"E. Nigma, Consulting Detective"
Writer: Paul Dini
Artists: Don Kramer(p), Wayne Faucher(i), John Kalisz(c)
The second issue of a hopefully long new run of Detective Comics exemplifies that Dini knows more about Batman than the entirety of DC. He knows how Batman should be written. He knows what type of story Batman should haunt, and he knows what makes sense and what does not make sense in the mythos of the Dark Knight.
Dini opens the book by transplanting his character Roxy Rocket into DC's continuity, loosely speaking. Roxy was always a fun character, and her brief continuity debut in Detective does not diminish the reader's enjoyment. Dini preserves her character, and Kramer preserves her happy-go-lucky nature.
This Bondish introduction quickly segues to the main story, which has Alfred calling Bruce Wayne up to the manor to meet the newly reformed Riddler. Readers of Batman's Gotham Adventures written by Dan Slott and Ty Templeton will not be that surprised by the Riddler's reform. Others may be curious, but Dini explains the twist within this story. The Riddler was not "cured" in some off-panel Superboy time-wall punch.
The Riddler is an interesting problem to consider in the new paradigm of comic books. After The Crisis of Infinite Earths when comic books grew darker and darker, the Riddler became less credible as a villain. If the right actor comes along, the Riddler can quite easily and credibly be portrayed as nasty and downright evil. In my opinion, Frank Gorshin's Riddler was the nastiest of all the Adam West Batman villains. John Glover voiced the Riddler as crafty, but even Timm and company had trouble placing him among the darker Batman's ghouls and ghastlies.
The Riddler simply wasn't a murderer. Oh, he would kill if necessary. He would threaten lives in integral parts of his puzzles, but the Riddler considered crime a game and Batman his opponent. He never wanted to kill Batman. Who on earth could compete with him then?
In the irony of all ironies, the Riddler is the one classic villain who really could have been classified psychiatrically as crazy but not evil: he's compelled to leave a clue in the form of a riddle to his crimes. He cannot carry out a crime without first tipping off Batman, his nemesis, with an anagram or a crossword puzzle. That's crazy. That's also sadly not enough to make him now worthy of Batman.
The post-Crisis Batman only dallies with his type; as seen with Roxy Rocket. These types of criminals are to Batman nuisances, pests and mostly harmless. Batman hunts the hardened criminals, the murderers, the rapists, the monsters that prey on humanity. I'm not sure I'd want that change.
Dini has found a way to keep Riddler in play but not betray his previous characterization. He also allows an adversarial relationship against the Batman. I don't know if Dini was aware of Slott and Templeton doing the same thing, and I tend to doubt it, but to bring this change into continuity is a relief. The last thing I'd want to see is the Riddler metastasizing into some puzzle-spouting child molester. Such tampering wouldn't suit him at all.
The Riddler appears at stately Wayne Manor to clear Bruce Wayne of a cold-blooded crime, namely the murder of a young socialite named Karrie Bishop. So begins the mystery.
Certain things become obvious to the reader.
Dini while not exactly doing the animated series is really writing in an animated series style that's aimed at more mature readers. He takes the animated sophisticated incarnation of Batman, who knows he is Bruce Wayne, thank you very much, in places that he could not go on a television show meant to be watched by all generations of Bat-Fans. A clue involving wrist-marks on a suspect for instance leads Batman in a far more adult direction than the cartoon could have ever explored.
Some readers might remember a yearlong drudge comprised of Bruce Wayne: Murderer and Bruce Wayne: Fugitive, but Dini through the colorful and appropriate character of the Riddler absolves Bruce Wayne of the crime in about four pages. He emphasizes that Gordon never considered philanthropist and all around good egg Bruce Wayne a suspect. That's the smart writing that I seek.
Gordon has a history with both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Gordon knows Wayne, and previously when Batman was a suspect in Talia's "murder," the writer was smart enough to know it would take overwhelming evidence--in this case a trick gun firing automatically--to shake Gordon's trust in Batman. Whereas in Bruce Wayne:Murderer and Bruce Wayne: Fugitive the police didn't just leap. They pole-vaulted to the conclusion that Bruce Wayne was guilty of Vesper Fairchild's murder.
The Riddler in this story catalyzes Batman's involvement in an open murder case. Batman had put the case on the backburner, but his distrust of the Riddler pushes the case forward on his sonar. Batman's fear of the Riddler screwing up the investigation though understandable proves to be misplaced. The Riddler actually does help Batman in the story and without degrading his standing as "the world's greatest detective." The question-marked former rapscallion accepts the too obvious conclusion, but Batman digs deeper to root out the true arch manipulator.
Dini eschews several traps that could have sprung up in the story. First, he does not make the Riddler the killer. The Riddler would have absolutely no motive to commit the crime, and Dini respects the reader's intelligence. As usual, he does not remark about continuity past. Rather he creates the continuity that he uses. I don't know if there was a book where the Riddler was rendered comatose and learned of Batman's identity. It's not pertinent to the story, and Dini only mentions this, as far as I'm concerned, creation to give the Riddler a plausible fresh starting point. Besides, it's very Victor Buono. Third, he makes Batman non-judgmental. Batman as I have said is only interested in justice. He's friendly toward the innocent. He knows the citizens of Gotham, especially those that frequent the night spots, and he does not cast a holier-than-thou attitude toward behavior that could easily be arrogantly targeted. He also isn't a male chauvinist pig. He treats the innocent women in the book with respect. In short, Dini writes the Batman I know to be true.
Don Kramer who provided good solid work for JSA contributes a very impressive Gotham City backdrop and an equally potent Dark Knight--who thankfully has longer ears to make his cowl look less like a helmet. His verve for the Riddler comes through in the flamboyant body language, and he tastefully illustrates the more adult scenes. Wayne Faucher provides inks that give the whole of Kramer's pencils a glittery texture, which works well with the story, and John Kalisz's colors enhance the mood through the lighting.
If I have one complaint it's that there's no possible way the reader can identify the murderer. Dini does provide a fairplay mystery. You can figure out who done it, but you cannot dope out the explicit identity of the killer. Dini however balances this deficit with a simply Batmanesque denouement where he eerily converses with the killer and explains how it was all done.
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