July 5th, 2008
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 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.
If 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.
Remove 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.
I 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.
*Just as the Joker’s origin story (if it can be called that) utterly fails to explain him away.