Tom King bids for an all-time great Batman story from Batman’s second year as Batman fights the war of Jokes and Riddles.
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On today’s podcast we’re going to war. Join me as I take a look at The War of Jokes and Riddles by Tom King coming up next.
Welcome to the Classy Comics Podcast where we search for the best comics in the universe. From Boise, Idaho here is your host, Adam Graham.
There are many ways to tell a Batman story: there are the goofy stories of the Silver Age and the stories that are in the spirit of the 1966 TV show such as were published in the Batman Sixty-Six series by Jeff Parker, and then you have the darker crime stories which I think have dominated Batman for the better part of the past forty years. While we all love a light-hearted Batman tale I can also appreciate a good crime story featuring the world’s greatest detective.
There are, of course, many ways to make a bad Batman story – it’s far easier to do so. Some of it is caused by the almost worshipful reverence that a lot of comic writers have for Batman – him being this just absolutely amazing being who can do no wrong, or others who look at Batman and create a character who is utterly dark. To writers, what’s cool is not really caring. Rotting Batman is Dirty Harry. Does The War of Jokes and Riddles fall into one of these traps or is it a classic story? I think from both the title as well as the way the story is written, this is the fourth big arc of Tom King’s run and I think it’s obvious that this is his attempt to add his own mark to the Batman mythology and to write a truly classic and memorable story. Does it succeed? Well, let’s take a look.
The story is collected with Issues Twenty-Five to Thirty-Two of Batman. In Issue Twenty-Four of Batman Bruce proposed to Selina Kyle aka Cat Woman, but before she answers he wants to tell him a story, a dark story from early in his career in his second year as Batman. The Joker is on the loose but he’s also lost the ability to laugh. It’s like he’s in a depressive state – he doesn’t find anything funny anymore, and when he doesn’t find anything funny he goes around killing people – which when you think about it is what he does when he goes around and finds everything funny.
The Joker has laid a trap for Batman but the Riddler escapes from Arkham to foil the plan and offer to join forces with the Joker. The Joker responds by shooting the Riddler and Batman goes after the Joker thinking with the range from which the Joker fired the Riddler surely must be dead but he’s not. And the result is that the Riddler begins a war on the Joker, and the two bring every underworlds’ figure in Gotham onto one side or another, except for Catwoman who is able to stay neutral in this. The war goes completely out of control; Batman is not able to stop it and efforts to contain it fail – even the efforts to call in the military leads to nothing more than more casualties from the noncombatants in this war. Finally, Batman decides he actually has to join with one side in the war in order to have a chance of ending it.
What works about this story? While King goes for a very Noirish feel to the story and he writes the dials perfectly, it never feels over the top but it’s definitely very stylized and it helps to build the sense of the atmosphere. The same thing for the art: there are just some great shadows, some great movement that just makes this feel like a colorized film noir story, so I’ve really liked the feel of it. I also think, consistent with the atmosphere, it avoided overindulgence in gore. Yes, there’s violence, there’s even some death, but it doesn’t go into extremely gory territory, which not only keeps it as a safe book for teens but it also allows it to focus more on the characters which is where the book is. It is about a war between the Joker and the Riddler but it’s less about the mechanics of the war than it is about the people who are involved in it. The story also presents the idea that Batman fights monsters. Even though they happen to be human beings they nevertheless have monstrous powers and ability. When you look at a group that can wipe out an army unit you’re looking at something that is dangerous beyond the typical law enforcement/military response, and it highlights Batman’s strength and importance as a hero without going to over the top about it. Now of course it can be a question if these people are so monstrously powerful, you’re not just dealing with a typical criminal. Then you get into the whole ‘why not kill the Joker question’ and this story does kind of beg that.
I also like what the story does with the Riddler: it brings home his strength as a villain and his intellectual capacity. If you think of traditional Batman villains, the Riddler he’s kind of a second string. You have the Joker and Riddler is kind of in there below that with the Penguin and everyone else. This one shows him with his manipulation, his intellectual prowess, really a capable counter even to the Joker, and puts him on that level and does it believably.
