Saturday, October 30, 2010

In Defense of the Riddler

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve probably already heard that the Riddler will not be the villain in Christopher Nolan’s next Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises”. I certainly did hope that the Riddler would be the villain, and was looking forward to Nolan's interpretation of this underappreciated character. But I am okay with the announcement, particularly if the villain is the Catwoman, the Penguin, or Hugo Strange, all of whom arrived in continuity at least seven years before the Riddler did, and deserve their chance at a respectable turn on the silver screen.

What I am not okay with is the snark of the ‘thank god it’s not the Riddler!’ variety, particularly if the source of the snark is one of the many unread pop culture commenters who talk about comic book properties, but know too little about comic books.

Such commenters tend to make points like, "The Riddler is too much like the Joker."

“I think that there may be too many similarities with The Joker and The Riddler for one villain to follow the other in consecutive sequels.” Nick Newman at

“So would it be a good idea to pit Batman against an enemy who, to casual fans, will appear to be exactly like the Clown Prince of Crime? Both are apparent maniacal lunatics and delight in using mind games to get under Batman’s skin as opposed to beating him senseless. For those who haven’t followed the comics, the two are far too interchangeable.” Gabriel Ruzin at

Okay, I get it. If you draw from only a handful of non-comicbook media portrayals of the two characters and judge them a bit myopically by a few superficial characteristics, you might have this reaction. But really— you don’t have to have read any comic book portrayals of either to know that there is more than one way to play any character (certainly one that’s been around for seventy years). Anyone who doesn't understand that really shouldn't be a public commenter on popular fiction in any medium.

And, with even a little thought, the differences become obvious; they are intrinsic to the characters. If the Joker bothers to manipulate you, it's subtly, using ridicule and challenging your worldview. The Riddler delights in openly manipulating the hero, through forcing him to jump through hoops. The Joker is that annoying game opponent who psychs you out; the Riddler is the dungeon-master who delights in being fair- but only technically so. The Joker flaunts rules; The Riddler revels in using them to his advantage. The Joker is happy to tell you what his next crime is and dares you to stop him; the Riddler challenges you to figure it out. The Joker is an adaptive, philosophical challenge; the Riddler is a creative, intellectual challenge. As an opponent, the Joker's advantage is that you never know what he'll do next and neither does he; the Riddler's advantage is that he always knows what he'll does next and what you will, too. C'mon, people; is it really that hard for an average person to grasp the difference between a psychotic, chaotic, killer clown and an intellectual bully and control-freak?

Another common criticism based in an inability to look past previous media portrayals is that the Riddler is not a sufficiently serious villain.

"The next Batman movie should focus on one major villain from Batman’s rogues gallery – someone like Mr Freeze, Penguin, etc. (Riddler’s probably a little too goofy to carry a movie)." Oliver Wills, Like Kryptonite to Stupid.
"He’s a goofy character with a goofy gimmick, no matter how “dark and edgy” you make him. I’m of the opinion that the Riddler, ike the Penguin, is one of those characters who we only know about today and consider to be one of Batman’s Biggest Bad Guys because of the Adam West TV show." Phillip Mottaz Town

Sigh. I won't deny it: the Riddler can be goofy, in a way that Two-Face or Scarecrow are unlikely to. But so can the Joker (or the Penguin or Catwoman). But it doesn't mean they have to be. That's all the more reason that they need the occasional quite serious portrayal to re-emphasize that fact.

There's an undying appeal to game-playing villains and crimes posed as intellectual puzzles solved by intellectual means. Numb3rs. The SAW films. Hannibal Lecter. The works of Conan Doyle and Christie. The Zodiac Killer and Jack the Ripper. In the Batman mythos, the Riddler personifies this type of challenge. Sure, other villains have left clues (including the Joker and the Penguin). They've done it; but it's what the Riddler DOES. Perhaps he's not taken as seriously because writers aren't usually smart enough (or are too lazy) to craft intelligent clues for him. Or because (unlike most of the other examples I listed) he usually doesn't leave a trail of bodies in his wake.

But just because you-the-dullard-commenter cannot imagine a "non-goofy' interpretation of the Riddler doesn't mean that Christopher Nolan couldn't. You couldn't have imagined making "Memento" or "Inception", either.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pep 36: The Rise of the Redhead

Hitler's ascension as Germany's Furher in 1934.

The Joker's re-emergence in Batman 251.

Stalin's Great Purge.

Palpatine's imperial rise.

