Cool cover conceals some Bat-guano
Batman has always been one of my favorite comic book characters, going back to when I watched reruns of the Batman tv series and a lifelong enjoyment with the comic book character. Batman, like any long-running character has had to be retooled in order to stay fresh, but DC’s recent Rebirth is baffling as to why anyone would want to read it. Nothing exemplifies this more than the storyline “The War of Jokes and Riddles,” which fails to make the jump from strong concept to engaging story.
Recently I was browsing listings for Batman graphic novels online when I came across “The War of Jokes and Riddles.” The premise sounded interesting—the Joker and Riddler engage in a war to see who will get the right to kill Batman. Or as Amazon describes it:
Early in Batman’s career, the Joker and the Riddler would seemingly be natural allies. But each man determined that he and he alone must be the one to kill the Bat...and either would sooner burn down Gotham than be beaten to the punch line. Untold until now, one of the darkest chapters in Batman’s history sees all of Gotham’s villains choosing sides in a battle of wits that soon turns into a full-blown war—complete with civilian casualties. In the War of Jokes and Riddles, only one side can claim victory...but the scars it leaves will shape Batman’s future as he makes the most important decision of his life.
Like many comic book story arcs from the last twenty years, the premise is intriguing, but the execution is poor. There seems to be a problem with Marvel and DC telling stories within the confines of a traditional comic book. The days of the mega-crossover involving multiple titles seem to have quieted down (for now), but companies are now seemingly baffled by how to tell an epic story in a limited number of issues (as opposed to the heyday of the 90’s and 2000’s when you couldn’t tell a crossover in less than 30 issues). In case you don’t believe me, look at “Age of Apocalypse,” “Our World at War,” “Knightfall,” “The Death of Superman,” “Infinite Crisis,” or anything from DC or Marvel up until recently.
One of the interesting things about this story is how the writer elevates the Riddler to the level of the Joker. Whereas the Riddler was often a cunning thief, he’s now become a flat-out homicidal maniac who seems as equally intent on riddles as he is at riddling people with bullets (sorry, I couldn’t pass on the College Humor “Pete Holmes Batman” reference). The Joker has always been at the top of the food chain when it comes to Batman’s impressive rogue’s gallery, so the Riddler’s new spot, while intriguing, isn’t supported by any evidence showing why he’s such a menace. In the past, writers have tweaked the Riddler’s character ranging from new takes on his origin to different methods of crime (while maintaining his obsession with riddles), but never in a way that makes him seem as deadly as the Joker, Bane, or Ra's al Ghul (usually depicted as Batman’s most formidable enemies). Like most of the storyline in “War of Jokes and Riddles,” Tom King does nothing to establish why the Riddler is suddenly such a threat (or to steal a term from TV Tropes, how he took a level in bad-ass).
A clever premise, but terrible execution
One thing I have noticed about DC Rebirth (at least in the Batman comics) is how DC has finally elevated Batman’s rogues’ gallery where their villainy matches the carnage found in the pulps that preceded comics. I always laughed at the antics of the Joker who accumulated a nice body count, but seemed like a piker compared to the villains the pulp hero the Spider fought such as the Fly and the Living Pharaoh. The Spider fought villains who killed thousand of people in New York City on a routine basis, typically bringing New York City to the proverbial precipice. On one occasion, a villain even took over New York State, turning it into a fascist dictatorship, complete with concentration camps and oppressive taxes. Eighty years later, and DC is finally amping up its carnage, as seen in this tale that has Gotham citizens dying from everything from lead overdoses to Mr. Freeze-induced hypothermia.
The problem with this tale is that in order to read it without throwing it in the trash bin, you have to suspend all disbelief that not only is anyone but Batman capable of dealing with the villains, but everyone else is an idiot. When the Riddler escapes police confinement, he gets a SWAT team to stand down because he’s learned about their personal lives and knows the names and location of their children. Why doesn’t someone just shoot the Riddler and end the threat? Also, why would anyone want to work in Gotham if they knew their families would constantly be at risk (which is a given since the city is constantly under siege from various villains). When things get out of hand in Gotham, the government sends in special forces to deal with the villains. Naturally, the special ops are never heard from again, but isn’t this the same DC universe with meta special forces?
Tom King has a good premise and a somewhat edgy ending. The problem is the journey from beginning to end is a senseless story full of plot holes and generally bad writing. It seems like King had some great set pieces in mind, but no clarity on how to set them up and make them flow with the rest of the story. He’s not the first writer to fall into this trip (just look at any of Brian Bendis’ crossovers such as Secret Invasion and Dark Reign), but it’s unfortunate DC (and Marvel) don’t use editors to rein in their writers’ excesses. As much-maligned as Jim Shooter was at Marvel, he knew how to keep writers on target and to understand the mechanics of comic book storytelling.
This story had the potential to be an epic—a war between the Riddler and the Joker over who has the honor of killing Batman. Throw in a bunch of villains on each side and you have the potential for an exciting story. Instead, there’s no setup for why the villains ally with either the Riddler or Joker. Worse, there are significant villains such as Two-Face and Penguin who seem to be nothing more than glorified flunkies. It’s a bad use of characters and either bad writing or a lack of understanding of their status in the Batman mythos.
The graphic novel's writing is bad, but the artwork is average or good (depending on your taste). With comics being a visual medium, great art can save a poor story. However, in this case, it’s not enough and I’m not sure this is even worth reading at your local public library. “War of Jokes and Riddles’” true value is to serve an example of what not to do when writing a big concept storyline.
“The War of Jokes and Riddles” begins with a tantalizing premise, but in the end, it reads like bad fan fiction.
Readers may ask this about "The War of Jokes and Riddles"