Toward the end of Batman Vol. 4: The War of Jokes and Riddles, a frustrated Riddler lectures Batman that "not every story is your story!" War really is the Joker and the Riddler's story (and Kite Man's) more than Batman's. The material about them is fascinating, but the shift is slightly off-putting given that Batman isn't usually the title where Batman is overshadowed by his foes, and there hasn't been much build-up so far to suggest a shift like this was coming.
For the emphasis this flashback story places on Joker and Riddler, one might mistakenly have thought they'd featured in King's Batman stories so far. Really the greatest throughway between past and present in this story is King building on the history of his breakout take on Catwoman (not Ed Brubaker, but few can be) and of course spinning the origin of Kite Man. The book is clever taken in isolation, but reads strangely in the context of King's Batman run so far and the DC Universe overall.
Chief among the story's troubles is that it's predicated on Batman's revealing a heinous act that's not really all that heinous. I hope King returns to the events of War in the present time, as some sort of relevance for this story going forward would redeem it significantly as more than just a villains' character piece interrupting Batman's present action.
[Review contains spoilers]
The idea that the Joker has lost his ability to laugh and needs to kill Batman to get it back is fantastic, and Mikel Janin (who does stellar work here) reminds of Jim Aparo in his slim Joker. This is a great Joker story in the 1980s style of Joker more as arch-criminal than the supernatural force of nature he's recently been portrayed as. Moreover this is a great Riddler story in the style of Jeph Loeb's Hush or Long Halloween. Gotham dropped in Batman writers' laps a Riddler they haven't quite known what to do with yet; the bare-chested hipster Riddler isn't the answer, but the scope of what King sets up and knocks down with the Riddler in this story is breathtaking.
It's not a zero sum game, but King simultaneously strips some of the recent (and perhaps unnecessary) mystique off the Joker while adding some to the Riddler. That's no more apparent than when King puts the Riddler in the Joker's place in a scene from Tim Burton's Batman, bizarre as the sequence is. It demonstrates the Riddler functioning on the Joker's mythological level, similar to King's introduction of Catwoman as a threat worthy of Hannibal Lechter-style precautions. As for Catwoman, if Rebirth is about knitting together DC's disparate histories, then depicting Selina tastefully in the Jim Balent costume is a bold and (for this 1990s fan) welcome choice, giving all these little bits of continuity their place while updating them for modern sensibilities.
War functions in a weird space where Batman's encountered most of his villains and they mainly match their current depictions. This gets strange as regards Poison Ivy, for instance, or what Batman's relationship is with Two-Face Harvey Dent; also, though of course some of this is due to different writers and stories being told at different times, it seems a big waste now that in Justice League vs. Suicide Squad, Batman and Deadshot couldn't have referenced Batman almost beating Deadshot to death in War. At the same time, seemingly without much reason, King steps toward a Penguin origin and then abandons it; hopefully that's something meant to be picked up down the line. It goes again to the question of how and when War will actually matter or if it's just a speculative tale for its own sake.
Batman begins the story confessing a sin, and it is something meant to be so shocking, so heartbreaking, that not only does it take eight issues to tell, but in the final chapter King takes a whole page of Bruce getting a hold of himself, pauses, and then goes in for another page of the same before we finally learn: Batman tried to kill the Riddler and the Joker stopped him. If this were our one and only Batman story, or if Batman had just taken another vigilante to task for murder, or if there were any real context or resonance for War, perhaps this would be shocking. But if you ask an experienced fan, "What is a young Batman's dark secret," surely trying to kill a villain (or otherwise helping to "create" the Joker) would be in the top five answers. And just as recently as Batman: Endgame, we saw Batman effectively kill the Joker (though himself as well); King's revelation is almost mundane.
If we posit now at least four Robins worth of clean living for Batman in this continuity, Justice League membership, friendship with Superman, no instances of trying to kill villains since and no real consequences since for Batman's attempt on the Riddler's life, then (problematically for the story) Catwoman's got it right in the end: "Who cares?" King has earned Batman's nervousness to propose to Catwoman and Batman's reluctance to seek out true happiness for himself, but for Batman to be this out of sorts -- for his deep, dark secret that he (ludicrously) believes might turn Catwoman away from him to be that one single time when he was young he almost crossed the line but then it turned out OK -- is markedly absurd. Writer Scott Snyder's own deep, dark Batman secret, that Batman knew the Joker might've known his secret identity, was much more logical and more shocking than this. For King to make this some big deal going forward that would turn the Bat-family away from their mentor would be gigantically silly.
Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Batman Vol. 4: The War of Jokes and Riddles
So what do we do with Tom King's Batman Vol. 4: The War of Jokes and Riddles? Scott Snyder's Batman: Zero Year was a shot in the arm, a tonal corner-turning immediately reflected in the stories that followed, which announced a brand new day in Batman comics. King's story is tonally aligned with what came before and what seems to come out of it is simply Catwoman's answer to Batman's marriage proposal -- unless all of this is really a scheme by the Riddler -- and surely that could have been accomplished in less than an eight-issue flashback. This is a well-told tale, but to take a line from Grant Morrison, Batman himself is the hole in things here. The book asks, what's the difference between a joke and a riddle? My hope is the punchline for this story is still to come.
This post first appeared on Collected Editions | Blog, Collected Comics Review, please read the originial post: here