Friday, September 13, 2019

Riddler Redux(es)

In his 1972 novel Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino said: "The city is redundant; it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind."

The same could be said, I suppose, of the DCU.  As I recently noted, its "Apex Lex" storyline The Year of the Villain (I can't be bothered to remember what it's actually supposed to be called, because nowadays the number of concurrent world-changing crossovers exceeds the number of characters I follow) is just a redux of the 1995 storyline Underworld Unleashed.  But this sort of repetition occurs at not only the macro-level but the micro-level as well.  Characters get rebooted or have a 'transformative experience' that (at least in theory) improves them.

Problem is that, through editorial carelessness, nobody makes sure that writers are aware of and adhere to the update. Consequently, the character quickly reverts to its pre-update self and has to be re-updated.  DC keeps doing this with the Riddler, and I am certainly not the first person to notice; even popculture listicle sites notice.

The Riddler is a, if not THE, classic 'gimmick villain'.  This makes him an easy short-hand for (what is often incorrectly viewed as) a more innocent time in comic books.  As other characters get stronger or darker, he is updated to match, but eventually some writer can't resist him as short-hand and portrays him as a hopelessly outdated feeb (often to improve the impression made by some flavor-of-the-month villain that only an 11-year-old could take seriously).

The Riddler was a nearly forgotten character (having appeared only TWICE, in 1948) until Frank Gorshin made him threatening on television.

Even BATMAN couldn't remember him.

You may find it funny to call him (or anyone) from that show 'threatening' but he is BY FAR the most genuinely threatening and terrifying villain on the show (despite being so physically slight) because he is clearly both brilliant and bat-shit crazy.

That's a person who would give Hannibal Lecter nightmares.

But that was an actor-based energy imparted to the character that writers didn't manage to capture going forward.  Not only did they not continue it, they ruined it.  The Riddler's schtick was made to backfire on him in the comics when it became established lore that he "suffered from a compulsion to give clues" before committing crimes, a "fatal flaw in an otherwise brilliant criminal."

Batman #179 "The Riddle-less Crimes of the Riddler" (1966)

Bill Finger (the Riddler's creator) got it;
Gardner Fox didn't.

Proof that Silver and Bronze Age writers didn't always understand what made Golden Age characters work....

Originally what made the Riddler awesome was that he was SO FREAKING CONFIDENT that he happily gave out clues to his crimes, secure in knowing that either you wouldn't figure them out (the Gotham City cops) or if you did he was STILL smart enough to get away with it if you tried to stop him.  This is a common trope in the Golden Age; it's in the Joker's first story, you'll recall.

The Joker's clues were... pretty straightforward.

Like many Golden Age villains, the Riddler aims not to simply steal but to INTIMIDATE. The costumes, the props, the branding, the braggadocio, the clue-giving; Golden Age villains knew that law-abiders were a superstitious cowardly lot so instead of trying to hide themselves they tried to be publicly intimidating.


They weren't sneak-thieves; they were technicolor gangsters, trying to bully citizens and cow both the cops and lesser crooks. A character like the Riddler didn't fail as a villain because of his schtick; that's what MADE him an intimidating villain and not just another nameless gunsel in a cheap suit.

Megamind gets it.

But later writers didn't understand this principle and made the Riddler seem less a mastermind than mentally crippled.  They turned his schtick into his weakness rather than his strength; he was no longer 'so mentally strong he could give clues to his crimes', but rather 'so mentally weak that he HAD to'.  This lack of understanding has led to the endless Riddler-cycle we find ourselves in, where the Riddler has to continually be re-established as a threat after being portrayed as a goofy failure.

Neil Gaiman uses him to represent that era as innocent, portraying him as an aging relic in charge of other aging relics (Secret Origins Special #1, "When is Door", 1989).

Away? No, you were in Doug Moench's "When Riddled by the Riddler" (Batman #362, 1983), robbing a live taping of the gameshow 'Enigma', after which you hijacked the Lakeside bus until felled by bat-gas.  Really, look it up.

