Friday, March 09, 2012


Why We Love Detective Comics


Yes, The Riddler is awesome! The greatest B-list villain of all time! A super-villain with no powers whose only real claim to fame is an uncontrollable obsession to give Batman clues to his schemes and, thus, he is always, quite voluntarily, the agent of his own failure.

One of the main things I love about The Riddler is his somewhat convoluted history. He first appeared in 1948 in two issues of Detective Comics, #140 and #142. He looked like this:

And then, he disappeared for 15 years! (I suspect some editor or some executive took a look at these issues and said something like: "He's just like The Joker! If the kids wanna see The Joker, give 'em The Joker!")

And, really, it's not something you can argue with. You see, through most of the 1940s and the 1950s, The Joker was not the insane killer that he is now and has been since the early 1970s. Sure, he started as a cold-blooded killer, but he was more ruthless than insane, and that killer instinct was written out pretty early on. For a long time, The Joker was just a very clever thief who led a gang and bedeviled the Batman with a series of overly complicated gag crimes.

But this isn't the history of The Joker. So let's get back to The Riddler.

So I guess the guys who made the decision-making weren't very impressed with the guy in the green body-stocking with the question marks all over it. (Or maybe they all just forgot about him for 15 years.)

By the middle of the 1960s, Batman had gone through some changes. The artists who had been ghosting for Bob Kane for all those years were gone. Something exciting had been going on in the comics since 1955 or 1956 or 1961, depending on your perspective, something that made the old look of the Batman seem lke something from a previous century. It was the Silver Age! The Justice League! The Fantastic Four! The Amazing Spider-Man! And eventually, with Detective Comics #327, cover dated May 1964, Batman got his chance to take his place with the other heroes who were enjoying a kind of Comic Book Renaissance.

It's pretty easy to look at the stories of the "New Look" Batman, as it was called, and try to figure out what the big deal is. They're pretty dumb, admittedly. But they are a lot of fun and, if you want to see dumb, you should read the Batman stories from the late 1950s and the early 1960s! (Just because I prefer the stories from the late 1950s and the early 1960s doesn't make them any less dumb.)

Eventually, they brought back The Riddler! I imagine some editor or some executive said something like: "Yeesh! What's up with The Joker? He's in the Batman books all the time! The kids are probably kind of sick of him. The Batman's been around for a quarter of a century! Look over some of the old comics and find somebody we haven't used for a while. Give somebody else a chance and give The Joker a rest! Yeesh! I swear!"

So they brought back The Riddler in Batman #171 in May 1965 and he appeared seven more times over the next three years before taking a little hiatus between 1968 and 1975.

In 1965, something incredible happened, something that took The Riddler from a rather shaky place in the Batman mythology and catapulted him - pretty much permanently - into the first ranks of the Batman Rogues Gallery with The Joker and Two-Face and The Penguin and Catwoman. That "something incredible that happened" was the Batman television show of the mid-1960s, with Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as Robin, Cesar Romero as The Joker ... and Frank Gorshin as The Riddler.

You see, the guys who, in 1965, started putting the Batman TV show together didn't know that The Riddler was a punk who had only appeared three times in 15 years. They picked up a few current issues of Batman and Detective comics and, as luck would have it, one of those issues was Batman #171, with the third appearance of The Riddler. (For a few more details on the genesis of the Batman show, see Dial B for Blog's wonderful "Secret Origins of the Batman TV Show." It starts here and runs for six parts.)

The pilot episode of the Batman TV show featured none other than The Riddler in a story loosely based on "Remarkable Ruse of The Riddler" from Batman #171! (It's called "Hi Diddle Riddle" on the TV show. For an analysis of the program and the elements that were transfered from the comic book to the television program, see Part Four of "Secret Origins of the Batman TV Show.")

For a guy who had appeared only four times in the comic books by early 1966 when the Batman TV show debuted, I gotta say: "Not bad!"

Not bad at all, Riddler.

