Comics Ate My Brain

March 18, 2005

All Together Now: "Riddle Me That"

Filed under: batman — Tom Bondurant @ 3:00 pm
Back in March 9th’s comics rundown I mentioned I wanted to revisit a couple of recent arcs. First up is “Riddle Me That,” a 5-part story which appeared in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #s 185-89 (cover dates January-May 2005). It was written by Shane McCarthy, with art by Tommy Castillo and Rodney Ramos. At the time I thought it was a little confusing, because I was trying to figure out where it fit into what had become a convoluted Riddler timeline.

The Riddler’s last big moment was at the end of the Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee Batman epic “Hush,” when it was revealed that he had learned Batman’s secret identity. Batman bullied Riddler into keeping it to himself, so that mitigated the event’s impact. Anyway, the Riddler next appeared in a very strange Detective Comics backup series, which had him on the wrong side of Poison Ivy. The impression I got was that Ivy tortured him and left him for dead. Don’t know whether that affected the secret-identity subplot, because Bats’ secret ID doesn’t figure into this story. However, Riddler begins this story as a homeless person.

In fact, “Riddle Me That” — which is styled a pre-“War Games” story because Batman is still on good terms with the police — produces a revamped, redesigned Riddler. Gone (for the most part) are the clues the Riddler used to leave. Gone also are the Riddler’s mask and question-mark-motif costume. Now he sports a question-mark tattoo on his neck, and a simple black outfit. He looks about 10 years younger too.

At heart it is a caper story, so I am loath to reveal the plot mechanics. In a nutshell, Batman’s investigation of a kidnapping leads him to Riddler’s attempt to steal a museum piece. Batman races to stop Riddler from committing the theft, and the resulting game of wits goes back and forth between who has last outsmarted whom.

Meanwhile, a flashback subplot traces Riddler’s return from hobo-dom and includes another flashback to Riddler’s childhood. The classic Riddler origin has him discovering a love of cheating at an early age, when he snuck into his school to get the answers to the next day’s test. McCarthy neatly explodes that part of the origin without denying any of the Riddler’s earlier motivations or escapades. In fact, “cheating” is a recurring theme of the story which also plays with the current Batman-is-always-prepared trope. Batman considers himself prepared for the Riddler, but the reverse is also true.

Batman does have a couple of handicaps throughout the story. First is a Metropolis reporter tailing him for a piece she’s writing. McCarthy has some knowing fun with her, and she’s not entirely a damsel in distress. Second, Batman takes a significant beating about halfway through. While it doesn’t slow him down too much, his tattered costume is a visual reminder that he’s already been put through a wringer. This gives a little more urgency to his adventures, because he looks on the verge of collapse at a couple of points.

Still, while I appreciate the effort that went into making cool a villain most famous for screwing up his own crimes, I wonder how necessary it was. I wouldn’t be surprised if this storyline started off as a bet. Goofy as the old Riddler might have been, he had a unique schtick. Now he’s a more generic criminal mastermind — he just has a new tattoo and some new clothes.

Besides all that, this was pretty enjoyable on the second read. McCarthy starts off with a plot that looks complex, dials it back a little, and then ties everything together. The aforementioned “cheating” theme recurred unexpectedly and made me look at the story in new ways. There are a couple of twists that I’m not sure are justified by the overall story, but by the time they surface the story has built up sufficient goodwill to overcome them. The flashbacks give the Riddler a degree of sympathy he didn’t have before, such that he becomes the story’s anti-hero. All in all, “Riddle Me That” is a well-constructed tale.

The art is also fairly good. Castillo and Ramos draw a very moody Batman, with excellent use of blacks (as you might expect) and a familiar reliance on that dark silhouette with glowing white eyes. It did take me a while to figure out which sequences were the flashbacks. The dialogue and narrative captions didn’t help either, so this isn’t entirely an artistic problem. Also, the hobo Riddler has the requisite thick beard (symbolizing rebirth, of course), which makes him look a lot like the guy rehabbing him. The new-look Riddler is very metrosexual — almost like Sandman‘s Desire. Compared to the other characters, he’s very clean-looking, and really stands out among all the dark colors.

Again, my only caveat — and it may not be one, in the great scheme of things — is trying to fit this into the larger Batman universe. In a weird way, by taking away the old Riddler trappings and making him a more formidable opponent, “Riddle Me That” has made it that much harder for future writers to use the character. Now he can’t just be a wacky guy who announces his crimes ahead of time through clues. Because he has to be smarter, so must his writers. Obviously this isn’t a bad thing, but it does seem counterproductive to DC’s larger purpose for the story. If you can get past this (and it’s not hard — you could even consider it the last Riddler story), it’s a rewarding look at the character.

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3 Comments »

  1. Great post. I do think that your worries in the final paragraph are needless, as future writers will just revert him back to the question-mark wearin’ idiot. comics evolve and regress, but stasis always remains.

    Comment by Tim S — March 19, 2005 @ 4:58 pm

  2. Thanks. I guess on balance I would prefer that the Riddler evolve into something better than the “?-wearin’ idiot,” but the idiot did have a certain appeal.

    Comment by Tom Bondurant — March 19, 2005 @ 5:21 pm

  3. Too me, DC makes the same mistake with the Riddler, they often make with Superman. They use the real world view of the character, instead of how they would be viewed by the people of the DC universe. For instance, common crooks in DC should never look up at Supes and say “He’s just a boyscott”. They should freeze in despair at the sight of the Alien Demigod hovering over them. Only the most powerful or clever or stupid villians would be able to avoid falling to their knees in despair.Likewise the Riddler. People remember him as the doofus from the Superfriends, so that’s how they write him. Also I doubt most of the hacks working today could make up a riddle to save their lives. (Same problem with rhyming and Etrigan, who outside of Moore has ever writen good rhymes for him?)

    Comment by Captain Qwert Jr — March 21, 2005 @ 1:32 pm


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