Not even those memories can steel you for the ineffable horror of....

The Advent of the Andrews

Formerly, Pep covers had basked in eternal summers of fighting foreign foes and rescuing pointy-tata-ed blondes in red dresses. But that ended with the advent of the Andrews, who is to the MLJ-Universe as the White Queen is to Narnia. With the advent of the Andrews, a perpetual winter blankets Pep in its icy pall, numbing the souls of its denizens.

See the grim Hangman, punisher of evildoers, reduced to a broad-shouldered cheerleader for the Riverdale Regime. And The Shield--oh, pity the once mighty Shield. See how he has been lobotomized into some kind of joker-zombie by the surrealistic pseudo-humor of the Andrewstrosstruppen, his face frozen in the classic Riverdale-rictus. The pillar of justice is now turned into a litter-bearer for the buck-toothed dictator. Observe how the Shield and the Hangman are mocked by cruel youths behind them who have been indoctrinated by the copies of the Andrews' Mein Festnahme in their hands and ice-water in their veins.

It's not hard to tell who the other converts to the new regime are. That sickening sycophant, Captain Commando, grins idiotically at his master's victory, no doubt offering his trio of Boy Soldiers to be folded into the growing Andrews-Jugend organization. And Danny in Wonderland-- in retrospective it's so obvious that he was part of Riverdale's Fifth Column, with his red-hair and surreal adventures. Danny is clearly John the Baptist to MLJ's Anti-Christ.

Bentley of Scotland Yard and Sgt Boyd cannot hide their displeasure. They do not welcome their new inset overlords and know that their days are numbered. The lunacy of the Archieverse has no place for their kind of strict rationalism. Bently and Boyd? Expurgated and forgotten; yet the Riverdale Reich lives on.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What Kids Don't Know; Niles Caulder

You know, Niles Caulder wasn't always a
manipulative megalomaniacal jerk.

Once upon a time (1963 in fact), there was a very smart character named Niles Caulder. He was created by zany Bob Haney and Arnold Drake. Who were they? Zany Haney, well, let's just say he was a man who had his own perspective on the DC Universe, a view now dubbed the Haneyverse; if you're curious about that, just go here and search for Haney. Arnold Drake did many cool comic book things but all you really need to know is he wrote O.G.Whiz, which means I love him, and you do, too.

Arnold Drake wanted to create a character kind of like the ineffably cool Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's smarter, older brother. Bob Haney liked to write, well, weird stuff about weird people. Behaving weirdly. Put them together and you got: The Doom Patrol.

The central figure they created to hold the Doom Patrol together was Niles Caulder, an inventing genius. Niles liked his work so much that wasn't quite picky enough about who he did it for, and it came back to bite him in the butt. Just like Leni Riefenstahl; but that's a different story.

Anyway, his one employer tended to confuse Quality of Life with Quantity of Life: General Immortus. Immortus wanted to live forever, possibly because it's really embarrassing to die when your name's "Immortus". He and Niles has a disagreement while Niles while working on making him an immortality serum. The disagreement was probably over the fact that Immortus had planted a bomb inside of Niles to keep him compliant. That's often a sticking point in union / management negotiations.

Niles managed to get the bomb out, but crippled himself in the process, leaving himself wheelchair-bound. But Niles was a great guy, with a great mind, so he wanted to help himself and other people like him, other great people whose greatness had been hampered by unfortunate accidents.

Daredevil race-car driver Cliff Steele, beautiful athlete and movie star Rita Farr, and hotshot test pilot Larry Trainer all become freaks after, um, freak accidents. Niles helped them cope with their conditions and find new purpose in life. They became not mere celebrities but heroes, using their new freakish conditions to help regular people and save lives.

Niles was a noble man, who not only overcame his own handicap, he helped others who might have otherwise wallowed in self-pity become saviors and inspirations to the world. And, after only five years on the comic scene, their final ending (in 1968) -- knowingly sacrificing themselves for a small group of total strangers -- was the capstone to their epic tale of rising above adversity.

UNTIL... two of most damaging blows ever dealt to the American psyche:

Watergate and Grant Morrison.

Of course, the Watergate scandal certainly wasn't solely responsibility for the American people's loss of confidence and trust in government and authority, but it surely symbolizes it. As a result of this growing cynicism, the world was ready for a less than flattering portrayal of the Doom Patrol's authority figure, Niles Caulder.

