riddler

Riddle me this: why are so many writers completely at a loss when it comes to E. Nigma?

Poodle has noted that the Batman TV show of the 60s has been something of a touchstone in his rogue’s review considerations, and you know what? I completely agree that it should be. Many of you will worry that the camp fun therein is at odds with the skein of grim ‘n’ gritty darkness that runs through Batman at his best, but I put it to you that your inner child experienced that show as deadly serious, and that’s what we’re trying to tap into here: the way it felt to you as a kid, which as far as I’m concerned is completely at odds with flooding the Batverse with all out silliness.

The Riddler of the TV show always made me uneasy. There was something very wrong with this slippery man that hid behind the question mark, building deathtraps and giggling like a child. In fact puzzles themselves were worrisome. My Grandad’s cheerful, yellow bumper puzzle books were at heart mysterious. At the time my mother was regularly reading me Greek myths, and I knew with certainty that those friendly cartoon characters that ushered me towards maze entrances weren’t to be trusted. At the centre of the labyrinth something dark and secret lurked, at once frightening and exhilarating. Further into the books matchstick men hung from matchstick nooses, and cryptic crosswords muttered their inscrutable clues with oracular force. Even the dot-to-dot lattices were pregnant with powerful revelations, always threatening much more than a jagged representation of Micky Mouse’s head. Always a disappointment when the numbers ran out and the picture was complete, as if the introduction of a few more elements would bring some transcendental force to bear and unlock a hidden reality.

Yeah, to my five-year-old brain puzzles were something more than distractions. When I grew up I wanted to build impossible mazes and stock them with bizarre and often terrifying creations: traps, monsters, and fiendish brainteasers. After being exposed to D&D my obsession switched to dungeons, but the principle remained the same – I still wanted to explore the places where we lose our way, and harness the unknown. In my tweens when I encountered The One Game, a television series based around a character trapped within the nightmarish machinations and manipulations of an enigmatic mastermind, the puzzle’s existentialist and mystical connections were concretised. Did we live in a deterministic reality, or could its code somehow be cracked? Was the mysterious universe that unfolded around me moving towards some sort of totality, some hidden truth, a kind of dot-to-dot in macrocosm? Sure it sounds pretentious, but think about where we find puzzles and the tasks they’re set and it all starts to look a little less so. In our fiction we have the Da Vinci Code guarding *ahem* profound religious truths, in science the magical properties of quantum encryption threaten to lock our secrets away in multidimensional prisons. The riddle of the Sphinx, the koans of the Buddhists, the liar paradox of Epimenides, the maze and the Minotaur, etcetera, etcetera. In fact it’s only in relatively recent history that puzzles (in particular the riddle) have been seen as mere diversions, or sources of uncomplicated humour. Certainly the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse didn’t view them that way, and neither did the Ancient Greeks, with both culture’s utilising the unique properties of the puzzle to educate and, in a bolder move, gesture towards profound truths.

Do ya see where I’m going with this?

It’s as if the Riddler has somehow suffered the same fate as his pet puzzles – he’s been trivialised and subsequently rejected as a worthy villain. There’s some truth in that, I reckon, but the problem is probably compounded by something far more straightforward. It’s the same difficulty faced by all the Batvillains: writers, in common with the rest of us, like to follow the path of least resistance, meaning that threats that aren’t purely physical or obvious tend not to get much play. It takes imagination, an interest in the character, and hard work to tease out the place of a riddling baddie in a world of broken backs, weaponized fear gas, guns and terms like vigilante. How does a “silly” character like the Riddler function in that oh-so-serious space – do you turn him into another *YAWN* psychopath? Beef him up with venom? Have him retire? Make the character reflect upon the tragedy of his own dumbness and go straight?

