Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Not Quite Insane

My favorite Batman stories come from the 1970s. It is, by golly, the Bat-Decade. Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams would be my (arguable) pick for the best writer/artist combination, but there were a number of others doing great work during that decade.

For instance, Batman #317 (November 1979) was written by Len Wein and drawn by Irv Novick, who had a clean and dynamic look to his pencils. It's a Riddler story--and there's a way in which Wein writes the Riddler that is, I think, key to properly understanding that character.

(A sidenote: the Riddler was once an obscure villain who only appeared in two stories from the 1940s. But he was brought back for a story in 1965. This, plus Frank Gorshin's brilliantly over-the-top characterization of him in the Adam West Batman series, granted him an important place in the Dark Knight's Rogue's Gallery.)

The Riddler's gimmick was, of course, riddles. He had an obsession he just could not overcome--he HAD to send Batman and/or the cops a riddle that, if properly interpreted, would hint at the crime he was planning. Of course, Batman would inevitably figure out the riddle and catch him, but he'd still be driven to send riddles again the next time he planned something.

Which, by the way, makes me think if you were a low-level thug living in Gotham City, the best henchman job would be working for the Riddler. He leaves a riddle, but you sneak back later and remove the riddle before Batman sees it. The Riddler is happy because he commits his crime without interference and thinks he's outwitting the Cape Crusader at last. You get your cut of the loot and everybody's happy. 

But I digress. The thing I liked about the Riddler was that he was not insane or a maniacal killer. He had his one mental flaw--and admittedly it was one heck of a flaw. But he wasn't nuts. When he was caught, he was sent to prison rather than the insane asylum. He certainly wasn't a nice guy and he was willing to kill if he had to, but he's not just the Joker in a different costume. 

It's an important distinction--one that was lost in more modern stories when the Riddler ended up getting shipped off to Arkham Asylum when he was caught because he'd driven so far into Crazy Town. I think that was a mistake. The less-crazy version of Edward Nigma is the one that is more distinct and interesting.

In "The Riddler's 1,001 Clue Caper," the villain tries to beat his obsession by mailing Batman a book of riddles. It's a clever ploy--he gets to use his gimmick, but does so in such a way that it really doesn't help Batman at all. There's no way of knowing which of the 1,001 riddles is the one that gives a clue.

But Batman's not the World's Greatest Detective (well, almost) for nothing. He and Robin simply start with the riddle book (stolen from the prison library) and use basic detective leg-work to figure out what the villain is up to. So, when a series of bizarre crimes results in Riddler hijacking an illegal gun shipment, the Dynamic Duo are there to catch him when he tries to sell the weapons. I love that aspect of the plot.

All this leads to the moment in which we see that Len Wein really does get the Riddler. At one point, he's pointing an automatic rifle at Batman and Robin, saying "I'd rather not kill you both--but I won't hesitate to if you force me."

See? He's NOT just the Joker in another costume. When written properly, he really is an interesting and distinctive character.


  1. Riddle me this, Tim: What other actor played The Riddler with aplomb in the 1960s? Gorshin was so doggone good it is easy to forget this other fine performer's turn.

    Great essay on a great Bat-foe too often relegated to the shadow of the Joker. I especially appreciated learning that The Riddler was a only a minor villain until that 1965 revival (just in time for him to be immortalized in what is still my favorite iteration of Batman on screen).

    Gary in Omaha

  2. John Astin was, of course, the other actor to play the Riddler in the Adam West series. Astin is a fantastic actor (I got to see him play Edgar Allen Poe in a one-man show back in the '90s), but Gorshin defined the Riddler for me. Thanks for commenting--I'm glad you enjoyed the post today.


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