You can definitely say that Batman has the greatest rogues gallery in comics for many reasons. Each villain is so distinctive that there have been many stories about these characters that even steal the spotlight away from the Dark Knight, which was a curse during the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher cinematic era. Although there is a section of the audience that would suggest that the villains are the only interesting element in the Bat-mythos — something that the TV series Gotham seems to suggest — what makes these characters special is Batman’s relationship with them, which is key to this latest volume of Tom King’s Batman run.
During one night with Selina Kyle, Bruce Wayne tells a dark chapter of his history. Throughout a year as Gotham’s protector, the Joker and the Riddler have tried to kill the bat and failed many times. As both are competing against each other to see who would kill Batman, a turf war begins as Gotham’s villains must choose sides with either the Joker or the Riddler, causing major casualties within the city and making both Batman and Commissioner Gordon desperate.
Following the first three volumes that told a yearlong story, The War of Jokes and Riddles feels more like a standalone arc that any newcomer can jump into, although a knowledge of what came before would give you a better appreciation towards the framing device of Bruce telling this dark period in his life to Selina.
You do get the sense that Tom King is throwing everything including the kitchen sink here, but that is not at all problematic because with the number of villains that appear over the course of eight issues, every set piece feels different and constantly adds new challenges for our hero. Having worked on earlier issues in King’s run, artist Mikel Janin uses a series of intricately detailed collage images that allow him to create dynamic action sequences such as Deadshot versus Deathstroke in a sniper battle that escalates.
As always with King, he evokes Batman’s history by featuring deep-cut Easter eggs such as streets named after creators, from Dick Sprang to Sheldon Meldoff. Despite taking place after the events of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Zero Year, the story has more in common with the gritty crime stories of Year One and The Long Halloween; even Catwoman appears in her 90s purple costume.
What is scarier than a clown who smiles at the suffering of others? A clown who cannot smile because he can’t deliver the punch line of his sadistic jokes. This is a Joker unlike any other; King gives him an almost tragic angle as any joke he (or someone else) tries to conceive doesn’t ring true to him. Credit goes to artist Mikel Janin for giving us plenty of panels featuring a non-smiling Joker, especially when he stares into a mirror and is trying to turn his frown upside down.
As for the Riddler — a character who, if not written well, can be seen as a cheap Joker knockoff — King manages to distinguish these two supervillains by having a recurring discussion about the difference between a joke and a riddle. Certainly, Nigma feels more confident in his position during the war and has wonderful moments of wit, such as his conversation with Poison Ivy whilst being confronted by armed gangsters.
Given the many villains that appear throughout, King could’ve easily fallen into the trap of neglecting the titular hero, which fortunately doesn’t happen. Although he is regarded as the World’s Greatest Detective, Batman is a young man in the context of this story, not yet the superhero who is five steps ahead of everyone, and his ways of saving the city range from the weird — a dinner with the rivaling supervillains hosted by Bruce Wayne — to a huge revelation at the end that continues King’s approach of Batman as a flawed human being.
Amidst still the chaos of this turf war, one character stands out above all else: Kite Man. Created by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang, Charles "Chuck" Brown is one of the lesser known members of Batman’s rogues and even though he occasionally pops up here and there, I love how Tom King uses him in numerous cameos throughout the run. In this arc, though, King tells the tragic origin of how an ordinary man can become a supervillain. However, in these two issues, drawn by Clay Mann, he is a joke as he primarily gets beaten to a pulp, but never gives up his gimmicky costume as it’s his way of escaping his normal life.
Tom King has created an interesting story of a young Batman finding his footing. He’s also having fun with his treasure chest of villains, and exploring the relationships between the hero and his rogues.