No thanks. Let’s get back to basics.

the first appearance of the riddler The last writer to present the Riddler as a viable threat was Jeph Loeb in his Hush story-arc, where he has the character work with the (truly atrocious and profoundly unconvincing) eponymous villain to bring Batman down. Now, I might not be Loeb’s biggest fan, but I think it’s fair to say he tapped into something key to getting the Riddler right. Yeah he was super-smart – he figured out Batman’s identity and manipulated a host of A-list characters – yeah he was tricksy, yeah there were riddles, but none of that’s what really counts. Indeed, it’s fair to say that Loeb got something very important wrong with his portrayal of the character, in that his Riddler didn’t announce himself, didn’t openly challenge Bats to a battle of wits, failed to be the showman we all expect him to be. Loeb would probably argue that he was sketching a cleverer Riddler, one that refused to let his psychological foibles undermine his devious plans, and he’d have a point. Paul Dini certainly seems to be convinced. His Riddler brings back the ostentation but eschews crime altogether, instead he’s set himself up as Batman’s not-entirely-honest competition – a brilliant and showy private-eye intent on out sleuthing the World’s Greatest Detective. An unraveller of riddles as opposed to a puzzle-setter. But what Dini doesn’t have a handle on, what Loeb understood, is that if the Riddler is about anything he’s about mystery.

What’s strange about the Hush arc is the redundancy of the principal villain. To my mind Nigma, taken seriously, would have been the perfect fit, but for some odd reason Loeb didn’t trust him to sell the story on his lonesome, and instead had him back up an ill conceived anti-batman. Reimagining the arc with the Riddler at the helm is easy enough, however, and points the way towards exactly the kind of Riddler I want to see: one that haunts the Batman. His presence all pervasive, ambient. Only tenuously, and occasionally linked to a physical body. Rather he should manifest through labyrinthine schemes, puzzles, riddles and elaborate deathtraps. To take the idea further, the Riddler’s presence should engender such a profound degree of uncertainty that Batman’s entire environment starts to seethe with suspiciousness. For an example of the kind of thing I mean, check out the lastest issue of RASL (#2 reviewed by Bobsy below), in which the titular, dimension hopping character starts to worry that his last jump didn’t in fact bring him home, just somewhere worryingly similar. Jeff Smith builds the paranoia to exquisite levels, so much so that ostensibly innocuous panels – a cigarette burning down, RASL sleeping – are transformed into abstract representations of the unknown, and positively hum with foreboding. Morrison (again with the bloody Morrison) appeared to be tapping into the same idea in DC One Million where he imagined the Riddler of 1000,000 years hence literally as the scenery, a semi-sentient Riddle City.

The problem faced by the majority of writers is that they’ve become far too caught up in psychology – in explaining the Riddler in those terms. In that light of course the character comes off badly. Only an idiot would leave clues for Batman to find, surely? It goes without saying that writers would struggle with a guy hell bent on undermining himself. That more often than not the temptation would be to paint him as ineffectual, a second rate villain, or, I dunno, a PI, perhaps.

I should add here that just because I think psychologising characters can be a bad thing in that it can lead one away from some really interesting stuff (the Joker as a sickness, say), and force one into narrative cul-de-sacs, I am categorically not out to deny the Riddler any kind of personality. It’s just that the sort of personality I’d offer him would be impressionistic as opposed to realistic. To go back to the TV show, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler would be the obvious jumping off point. Like all the Batvillains brought to the small screen in the 60s, you wouldn’t want to argue that Gorshin’s creation was anything like a real person – that there was a recognisable bloke beneath all that manic cackling and wild gesticulation. But nevertheless the character made a huge impression on the audience, and continues to resonate today. In fact I’d go as far as to argue, based on no evidence whatsoever, that the reason the Riddler has any kind of Bat-cachet is largely down to his prancing telly presence 40 years ago.

puzzle deathtrapIf the baddies of the TV show were anything they were show offs, celebrity monsters, with Gorshin’s Riddler somehow managing to outshine the lot of them. In that way Gorshin’s interpretation has much in common with the Riddler’s earliest comic book appearances, where the Prince of Puzzles was nothing if not powerfully ostentatious, showy. And that’s the line into the character I’d want to take: the showman who uses Gotham City as his stage. The Riddler’s crime’s and attendant puzzles are essentially epic performance pieces – giant typewriters, and skyscrapers his gargantuan props. This is a Riddler who’s as smart as any of those mad science villains, but who hasn’t slaved his brilliance to anything as pedestrian as scientific discovery. No, he’s an artist, a creative genius, a producer who always gets the world’s most talented superhero to pull out his best performances. It doesn’t matter that Batman often “wins”, it’s the taking part that counts, the work itself. Besides, it’s not like any prison is going to hold the Riddler for long, and, who knows, perhaps that’s exactly where he wants to be.