Denny O'Neil further diminished the Riddler badly with his portrayal in The Question #26 "Riddler's Romance" (1989).  This was a criminal waste of an opportunity to position the Riddler as a sort of 'anti-Question' in the DCU; but heavy-handed O'Neil couldn't resist the opportunity to portray the Riddler as a goofy poser in order to make his favored character, The Question, seem oh-so-philosophically superior.

Guess which of those characters you are supposed to think is cool.

I will spare you the details;
the cover is already more than you should have to experience.

This went too far and the collective unconscious of the metaverse (apparently) struck back by giving us the most vicious version of the Riddler yet.  One year later, Peter Milligan has him use his riddles to trick Batman into accomplishing tasks (including performing an emergency tracheotomy on a baby who is choking on a ping-pong ball-- STILL one of the most disturbing things I've seen in a comic) ...

Ladies and gentlemen, Batman slitting a baby's throat; sleep well tonight!

needed to raise a DEMON to give him occult power, with the express purpose of becoming a more 'mature' villain. [Batman #454, "Dark Knight, Dark City, Part III", 1990.]

Unlike the ping pong ball in the baby's throat, it didn't stick. 

The backsliding began quickly, because, really, who wants a demonically inspired or empowered Riddler?  In 1992, Batman: The Animated Series re-cast the Riddler as an aggrieved video game designer.  Despite the perfect voice-casting of John Glover as the Riddler, "aggrieved videogame designer" simply doesn't strike fear into the hearts of citizens. The BTAS Riddler, sadly, never seemed as cool as The Clock King. THAT guy was cool. The BTAS Riddler seemed like a smart but otherwise normal guy pretending to be villain. There's a reason he wasn't around for episodes like Almost Got 'im and The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne: he simply wasn't a professional villain on the level with the others.

The 1995 film Batman Forever, although re-energizing the Riddler's iconic status, continued the Riddler's backslide.  Jim Carrey is a man of a great talent but he's not the person you hire to make a character seem serious, impressive, or threatening; he's the actor you hire to make your characters seem weird and unhinged... and easy to laugh at.

To answer his question: Yes, that WAS over the top.

By the time Jeff Loeb (*shudder*) concocted (the word 'wrote' simply doesn't work here) the Hush storyline (Batman #608-619, "Hush", 2002-2003), he could readily portray the both as a pathetic unworthy relic ... and then pretend to fix it himself by having the Riddler be the secret mastermind. Which is Loeb's idea of a 'mystery', I suppose. But the only effect was reinforcing the image of the Riddler as an easily ridiculed joke; that was the only thing that made the ending 'a surprise'.  Particularly since the absurd mummy-faced Tommy Eliott character  beats the Riddler to a pulp leaving him a brain-damaged homeless man.

Judd Winick ignored this completely when briefly pitting the Riddler against Green Arrow in 2004 [Green Arrow #34-#39, 2004]. Winick (without actually writing a good story, of course), did demonstrate that he got the Riddler better than most.

His Riddler used over-the-top theatrics as a form of misdirection away from his actual goals.

But then almost as soon as it was over, human society agreed collectively and silently to forget pretty much everything Judd Winick had done with Green Arrow (and any other character). His mostly-on-target portrayal of the Riddler was the baby-without-a-ping-pong-ball-in-its-throat that got thrown out with the bathwater.

Elsewhere, 2005's The Batman cartoon (which gave a lot of new and, um, unique takes on classic villains) gave us an emo/goth Riddler.  I'll grant that it was an interesting look and take on the character but, in the final analysis, that Riddler was just a pathetic self-deluding puppy in love.

That just LOOKS painful, ya know?

That same year, Shane McCarthy tried to fix the mess that Loeb had made of the character by giving us what everyone calls "the metrosexual Riddler", in a story that sees the Riddler go from a homeless and addlepated shell of his old self ...

That's the Riddler. No; the one in the hoodie.

... to a slick plastic-surgery-ed sharpy.  (Legends of the Dark Knight #185-186, "Riddle Me That", 2005.)

Call me 'sweeheart' again and this will turn out however you want it to.

