Event comics usually come with a passel of one-off tie ins. Sometimes they’re very good. Sometimes they’re a way of giving someone a try out. Sometimes they’re a way of getting somebody work. These are all good things! But very rarely are they ever impactful on a character or the direction of a line. That may change this week, as Mark Russell and Scott Godlewski bring the Riddler into Year of the Villain with one of the most introspective superhero comics in a while, one that potentially foreshadows a big status quo change for one of Batman’s oldest villains.
The premise of the entire Year of the Villain arc has Apex Lex, a powered-up Lex Luthor, gone full evil again after years spent straddling the line of “dick” and “dick but helping the good guys”, running around the DC Universe offering power ups to the bad guys from every rogue’s gallery. In the pages of Justice League, he cranked up folks like Sinestro, while he’s been popping into other books for help like closing Gotham to the outside world and giving free rein to Bane (Batman), or a substantially boosted cold suit for Captain Cold (The Flash). In The Riddler: Year of the Villain, he gives Edward Nygma something completely different: perspective.
The story is framed by the Riddler’s friendship with King Tut. They start the issue kvetching about their persistent failures to top Batman in any meaningful way. They move to complaining that they haven’t been approached by Luthor yet, then head their separate ways. When Riddler gets home, he finds Luthor in his living room, and Luthor is pretty merciless in his criticism. The next morning, Tut calls Riddler to loop him in on his own profound realization: that they persistently fail because they never work with each other, and the true solution to both their problems is to do a half-baked death trap together.
The Luthor conversation is the crux of the issue. Luthor hands the Riddler nothing – no hyper-powered question staff, no bowler hat that will increase his cleverness tenfold, no giant question mark-shaped bomb planted under Wayne Manor. He just talks to him about Nygma’s own rigidity. The inflexibility of his mind, being lashed to his schtick, is what Luthor hints has been holding the Riddler back. And that inflexibility is preventing the Riddler from growing as a person. It’s kept him from accepting any changes since he was a child fixated on revenge against the bullies tormenting him. He ends the story by telling Nygma “Life is the process of saying goodbye to ourselves.” And the Riddler ends the issue by walking out on King Tut’s death trap.
This is…not what I think anyone expected from a Year of the Villain book. The best you can usually hope for is a thoughtful one-off. Something akin to what Russell already gave us in Year of the Villain: Sinestro – a clever character piece that leaves the character exactly where he started when the issue picked up. Here, we get smart character work, but we also get more character development than the Riddler has had since…what, Paul Dini on Detective Comics back around Infinite Crisis? The Riddler is iconic, but the character owes almost everything to Frank Gorshin’s portrayal of him on the old television show. He hasn’t had more than a handful of deep dives or status quo shifts in an age.
A literal age – I can count four stories since the Bronze Age ended that really matter, that made a big impact on the Riddler as a character, and that’s a stretch a little bit – one of them came out on the cusp between the Bronze Age and the modern age of comics and could be argued into either category. But for almost every one of them, the impact on other characters was greater.
“Dark Night, Dark City” was Peter Milligan and Kieron Dwyer’s 1990 tale in Batman that had a suddenly very bloodthirsty Riddler pulling jobs around Gotham. It’s a really good Riddler story, but overshadowed by the fact that it’s also where Barbatos, the dark Bat-god who dominated Grant Morrison’s Batman mythology and later spawned Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s dark multiverse, first appeared. Snyder and Capullo also featured the Riddler as the main villain of “Zero Year,” their big, 13 issue story about Batman’s first run in with Nygma. It is also the first time we really got to look at the way Batman managed his own mental health, and ends with him almost getting shock therapy. And the War of Jokes and Riddles was a long story that wrapped up Tom King’s first year on Batman by giving Kite Man a heartbreaking origin story and having the Joker (of all people) stop Bruce from killing the Riddler.
The unifying force in all of these stories is that they’re not about Edward Nygma. They’re about someone else reacting to Nygma. And, in the case of “Zero Year” and the “War of Jokes and Riddles,” they both happen in the distant-by-comic-book-time past of Batman.
Really, the only story in the last 30 years worth of comics that really changed what we know about the Riddler was Paul Dini turning him into Sherlock Holmes in Detective Comics. In the wake of the wretched “Hush” and the not-great Infinite Crisis, Dini has Nygma go straight and begin selling his services as a consulting detective to Gotham’s wealthy. It takes the Riddler, keeps his main schtick (proving that he’s smarter and more clever than Batman), but points it in a different direction so we can see it work from another angle and take a little bit more out of it. Edward Nygma, Consulting Detective is the one time before this Year of the Villain issue that anybody really tried to twist the Riddler’s core concept around and peer at it from a different angle in modern comics. For perspective, in those same 30 years that it took to get four meaningful Riddler stories, Gotham City has been destroyed or quarantined from the rest of the country in four stories.
Gorshin’s portrayal and the Riddler’s iconic look have been enough to keep him top tier in the popular consciousness, though. That a character can largely survive Jim Carrey and the Question Mark Guy who wanted to give us all free government money sullying his rep and look, respectively, is a testament to his fundamental appeal. The beauty of this issue is that even if it were a fluffy one-off with no potential wider impact, it would still be terrific. How many times do you get to open a comic and yell “OH MY GOD IS THAT KING TUT?” It’s not like he’s the Fluoronic Man or something. A King Tut sighting is a rare blessing, friends! Also, Tom King Batman aside, there’s been a subtle creep of a lighter Batman into comics lately that continues here. We’ve got a Batman happy to toss riddles back at Nygma along with his boots. Batman gets noticeably exasperated by King Tut’s incompetence and even almost jokes with the Gotham PD about how long it’ll take him to beat Tut. “Lair” Magazine is something I hope DC one day manages to publish, even if it’s just a joke. Profound character development aside, this issue was just really fun.
The brilliance of this issue is how it directly interacts with one of the fundamental tenets of modern superhero comics: the illusion of change. Stan Lee said the secret to Marvel storytelling (a theory that has come to apply to the superhero industry as a whole) is “the illusion of change.” The idea that comic book superheroes change over time is actually far truer than it seems on first glance, it’s just the under the radar ones, the characters keeping one arm out of limbo, who are capable of doing the most changing.
It’s possible that this issue is setting the Riddler up for a big change. It shows a willingness to strip Edward Nygma back to his bare, raw, core concept, and it’s one that makes him stand out as a Batman rogue. For years now, we’ve been watching Batman matched against the inexplicable chaos of the Joker, or match power and forethought with Bane, or have really bad anxiety attacks and bone Catwoman. What we’ve seen far less often is Batman be the best detective in comics. We get plenty of Batman pounding the shit out of a parade of bad guys. We don’t see him sussing out motive or means as much. All of the good writers have found a way to make that happen here and there over the last few years, but it always takes a backseat to saving hypertime by throwing three pearls at Rip Hunter. The Riddler gives them an excuse to lead with the detective work.
Maybe the Riddler has fallen far enough for this to stick. We know from tweets hoping for an ongoing that Russell thinks so. The Riddler: Year of the Villain works because it forces Nygma to think his way out of his rut and choose to do something different. Hopefully we get to see more of that change play out on the page.