I’m seriously asking! Tom King has been a critical darling almost since he started writing comics (I don’t know how his first comic was received, nor have I read it), and for the most part, it’s been justified. The Omega Men: pretty darned good. The Sheriff of Babylon: very good. The Vision: absolutely brilliant. Mister Miracle: excellent until he biffed the ending, but still a good read. Strange Adventures: also pretty darned good. Supergirl: brilliant, and he didn’t biff the ending. He’s written a bunch of other stuff, too, but those are kind of his thing – he takes obscure-ish characters and writes self-contained, short novellas about them. It works. So why can’t he write Batman?
To be fair, I might be tilting at windmills with regard to his long run on the actual title Batman. I read the first two trades, threw up in my mouth a little, and put them aside and never read his run again. It was just that bad, and that was coming off Scott Snyder’s less-than-stellar run. King wrote Batman for a long fucking time, and did a lot with the book, and people seemed to like it. I thought it was trash, but what the hell do I know, right?
Last week, King returned to the character with Batman – One Bad Day: The Riddler #1. Yes, I thought “Phew” as well. These one-shots are part of DC’s vast efforts to mine every single thing Alan Moore ever wrote for them without, you know, compensating him fairly for it, and so we get someone else missing the point of Alan Moore. This is the first one, and … wow, it’s bad. I mean, wow. I wasn’t going to buy it, but I got sucked in, because I do actually like the Riddler (he’s probably my favorite Bat-villain, unless you’re talking Cornelius Motherfucking Stirk!!!!), and King is a good writer, and Mitch Gerads does really nice work with the art (which I’m not going to write about a lot, but it’s nice). So I figured, what the hell, plunked down my seven hundred ninety-nine cents (minus a 20% discount, standard at Greg’s Comics in Mesa!), and read this sucker. And, I mean, wow, it’s bad.
First of all, I try not to be one of those people who doesn’t want characters to change. You know me. I don’t care if characters stay the same or change – if I don’t like it, instead of complaining, I’ll just stop reading. I do think that characters should adhere to a bit of a template, but not so strictly that they can never evolve. King has used the Riddler extensively, I guess, in his Batman run, and I have no idea how much of that seeped into this. It shouldn’t matter – this is a standalone story – but maybe it does. If you’re going to change the character, however, you should make it interesting. That’s a broad word, I know, but that’s the way it is. My question is: Does King even like the Riddler? Presumably after the success of his Batman, he was able to tell DC what character he’d want to write about for these one-shots. Maybe he didn’t, but if he did, why did he choose the Riddler if he doesn’t like him? And if he does like him, why does he hate him so much? Because he’s essentially ruined the character in 64 short pages. Well … done?
So let’s dive into this. SPOILERS ahoy, and all that. That’s just the way it is. Share my misery, won’t you? We begin with a first-person view of the world, as some dude named John finishes work at some office and gets on the elevator, while talking to his wife on the phone about their daughter. John seems like a decent fellow, but then, on page 4, the Riddler walks up to him on the street and shoots him in the head. He does this knowing the video cameras are on him, and so he holds up a card with a bat on it, demanding someone’s attention.
Jim Gordon is disinclined to let Riddler speak to Batman, so our villain tells him that it was he, Mr. Riddler, who told the Joker how to get to Gordon and Barbara for the events of The Killing Joke. Oh dear. He also twists the knife a bit about Sergeant Essen, because if DC isn’t strip-mining Alan Moore’s work, they’re strip-mining Frank Miller’s! Then we get a flashback to “Edward Tierney’s” adolescence. He doesn’t get the best grade on a test because his teacher added a riddle that Edward couldn’t answer, so his father, the headmaster, beats his butt with a book. Oh dear. Then we’re at John’s funeral, and Bruce is there for no good reason, and John’s widow, Diane, invites him back for the reception, which seems a bit odd, but whatever – how can you say no to that jawline? Back in the past, Edward gets another riddle wrong, and the teacher tells him it’s not about simply learning facts, but what you do with the knowledge and how you handle the weird questions life throws at you. This isn’t going to end well for the teacher, is it? Edward goes to his father’s office, contemplates suicide with the revolver in his father’s desk, but instead offers himself up for punishment once again because he didn’t do as well on the test as his father wanted.
