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A Batman: The War of Jokes and Riddles Review – Or So We’re Told…

TITLE: Batman, Vol. 4: The War of Jokes and Riddles
AUTHOR: Tom King
PENCILLERS: Mikel Janin, Clay Mann
COLLECTS: Batman #2532
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $19.99
RELEASED: December 13, 2017

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

The War of Jokes and Riddles is not what I expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But you come into it anticipating a big, bloody, multi-layered brawl between comic book supervillains. What we get is more character-driven. I almost always prefer something like that to a story that’s simply about people punching each other. But the vibe we got going into this was that it was akin to a big summer blockbuster. There’s a lot more to The War of Jokes and Riddles. While you’ll get some really great stuff, it’s not a hotbed of fighting and explosions.

In the early days of Batman’s career, the unthinkable happens. After losing to Batman so many times, the Joker no longer finds the world funny. Recognizing a similar problem in himself, the Riddler proposes an alliance to kill the Dark Knight once and for all. When the Joker gives him a violent rejection, all out war breaks out. Both the Joker and the Riddler recruit different villains to their side, with Gotham City as their battle field. The winner earns the right to kill Batman. How can our hero stop a war that’s being fought over him? And what happens to the city caught in the crossfire?

I like Joker and Riddler as rivals. They both have mischievous and playful sort of motifs. So it makes sense they’d want to outdo each other. Factor in each one having their own faction of villains, and the scope of this story becomes huge. They could very well have done a bunch of tie-in issues where the different characters fight each other. Scarecrow vs. Mad Hatter, Solomon Grundy vs. Killer Croc, Two-Face vs, Scarface, etc. Given how people gobble up Batman stuff, you’d think that would have been an easy cash-in.

Instead, we stay in the pages of Batman. That approach has it’s advantages, of course. But as a result, what feels like a very expansive story winds up being confined. Much is left to exposition. We gloss over the whole recruitment process, and why certain characters choose Joker or Riddler’s side. We don’t see most of the big battles. We’re told what territory each side has. While there’s something to be said for not getting bogged down in too many details, it seems like half the fun of a story like this is watching all the characters butt heads. That’s a giant missed opportunity.

We do, however, see Deathstroke vs. Deadshot. Sort of. In theory, it’s a hell of a fight. But even that fails to deliver, as it’s jammed so tightly into the second half of issue #28. What’s more, the fight stretches logic pretty thin even by comic book standards. The two initially try to snipe each other, but on their first and only shots, their bullets collide. They then proceed to fight for five days, killing 62 people in the process. I get the artistic advantage of leaving it to the reader’s imagination. But they could have dedicated an entire story to Deathstroke vs. Deadshot. This fight could be an event comic on its own. So to be told about it instead of seeing it is frustrating.

On the plus side, almost everybody looks great. Mikel Janin gives us an almost twisted blend of realism and caricature. His Joker, for instance, has a pointed nose and in this story sports an exaggerated frown. But the art is so detailed and the colors so gorgeously rendered that it evokes real life. It’s often fascinating to look at, especially because his Joker seems heavily influenced by Brian Bolland’s work on The Killing Joke. The one character hurt by this approach is the Riddler, who inexplicably looks like John Cena.

Author Tom King frames The War of Jokes and Riddles around Bruce Wayne’s present-day marriage proposal to Selina Kyle. He tells her this story, as he apparently did something horrible during the war that could effect her decision to marry him. The reveal is a good one and makes sense.

But there’s also a larger issue that the story touches on, but doesn’t bring any resolution to. There’s an argument to be made that the real villain in all of this is Batman himself. These two groups of insane people are waging war over HIM. While they’re fighting to decide who gets to kill him, dozens of innocent people are being killed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In telling Selina this story, he’s trying to get absolution for something horrible he supposedly did. But it seems like he should want forgiveness for his part in all this. Although to be fair, the King does touch on something like that in the final scene…

Bruce also makes every effort to bring the violence to a halt, including the bizarrely entertaining dinner sequence that makes up the entirety of issue #29. Bruce Wayne invites virtually his entire rogues gallery into his home for a big, fancy, multi-course meal. The idea is for Bruce to servers a mediator and bring things to a resolution. The visual spectacle of seeing all these comic book supervillains together in a normal environment is almost worth the cover price on its own. It reminds me of one of the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale Batman books. But then we dive deeper with both Joker and Riddler. How they’d kill Batman, and what they think of each other. You’ve also got the internalization of Bruce as he sits between them and listens to it all, silently and subtlety trying to maneuver Gotham out of harm’s way. At face value, the whole thing is almost absurd. But once you dive into it, it becomes one of the most delightful Batman character studies of the last decade.

Janin is also on fire in this issue. He has to draw three characters in the same position for several pages. But despite having to draw several consecutive panels of, for instance, the Joker sitting in a chair eating dinner (shown below), there’s almost no panel duplication. There’s a natural flow to it. You believe their body language. It’s beautiful.

