Sunday, August 12, 2012

Riddle Me This: The Riddler's Reinvention...

I am posting a copy of an article by Darren over at Comic Buzz

The Riddler is one of my favorite Batman Villain (as he is Darren's) and I've waited so long to see a good modern interpenetration of him. Well, Darren has as well and he has a theory as to why it has yet to come along that I highly agree with. Read More to see what he has to say.

Riddle Me This, Riddle Me That: How Can The Count of Conundrums Measure Up to the Bat?
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Riddler among Batman’s fine selection of villains. Indeed, I think that the Riddler competes only with the Joker as my favourite member of the character’s expansive rogue’s gallery. Still, it’s a bit frustrating that I can’t really point to a single essential post-Crisis modern day Riddler story, in the same way I could suggest The Long Halloween and Dark Victory for Two-Face, Heart of Ice for Mister Freeze, The Killing Joke and countless others for the Joker, and so on. More than anything, the Riddler seems a character forever lost – seemingly perpetually reinvented to face his foe, but never truly finding a characterisation that truly sticks.
How ironic that he should prove such a mystery.

Let’s be honest here: the Riddler stands as the strongest piece of legacy holding over from Adam West’s Batman! television show (as fittingly eulogised by Holsman here). Every other character portrayed in that series – from Batman himself to Jim Gordon to each and every villain – has redefined themselves several times over since then. The Joker re-established himself as serial killer almost immediately in The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge, almost in marked contrast to Caesar Romero’s Clown Prince of Crime. The Penguin hasn’t really been a villain for a while, and some would argue Tim Burton’s vision has haunted the character since Batman Returns.
Bruce himself firmly rejected the high camp of the series, being recharacterised as a serious detective by Denny O’Neil and then a brooding crime-fighter by Frank Miller. “And how come Batman doesn’t dance anymore?” Adam West famously lamented during an appearance in The Simpsons, and even Grant Morrison stopped short of resurrecting that Bruce, bringing modern Batman more in-line with O’Neil’s more serious response to the show. While the comic books (and the wider nerd world) is increasingly coming to terms with the gleefully ridiculous take on Batman, it’s still something of the black sheep of the Batman adaptations.

So the Riddler is in a bit of a bind, because Adam West’s Batman! pretty much defined the character we know today. Before the show aired, the Riddler had appeared thrice in the comic books, over two decades. He ran the risk of becoming a forgotten novelty character, a footnote in the history of the Dark Knight and a trivia question answer. However, the character was brough to life by Frank Gorshin. I honestly think there’s no real argument about the actor who stole that television show. I have a soft spot for Romero’s Joker and I adore Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, but Gorshin’s Riddler fit perfectly with the vibe of the series. In fact, the premiere episode of the series was based on a Riddler story (from Batman #171).
Gorshin’s Riddler defined a lot of what we take for granted about the character, from the character’s question mark cane through to his trademark mental breakdowns and even the “green suit” look (while Gorshin did wear the jumpsuit too). Indeed, a lot of the subsequent attempts to add psychological depth to the Riddler can be traced back to the show, as unlikely as that may sound to anybody familiar with the brightly saturated adventures of the dynamic duo. Gorshin played the character as one struggling with a compulsion, pathologically unable to resist the urge to leave a clue to prove how smart he was – and I think Gorshin managed to capture the character’s incredibly frail ego (something that would become standard for the character in adaptations to come).

Due to the nature of the series, it was impossible to draw fully-formed portraits of characters like the Joker or the Penguin, both characters drawn from grotesque horror stories. On the other hand, the Riddler was very much a creation of the Silver Age (even though his first appearance does pre-date it), and so he was right at home. I think that’s why he proved so popular in the show, and I think that’s why a lot of people remember Gorshin when they think of the show, and recall the show when dwelling on the Riddler.
However, times change and the character inevitably gets left behind. The Joker and the rest of Batman’s villains could adapt to the increasingly darker world, while something felt wrong about taking the bright green Riddler and making him “darker and edgier” in the style of The Dark Knight Returns or Tim Burton’s Batman. It’s telling that the character came to represent all those old-fashioned carefree days. Asked to pen a Secret Origins style look at Batman’s villains, Neil Gaiman wrote a short vignette in which a bunch of reporters visit a run-down dump populated with giant robots and gimmicks and toys… curated by the Riddler. “What’s happened to us?” he laments in a moment of clarity. “The Joker’s killing people, for Christ’s sake!”