question mark escapeRemove the focus on the Riddler as a man, absorb him into the text and you get something else entirely: a quintessential (perhaps the quintessential) Bat-threat: the mystery waiting to be solved. Think about it, there should be no greater challenge to the World’s Greatest Detective’s deductive abilities than the Riddler, no tougher puzzles to crack. As Bane is to physicality the Riddler should be to mystery. What I’m proposing here isn’t particularly radical. As I’ve noted above, the Riddler’s presence has a long and venerable history of being articulated outwith his body. The notion that the Riddler should infect all the panels of a given comic is simply the recognition that his puzzles are as much part of him as his arms and legs, and that puzzles are non-local in that they permeate the stories that house them. In detective fiction the real antagonist is always the mystery at hand – I’m proposing a deliberate and carefully articulated blurring of the lines of distinction between the character and games he sets in motion. A Riddler that literally embodies mystery.

from the shadowsI want to be taken back to those intricately patterned crossword puzzles, pentagonal number games, and haunted treasure hunts. I want the Riddler from Batman’s early years to make a return. The one whose origin story failed utterly to explain or account for what he had become*, and the grandiose nature of the threat he posed. A Riddler at home standing astride the rooftop of Gotham Museum, hands on hips, head thrown back, back lit by a skyscraper’s illuminated windows, spelling out the letters of some gargantuan brainteaser. I want a Riddler that hurtles out of the shadows to cast his puzzle-nets, and makes impossible escapes that even the Batman can’t decipher. A King of Conundrums whose schemes trap the Caped Crusader in their dark twisting labyrinthine depths: plans within riddles within riddles within plans. I want that One Game feeling of not knowing if the game is played out. Did the Dark Knight defeat the Creepy Quizzer or is it – to paraphrase Nolan’s Joker – all part of the plan? I want to see Batman baffled, bemused, and beffuddled by exquisite, terrifying deathtraps built from interlinked question marks, not all of which are physical.

I want the man who giggles in the centre of the maze. I want the mystery.

Riddle me that.

question mark

*Just as the Joker’s origin story (if it can be called that) utterly fails to explain him away.

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24 Responses to “Rogue’s Review #5: The Riddler”

  1. Papers Says:

    You know, I don’t think I can name off the top of my head a Riddler story that really resonated with me, but because of Gorshin and the West show, he’s probably one of my top rogues. The cackling — shit, he’s so smart he has to giggle at all the dumbos wandering around with no idea! And, yes, that maddeningly inexplicable element. The clues that don’t quite fit together. The knowing eyebrow wagging of it all. If Joker’s chaos, I want Riddler to be the Ultimate Order, even transcending Batman’s order — Order with a piece missing from the puzzle, and you have to figure it out, you have to figure out the keystone to the plot.

  2. Johnny Bacardi Says:

    Very nicely done. I’ve always liked the Riddler, too, and like the above commenter I can’t think of too many, if any, comics book stories featuring him that were all that memorable. Gotta blame Gorshin for that, I guess, his manic Riddler was my favorite of all the Bat-villains on the show.

    Probably the one Riddler comics story I liked the best was the Secret Origins issue- I forget the number and can’t find it on the GCDB- that featured him along with the Penguin, I think it was, and another adversary. I forget. It had art by Bernie Mirault (sic?) and was a different sort of take.

  3. Johnny Bacardi Says:

    Here it is! I knew I’d find it…

  4. Qthgrq Says:

    It is a bugger of a challenge to come up with quality Riddler stories, innit? Hence my assertion that Gorshin is largely responsible for the character’s appeal.

    Interesting take, Papers, and one that Amy and I discussed before putting this piece together. The Riddler’s schemes as an imposed order, a kind of post-modern take that unearths the processes behind Batman’s detective hunts. It’s a cool idea, as it would force Bats to somehow find a way of bringing some chaos into the equation, but I like my take a little more in that I feel it homes in on a quintessential part of the Batman experience: solving mysteries. And it’s that quintessential stuff brings heavy duty gravitas back to the characters that are being reviewed.

    I’d initially included a long screed discussing the potentially destructive nature of questioning, and how the impulse can quickly lead one down into the black vortex of philosophical scepticism. My thinking was that the Riddler had exposed himself to that dark pit, and it had driven him slightly barmy. His schemes then are a way of bringing some of that brutal negation into the world, with Batman representing an existential counter force building vast edifices of meaning over the gaping chasms revealed by the Riddler. I think there’s something in that reading, but in the end I was left with too much philosophy and not enough Riddler, so I scraped it.

