yeah, Carrey is manic and over the top, and looking back that movie has a lot of problems, but to 15 year old me that movie was awesome and Riddler was way more of a threat than any of the other villains Batman had faced in the films up to that point, because he didn’t just want to destroy Batman, he wanted to destroy Bruce Wayne. The other villains hated Batman, so to me that was the really interesting aspect about the character.
As generous as film and TV have been to the character, the comics have rarely treated Riddler right. He’s a hard character to write for, because as much as the comics like to hype up Batman as a detective, at the end of the day most writers want Batman to be a big action monster that punches people in the face. Riddler was an intellectual challenge to Batman, and so in order to write him correctly you need to put him slightly above Batman, but also sow the seeds of his own destruction in his hubris and manic compulsions.
As I got older and has the money and time to do so, I started to really dig into Riddler backstories and look for whatever info I could find about his character. What I found was, to put it mildly, pretty inconsistence at best (and abhorrent at worst)
Batman v Riddler basically has to be a Sherlock Holmes v Moriarty story, and that requires clever writers interested in telling that kind of tale. This rarely happened, and so the Riddler was frequently reduced to a silly side character/ Joker knock-off that would just spout stupid gibberish, and get punched in the face a lot. For every Hush, there’s a dozen other stories where the Riddler is an easy to defeat goofball outthought by Batman in less than a minute.
So when Tom King decided to do his first run at the character in Batman, I was really excited to see where it would go. For all my issues, I am the first to admit that King is a brilliant writer, and can definitely layer in a lot of clues and mysteries and has no problem writing stories that delve deep into Batman’s psyche, so I thought for sure we would get more of the same with some great new insight into the Riddler.
Instead, well, instead we got something else. Riddler once again felt like a side character, one who was playing his own game, but it was a weird and undefined game that didn’t make a lot of sense. Batman almost broke one his most sacred laws by attempting to kill Riddler, and in the end a lot of fans were left scratching their heads. It wasn’t a bad story, but it also wasn’t what people were expecting, and I in particular was left pretty disappointed by the wasted potential.
So when I heard that DC was going to do an entire series of origin stories about the characters in Batman’s villain menagerie, inspired by the Joker’s “one bad day” in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, and that the first story would be about Riddler, and would be written by Tom King, I was…apprehensive at best. At the time of writing this article The Batman has been out for about six months, and with Riddler as the main antagonist of that film I was worried that this was just a shameless plug by DC to capitalize on his notoriety right now.
So, does it work? It this a success from King, or is this another Heroes in Crisis? Well let’s dive in together and find out.
Here’s the blurb: The Most Dangerous Game of Wits Batman and Riddler have ever played…
The Riddler is one of Batman’s most intellectual villains and the one who lays out his clues the most deliberately. The Riddler is always playing a game, there are always rules. But what happens when The Riddler kills someone in broad daylight for seemingly no reason? No game to play. No cypher to breakdown. Batman will reach his wit’s end trying to figure out the Riddler’s true motivation in this incredible thriller!
Spoilers ahead! You were warned!
This book is, hands down, one of the best Riddler stories I have ever read.
As with most of his stories, it’s fairly obvious Tom King has done his homework with the Riddler. As a Batman writer for as long as he was, you would expect this, but as I said, there have been some issues there.
We open with a strange incident. A completely random man is shot in the back of the head by Riddler in broad daylight. Riddler just stands there, at the scene, waiting to be arrested. After, he asks Jim Gordon to tell Batman he wants to talk to him, which Gordon refuses, claiming that Batman has said he is not worth his time.
From there we start a series of flashback to young Edward as a student at a prestigious school for the wealthy and gifted, where his father is the headmaster. Edward is being punished by his father for his low score on a test, which Edward blames on the teacher, who makes the last question on every test an unconnected riddle, which Edward can never figure out.
I really like this origin for a couple of reasons. For one thing, we don’t really have a lot of background on Riddler. As much as people say that the Joker is a mystery, Eddie is just as mysterious. It’s been frequently shared in the past that he was a bright child, who loved games and riddles, and loved showing off and proving he was smarter than everyone else. He also was never above cheating to win, something we eventually see him do in this story as well.
Back in the modern day, Riddler is causing chaos at Arkham Asylum. He is moved to solitary after he outthinks Film Freak, a character in the cell next to him, and causes him to kill himself. He then makes the guards kill each other by revealing the information he has about their families, and eventually the chaos he causes Gordon convinces him to tell Batman to speak with him.
