By Tom King, Mikel Janin and June Chung
Throughout Tom King’s run on Batman, he’s managed to create his own unique Bat voice while at the same time constantly paying tribute to those who have walked the path before him. I regard King’s insights into Batman among the best I’ve read. Where others have scratched the surface of a great idea, which is often enough, King dive’s in headfirst, getting right down to the core of what makes those ideas great, and then exploring them further. While King’s emotional insights and story beats are fantastic, they would not be possible without the countless creators who have handled these characters before him, both in comics and film. Whatever King’s intention with the tributes are it really feels as though with each one he is saying “I wouldn’t be here without you”. I said he is paying tribute to those who have walked the path, but what I really mean is, those who have paved the way.
So far all I have done is gushed over Tom King. Don’t worry, that wont stop, but from this point on we are talking about Batman #26, which means all gushing will be directed at Tom King, Mikel Janin and June Chung. This is only the second chapter in “The War of Jokes & Riddles” (we will get to that title later). The story is in the past, narrated by current day Batman. He is speaking of a time a year into his career when Joker and Riddler had a feud, which as the title and some splash pages would suggest, turns into an all out war of Gotham’s usual suspects. Basically, this issue is setup, and while often the best issue can come at the end of the arc, without the perfect setup, it will never be as good as it could have. This setup issue is flawless. There’s so much in these pages, I guarantee you will find something new every time you read it. The ominous atmosphere this issue creates, matched with its creepy vibe, leaves a feeling uneas. If you strictly look at this issue in regards to the “war” it seems like just a warning shot was fired. However, it was actually the sounds of a thousand guns cocking at the same time.
I am going to touch on a few of the most interesting things for me, while leaving out a few Easter eggs like characters names but you should really flip through this one again and google some of them. Starting with the cover, it looks as though Batman is putting together a puzzle of The Joker’s face. There are a few pieces which he has yet to put in, but the most obvious one is his mouth. With the mouth piece missing, we cannot tell if the Joker is smiling or frowning. The Joker, who is known as the villain who always has a smile on his face only smiles one time in this whole issue. The one page he does is extremely creepy. He’s in the bathroom looking at himself in the mirror practicing a smile and struggling. In the end, he just barely ends up pulling his cheeks back into a smile because that is the only way he can make it stick. Every other scene the Joker has a giant frown on his face. Now, didn’t that cover just get a lot more interesting? Just as a side note, Janin is fantastic in this whole issue and this Joker bathroom scene gives the charachter a real Brian Bolland vibe.
Just to take all the built up suspense away lets discuss the title, “The War of Jokes and Riddles”. It’s interesting that the jokes and the riddles in this issue are pretty weak. There really aren’t any jokes from the Joker. There is one told by a cab driver which is another tribute, but basically just a lame erection joke. The riddles told by the Riddler are the most compelling. The first one we get directly after another tribute scene. In it, the Riddler is getting a chest wound fixed by an underground doctor that comes right out of the Batman ’89 film when Joker gets his facial surgery. From the lines “Mirror!” to “You see what I have to work with here?!” I get thrown right into that ’89 movie all over again. Which, is very interesting considering in the ’89 movie it is Joker sitting in that chair and here it is his rival, the man he is trying to kill. Anyways, onto the riddle. As Riddler carves a question mark into his chest he tells this riddle:
“What does man love more than life? What does he fear more than death and mortal strife? What does every contented man desire? What do the poor have, and the rich require? What does the miser spend and the spendthrift save? What does every man carry to his grave?”
The answer of course is nothing. This is also a line right out of the book but I felt like using my own words here because that answer is obvious; a little too obvious almost. Since when does Riddler tell obvious riddles. Something is up with this guy. Another riddle told to Poison Ivy goes:
“I was thinking, if April showers bring May flowers…well, then what do May flowers bring? Mayflowers bring Pilgrims.”
This isn’t even a riddle, more like a lame dad joke. Honestly, I would expect this out of Joker before he ran a boat over someone or before his clown gang dressed as pilgrims grabbed a bunch of hostages. It just doesn’t feel like Riddler to me. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not saying that King isn’t nailing The Riddler, I actually think there is something else going on here. It brings me back to the bathroom scene with the Joker where over the radio this riddle is told:
“I’m going to kill you, joker. Then I’m going to laugh. Ha. Ha. Ha”
The radio personalities are discussing what this might mean because it is too straight forward to be a riddle. Keep your eye out for how the riddles and jokes evolve in upcoming issues. They’re going to be important.
With these two villains going at it, Batman seems to always be a step behind. He is showing up to the scene of the crime and counting bodies. You really get the feeling of powerlessness from Batman, as though nothing is in his control. But, it’s okay, because it is a war between criminal organizations, so really, it’s just a mobster being shot. Right? In the words of Heath Leger’s Joker “It’s all part of the plan.” Well, that is not the road King when down and this is the kind of stuff that sets him apart. With each victim Batman comes across; each mobster, drug dealer, dirty doctor and relative that ends up dead, Batman gives us their background. The background isn’t “Fishy sold drugs to a 15 year old. No one will miss him.” the background Batman gives is “Fishy had three kids and one on the way. His wife thought he sold seafood at the docks.” and “The Fan had started working for Carmine a few months back. His mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. He was trying to pay for some pills.” This continues on for every person that dies. Every death is felt by Batman. Everyone was a person he failed to save. It doesn’t matter who they were or what they were fighting for. Maybe they were scum, but maybe circumstances landed them in an unfortunate situation. Whatever the case, they are dead and Batman was powerless to stop it. Even years later, as he tells the story, he remembers the names and the backgrounds of each person who died. Does Batman know the name and history of every single person he could not save? Talk about shouldering a heavy burden. Another example of King taking an idea like Batman doesn’t kill and getting right down to the core of it to create a meaningful story.
This issue has so much to offer. Janin and Chung are incredible. There are two beautiful splash pages back to back of the Gotham villains and which side of the war they end up on. Janin also nails all the character expressions, which makes the Ivy and Riddler scene especially visually striking. Janin has such a clean line which is that much cleaner because he does his own inking here. While the issue is chalked full of eerie scenes one of the most chilling would have to be that first. Joker walks into a home and all we see is the outside view while Batman tells the reader who lives inside and with each person named, we see the words Bang on the page. With only given a view of the home our mind is able to picture a perfect couple with the perfect three kids. It is very effective in making all the subsequent deaths as equally horrific when we do see the bodies of men and women we might consider on the wrong side of the fight. Is there really a wrong side of the fight in a war? Aren’t we all just soldiers following orders? No one is a villain in the story of their own life. All of this imagery culminates to one disturbingly painful final page that without the lead up, could just have been another comic page. With it, it’s the tragic story of everyone Batman couldn’t save in this war.