Honestly I liked the Metrosexual Riddler because (1) he seemed threatening and (2) he was indeed metrosexy.  But it was not to be, because another (this time Infinite) Crisis popped up in 2006.

Crises are the roombas of the DCU; sure, they clean your house's floor on a regular and programmable basis, but they do so unthinkingly and without fixing anything at any higher level.  This particular one put the Riddler into and then out of a coma, but now... REFORMED as an annoyingly vain attention-seeking private detective (because, I guess, Ralph Dibny was on vacation or something).  That, by the way, was a routine that had already been done the first time the Riddler was revived, during the Silver Age.

A throwaway bit in a single Silver Age naturally becomes a several year arc in modern comics.

Eventually that got old, and because well-known card-carrying villains are more valuable than quirky annoying supporting characters, something exploded in 2010 to give Riddler head-trauma which restored him to his 'normal' criminal self.

As head-traumas so often do.

As mentioned by this iFanboy article, Riddler was back on the road to greater villainy...

Batman #705 (2011)

...until, of course, that was all cut short by the next multiversal reboot, the New52.

Are you sensing a pattern? Anyway, in 2014's "Year Zero" storyline, writer Scott Snyder went to great lengths to try to set the Riddler aright as a character is simultaneously a bit weird and goofy, attractive but not unnaturally so, annoying, and terribly terribly dangerous.

Nimble.  Casual.  Annoying as heck.

In this story, the Riddler basically kidnaps the entirety of Gotham for a good chunk of time, and he is NOT easily overturned.

The fact that the Riddler never seems particularly threatening is PART of the threat.
Golden Age writers got that about villains.

This was followed with Tom King's "The War of Jokes and Riddles"(Batman Vol III, #25-32, 2016). King's version of the Riddler's was essentially the same as Snyder, but with a bit more of the metrosexual flair re-injected.

Self-induced question mark chest scar; chicks dig those.

King, like Snyder, portrayed the Riddler as a very serious threat. In fact, he's portrayed as the obvious competitor to the Joker for Gotham City's top villain when all the other villains are forced to side with one of them;  such is the respect given pure intelligence.

As you have noticed from previous posts, I am no fan of either King or Snyder, but I'll give them this: as far as the Riddler goes, THEY GET IT.  And I thank them for treating him with respect.

Which, of course, didn't last long.  Because, as they say in the comics, "MEANWHILE"...

In a one-shot special this week that is part of current "Year of the Villain" storyline,

even our new Riddler is (yet again) presented (by writer Mark Russell) as a loser because of his schtick:

who comes to realize that he's a loser and needs to leave behind the trappings of his past villainhood to grow. Again.

He wouldn't need to do that if you hadn't portrayed him as a loser in this story, you know.
His last two storylines had him take over all of Gotham almost effortlessly and fight the Joker to a standstill in an all-out war for dominance.

I am afraid that through all this ping-ponging between goofy and threatening, the Riddler has become accidentally symbolic of DC's insecurity about not being taken seriously.  Marvel, whatever their faults, does not have this problem; they simply COMMIT to the idea that patently ridiculous characters like wingy-footed Namor and scenery-gobbling Dr. Doom are serious, powerful threats, any goofiness notwithstanding.


I'm afraid that DC is trapped in a pattern where every writer on the Riddler has to either show that "yeah, ha, look how GOOFY he is!" or "I can make him SCARY instead!"


Chad Walters said...

Say what you will about The Batman’s Riddler, but I remember his introductory episode (the only one with him I’ve seen) being great - especially how the clues led Batman and the cops away from the crime scene while having additional clues within the clues that pointed toward the crime scene. That may very well have been done elsewhere, but that’s the only place I recall seeing it.

John C said...

