Writer Tom King certainly can’t be accused of being unambitious in his aims for the Dark Knight. After ending issue #24 with the massive twist of Batman proposing marriage to Catwoman, he followed that up with kicking off a massive ongoing storyline called “The War of Jokes & Riddles.” If you liked issue #25’s opening chapter, then you’re going to enjoy Batman #26, which does it job in raising the stakes of the conflict and effectively framing this flashback tale of Batman’s greatest failure. Bolstered by King’s penetrating and fresh take on its two central villains, and featuring absolutely gorgeous art by Mikel Janin, Batman #26 offered further evidence that we might be seeing King’s definitive Batman story.
Taking place in the past, when Batman had been operating in Gotham for only a year, “The War of Jokes & Riddles” tells the story of Batman’s greatest failure. The story is narrated by Batman as he relates its events to Catwoman (which manages to keep their relationship alive, and makes the flashback story make sense as a way for Bruce to reveal something honest to his presumptive fiance), but Batman himself is a largely reactive presence in the story. The stars are really Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler, and the murderous primal force of villainy known as the Joker. The Joker has lost his ability to laugh, and with it a sense of purpose, due to his obsession with Batman. Similarly, the Riddler’s obsession with puzzles has been affected after his conundrums having been constantly solved by the Caped Crusader. In the previous issue, we saw the Joker cutting a boldly swath through Gotham, senselessly and ruthless executing people in a vain attempt to recapture his sense of humor. And Nygma’s attempt to forge an alliance with the Clown left him nearly dead from a gunshot wound after the Joker didn’t agree with the Riddler’s plan. And so, it is war. And as the two criminal geniuses start piling up bodies and acquiring allies, Batman seems perpetually one step behind, unable to do any more than commemorate the names of the dead to his memory.
There’s not much more to Batman #26 than a sense of growing escalation. But King’s strength is in how well he understands the Joker and the Riddler and how interesting his takes on them are. It’s a brilliant idea to give us a Joker in crisis, for instance. We’ve seen the character refined before, and he remains probably the most brilliant villain in all of comics. But King’s approach here is still novel. Taking away his twisted sense of humor, King posits that his “laugh” is the only thing that makes the Joker vulnerable in some ways. Without that particular compulsion, the Joker is a relentless murder machine; a shark in a human suit that implacably kills. It’s definitely a scary take.
Similarly, King strips the silliness away from Nygma and depicts the Riddler as a more human and dangerous and brilliant figure than we often see him. The Riddler was perhaps the Bat-villain most affected by the campy interpretation of the 1960’s TV series, and King instead builds upon Scott Snyder’s reinterpretation of him as a twisted genius compelled to solve and pose problems. No longer is the Riddler the silly figure in a question-mark leotard.
Probably the best clue as to King and Janin’s intent comes in the numerous references in Batman #26 to the Batman films of Tim Burton, both of which were always perhaps more fascinated with the twisted villains of the Bat-Universe than anything else. Each of those films gave their villains depth and complexity and a somewhat tragic quality, and you can see that approach echoed here, albeit with a far less sympathetic eye.
The art by Janin is superb, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this storyline winds up being a highlight of his career to date. His expressive and subtle characterizations are matched only by his attention to detail and his mastery of pace. There are some frankly gorgeous splash pages on display here that are worth the cover price alone, and I love how effectively he can communicate his characters’ emotions. Additionally, he ever skimps on mood and atmospherics, a vital skill for any Batman artist. David Finch is the other artist on this book, and I like his stuff, but if it were up to me, I’d take Janin on this title any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
“The War of Jokes and Riddles” is a great idea, and you can feel that King and Janin want this arc to stand alongside classic Batman mega-arcs like “The Long Halloween,” “Hush,” or “The Court of Owls.” It might be too early to call it, but certainly Batman #26 continues to offer the promise that this could be something special. 8/10