  5. Papers Says:

    Eddy was in one memorable story, now that I’ve gone through my SOLOs — Mike Allred’s Solo story of Batman and Robin versus Deconstruction. It depends heavily on Gorshin’s portrayal of the character, and includes the doomed-to-failure team-up between Batman and the Riddler.

  6. The Satrap Says:

    Very nice post and comments.

    Nigma as a “liminal” Sphinx-like figure (mis)guiding the hero along tortuous paths by dint of clues; as the ultimate, pathological pattern-finder; as unhinged nihilist by way of skepticism; all those takes on the Riddler you’re all suggesting are possible because our man is really a very raw, pure deal, more of a trickster “archetype” even that the Joker, what with the latter’s penchant for mayhem. Eddy can really accommodate many kinds of metaphor.

    One of the things I like most about the original and Gorshin’s version are the pea-green tights. Here you have a scrawny fellow with a high forehead, wearing the kind of costume we associate with athletic types like Batman or Selina. It stresses the character’s sarcasm and showmanship. I think it’s a mistake to have him wear some sort of civvies, however stylised. That’s rather the domain of characters like the Joker or Two-Face whose creepiness is accentuated by having a relatively more “grounded” look, and who have obvious links to the underworld (i.e. suits are the hallmark of the retro gangster).

  7. Qthgrq Says:

    Completely agree about the costume. I should have written something about its appeal.

    I gave it a whole paragraph in my first draft

  8. Blog@Newsarama » Blog Archive » Quote, Unquote Says:

    [...] dark twisting labyrinthine depths: plans within riddles within riddles within plans.” – Zom detailing what would make an engaging Riddler story (at least from Zom’s [...]

  9. Rogue’s Review #4: Bane « Mindless Ones Says:

    [...] Rogue’s Review #5: The Riddler « Mindless Ones Says: July 5, 2008 at 9:48 pm [...]

  10. Rogue’s Review round-up « Mindless Ones Says:

    [...] Rogie’s Review #5: The Riddler [...]

  11. Dave Says:

    There’s a joke about the Riddler I’ve heard a few times that to me has always defined what he’s all about: Batman is in Commissioner Gordon’s office when suddenly the phone rings. Gordon answers it and hands the phone to Batman: it’s the Riddler. “I’m trapped in a building, and it’s on fire–I’ll turn myself in, but please come and rescue me!” Batman says “All right, just tell me where you are.” The Riddler responds, “I’m in an office building at the corner of what time is it when the fox…”

    The Riddler, to me, is someone so committed to his puzzles and more importantly to besting Batman and everyone else at them that he’d gladly burn to death if only his dying breath was laughing at Batman’s inability to solve one of his puzzles.

  12. Zom Says:

    Well, yeah, that’s the version that’s been doing the rounds in the comics – up until quite recently anyway. The Riddler as profoundly psychologically damaged, as dysfunctional in the extreme.

    I appreciate that you’re trying to paint a picture of a Riddler who is indefatigable in his attempts to best Batman, but personally I want to see stories which remove psychology as a focus altogether, because ultimately I think that approach has led to the Riddler’s fall from grace. As I’ve argued above, playing up psychology can work to depower potentially strong characters – it humanises them, makes them fallible, and, where mental illness is present, can suggest weakness. In addition, focussing on psychology can lead one to miss all the other good things about a character concept – and that’s what we’re talking about here, concepts not living, breathing human beings. Things like their function within the framework of the story and the batverse, their aesthetic force, their philosophical basis, what their presence feels like, stuff like that.

  13. Riddler Says:

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  14. When A Pillock Meets A Mindless One, Comin’ Through The Rye…Part II « A Trout In The Milk Says:

    [...] here because he gets far too many plaudits as it bloody is, and everyone else is braw too – I liked Zom’s take on the Riddler particularly because… I don’t know if I’ve ever read a good Riddler comic, oh [...]

  15. Lonelyhearts Says:

    Let’s bring back the mystery, good idea. There’s been an insane amount of writing on detective fiction.

    The problem with the Riddler is that we know who did it, so the focus on his puzzles are reduced to the machinations themselves, which can’t be all that interesting psychologically. They generally serve to draw out the present caper, give the artist an opportunity to illustrate some quirky adventure for Batman.

