Review: Batman: The War of Jokes and Riddles

There are two sides to Tom King. His best stories are straightforward, moving works. King is an incredible writer on good, basic emotional stories. His novel, a lot of his Batman run, those fall into this. Then there’s the stories where he gets experimental. Look at Mister Miracle and The Vision when it works. When it doesn’t, you get Heroes in Crisis and whatever the hell his Booster Gold arc in Batman was.

We’re kind of in the middle today though and that’s fitting. This is a midtier work for King. It’s got a lot of his emotional strengths and a lot of his experimentation. It’s as if his two sides decided to communicate. And it’s kind of a tricky book. I’m honestly not sure where I fall but let’s discuss.

The book should be fairly straightforward. The Joker and the Riddler go to war for control of Gotham. It should be a simple, easy premise with Batman trying to destroy both. And that pretty much is the plot. They’re at war and eventually Batman decides to side with Riddler.

But this is all in the execution. And, um, this is a weird book. Like really weird.

For one thing this is entirely told in past tense. And that’s really not all that effective for a story like this. Because it deflates all the tension. We know Gotham is fine now and sure it would be if it were set in the present but come on, that’s the conceit we give comics. Here, it’s a case of “OK if this was so important why didn’t it come up before?” And that really kills the suspense.

It’s also told to someone who was there, namely Catwoman. I’m reminded of the Krusty the Clown comic where he has to tell the climax of his movie to someone who was there to save money. That’s what this feels like. And yes, the building point is that Batman confronts the closest he came to killing, but, um, when you’re talking to someone who knows all but that, it doesn’t really work. Like even she is repeatedly going “I know.”

And then there’s the undeniable fact that this is an event told from a distance. This should be an epic we experience. Instead we’re told it so we get a lot of montages and things explained to us. And it feels like a museum piece. Even key events are narrated over. You have failed as a writer if you have to narrate the point!

Honestly, forget the structure. The big issue here is Joker and Riddler don’t really feel like themselves. They’re not gang leaders. They don’t build teams. They definitely smile! FFS, Heath Ledger’s Joker was a nonstop joke machine and he was played by an actor who had made one comedy in the decade before! (And was hilariously funny as the Joker I should stress!) They’re morose, angry villains and I don’t want that. I want them to be fun. And here it could be Penguin and Killer Croc for all it matters.

But… There’s a hell of a lot of good here too.

Let’s begin with the art by Mikel Janin. It’s clean. It’s sharp. It’s so expressive. This is what a good comic looks like. The montages especially are these sweeping splash pages that give the tone of a book being told from memory.

Then there is the thread of Kite Man. Maybe it was a little too precious to give Kite Man a story filled with pathos and an explanation for his identity that’s super on the nose. I don’t care. It works. King is damned great at making you care. He crafts a saga of a doomed loser who finds himself in this role.

Tom King also just plain writes a great Batman. His Bruce Wayne is a deeply human character, not the Batgod. It’s obvious he’s insecure and uncertain. I love following a Batman who is allowed to be imperfect because it makes his successes matter. And he does get to kick some ass here.

And I think ultimately I’m glad I read it for all the flaws. This is a book that’s interesting rather than a familiar, safe story. King tries something here and doesn’t succeed but at least he tried. It feels like the ambition of trying a point remove event book is just too alluring even as the impact is absent, as Final Crisis showed before.

We need books like this to test what does and does not work. And honestly I suspect I’ll remember this more than if it had been straightforward and clean. Imperfect but intriguing.

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