Again, Gaiman returns to the idea of the Riddler representing Silver Age nostalgia in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? In a story pretending the Batman adventure was “just a game” to keep Bruce happy, there’s a sign that things have become far too real when the Riddler starts threatening to execute children. It’s a sign that things have gone too far. Similarly, a blood-thirsty Riddler is something of an unnatural omen in Peter Milligan’s Dark Knight, Dark City, a story desperately needing collection following Morrison’s run.
As an iconic part of Batman’s rogues gallery, it seems that DC have spent a considerable amount of time attempting to make the character fit. I’d argue that the Riddler was in fact the main villain of Hush and the fellow wearing the bandages was a completely unnecessary plot point. Take Thomas Elliot out of the story and you’d have a great example of how the Riddler could work as a threatening adversary for Bruce, without veering too far away from his core characterisation. Paul Dini attempted to recast the Riddler as a private investigator, a detective to compete with Batman, during his Detective Comics run. Truth be told, I liked that portrayal – especially measured against various other attempts to find a niche for the character. Unfortunately, it has been derailed by Tony Daniel, who looks to be doing… something with the character.

Hell, the cover for Scott Snyder’s Batman #1 indicates we’re getting yet another “reimagining” of the Riddler, with a green mohawk question mark shaved into his head. I sense a “grim and gritty” attempt to rework the character in the pipeline, and it makes me feel just a little bit uneasy, to be frank. The Riddler isn’t a serial killer like the Joker. He’s not a thug. He’s an immature kid who really wants to prove he’s smarter than anybody else, even though he knows – deep down – that he’s not. Truth be told, if a Riddler belongs in any relaunch book, it’s the bright neon Batman & Robin from Peter Tomasi, though I dread to think what Damian might do to him.
Because that’s how the Riddler works as a foe to Batman. On one level, he’s a spoilt child who always has to know the answers, and always has to be the smartest person in the room. He’s childish and immature, despite being a fully grown man with henchmen (or henchwomen) who commits crimes. He’s a counterpoint to Batman, the kid who was forced to accept that he can’t always win at an early age. If you believe Bruce’s childhood ended on the night his parents died, that Edward Nigma’s eternal childhood is a sharp contrast. Alternatively, if you support the argument that Bruce never actually grew up and came to terms with his loss in a mature manner (as running around in a giant batsuit isn’t “mature”), then Edward is the perfect playmate.

If the Joker stands as chaos to Batman’s order, light evil to Batman’s dark good, then the Riddler is the very embodiment of mystery placed in opposition to the world’s greatest detective. If Bane is a physical challenge to Bruce, the Riddler is a mental wrestling match. The Riddler is the core essence of “pop crime.” He’s celebrity, writ large. He’s a child shouting for attention in the era of reality television. This is a time when you get famous for being famous, and fame isn’t measured by actual accomplishment. A criminal who foils his own schemes is practically insisting upon his fifteen minutes of fame.
It isn’t that hard to come up with an idea that works for the Riddler, but you have to realise that he’s not just another member of the “complete set” of Batman’s villains. In fact, trying to believe that Batman’s villains can be linked by any thread other than insanity is a waste of time. The Riddler shouldn’t be darker and edgier, because that’s the exact opposite of what he is. He’s not a foe for the “grim ‘n’ gritty” Batman, but a rival for the bright and shiny “pop culture icon” Batman. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The Joker might be able to reinvent himself at midnight, but there’s no reason to expect the same of all Batman’s foes. Some of them just need to play to their strengths.

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