Funny, as I was reading through, I went through that exact cycle of thought on Gorshin. "He wasn't threatening, OK, except maybe for the way he moves around and how he never seems to really care if his plans work out." Oh, and that Mel Tormé novelty song. Hopefully, links work; otherwise, I apologize for how ugly that'll come out.
And yeah, it's bizarre that TV and movies have absolutely no problem making "serial killer who sends clues to taunt the police" seem reasonable, but DC can't seem to wrap its collective head around a premise that they basically owned until relatively recently. It's especially infuriating that the writers keep associating him with game shows (or similar contests) and somehow failing to recognize that the riddle is basically an extended game show challenge of solving the clue and racing to the scene of the crime.
The insecurity (again digging into the "sweet spot" of when I mostly started reading comics regularly) reminds me a lot of The Brave and the Bold #194, where low-level villains go into training by some half-assed (but...y'know, evil) self-help expert. Imagine if that stupid idea caught on? That stupid character (looking it up...Andrea Wye) could've been the original Neron/Perpetua...

Scipio said...

Thank you for mentioning the screen's love of clue-killers. I, too, have been, well, puzzled by that. Perhaps it's simply because those are killers. Many versions of the Riddler have certainly killed but that was never a goal, just a side-effect. Odd that we are more frightened of intentional killers than of people so callous they'll kill you simply because you are in the way.

Anonymous said...

So, what does the Riddler want? Possibly he wants to be the smartest man in Gotham, possibly it's to prove he's smarter than Batman, or something else?

Scipio said...

Nothing concrete (like, say, money, which he could acquire much more easily). I think that the Riddler is...
he's That Guy who wants to play and win at D&D, but is always critical of the DM, so he wants to be the DM AND a character in the game, but still win, but feel like he won fairly because he was a good player and not just because he was the DM. And he's never quite sure that has happened, so he keeps having to do it again.

No challenge seems adequate for him unless he himself poses it; but no victory seems sufficient, because he's not sure why he won.

Dave said...

Personally, I'm a fan of the arc where Eddie went straight and became a detective hired to solve mysteries that were baffling to anyone who didn't think in riddles.

But I take your point.

Anonymous said...

Scipio, I like your take on the Riddler! Psychoanalyzing a bit: the guy who wants a hard-earned victory but is unwilling to tolerate the possibility of losing, so you always see him trying to give himself an overwhelming (and arguably unfair) advantage.

Sure beats the version of him that draws oversized playing cards of the Superfriends so he can burn them in a dramatic flourish:

"Soon they will all fall before the Riddler, even Gleek!"

Still, credit where it's due, the Riddler does have a decent pair of pants.

Redforce said...

Gimpy-time Spock is angry that Darth Vader is bogarting all the bong water.

Tony said...

Remember when Echo and Query busted the Riddler out of jail and strapped a bomb to the Clue-Master as part of their convoluted theme crime to lead Batman and Robin on a merry adventure around Gotham (with an explodey Clue-Master in the trunk) so they could steal Gotham City sports memorabilia?

I love that story. There hasn't been a decent Riddler story since. Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan GOT the Riddler!

cybrid said...

Was it Batman #454, "Dark Knight, Dark City, Part III", 1990 that established that being built on top of a demon is why Gotham City is such a creepy dangerous noir-gone-wild city, why its cops are inevitably corrupt and why it draws in costumed (yet usually non-powered) lunatics? Or did I just make that up in my head?

I think it was Frank Miller who established that Gotham "needs" Batman because of all the corrupt cops. Then it was directly implied many times that Gotham's villains started showing up AFTER Batman's debut implying the classic cause-and-effect fallacy between hero and villain that usually never stands up to scrutiny. At least the Gotham TV series (which I don't recall how Scipio feels about) made it clear that the villains came FIRST. And their unique rise in Gotham could be explained by the on-top-of-a-demon thing.

cybrid said...


On a mostly unrelated note, a lot of people forget (or never knew) that it's been established that, during the golden age, GREEN LANTERN (Alan Scott) (along with his "funny fat friend" Doiby Dickles) was Gotham City's resident super-hero (admittedly, this is probably no longer true but it might easily be true again some day), and many of HIS villains (again, it could be demon = lots of villains) could easily have left legacies of one kind or another (maybe that's where all those giant props came from, they were discovered in some retired super-villain's lair, intended for crimes that he never got around to).

I keep waiting for some Batman writer to tie into that but alas AFAIK such has not yet come to pass.