When the original Doom Patrol (more or less) were reunited in the late 1980s, Grant Morrison at liberty to write Niles Caulder cynically as a vicious, manipulative murderer. Since Morrison's re-start of the DP, we've learned that Niles orchestrated the accidents that gave the DP their powers, that he killed superhero Joshua Clay in cold blood, that he manipulates and lies to the DP and the entire superhero community. Lately he's been in cahoots with the evil President Cale of Oolong Island, the nation of villains, has commandeered a Kryptonian body and used it to attack the Doom Patrol and begin a takeover of the world.

Now, if you're a kid and never read any comics written before, oh, 1988, you might never know that this now-accepted version of Niles Caulder is just a cynical shellacking of a once great character with a modern disbelief in the idea of authority figures who truly wish to help change the world for the better while maintaining their own morality as well.

Once upon time, Niles Caulder (along with his teammates) was an inspiring model of devotion to the greater good, the human ability to overcome tragedy, and the power of avoiding self-pity through helping others. Now, he's a symbol of modern conspiracy-theory paranoia, distrust of authority, and anti-intellectualism.

The real Niles Caulder is still out there, kids; in fact, he recently guest-starred on the Batman: Brave & The Bold series. It's time you demanded to have him back as arole model, as my generation had, rather than the twisted mockery of him that your disillusioned elders have shafted you with.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

King for a Haikuesday

I just love it when DC refuses to let any old character go permanently unused.

Often, it'll be a simple cameo. Just when you're not looking, the Crispus Allen will roll over that brutally beaten street cop whose mutilated corpse they found in an alley in Gotham's Abandoned Warehouse District and it'll be none other than Percival Popp. He was asking for it, really.

For example, who can forget when those lovable, well-meaning Three Dim
wits, so fondly remembered as whimsical irritants to Jay Garrick in his light-hearted Golden Age adventures, were found hacked to death in the Flash Museum last year? Good times.

I call these "Cameos... of DOOM!" Remember how Terry Sloane died?

Sometimes rather than a Cameo...of DOOM! they'll get the "quilt-patched". DC will craft more substantial roles for them, hoping to weave the half-life of the Q Ratings into some new property. Often it some sort of Frankenstein project, a patchwork quilt of characters with visas from Limbo stretched out over some 'modernizing' framework. You know the kind of thing: Checkmate, Suicide Squad, Primal Force, Shadowpact, the New Guardians.

Other times, they get better treatment, usually as a supporting character in the cast of someone more iconic. For example, the Quality Comics character Quicksilver was repurposed as "Max Mercury" to augment the Flash supporting cast. Maggie Sawyer, a wonderful, criminally underused and undervalued character in the Superman books...

whom the writers stopped using.

Now she's got a second life in the Batman books-- as a wonderful, criminally underused and undervalued character whom the writers stopped using.

Don't worry; Maggie's a big girl and can take care of herself. She'll be back, once lesbians are in fashion again. Probably when the latest vampire craze fades out.

On such character is King Faraday. King Faraday was a secret agent character introduced in 1950. When superheroes faded from fashion (just like lesbians!) after World War II, comic book publishers diversified again into a wide variety of genres, such as espionage thrillers.

You probably know him from his role as the Martian Manhunter's handler in New Frontier (the book and the movie). But now he's palling around with the Crusaders-- who are themselves re-imagined old characters (specifically the old MLJ Comics heroes, including regular Absorbascon whipping boys, The Shield and the Hangman).

Characters like King Faraday are impressively resilient and make places for themselves with their ingenuity. As demonstrated by his ability to haiku under pressure---
Don't listen to him!
He's just trying to martyr
himself for his cause.

So casually composed; very impressive! Have you a haiku to reply, or other commentary on Faraday and his ilk?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Jean Loring: Still Crazy After All These Years

"Um, yes, Jean, "Ray answered. "It was ... 'that man' who locked you, er, I mean, us in. I'll have the police take care him, don't worry.

"Now, just to be safe, I"m going to lock you in AGAIN, until a different man, a very nice one, in a nice white coat, comes to pick you up and take you somewhere safer... a nice, beautiful home in the countryside where you can wander, heavily sedated and supervised, through the gardens all day..."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Pep 35: Dear Libby's advice on Victory Gardens

Dear Libby,
I want to plant a Victory Garden in my backyard to help the war effort. But it's a too large for me to till regularly all by myself. I am SO worried I won't be able to handle it. What should I do?

Dear Contrary:

Use a tank! They're great for churning up the soil and you can get them surprisingly cheap at the Army Surplus Store.