Also like Kite Man who is a guy who gets caught up in the crossfire of this war and creates the Kite Man identity to fight the Riddler who killed his son, and it’s a very tragic character but also just very real and relatable. I also give credit to Tom King for this because I’ve read all three of the previous volumes of Tom King’s Batman, and he’s been laying the groundwork for Kite Man’s appearance for some time, and so I thought this was a very good touch, just really made this character the heart of the story connected with him, and it’s just an outstanding and very surprising thing because Kite Man is a Silver Age character who’s been used quite rarely. So, I give all the credit to Tom King for coming up with the idea of using this character in this very unique way. He’s a tragic character you connect with, understand and fundamentally this character is key to pushing Batman to the point where he is a willing to kill someone and almost does if someone doesn’t stop him, and it’s surprising who that is.
I won’t reveal who because of spoilers but Kite Man is simply marvelous throughout this story.
However, the fact that Batman nearly killed is what haunts him and what leads him to tell this story to Selina.
Now I’m not going to give deference to not spoiling her answer because her answer was reprinted in media around the world, but we’ll go ahead and talk about that. This not only includes her answer to the marriage proposal but it shows, I think, why Batman would be attracted to her. The idea of Catwoman and Batman together has been…that has fascinated comics fans and writers for decades, but it’s never quite been answered why there would be this attraction, why they would get together and get married, and I think there’s an answer in this story. Towards the end of the book she speaks for the first prolonged time in the course of this whole eight-page or eight-Issue story, and she takes up the question, “What’s the difference between a joke and a riddle?” It’s been posed by both the Joker and the Riddler several times through the course of the story to Batman, and she says the answer could be clever or funny or political or deep or anything. It could be but it’s not. the answer is, “Who cares?’ You are who he may. Fine. And I’m whatever the whole of modern life made me. Fine. All our sins are earned tragedy, all of that, all that pain. It’s all here with us. It is us and I’m sure it’s all meaningful or hilarious or philosophical or deep or something. We could spend our whole lives mired in the complexity, but really? Compared to us? Compared to you and me, what we could have? All that pain we have, honestly who cares?”
Batman is a character, is someone who is mired in and controlled by the past. I think Selena is much more a character who lives in the moment rather than focusing on past regrets. Now this can, of course, lead to a lot of problems. Oftentimes she seems to be almost useless and a bit of a sociopath, but I think what Batman finds attractive in her is her ability to really move on from her past rather than dwell in it, which is something that he lacks. And I have seen some fans who took issue with Batman’s own declaration and evaluation of himself based on this ‘almost’ killing where he said that there wasn’t anything noble about him and that the only difference between him and the criminals was that he was stopped from actually killing; and people argue with that. That is actually Batman’s own conclusion about himself, and I think deeply moral people are subject to their own judgments, and that is something that is a consequence of making your own rules and standards when you fall short of those. Definitely a lot of guilt on Batman’s part and it’s totally conceivable that he would view himself that way even though I don’t think that’s really the case.
What doesn’t work in the story? Well there are a few spaces that are padded. There are pages and pages of dialogue, lists, panels with very little action but most of them do have movement so I don’t think this is a major problem with the books, just a minor little thing that does happen particularly in the course of this eight-part story. Overall I think that Tom King and artist Mikel Janin have produced a really solid story. It’s strong on character and does a lot more with subtlety than it does big spectacle, which I think really does work for this book. The characters are so rich and the story has some very thought-provoking moments. There are also some very fun moments included, one of my favorite being the scene where they go up for the final confrontation with the Joker. Whether or not it makes it on to people’s list of best Batman story for ever, it will make my grade with a rating of Classy for The War of Jokes and Riddles.
Well, that’s all for now. If you do have a comment send it to me: firstname.lastname@example.org, but from Boise, Idaho this is your host, Adam Graham, signing off.