(I think it's also been established somewhere that Gotham City was the golden age base of no less than the Justice Society of America itself but IMHO that seems just a TAD too much for Gotham to support; I could offer what I consider an intriguing detail that potentially links the JSA to the LSH but I'm off-topic enough as it is)

Scipio said...

As I mentioned only 14 years ago, Civic City was the HQ of the JSA

cybrid said...

Sure, that's what it was fourteen years ago. But is that what it was sixteen years ago? Twenty years ago? Might it not have been Gotham City for like a year and a half at some point? You know how this stuff works as well as I do. ;-)

cybrid said...

Anyway, since no one expressed an interest, I'll continue my tangent about Green Lantern, Gotham City, and the Golden Age.

Behold, the Joker's spiritual great-great-grandfather (they even have the same pointed chin look):

C'mon, this guy probably had safe houses across Gotham City. Surely some of his tech might have ended up in other hands.

Another noted Alan Scott villain, of course, is Solomon Grundy, who, has acquired some excess Plant Elemental baggage over the years, to be cultivated or pruned. He has his own variation character in "Gotham."

There's also this, which will yield more villain names to anyone patient enough to sort through it:

Scipio said...

Civic City wasn't the JSA's base 14 years ago; Civic City was the JSA's base through the entire Golden Age of their existence.

cybrid said...

Yes, and Batman originally operated out of New York City and Superman originally operated out of Cleveland. But now I suspect that you're just gratuitously missing my point, so I'll move on.

(too bad the GL/Gotham stuff flopped; oh well)


Here's a quote from Winick's Green Arrow (#26) that suggests he didn't "get" the Riddler quite as thoroughly as he could have:

"When a guy TWICE your size in a COSTUME tells you to stop DOING something -- YOU STOP! Unless it's the Riddler or Doctor Spectro, 'cause they're just...sad."


A quote from your article (and from Batman #179 "The Riddle-less Crimes of the Riddler" (1966)):

"If I can't rob -- I'm done for! My life is ruined!"

Just free-forming here: As with many Batman villains, it seems fair to presume that the Riddler has accumulated quite a bit of cash over the years, yet the idea of a life with robbery is painful to him, proving him something of a kindred spirit with a villain that you've examined in detail, Killer Moth. Yet Batman is even more addictive than crime: as seen in Batman #191 (May 1967), when it seems that Batman will retire from crime-fighting, the Joker and the Penguin ALSO decide to retire (none of it takes, of course).

Which seems to play into the perspective (mentioned earlier) that it's Batman's existence that promotes super-villain activity in Gotham City in the first place, proving that the supposedly "modern" perspective in fact goes back quite a ways.

This is in direct contrast to later storylines when Batman, for whatever reason, is temporarily absent from Gotham City, his rogues gallery decimates the city without him. I'm not sure what the deeper meaning is there.

MarkAndrew said...

Good post! I think Riddler writers need to remember that Batman villains (the good ones) are innately theatrical. And while (say) the Penguin just loves the theater of trick umbrellas and giant birds, the Riddler is a lot more OCD/neurotic. He generally likes his job, but there's some drudgery to it as well... He's playing a role, orchestrating a performance, and all this long-term planning takes a lot out of him

It's OK that Batman solves his riddles and hauls him off to jail, that's part of the game, but if someone derails his performance art that is when he really turns dangerous. You can't have philistines undermining your art.

Cybrid or anyone: When did the Alan Scott/Gotham City retcon happen? That had to have been post-Crisis, right? I'm REALLY not sure how I feel about that one.

cybrid said...

In Secret Origins #50 (August 1990), the Black Canary story. Alan Scott is depicted as active in Gotham City. After the JSA/McCarthy fiasco, he stays in retirement until Judson Caspian (the Reaper) begins his initial 1950s killer vigilante career; the Reaper even makes a point of asking Scott where he's been all this time (or words to that effect). Obviously incredibly outmatched, the Reaper has an incredibly lucky break when, as he lashes out in a panic, one of his WOODEN nunchucks strikes Scott, knocking him unconscious and hospitalizing him.