Stuck in the middle of all this is D-list villain Kite Man. He becomes the unlikely focus for two interlude issues drawn by Clay Mann. As he plays a role in the finale, it’s called for. It also doubles as an origin story. King tries to set him up as a relatable, down on his luck father who has fallen in with a horrible crowd and pays the ultimate price. I like how King incorporates him toward the end. But I’m not sure we needed two full issues dedicated to Kite Man. Issue #27 gives us all we need, so issue #30 feels mostly like filler. King also attempts to create the catchphrase: “Kite Man. Hell yeah.” Doesn’t work.

The War of Jokes and Riddles wound up being a mixed bag. We didn’t get a war as much as we got moments from a war. The beginning, the end, and the important moments in between. That doesn’t fill all of our dramatic needs in terms of this being a big, violent, bloody fight between crazy people. At one point we see a  bunch of pictures of people who’ve died. But we don’t see where or how they died. There’s a frustrating gap there which leaves you wanting more than the book delivers.

On the flip side, this is some of the best work Mikel Janin has ever done. The War of Jokes and Riddles should absolutely be turned into one of those oversized hardcovers DC puts out. It deserves to be admired for years to come. Tom King also gives us his best character work yet. He illustrates a tremendous understanding of how Batman, the Joker, and the Riddler think. So when he puts them together it feels very genuine. It’s the same kind of magic that made The Vision work so well.

King does have the magic in him, doesn’t he? It’s just a question of how often we see it.

For more of Tom King’s Batman, check out Vol. 1: I Am Bane, Vol. 2: I Am Suicide, Vol. 3: I Am Bane, and Batman/The Flash: The Button

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A Batman #25 Review – The Sad Clown

TITLE: Batman #25
AUTHOR: Tom King
PENCILLER: Mikel Janin
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: June 21, 2017

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Not going to follow up on the whole marriage proposal thing, huh? Alright, I guess that’s one way to do it…

To be fair, we do kinda/sorta get an answer. “The War of Jokes and Riddles” is framed as a story being told by Bruce Wayne to Selina Kyle about his early days of Batman. You’ve got to figure if she’d said no, they wouldn’t be in bed together like we see them here. So, congratulations?

For the Joker, the unthinkable has happened. The Clown Prince of Crime has found his life suddenly devoid of humor. He can’t bring himself to laugh, or even smile. Conversely, the Riddler now finds all puzzles and quandaries have no thrill or meaning. The common cause? Batman. The Riddler proposes an alliance, but Joker responds with a gunshot that will ignite a war to decide who gets to kill the Dark Knight. A war with all of Gotham City in the crosshairs.

The Joker and the Riddler have similar mischievous, game-ish motifs, and obviously they’re both completely off the mental reservation. So they make natural rivals, in terms of one trying to outdo the other. Until now, that idea hasn’t been explored much in their near 70-year history of coexistence. So to see it played up as a big event like this is really cool. What’s more, the solicits make it look like they’re looping in most of the other major Batman villains. Almost like a Long Halloween type ensemble story. They’re diving head-first into the rogues gallery on this one.

Mikel Janin is back on the pencil, and he’s channeling his inner Brian Bolland. His Joker has a Killing Joke vibe to him. Nothing overt. The way he draws Joker’s face. The black suit he’s wearing, which is reminiscent of the Red Hood sequence in that book. The fact that this is a pretty dark and moody issue adds in that respect as well.

Janin’s take on Edward Nygma is a little bulky for my taste. Look at the lower panels in the image at right. Facially, he looks a little like John Cena, doesn’t he? He’s also more physically dynamic than we’re used to seeing. Early in the issue we see a cop questioning him in Arkham. He eventually leaps up in the air and slashes the guy’s throat. It’s almost a Matrix move.

King also has Riddler just recite riddles to himself. They’ll loosely connect to the situation he’s in, which justifies them to an extent. But it’s a trait I can’t remember seeing before. Not sure how I feel about it…

Still, Janin and Tom King respect the Riddler, just as Scott Snyder did during his run. There’s a really nice sequence where the Riddler escapes prison simply by saying the names of all the guards’ daughters. Answers, information, those are his currency. His power lies in his ability to be cunning and clever. And for a bit of charm, he’s got the classic green bowler hat on during the whole thing.

We get back to back two-page spreads in this issue, each a wide shot of the Joker’s office. The Riddler in one (shown below), Mr. J in another. It conveys a pretty big moment. Our first meeting of the two sides before the fighting begins. They’re also beautiful pages, Janin’s inks and June Chung‘s colors aligning perfectly to show us a gorgeous night in Gotham City. Though I can’t help but wonder how much this artistic choice had to do with the added page count for this “anniversary” issue.

There is one thing Batman #25 leaves unclear, perhaps purposely. In the office scene, the Joker shoots the Riddler at near point-blank range. He seems to hit him right in the gut, and we see a pool of blood. Yet Nygma is able to get to his feet and stumble away. Is he wearing a protective gimmick around his waste? Is the Joker using rubber bullets for some reason? What gives? The war should be over right here!

