Tom King is one of those writers who is on his way to being a comics super star scribe. His work with Marvel with the Vision has won in him acclaim and now as the current Batman writer, he is demonstrating that he is bringing back that grit and humanity that Bat aficionados love to read about. It should not be entirely surprising that given his experience in the CIA that King was able to bring in that action and heart into the Batman book. One of King’s strengths is in his character driven stories. While writers such as Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison give us stories that are epic and complex tales that include space aliens and Jungian philosophy, King takes something small from their histories and reinvents it.

A Joker vs. Riddler story may seem cliché’ and obvious, but there has never been one done on his scale. In Hush, Joker was part of an elaborate scheme that Riddler played a significant role in but there has never really been one with just the two. This is a great opportunity to showcase their strengths.

There was a time when Riddler was considered a Joker knock off. Their images are very similar but there are some subtle differences. Jokes and Riddles involve word play and an imagination. Both rely on situations that can be over the top but are obvious. The key difference is that humor has more leeway to go around reality. Riddles on the other hand have more strict parameters. There are rules. I can see why King went with the Joker as ‘anarchist’ while Edward will represent fascism. I am not completely sold but I am sure he will come up with something great.

The story begins with Joker ‘auditioning’ comedians at a run down comedy club. I  really like the aesthetics here. Think America’s Got Talent and X Factor but with a creepy touch. To me, this scene was more than just a reference to crass pop culture. Here, King revisits a small but pivotal part of Joker’s history: ‘Who works for him and how did he get his henchmen?’ Arkham City showed that Joker pays the most in spite of being the most dangerous. King explores this at a point where Joker just went though his change but just before he figured out his role.   He is still trying to figure out his niche. At this point, he is like a defensive wounded animal.  I see it as a likely possibility that he is still coming to terms with his new look.  Trauma did something that rewired him. He looks like a clown and all these stand up comics are wannabes who tell stale jokes.  To him, this whole thing is fucked. There are so many things wrong with the picture. He does not even crack a smile. That is how pissed off he is. I think Joker saying ‘No, no, no’ the way a scientist would say when they are trying to tinker with a formula and mixtures only to fail gives him a depth that we have not seen since The Killing Joke.

Personally, I think that when writers explore the flawed humanity with certain characters, especially those better known for their panache than tragedies, they become fascinating.  King is careful to add a touch of humanity without compromising Joker’s mystery. I could not help but notice that Joker had a hair cut that is very similar to the one he had in The Killing Joke. This is just a connection and King is careful not to make any explicit references to Joker’s past as Jack, Eric Border or as the man in the park. By doing this, he gives the fans Easter eggs by including references that may or may not have weight while keeping Joker’s mystique. There may be a connection but Joker has either forgotten about it or has chosen to wipe it from his memory.

Eddie gets the royal treatment here as well. He is established as a credible threat and not only that but he actually helps out at the GCPD with difficult cases. Eddie’s moment occurs when he disarms the guards by saying the names of their daughters. I admit, this is rather creepy. Anyone would be frozen if someone mentions information that you never told anyone explicitly but there was something about this scene that stood out to me. Edward just says the names and the guards just let him walk out?

I did like this version of Eddie for the gritty realism factor. He is more confident and the big moment of the issue occurs when he visits Joker to make him a deal. He tells Joker that without their gimmicks, they are nothing.

“You need to laugh…or else, who are you?”

“And if there’s a puzzle…a puzzle that I can’t solve? I need to solve the puzzle….or else who am I?”

Edward’s observation of himself, Joker and Bats serves as a sort of Greek chorus. He tries to establish that they are beyond the common criminals that the GCPD catches. He implies that there is a ‘secret code’ or a ‘secret brotherhood’ beyond the grasp of the law.

I like that Eddie is the one who initiates this conversation. It shows that he is the one who is more settled with his ‘role’ before Joker who is often regarded as the Number One villain in the Rogues Gallery and yet, here is trying to find his voice. Edward is the one who has confidence. He is the one who knows who he is. This could be because he was in a confined space where he was able to sharpen his skills via detective work whereas Joker did not have that ‘privilege’. In this case, I see Riddler as the upper class pampered college kid trying to appeal to the unprivileged kid who can see through the smooth talk. Joker’s reaction to Nygma’s proposal was classic. In true narcissistic fashion, he shows Edward what he thinks about his idea.

This issue also establishes that Batman and Catwoman are an item and follows the previous arc.

I can’t wait for the rest of this series.

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