‘THE WAR OF JOKES AND RIDDLES’ sees its first two of the DC Universe’s most dangerous assassins go head-to-head with Batman caught in the middle.
The cold open of Batman #28 sees Commissioner Jim Gordon trudge the derelict streets of Gotham in nothing but his glasses and a pair of tighty-whities. Head hung in humiliation, handcuffed, he resembles a bizarre conflation of “Walk of Shame” Cersei Lannister, Walter White and Sisyphus.
The Walter White analogy might be most fitting, not just because the image of the high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin shambling through broad daylight tracts of desert-sand in naught but white cotton briefs is so damn similar to Gordon’s, who also makes his Gotham odyssey in broad daylight, but because both scenes exude the same intense, tragicomic nature. Above these ostensibly ridiculous premises looms an overarching sense of danger and uncertainty — the perfect ambiance for the Joker.
“Come in your undies,” the Joker writes in lipstick on the back of a dead man. Gordon is there at the Joker’s behest, to discuss ways to end the brutal war that is tearing Gotham apart and when he arrives at the villain’s lair on the Upper West Side of Gotham — which writer Tom King makes clear is Joker territory — greeted by the tuxedoed Clown Prince of Crime holding a tommy gun, surrounded by the likes of Deadshot, Mad Hatter and Solomon Grundy — Gordon’s vulnerability is made all the more apparent. It’s powerful, powerful imagery. And that’s not even mentioning Gordon’s similar rendezvous with The Riddler, which all happens side-by-side with the preceding, and sees Gordon suiting up in an orange jumpsuit, just like Walter White donned a yellow hazmat suit before a meth cook.
“They asked for you, both of them,” Gordon relates to Batman later via rooftop conference. “Bring me the Batman and the War ends.”
If not for the harrowing, yet heartfelt story of a certain Kite Man last issue, it’d be the most intense and intriguing narrative beat that King has offered up in the “War of Jokes & Riddles” yet. In some parallel universe where a Vince Gilligan-helmed Batman series became the most critically acclaimed television series of all time, this would have been the pre-credits scene. It’s that damn slick. It demands your attention.
But that becomes Batman #28’s Achilles heel. The rest of the issue can’t reach that same echelon of intrigue and immersion. Even with Batman as intrepid as we’ve seen him under King and a five-day battle between bad-ass rival mercenaries Deadshot and Deathstroke.
That last part especially might shock you, as the marquee merc match-up kicks off with plenty of promise: a sniper’s duel among opposing rooftops, with Batman’s head the shared bounty, that soon becomes a full-fledged free-for-all that spills into the streets of Gotham, innocent bystanders massacred in the wake. However, instead of being steeped in the action we’re given a recap from Batman that leaves one feeling like they just caught the Super Bowl Recap Show on Monday morning instead of actually watching the big game. That, and the conclusion is bit more impoverished than you’d expect given the intelligence and tactical prowess of the characters in the three-way dance. (And where are all the rest of Joker and Riddler’s forces during these five days?)
King made a similar decision to tell rather than show when we learn what portions of Gotham Joker and Riddler lay claim to — and part of me thinks it would have been nice to have actually seen the takeover, as well as what made certain characters choose their sides, rather than just taking Batman’s word for it — no matter how reliable or omniscient a narrator he might be.
Still, Batman’s anguish from what results is felt and the throwdown and the issue in its entirety is rendered beautifully by artist Mikel Janin and colorist June Chung. The Deadshot/Deathstroke fight looks awesome, with juxtaposed rifle stances, gunshot sound effects constituting panel structure/shape and the struggling characters overlaying a grim collage of fleeing civilians, burning buildings and the dead and dying.
The opening sequence, with Gordon meeting with both of the eponymous warlords, is amazing as well — fluid and cinematic in its panel structure — with Janin lending Gordon the perfect facial expressions and body posture to exude his air of disconsolateness. Another note: I loved Janin’s costume designs in this issue. His Batman is always on point, but he also implements a Suicide Squad movie/Injustice 2-style Deadshot that looks fresh and a purple Catwoman costume from the ’90s that I’ve always had a fondness for.
Is It Good?
If Kite Man’s tale was the impressive, ahem, King’s Gambit opening in writer Tom King’s supervillain chess match, Batman #28 sees both sides still testing each other out for weaknesses and establishing board presence. Though not as remarkable as last issue, this is still a strong installment that will leave readers hungry for issue #29.