Batman tortures a henchman of the Riddler’s for no seemingly good reason, but that’s just Bats being Bats, that crazy lug! Then Riddler talks the Film Freak into killing himself, which is fun. Batman goes out to a shack in the middle of nowhere. Who could be there? Before we find out, it’s another flashback, as Edward tries to get the teacher to let him do extra credit, but the teacher (who’s a bit of a doofus, to be fair) just goes on about how cool Edward is for rebelling and how he should just chill out. Yes, that will surely work. Then the Riddler cuts off the fingers of the guard who’s feeding him in his cell by trapping the fingers between the food tray and the door and pushing. Very nice. Back in the shack, we find Edward’s dad, who’s a thoroughly unpleasant man. Apparently Edward’s mother was a prostitute, so Edward’s father and Edward were stigmatized by the bluebloods that Edward’s father was in charge of, despite Edward being smarter than all of them. Batman, naturally, wants to know where Edward’s mother is.
Back in the past, Edward gets his father out of his office, then sneaks a look at his teacher’s next riddle. Oh, Edward, you fool. In the present, when they try to move the Riddler to a different cell block, he tells all the guards everything about their loved ones, and they all shoot each other (one of them panicked and was going to shoot our villain, another drew on him, things escalated). Meanwhile, Batman finds out that Edward’s mother is dead. Yep, Edward went to visit her and killed her. Well, that sucks. He finally agrees to meet with the Riddler, but before that, we get one more flashback! Edward got caught cheating because the teacher changed the riddle, and Edward didn’t even bother to read the question. The teacher says he’s going to have to turn him in, and that it’s for the best, because he’ll stop trying to be the smartest person and lighten up, and that’s when Edward kills him. He kicks him in the head (the teacher was kneeling down putting away his basketball, as they’re on the court) and then starts bashing his face in the pavement, apologizing the entire time and explaining that his father doesn’t like fun. On the same court in the present, Batman meets the Riddler, and things don’t go well for our hero.
First of all, the Riddler knows Batman’s identity, and Batman doesn’t seem too perturbed by this, so I assume this is from King’s Batman run. This is actually not a bad idea at all, as it’s not like it would too, too hard to figure out who Batman is, and the Riddler is quite smart. So … good job, Tom King? Then he tells Bats how he would wander through Wayne Manor at night because he’s better than the security system, and how he is going to kill one of Batman’s team if he doesn’t leave him alone, but then decides to kill a random person because it might actually be hard to kill one of Batman’s team. Batman threatens him, but there’s really nothing he can do. Off goes the Riddler!
Next, we see the aftermath. The Riddler is living high on the hog, and everyone is scared of him, even gangsters. Sad sack Bruce Wayne visits the dead guy’s widow to tell her why the dead guy is dead, and she tells him a deep and philosophical anecdote about her daughter playing soccer. The Riddler is in his fancy hotel room listening in on Batman talking to Gordon through the bug he has on the roof by the Bat-Signal, but surprise! it’s actually a recording, and suddenly Batman is behind the Riddler, looking menacing, and then we smash cut to black. THE END!!!!!
After I typed all of the above, I went to the comic book store for my usual Wednesday visit, where the clerk told me I was crazy for not loving this comic as he did. One of the dudes who I hang out with at the store hadn’t read it yet, so I didn’t argue too much with the clerk, but I wanted to!!!! He told me that it was hard to get worked up over an out-of-continuity story (even though I’m not sure this is one of those) that is just an interpretation of the character. And, as I pointed out above, I don’t get too bent out of shape when a character changes. But I’m going to address both the in-story crappiness and the in-continuity crappiness. How’s that for your money?!?!?!?