    Remove the prize, the gold, whatever it is. Maybe the Riddler is always hidden, only appears in form of traps he sets, which you never know you’re in until things get really confusing, and even then you can’t be sure you’re not just paranoid. Finding these “puzzle pockets” which he spends all of his time sprinkling around Gotham is part of the patrol for Batman.

    Maybe the Riddler himself doesn’t know what’s at the center of these puzzles. Maybe occasionally he does, and there are enthusiasts who actively seek them out. Maybe all of his henchmen are people who have solved these puzzles a little too well, pursuing them from their own consciousness, into reality, and back again without having realized, and they continue to search for the exit.

    Maybe it’s a new Riddler, inspired by Nigma. Maybe Nigma has gone missing. Maybe Nigma is ensnared too, or maybe he’s become jealous of other’s in that no one crafts puzzles for him, so he’s created some sort of ingenious structure whereby he can create puzzles for himself.

    Perhaps he wants the answer to the puzzles, and Batman is his favorite heroic figure, since Batman always shows up to solve the puzzles and contribute to the answers he seeks, which have slowly been compounding in his mind.

  16. Spanky Says:

    “One of the things I like most about the original and Gorshin’s version are the pea-green tights. Here you have a scrawny fellow with a high forehead, wearing the kind of costume we associate with athletic types like Batman or Selina. It stresses the character’s sarcasm and showmanship. I think it’s a mistake to have him wear some sort of civvies, however stylised. That’s rather the domain of characters like the Joker or Two-Face whose creepiness is accentuated by having a relatively more “grounded” look, and who have obvious links to the underworld (i.e. suits are the hallmark of the retro gangster).”

    I think the suited version works better, because it plays to Nigma’s arrogance and his self-perception as the master of games and puzzles. Riddler wears a suit because, to him, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. His entire world is one great game show, and by the time you realize you’re in one of his schemes, you’ve already become his contestant. If you get to see him up close at all it’s because you’ve passed his qualifying rounds and are ready for the $64,000 question, Final Jeopardy, the ultimate chance to test your mettle against the King of Conundrums.

  17. Zom Says:

    But the costume is much weirder. The game show host in skintight super Lycra is best

  18. RubberLotus Says:

    A legitimate and well-thought out view on the Riddler… that I completely and utterly disagree with.

    I believe that when you remove the Riddler as a man, you are left with nothing but a living prop, a name and voice that exist only to give Batman trouble. And maybe I’m in the minority on this, but I think of the Riddler as a man before I think of him as a criminal; he is a character before he is a villain. My preference in any comic book story hews more toward character than plot or atmosphere.

    More than that, my preferred take on the Riddler is probably diametrically opposed to yours. To me, the Riddler should be the MOST human of Batman’s (primary) villains. Perhaps this ties into my view that riddles are a coward’s gimmick – the word “riddle”, in and of itself, is so vague that it means almost nothing, and be applied to almost anything. It’s the sort of gimmick that a villain would choose when he doesn’t want to think particularly hard about how to cram his chosen crime of the day into a “theme”.

    And thus, my ideal take on the Riddler would be the one that Chuck Dixon presented: a con-man that was ruthless, opportunistic, and clever, but far short of omniscient-seeming genius. Here was a man who went out on the front lines instead of sitting in some remote lair a million miles away, directing underlings and looking at everything through TV monitors, because what’s the point of outsmarting the Bat if you can’t see his face in person?

    Foolish? Absolutely, but so what? Humans are fools.

    (It’s just occurred to me that my take on the Riddler would actually make him sort of the Steph Brown of Bat-villains – he’s there to contrast with the unreachable ideals set by the likes of the Joker and the Penguin.)

  19. Alexi Says:

    Interesting take on one of my favorite bat-villains.

    I love the thought of Riddler as labyrinth-builder, deathtrap-designer extraordinaire, a pervasive puzzle rather than a physical presence. The Arkham City Game took an interesting stab at this, with Riddler-as-Dungeon-Master being behind most of the game’s sidequests and bonus content: He had the entire city preternaturally rigged with ridiculous puzzles and hard-to-reach trophies that seemed to dare Batman to complete them all. He appeared primarily as taunting messages projected on walls to bedevil Batman. And that is as it should be. Compared to the rather idiotic main plot of the game, the arrogant, overthinking Riddler represented a true final challenge for the Batman.

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