Be careful, though; sometimes the used ones still have previous operators lurking inside! Before use your second-hand tank, have your friendly neighborhood Hangman clean it out thoroughly.

Dear Libby,
Following your advice, I've been using a tank to till the soil in my garden. But how do I keep caked dirt and mud from clogging up the treads?

Dear Tread,

Simple! The answer is a point-tata-ed blonde.

Strap one of these Vicki Vale wannabes onto your tank treads, and watch as those wire-rimmed push-ups, pointy shoes, and teeth-filled shriek-holes simply tear up the turf. Remember, you'll need to change them after every few uses; nobody wants to plow with a dirty hoe.

Besides, hoe-girls are cheap. Certainly cheaper than tanks. Arm yourself with some of these bullet-bra babes and tank-gardening will be a truly harrowing experience.

Dear Libby,

Help! My backyard plantings were doing so well. But now it's infested with Japanazis! What's a victory gardener to do?

Dear Buds,
Uh-oh; those veggie-loving dirt-diggers can do some serious damage to a Victory Garden with those offensively exaggerated chompers, can't they? Recently, my friend The Shield had this problem. His own Patriot Patch was beset by Nipponese airmen. His solution...?
Fight flier with flier! Wrap yourself in an American flag, which they can't help but zero in on. Grab the first one that comes close and use it to beat the others senseless as they're drawn toward you like moths to a flame.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Plunge

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

Grant Morrison can never exceed the weirdness of the Silver Age, no matter how hard he tries.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Bat-Cycles

In a previous posts, we introduced the idea of the 'persona-cycle' as a means for varying the characterization of long-running comic book icons, and explored how the idea applied to Superman.

Batman, of course, has his own cycles.

*Sigh*. No, not the Bat-cycle. I'm referring to Batman's personality cycling between vigilante/lawman, loner/paterfamilias, night/day, old look/new look.

If Batman's literary depiction were controlled by a giant sound mixing board, some of the "levels" that one could adjust to ones preference would be:

  • Sanction: Batman's degree of sanction/cooperation from law enforcement authorities
  • Chumminess: To what degree Batman acts alone or with partners, colleagues, and groups.
  • Diurnalism: The likelihood of Batman being seen in costume during the day.
  • Spookiness: To what degree Batman's costume is dark and scary.
  • Localism: To what degree Batman's sticks to Gotham as opposed to globetrotting.

You may be noticing that Batman's 'cycles' aren't nearly as independent of one another as Superman's are. That is, there's a much greater correlation between their "settings". If Batman set at a 'low level of sanction" (operating in defiance of or at least without contact with the police), he is much more like to be a lone vigilante (low level of Chumminess), operating exclusively at night (low level of Diurnalism) in darker costume (high level of Spookiness) in Gotham only (high level of Localism).

In many ways, all these "settings" tend to be secondary aspects of one major choice in which version of Batman to portray, specifically:

Happy Batman


Crabby Batman

Have you ever noticed that Happy Batman is often a lot creepier than Crabby Batman?

Batman's Crabbiness factor tends to determine the rest of his portrayal. However, it's not an absolute rule. For example, when Batman left the JLA to form the Outsider, or when he was in the JLI, he was pretty darned crabby... but had a high level of chumminess because he was working very actively with others.

But there are some other "levels" to Batman's depiction that operate more independently, such as:

  • Villainism: the degree to which Batman is fighting costumed villains as opposed to regular crooks
  • Mundanism: the degree to which Batman's world is non-fantastical.

Whether Batman is fighting the Joker or Two-Face or their ilk is charmingly unrelated to whether he's the grim figure of the night or ribbon-cutting Batman with a platinum police badge. Batman's villains are just as adaptable as he is, and tend to adjust their levels to whatever his are at the time. I've see Two-Face torture victims and steal shipments of chewing gum; I've also seen him act at intermediary between talking statues of Napolean, Caesar, and Benjamin Franklin possessed by alien Dronndarians and the Justice League. Batman's villains are nothing if not adaptable.

At first glance, you'd think fantastical elements in Batman would be inversely correlated to whether he's being all dark and gritty. That's not exactly what happens. If Batman's depiction is set to 'dark levels' it doesn't preclude fantastical elements; it just means that those elements are much more likely to be mystical rather than sci-fi. After all, one the first thing the grim Batman of the early Golden Age does is... fight vampires.

Are there other cycles that Batman goes through in his depiction that have occurred to you...?