So, the backstory. The Riddler’s “origin.” Blech. When he talks about killing his mother, the Riddler says, “And there she was in front of me, and I could finally know why I am this way. Bruce, I’m not like you. Simple. ‘Crime killed my parents. I will fight crime.’ Whatever. No, I’m more complex than that. And I was about to be solved. So I asked her some things, and she opened her mouth and … and before she could answer, I reached out and I strangled her. As she died, as I watched the life come out of her … I don’t know. I didn’t want the answers.” Really, Edward? You’re too complex? Let’s see – according to this very comic, we have a domineering father who banged a whore and then took the child and had no problem sending the mother away, raising him to be the best no matter what and punishing him in both a brutal and a sexually confusing way. The child can’t abide failure, can’t think imaginatively, hates and loves his father in equal measure so he can’t kill him but he can kill the only person who’s even a bit kind and paternal toward him. He hates his mother for leaving even though it wasn’t her fault, and he wishes he could have spent time with her but, because of her profession, he gets sexually confused about that, too, because it’s an Oedipal thing writ large and clichéd, so he kills her. I mean, it’s not that complex, you feeb. It’s dull and boring and doesn’t really give us any new insight into the character. Blech.
His scheme is dumb, too, because it relies on a variable that far too many writers of Batman-related stuff not dealing with: the notoriously corrupt Gotham police force suddenly deciding not to be corrupt. Half or more of the force – which, as we’re told at every chance writers can get – is wildly corrupt would have put a bullet into the Joker’s brain long ago, and in this comic, Riddler’s scheme hinges on the fact that no cop wants to have anything to do with him because he knows all about their families. When he gets the cops to shoot each other, you’re telling me that one of those cops wouldn’t have blown his brains out? Gotham’s cops are corrupt … until they’re not, which is whenever killing a villain would untie any Gordian knot the villain has presented to them. The Riddler might have guessed that they wouldn’t kill him, but he couldn’t know. That’s a minor thing, honestly, because King isn’t the first writer to get sucked into that trap, and he won’t be the last. It still bugs me.
The little things, though, is where the book really bothers me. It’s the question of who the character is, who he could be, and what you can do with him. I claim, above, that King ruined the character, something the clerk at my store scoffed at because he says this is not in continuity (which may or may not be true). Sure, this might not be “canon,” but King is in the same position, I would argue, of Miller and Moore in the mid-1980s – influential enough that even if DC ignores this rendition, other people will read this and decide to use King’s take on the character, and then we’d get more of this garbage. I mean, The Killing Joke wasn’t supposed to be in continuity, yet here we are. So, speaking of that, the Riddler was the mastermind behind the events of The Killing Joke? Here’s what he tells Gordon: “How’d the Joker know you’d be home with Babs that day? How’d he know where you live? How did he get past your security? We both know him. He’s a weird guy, complicated, but never much of a planner.” So not only does King not understand the Riddler, he doesn’t understand the Joker, either, which isn’t surprising, given that most writers since Frank Miller turned the Joker into a rampaging maniac have misunderstood him. The Joker couldn’t figure out Gordon’s address? He couldn’t get past whatever security he had, which in a notoriously corrupt city like Gotham, probably wasn’t much, if any. He couldn’t, I don’t know, follow Gordon around for a while to find out where he was going and when he’d be there? Really, Tom King? Sheesh. The Joker can plan quite well, thank you, and it’s not like The Killing Joke hinged on some elaborate plan, anyway.