Tom King had a rocky start on Batman. The series is still a little rocky these days. But when this team is on, they’re really on. There’s nothing in here that damns “The War of Jokes and Riddles” from the get-go. But I’m not chomping at the bit to get to the next issue either. As a single issue, Batman #26 is fine. But for now, the story is still in the “Wait and See” column.

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A Batman/Superman #1 Review – What Page Are We On?

Batman/Superman #1 (2013)TITLE: Batman/Superman #1
AUTHOR: Greg Pak
PENCILLER: Jae Lee
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: June 26, 2013

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

In a company that likes to toss around the term “all star,” Jae Lee is a true all star. His dark, gothic style is usually fantastic, and it’s seemingly tailor-made for a character like Batman. But is Lee the right guy to put on a Batman/Superman book? I had my doubts, and I still do. But there is some good stuff here…even thought some of it’s rather confusing.

This issue shows us the first one-on-one meeting of Superman and Batman, first in civilian form, then in costume. To Greg Pak’s credit, his character work is awesome. His opening scene is particularly strong. Clark Kent travels to Gotham City to investigate the murder of some employees at Wayne Enterprises. He stumbles across a boy seemingly being beat up by some bullies, as Bruce Wayne (in a familiar disguise from Batman: Year One) looks on. He gets in Bruce’s face for not interfering on the boy’s behalf. But it seems the would-be victim was simply luring his opponents into a trap. From the get-go, this issue captures the source of Superman and Batman’s constant conflict, and the reason these two characters work so well together despite their differences. It’s Clark’s hopeful idealism paired with Bruce’s cynical reality. Then we go into a beautifully formatted two-page spread, which shows us what the two characters have in common: The quality of people who raised them. It’s a fantastic start.

Batman/Superman #1, robotsBut from there, things get weird. Batman uses some weird robots to try and wrangle Catwoman, who’s being controlled by a new villain called the Trickster (through she hasn’t been referred to by that name in-story yet). Then Superman flies in and the whole thing goes to hell. From there…I’m not sure what happens. Suddenly they seem to know eachother (Batman calls him “Clark”), and Batman is wearing a slightly different outfit. And then we get an appearance by someone we definitely weren’t expecting.

At this point, it seems a lot of this is supposed to be a mystery. But the whens and the wheres of this issue are confusing. In Justice League: Origin, which was written by two of the company’s co-publishers, mind you, we know that most of the League is meeting one another for the first time. And yet, this issue indicates that Superman and Batman met during Clark’s early years as a hero, when he was still wearing jeans and a t-shirt. And YET…later on in the issue Batman calls him by his civilian name and asks: “What’s with the jeans?” What page are we on? Are we in some kind of weird time warp thing? We need to clear this up pretty fast. As in, tell me what this is by next issue, or I might be gone…

Batman/Superman #1, Jae LeeAs I mentioned, I’m not completely sold on Jae Lee’s suitability for a book which prominently features Superman. His Clark Kent looks good, I’ll give him that. I also appreciate that his Superman doesn’t look like an Abercrombie and Fitch model, or a competition bodybuilder (I’m looking at you Kenneth Rocafort). But for instance, there are a few panels (shown above), where he draws a young Clark Kent in Smallville. I think this is supposed to be your typical contrast of sunny Smallville and shadowy Gotham. But Lee’s shadowy style, combined with June Chung’s color choices, give it a much too dreary look. He’s got the right idea, but it doesn’t really fit the way he does things. It can be argued the same is true when we get to red cape time. But it’s tough to say so definitively, as midway through red cape time, Ben Oliver takes over. Yeah, there’s a little tidbit they left out of the marketing campaign…

For longtime comic book readers, it’s tough to even talk about this issue without thinking about the old Superman/Batman series, specifically the stuff Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness did with the first several issues (the story which would eventually be collected in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. The first issue of their run was published almost 10 years ago. That issue also had a writer with a great understanding of both characters’ voices, and an artist whose style might have gone a little too far in one direction for a lot of peoples’ tastes. While Lee likes drawing skinny pale people, McGuinness likes drawing big muscular balloon people. But Superman/Batman #1 is 10 times what Batman/Superman #1 is. It had great pacing and flow, played up the dynamic between our main characters in a way that was both insightful and fun, and it put them against Lex Luthor, a bad guy we all love to hate.

Batman/Superman #1, fightBut while that issue was built upon more than 15 years of story continuity, the New 52 initiative is less than two years old. In Batman/Superman #1 all the iconic Superman and Batman stuff is there, but certain specifics in terms of backstory are still being established. Heck, after we close this first issue we’re not even sure where we are on the  New 52 timeline. All that stuff is still being established in other books. Superman/Batman #1 kept things simple, which definitely helps when it comes to first issues.

Hopefully Pak and Lee (and whoever else is pencilling…) will fill in some blanks next issue. Until then, Batman/Superman #1 is in the “undecided” category for me. That’s a shame, as for a longtime DC Comics fan like me, this series should be a no-brainer.

Image 1 from hypergeeky.com. Image 2 from comicbookmovie.com. Image 3 from bleedingcool.com.

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