In the flashback we see Edward’s growing frustration. He cannot figure out the riddles, and after a failed attempt to force his teacher to stop asking them with the threat of going to his father (a threat they both know is hollow) Edward manages to sneak a copy of the next test and steal the answer to the next riddle. The only problem is that the teacher changed the riddle at the last minute, but Edward still wrote down the original answer, revealing to the teacher that he cheated, and leading to a very strong chance of expulsion.
Enraged, Edward smashes his teacher’s face into the ground over and over again, most likely killing him before leaving to start his life of crime.
Meanwhile, Batman confronts Riddler, having learned that Riddler recently discovered his birth mother was a former prostitute, and that he had murdered her shortly after meeting her. Batman confronts Riddler with this information, only to have Riddler brush it off and instead focus on telling Batman not only that he has known his secret identity all along, but also that for every time Batman touches him moving forward, another person will die.
See, that’s the secret of the killing from the beginning. Riddler has no problem killing people, and will do it again and again, or have others he has blackmailed do it for him, if Batman hurts him again. He then walks away, gets in a car, and drives to a wonderful hotel room where he basically puts into motion a plan to control the entire city. Police are afraid to go after him because he shows he can hurt their families. Even the governor is scared.
In short, Riddler wins.
I don’t want to give away what happens next. Fans of King’s Batman will really love the ending, and I’ll just leave it at that.
So, why is this such a great story? What is it that works? What does Tom King get that so many others don’t? Let’s break it down.
First off, what King get’s right about this story is what it is about Riddler that makes him different. Each of Batman’s greatest rogues is a representation of some distorted aspect of Batman himself. Most of them are people who have the same gifts and abilities as Batman, and instead of using them to make the world better, they use them only for their own ends and desires.
Riddler is not a physical challenge for Batman, and he never should be. Killer Croc and Bane are there for that. Riddler has to be not only as smart as Batman, but to really work he has to be smarter. He has to be a threat that needs Batman to dig deep to overcome him. If his riddles could be figured out in a second, then he’s a distraction at best, and annoyance at worst, and really, really bad at his job.
Tom King’s Riddler is smart, very smart. King retcons a bit that Riddler knew who Batman was for a long time, but hid that info because he wanted Batman to challenge him. He claims the riddles and the games were all a part of Riddler’s own desire to be challenged by Batman, and that he could have destroyed him easily early on, but enjoyed their battles too much to bring it to an end that quickly.
This retcon is, alright, it’s not perfect and it does require a lot of give on the part of the reader, but honestly I’ll let it slide because any character that has existed as long as the Riddler is going to have inconsistencies in portrayal, and honestly this is a retcon that makes the character better overall, so I’m fine with it.
The Riddler needs to be redefined, honestly, and I think a lot of other writers get that. A short while ago DC’s Year of the Villain had a series of one shot stories where Lex Luthor appeared to various bad guys and offered them a gift in order to make them better villains. When he appeared before Riddler he actually gave him nothing, his justification being that it was wasted on him because he himself is a waste, something that Edward himself had spent most of the issue reflecting on. That issue ended with Riddler vowing to try something different, a vow that other writers did nothing with, and he quickly returned to being a side character and a wasted goofball.
Until this book. The Riddler: One Bad Day is honestly the true sequel to Year of the Villain, even if King himself might not have had that in mind. Riddler vows to do things differently, and then we get this book where a very changed man becomes one of the biggest threats Batman has faced, a villain that challenges his mental abilities and his personal morality, to a degree that is rarely seen in a Batman story, let along a Riddler story.
It is a perfect reinvention of the character and if DC has any sense at all it will become the new status quo for the character. Sadly I doubt it will, but as a Riddler fan I live in hope.
One final but incredibly important point to add here is just how fantastic Mitch Gerads’s art is on this book. A long time King collaborator, these two just work in such perfect harmony with each other and the visuals just sing the story along. Gerads is a fantastic student of expression and motion, and the visual shorthand he uses throughout the book is just great. He’s honestly the only artist that I think could do this book, and I’m so glad he was game to do it.
Alright, so that’s probably one of the longest articles I’ve ever written. The Riddler: One Bad Day is just perfect to me in every way. A great story, a fantastic reinvention, an artistic masterpiece. So much happens in this book that I didn’t even mention so please go out and pick it up. This book does for Riddler what The Killing Joke did for Joker, and I really hope that other writers take inspiration from Tom King and we get a whole new wave of fantastic Riddler stories moving forward.
Until next time, Stay Safe.