What bothers me most about this gets back to whether characters should change. Sure, they can, but there are also certain parameters for each character. Batman doesn’t kill. As stupid as that is with regard to, say, the Joker, it’s still a fundamental part of the character. So, of course, King implies that the only way to stop the Riddler is for Batman to kill him. Listen, if DC is going to allow Batman to start killing people, the first person he’s taking out is the Joker, so this is dumb, but it’s also completely misunderstanding the character. Batman doesn’t kill. Respect it or don’t, but you can’t write a Batman comic in which he willfully kills. I would put it out that that the Riddler doesn’t kill, either. I am given to understand that King himself, and probably other writers, have already fucked this up, but that don’t make it right. Paul Dini’s re-invention of the character as a private detective, which was brilliant, is impossible if Riddler is a killer. But more than that, it’s boring. In this comic, the Riddler claims he’s giving up riddles because he’s bored with them and he’s so smart they were only to allow Batman to keep up. But that’s not the point of the Riddler. The riddles are him trying to outsmart Batman, because that’s what he cares about. If he gives them up, there has to be a better reason than “I want to be a boring version of the Joker,” which is what no-riddle, mass-murdering Riddler is. There is nothing interesting about this character. There’s nothing interesting about mass-murdering Joker, either, but at least he got there first. This character is just trying way too hard to be the Joker, and that sucks. DC and their writers seem to want to turn everyone into the Joker these days, and that’s stupid. The Riddler is interesting because of his riddles and the fact that he doesn’t kill people. The Penguin is interesting because he’s a semi-legitimate businessman, not some misshapen murderer. Two-Face is interesting because of his moral code. Catwoman … well, she’s not that interesting as Bruce’s paramour, but she is interesting as a cat burglar who also doesn’t kill people. If you take the schtick away from comic book characters, they usually become far less interesting. In this case, garbage. I know I’m living in the past, but Gaiman’s Riddler from Secret Origins is so, so good and Gaiman gets the character so well in so few pages that it’s sad nobody follows that template. Milligan’s three-issue arc in which the Riddler does kill is great precisely because it’s so bizarre that he’s killing. Why do writers follow the lead of Frank Miller’s Joker but not Neil Gaiman’s Riddler? I suspect because, as many people have pointed out, writers like to be “edgy” and “mature,” and that means having characters kill without any reason, just because life sucks. Yeah, that’s not mature or particularly edgy. Maybe it’s because it’s hard coming up with good riddles? I get that. I’m certainly not smart enough to come up with good ones.
I know I’ve “spilled a lot of ink” over this comic, and I probably shouldn’t have, but it bugs me. It bugs me because of a lot of things, not the least of which is writers trying to change characters that have been around long before they were born and will be after they’re gone (assuming the world isn’t completely inhospitable to life soon) in radical ways. “But, but, Alan Moore!” the people will say. Yes, well, Alan Moore is a great writer, so there’s that. Again, I don’t mind changing the character, even a character (like the Riddler) that I like. But he isn’t your character, and you can’t mess with him too much. It seems like a lot of writers want to play in the toybox of the Big Two but can’t accept that they don’t own the fucking toys. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. Plenty of writers have gone to Image or Dark Horse or someplace else and done Batman, Superman, Joker, Wonder Woman, and any other kind of analogs, and King could have written a story of a super-villain who’s smarter than the hero he fights for a different company. But he wanted to wreck the Riddler. Well, mission accomplished. I mean, this is as bad as if a writer made a British telepath into an Asian ninja … oh, bad example. This would be like if someone turned Looker into a vampire … whoops. Ok, this would be like if someone fundamentally changed Gambit and made him into a good character. Yeah, I thought that would never happen! It’s just depressing that DC and people who write for DC can’t imagine a bad guy who wants to challenge Batman intellectually, so anyone like that has to be a mass murderer, too. Batman already has one depraved, insipid mass murderer running around his Rogues’ Gallery. He certainly doesn’t need a low-rent version, as well.
(Oh, and Riddler has been “in and out of Arkham for decades” and the henchdude “henched” for him for “decades”? How the hell long has the Riddler been active? And he wouldn’t be in Arkham, because he’s not insane. He’s just a criminal with a weird schtick. He’d be in prison.)
(Oh, and the grawlix. So tired of it. Don’t write curse words into your comic if you know they’re not going to appear in the actual comic. It looks stupid, and it’s lazy writing. Come on, people!)
So. That’s my rant. I apologize for the ranting, but occasionally, I get really angry at comics. Most I can let go because they don’t matter, but when a critically acclaimed writer puts out something crappy like this, and it’s a major publishing event, and it involves Batman, it angries up my blood. So I rant. That’s the way it is!
I’ve liked a lot of what King has written, and he’s doing a Slam Bradley thing, I think, that I’m looking forward to (as long as a certain pointy-eared vigilante doesn’t show up!). That’s why this badness when it comes to Batman perplexes me. I know I’m in the minority, hating both King’s Batman and Scott Snyder’s Batman (not Snyder’s Detective, as I’ve pointed out, but his post-New52 Batman), but I gots to calls it like I sees it. If you want to read good Tom King, go get his Supergirl trade. It’s ok, you don’t always have to read Batman-related comics!