And just like that, The Riddler became a fixture in the Batman Rogues Gallery. By the time the TV show ended in early 1968, The Riddler had appeared in six story arcs (a total of 11 episodes) of the TV show and in the Batman movie. By the end of that year, he had appeared in a total of nine comic books.

Then he disappeared for a while.

By the time he came back in 1975, the Rogues Gallery situation had changed enough that there was a niche for The Riddler. The Joker, after a hiatus of his own between 1969 and 1973, returned in Batman #251 in a story called "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge." The Joker was now an insane killer, casting off the prank-loving gangster role he had played since the early 1940s. It wasn't at all difficult for The Riddler to slide into the niche that The Joker had vacated.

He wasn't quite as good at it as The Joker had been, but there's no shame in that. The Joker is a force of nature, a classic character, a genre powerhouse. No, The Riddler was content to show up every once in a while with another collection of riddles concocted for a far-too-elaborate scheme that Batman and Robin would wrestle with for 10 or 15 pages before they brought the hammer down in the final act. A lot of The Riddler stories are very formulaic, but they're pretty cool just the same, providing you like the formula.

Eventually, a slightly different type of Riddler story developed, wherein The Riddler is treated more explicitly as a loser, loveable or otherwise. A good example of this is Detective Comics Annual #8, from 1995. The Riddler is in custody, spilling his guts about his tough childhood and his hard-luck career, but at the end it turns out that nobody has even been paying attention.

There is one Riddler story that really sticks out in my mind, a three-part story from Detective Comics #705 to #707. It's not just a highlight for The Riddler, it's a highlight from writer Chuck Dixon's long run as a Batman writer. As a matter of fact, this entire article on The Riddler grew out of my desire to write about these three issues of Detective.

By the time these issues appeared (late 1996-early 1997), The Riddler had picked up a couple of associates, Query and Echo, a couple of young ladies who dressed provocatively and turned their love of mayhem and chaos into a delightful collaboration with The Riddler. "You want us to wear high-heeled boots, fishnets, and green and purple tights with question marks on them and help you with overly complex criminal schemes? Why not?" they said.

In addition to Batman, Robin, The Riddler, Query, Echo, Commissioner Gordon, Oracle, Alfred, Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya, this lovely little tale also includes The Cluemaster, a truly third-rate villain who, at the time, was allegedly trying to go straight. But The Riddler has other plans and Cluemaster gets sucked in.
On top of all that, the art team is Graham Nolan and David Roach, and they do a bang-up job on a story that may very well be the Best Riddler Story Ever.

The Riddler is in jail, but that's not going to stop him. He has an awesome plan! And a couple of willing partners in crime! And off they go to get The Cluemaster out of jail so he'll be free to play his part in The Riddler's little scheme. (The method used to get off the roof of the jail is truly chaotic. And Query and Echo are not very nice to The Cluemaster. (Well, everybody is kind of mean to The Cluemaster. Contemptuous. Sarcastic. Rude. Dismissive.) Sample dialogue: Query (the redhead) says to The Cluemaster, "You ask a lot of questions for a guy called The Cluemaster." Ha! Burn!))

Batman and Robin quickly figure out the first batch of riddles and they drive across the city to the first rendezvous point. (These three issues have a lot of feverish driving around Gotham on the part of the Dynamic Duo.) At their first stop, they pick up ... The Cluemaster! And he's got a vest made out of explosives wrapped around his chest!

The Riddler is not playing around this time!

So Batman and Robin race around the city, trying to figure out the clues. They have 15 minutes to get to the destination where the next clue is or The Cluemaster will explode! It's great fun! Batman comes across a surreptitious gangland burial at a park! The Cluemaster spends a lot of time in the trunk of the Batmobile! Query and Echo perform a mostly off-panel striptease! (And it's not gratuitous because they are merely changing clothes for the big finale!)

It's glorious! There really aren't that many story arcs in Detective Comics that are as satisfying as this one. (Maybe one story arc every 100 issues.)

Highly recommended. This is what super-hero comics should be. When they get better than this, they start taking themselves too seriously.


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