The War of Jokes and Riddles brings the Rebirth era of Batman to a crucial turning point.
In the present day, Bruce Wayne recounts a harrowing chapter of his early days as Batman. A critically depressed Joker and a manic Riddler wind up on a collision course over which of them has the right to kill Batman. The adversaries force Gotham City’s colorful array of villains to pick sides, sparking a brutal war with horrifying collateral damage. Batman tries to stop the bloodshed using both his personas, ultimately making difficult choices that brings the conflict to a shocking finale, one with a significant psychological toll for the hero.
Writer Tom King has turned out some of the most interesting books to come from the Big Two publishers over the past couple years. His run on Batman has emphasized the Romantic anti-hero aspect of the character (capital “R” intended) and deploying an extended flashback that drops Batman in a free-for-all between two brilliant sociopaths is a first rate idea that allows King to explore the evolution of his star, taking him from an almost earnest young crusader to the more morally complex champion of the present day.
King has an iron-clad grasp on the Batman/Bruce Wayne psychology and thankfully never dips into the overused “Bruce is the mask” trope, instead showing off how Bruce and Batman are different aspects of one complicated person. But even more intriguing is King’s use of two well-known villains. Showing Joker going through a severe depression, homicidally unable to laugh, is a startling conceit that King deploys for maximum, violent impact. His depiction of Riddler (influenced by the work of Scott Snyder) as unlimited intellect unfettered by moral restraints teases out different shadings of that oft-misused adversary. The combination of the three characters is dramatically potent and frequently explosive.
King’s work here boasts any number of smart, impactful choices. The story is narrated by present-day Bruce, as part of an intimate conversation with Selina Kyle (a/k/a Catwoman) that brings the duo to a major turning point. After The New 52 mandate against spotlighting established relationships, to see King go all in on one of DC’s longest, most complicated romantic bonds is a bold move that pays off and will make long-time fans take notice. King is so on his game that he makes a digression featuring D-List villain Kite Man an emotional highlight of the arc.
Mikel Janin is the primary artist for this story and once again demonstrates what an ideal fit he is for the world of Batman. Janin has the unusual ability to put a photorealistic sheen on his pages without sacrificing the bold fantasy nature of the work. He deploys imaginative page compositions that enhance the drama of the story, demonstrating particular facility with several high-impact full-page spreads. In other hands, a sequence of two two-page spreads featuring Riddler and Joker in a penthouse against the Gotham night sky might be considered artistic wankery, but Janin, working with brilliant colorist June Chung, makes them poetic.
Even more challenging for the artist was to find a way to bring some dramatic urgency to the framing sequence featuring Bruce and Selina. How Janin handles it provides a crucial distinction between the Rebirth and New 52 eras. Right off the bat, The New 52 generated negative attention with a prurient rooftop sex scene between Batman and Catwoman, in costume. In the framing sequence, Janin depicts Bruce and Selina lounging in bed throughout, yet it never feels cheap or exploitative. Instead, it enhances the emotional intensity and psychological intimacy of the conversation the duo is having. Batman is rarely shown in a vulnerable light, so those passages, though a small part of the story, serve an important purpose in dramatizing the depth of the Bruce/Selina bond.
For its psychological impact and fearlessness in leaning into elements that previous regimes danced around, The War of Jokes and Riddles is an ideal philosophical exemplar of Batman during Rebirth.