Later, the JSA searches for the Reaper (which may be where I got the idea that the whole team was originally based out of Gotham), but the Reaper, showing a lot more brains than the average super-villain, has already fled to Europe, which is where he's RETURNING from in his first appearance in Detective Comics #575 (June 1987).

In checking sources for this recap, I see that the Reaper was created by Mike W. Barr, one of the writers Scipio's dislikes. Hm.

cybrid said...

To revisit the JSA based-out-of line item:

So the actual golden age stories stated that the JSA was founded in and operated out of Civic City. Fine. It wasn't my intention to deny that.

And that's all well and good but if so much as a single story from the silver age or afterward categorically stated that the JSA was founded in and operated out of Gotham City, then it was Gotham City instead of Civic City all along, and that's how it is now, in the unlikely event that such a story wasn't itself contradicted in the interim.

I think in some of the JSA series over the years they've been said to have been founded in Washington DC or New York and at the time that had been true all along.

Maybe next year the JSA will have been founded in Fawcett City, or Happy Harbor, or Midvale, or Hub City or Smallville or Bedford Falls or Cabot Cove or flippin' Shelbyville for all I care and then THAT will have been true all along. Because that's how it works. :-)

cybrid said...


While it does indeed seem likely that Alan Scott/Gotham is a post-Crisis revelation, it could just as easily have been something Roy "Infinity Inc" Thomas established about Scott on Earth-Two which was then carried over to post-Crisis.

Anyway, it's there now and I think it's a shame that no Batman writers have done anything with it to date.

In the unlikely event that anyone DOES (re-)establish the Gotham/Alan Scott connection, I hope they won't take the approach of Gotham City having magically "forgotten" about Scott and his rogues gallery all these years. There's no reason Batman and company couldn't have known about Scott's history in Gotham all along, it's just that it's...never come up before, that's all. People don't pay attention to history all the time.

Presuming no one thinks it's necessary to establish that Gotham City was a cesspool right from the start (and further presuming that it hasn't already been established that such was the case), it could be hypothesized that the tapering off of Alan Scott's "good" magic eventually resulted in the slumbering demon exuding greater amounts of evil, explaining why Gotham gradually became what it is. So one storyline could address BOTH points (yet neither would need to be essential to the storyline itself). Theoretically. For those of interested in that sort of thing.

cybrid said...

It seems unlikely that anyone's still checking on this thread but just in case:

I recently [re]discovered, via the GCD, that many of Alan Scott's golden age stories expressly stated that he was active in Gotham City, so the Secret Origins story only confirmed what was established decades before. So there's that.

Imitorar said...

cybrid: The reason that Alan Scott's stories were set in Gotham is that he was written by Bill Finger. Martin Nodell came up with the character on his own, but he wasn't sure what to do with it, so DC set him up with Finger as writer, and Finger used the same NYC expy name for both Green Lantern and Batman.

Regarding stories that touch on the shared setting for the Golden Age Green Lantern and Batman, I know of two. One is "Made of Wood" (Detective Comics #784-#786, collected in "Batman: The Man Who Laughs"), about a serial killer first encountered by Green Lantern resurfacing and being tracked by Batman. The other is the Batman: Black and White story "Guardian" (collected in Batman: Black and White vol. 2), in which a relatively new Batman runs into Green Lantern and confronts him on his having abandoned Gotham and letting it degenerate into a cesspool of crime.

cybrid said...

Thanks for the info, Imitorar. :-)

cybrid said...


"the Batman: Black and White story "Guardian" (collected in Batman: Black and White vol. 2), in which a relatively new Batman runs into Green Lantern and confronts him on his having abandoned Gotham and letting it degenerate into a cesspool of crime"

Scenes where contemporary super-heroes accuse earlier super-heroes of "abandoning the city" OSLT faintly irritate me. Even police officers and firefighters (who, unlike most super-heroes, actually get PAID to fight crime, rescue people, and so on) get to RETIRE. Yeah, "how dare you stop doing what no one had any right to ask you to do in the first place." Oh well.