Ricky Church reviews Batman Vol. 4: The War of Jokes and Riddles…
The Joker and The Riddler are two of Batman’s most well-known and popular villains with decades of stories behind them. With such a wealth of stories, its difficult to think of what recent stories they have that could last the test of time, but Batman writer Tom King crafts a pretty great and impactful tale of these two rogues. Joker and Riddler are as deadly as ever while Batman is caught in the middle of a battle that concerns itself more with the consequences of two big villains fighting than fully showing it.
Rather than continuing off from Batman’s proposal to Catwoman in Batman #24, King instead dives into a story from Batman’s past, telling Selina she has to know completely about his role in what is known as The War of Jokes and Riddles, a battle between two of Gotham’s notorious criminals in the early days of his career. This war took a devastating toll on Gotham, but also on Batman personally as he viewed each and every innocent life lost as a failure, including a particularly tragic one.
It would be easy for a story like this to focus solely on the villains and the fights they get into as Gotham’s rogues choose sides in Joker and Riddler’s war, showcasing some epic battles between them. However, King subverts this, instead placing the focus on the collateral damage the war causes. For instance, while it would have been nice to see Deadshot and Deathstroke’s five day sniper fight in full, Bruce places the focus on the number of people caught in the crossfire and the emotional toll it took on him. Moments like these inform the actions Batman later took in the war and how it affected him as a crimefighter.
When it comes to the two titular villains, King writes them very well. His take on Joker has a very powerful and deadly presence throughout the whole book. Joker finds himself unable to laugh or smile anymore, seeing everything as routine and dull now thanks to Batman, and who knew a Joker unable to laugh could cause such terror? Even though much of his usual playfulness is absent, he still retains much of his classic characteristics and threatening manner, such as what he does to Falcone’s mother.
Riddler, on the other hand, is even more imposing. Often seen as one of the sillier and less dangerous villains of Batman, one who is almost more a prankster than credible threat, King’s Riddler borrows much more from Batman: Zero Year than Batman ’66. Riddler is unafraid to get his hands dirty as he gets fairly physical against some of his enemies. King also emphasizes Riddler’s intelligence, the one thing that makes him such a great foil for both Batman and Joker. His ultimate endgame paints an even darker portrait of Riddler’s psyche, further elevating him as one of Batman’s deadliest and heartless villains.
The other villains don’t get too much time to shine, but some have good moments, such as Poison Ivy’s chat with Riddler as he recruits her to his cause or Catwoman’s role throughout the war. However, the one supporting villain to come out of this story even better than before is Kite Man. Yes, a ridiculous sounding villain from Batman’s cheesiest adventures in the ’60s named Kite Man. King’s reinvention of Kite Man is one of the book’s strongest aspects, making Kite Man both as silly as he looks and sounds to one of the war’s most tragic figures thanks to his origin. Kite Man’s role in The War of Jokes and Riddles is really quite something.
Mikel Janin’s art is pretty fantastic throughout the story. He perfectly captures just how dangerous both Joker and Riddler are just in their posture alone. The body language and facial expressions Janin uses is one of the best aspects of the story, particularly through silent moments. In the final chapter there’s a great four pages that are wordless, letting you soak up the visuals, but watching the subtlety Janin employs as Bruce struggles to finish his story to Selina, and the way she silently comforts him, is one of the best scenes of the whole story. Its moments like these that elevate the story by dialling up the emotion, making readers focus on the human side of the conflict rather than the fisticuffs. June Chung’s colours further help Janin’s art, giving the book a lot of vibrancy and variation throughout the story.
The War of Jokes and Riddles is a great Batman story that emphasizes the human cost of the conflict between two of Gotham’s most notorious villains. It never shies away from examining its characters and King provides plenty of depth for Batman, Joker, Riddler and others. The combination of King’s writing and Janin and Chung’s art make this story a must-read and arguably King’s best work in DC Rebirth.