Review: Batman: One Bad Day: The Riddler hardcover (DC Comics)


The Batman: One Bad Day series has struck me as dangerously ambitious, like a high-wire act — purposefully evoking Batman: The Killing Joke and setting out to tell stories as defining of eight other of Batman’s rogues. Not unlike, perhaps, something like Before Watchmen, success would a triumph but the possibility of going wrong seems so much greater.

These kick off with Batman: One Bad Day: The Riddler (released first as a special and then re-released in hardcover), by Tom King and Mitch Gerads. That’s perhaps the strongest team of the bunch; if they can’t do it, what chance have the rest?

It’s a success. It’s near perfect. Whether Batman: One Bad Day: The Riddler sticks in terms of the Riddler character, I can’t say, but to the risky, mercenary goal of having something to co-sell with Killing Joke, DC’s off to the races.

[Review contains spoilers]

When does the answer come first? When you already know the question. And thus King succeeds in a Riddler story that seems to eschew the traditional Riddler trappings, until we come to understand at the end that things are not specifically, or at least logically, linear. But even before that, seven pages in, King has already raised the specter of Killing Joke, already suggested a conspiracy that adds another layer to that other story. In terms of One Bad Day’s perceived goals, King’s hit the mark before he’s even underway.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

I am guessing that not every One Bad Day story will be like this, that they won’t in eight different ways reference Killing Joke — I’m even skeptical of my own inference that King’s aim is to intentionally tie One Bad Day: The Riddler to Killing Joke here. And yet, in the end, there’s the “did he or didn’t he” question of whether Batman kills the Riddler, a la Killing Joke (that’s not a revelation any more, is it?) — are we possibly in for seven more volumes where Batman maybe (or maybe not) kills his foes? Could that have been the editorial edict?

It strikes me that this is a different Batman than King got to write in his long Batman. That Batman was mostly superheroic, concerned with legacy and love, doing things differently and better. King’s One Bad Day Batman, on the other hand, is straight out of the late 1980s, torturing one henchman even after he agrees to confess, threatening another suspect with “lingering pain.” I had thought the One Bad Day series was DC Black Label and I’m surprised to find no such branding on the book, especially given the above and the gory “fingers” scene rendered all too well by Gerads.

I’m doubtful (not that it takes anything away from this book) that we’ll see this “son of a headmaster” version of the Riddler again. But there are aspects that King and Gerads bring to the character that I think are astute, not in the least casting a young John Malkovich in the role.

For one, the Riddler is traditionally a cerebral villain, not one likely to win in fisticuffs with the Dark Knight. Leaving morality aside, tabling for a moment who and how many the Riddler has killed, the Riddler’s specific demand is that Batman never hit him, never touch him again. The instinct is to go immediately to “the Riddler deserves it,” but then we have to wonder, is that a reason? There’s an assertion here of bodily autonomy — particularly in the context of ultra-physical capes and cowls superhero comics — that I find novel and compelling, that the Riddler, beaten by his father, should say to Batman that irrespective of whatever the Riddler does, that doesn’t give Batman the right to touch him.

Second, I at least have always understood the Riddler’s riddles as his hubris, that he sends riddles as a way of demonstrating how much smarter he is than Batman, that Batman can’t figure out the Riddler’s crimes even with clues — except, of course, that he always can. This, too, King turns on his head, making the riddles not about Batman but about the Riddler himself — that the Riddler is so smart, he hinders himself with the riddles, lest getting away with crimes would be too easy. This Riddler three steps ahead is also compelling, a figure feared in the end like John Byrne’s Lex Luthor or the Kingpin, and this too would be an interesting premise for One Bad Day across the board — how much more deadly would Batman’s foes be if they gave up the shtick for a day and went at him like the evil geniuses they are?

Cynically, I didn’t know if I’d like Batman: One Bad Day: The Riddler very much (though, y’know, it’s Tom King and Mitch Gerads, so I was probably safe). I’d still as soon these hardcovers have contained something else, a Batman: Black and White story or something just beside the special in hardcover form — but this is a good one. I’d recommend it. You know all of these are going to end up in an omnibus together in the near future; I hope the others can hold up.

[Includes original and variant covers, black and white art pages]

Rating 4.0

Comments ( 3 )

  1. I found this book an excellent piece of storytelling, but at the same time, I wish King didn't go so far with the changes he made to the Riddler (and Batman at the very end), because then there would be a chance to make it part of continuity, just like Killing Joke ended up becoming canon even though it wasn't originally intended to.

  2. I think we can interpret "One Bad Day" in two ways. Either each volume is supposed to be that villain's "Killing Joke" (an out-of-continuity tale that merges origin, motivation, and the worst villainy that character can enact), or these volumes should be the quintessential story about that villain, the one book you can hand a stranger to explain who The Riddler is.

    Whichever case, I think King & Gerads completely understood the assignment. Without spoiling anything, a lot of the books in the run default toward that second mode of "definitive" villain stories - which is well and good when done right, but I don't think all eight of them are on the level of TKJ. Many of these put me in mind of the "Year One" annuals from 1995 (later collected as "Four of a Kind"), which isn't necessarily a bad thing. That being said, I'd still like to see more of these; any of us could name eight Bat-villains worthy of the "One Bad Day" treatment. (Scarecrow seems a glaring omission!)

    1. Yes, the "Year One" annuals is a good comparison! My review of the Two-Face volume is on the site now, and that's one that did not really echo "Killing Joke," was not a particularly strong Two-Face story, and was mainly if nothing else a Bat-family story — and one oddly set right in the current moment, which I wouldn't think these stories should be. The more of these I read, the more I think DC should have started and ended with the Tom King "Riddler" story.

      Now that you mention it, Scarecrow does seem like the one big name I'm surprised isn't here (might've replaced Clayface, maybe). I'm sure we could go overboard thinking who could be in the next round — Scarecrow, Harley Quinn, Maxie Zeus, Ventriloquist, Killer Croc, Man-Bat, Black Mask, Mad Hatter ... mostly I'm rooting for the Maxie Zeus one.


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