Review: The Joker Presents: A Puzzlebox hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

October 5, 2022

 ·  2 comments

I had high hopes for Matthew Rosenberg’s Joker Presents: A Puzzlebox, so I’m disappointed by the book’s failure to impress. All the pieces are certainly here — a whodunit mystery with the culpit unrevealed until the final pages; elements of a pseudo-one-scene play, somewhere between A Chorus Line, The Usual Suspects, and Rashomon; and a who’s who of Batman villains all thrown together in the same story (heck, you had me at Batman villains meets Usual Suspects).

But it doesn’t manifest, mostly because for all the technical machinations (which themselves aren’t all that impressive), Rosenberg never quite makes the mystery matter; there aren’t the stakes to make who did what to whom emotionally compelling. Rosenberg was also the author of the Grifter story in Batman: Urban Legends Vol. 1, another heist caper that too was better in its setup but fell apart in its denoument.

Which is to say, I’ll be tempering my expectations for the next books I’ll read by Rosenberg1, and that’s not a good thing.

[Review contains spoilers]

After umpteen years of comics, a good surprise is often hard to find (why I’ve largely quit read comics news sites), and so a good whodunit will always get my blood pumping — Batman: The Long Halloween, Identity Crisis, and my real disappointment with Heroes in Crisis is that there wasn’t much mystery to the culprit. I wanted Puzzlebox to fit right into this genre, and moreover — with much solicitations talk of puzzles and clues — I was hoping for something in the vein of Graeme Base’s Eleventh Hour or everything going on in the panel backgrounds of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

That is not the case. In large part, while one can clock the movements of the characters a little bit to land on the Joker’s culpability, there is not overmuch to figure out here. We assuredly know the Riddler isn’t dead, and even so Rosenberg never gives us a reason to worry whether he is or isn’t, nor much of a ticking clock (until the end) nor any significant concern another murder might take place.

Long Halloween had stakes — people afraid to die, a killer on the loose, not to mention the exterior drama between Batman and Harvey Dent. In Puzzlebox, it seemed as though — at the beginning with the puzzlebox-in-water, or at the end when all the systems in the police headquarters are failing — the Gotham police might need to solve the mystery for their own safety. But, nothing ever comes of either of these.

Given that the Joker is the central unreliable narrator and the main accused, it’s reasonable to immediately suspect and then dismiss the Joker as the culprit — an obvious too-easy red herring. There’s a scene where the “killer” reveals himself to Clayface, dressed as the Riddler but with his face in the shadows, with a body shape, speaking patterns, etc. that all suggest it’s the Joker. For a satisfactory mystery, this person should absolutely not be the Joker (I held out hope maybe Punchline was running a scheme behind the Joker’s back), but of course, it was.

Puzzlebox, I should mention, includes a slew of artists, many of whom are quite good and many of whom are outside the DC mainstream — Low, Low Woods' Dani, Vanesa Del Ray, Domo Stanton, Juni Ba, and more. This is a fantastic extra layer for Puzzlebox, that all the various flashbacks that make up the mystery should be done in different and varying art styles, though I wish it didn’t seem DC only takes these “risks” in their digital-first output (for another example, DC’s Infinite Frontier Secret Files series).

These flashbacks end up mostly being tales of various Batman rogues pitted against one another — Two-Face vs. Black Mask, Harley Quinn vs. Mad Hatter, Man-Bat vs. Killer Moth, Penguin vs. Bane, Professor Pyg vs. Scarecrow, and Clayface vs. Mr. Freeze, among others. Some of these pairings are inspired, and many well drawn, but they meander (six pages of Black Mask grousing at people), and emotional depth is near nonexistent. I came away feeling Puzzlebox was less a mystery and more the comics equivalent of a fighting video game, something like the ye olde DC vs. Marvel series.

I did enjoy Rosenberg’s conception of the Joker as less the nightmarish figure you find over in James Tynion’s Joker and more what I associate with being a Silver Age-ish kind of Joker, one whom — as here — Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Bullock might reasonably interrogate face to face in the police station.

It begs some suspension of belief, but not more or less than the Gotham police locking nearly all of Batman’s rogues in one cell together, including some who certainly have the inherent strength to break out. There’s also some awkwardness in Rosenberg overlaying modern events on on less-modern depictions — Joker makes a pointed reference to the events of Killing Joke, and yet this is just another busy night for Jim Gordon. Still, there’s a Super Friends-esque nostalgia to the presence of so many Bat-rogues being so unremarkable that endeared me to the proceedings.

2.0

Rating

If I might register one last complaint about Joker Presents: A Puzzlebox, it’s that Matthew Rosenberg does also do a particularly good job showing a “routine” night among Gotham City cops — fights over evidence, turf battles, one guy trying out to play flute in an orchestra. It’s a great melange of activity, as wonderfully atmospheric as the rest of the book, but like the rest of the book, the set pieces don’t add up to a whole.

[Includes original and variant covers, designs and layouts, Director’s Cut “bonus box” stories]


  1. No small amount, either: Detective Comics, Joker, DC vs. Vampires, and Task Force Z, at least.  ↩

Comments ( 2 )

  1. I agree with everything you said. The central mystery is a little bit inert, and around Chapter Six I stopped trying to track all the backpedals and red herrings. It became pretty evident that either Joker was behind the whole thing, or that he had been lying about everything.

    Oddly, if this had been a Black Label book, I might have been more interested in whether or not the Riddler was "actually" dead. The continuity of this thing never presented as terribly important, but the Black Label designation might have given it more of an "anything can happen" vibe.

    And as a self-confessed Fourth World junkie, I was a little disappointed in all the "New Gods" teases that ultimately go nowhere. (Has Joker ever met Darkseid? If not, isn't it high time for that crossover?)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Emperor Joker is a time they "met," if not slightly imaginary!

      Delete

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