about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Comic Review: Eddie Nigma plays the wild card in "Batman: Run, Riddler, Run"

When it comes to the famous Batman villains, few have gotten less respect over the years than the Riddler.

Only the Penguin surpasses Eddie in terms of being scorned by writers and fans alike, and that disdain seemed to reach its greatest heights around the late 80's, early 90's. In this period, we saw Riddler stories that saw him as a has-been (Neil Gaiman's When Is A Door?), a never-was (Denny O'Neil's Riddles), and a never-will-be (the newspaper comic strip), with the apparent consensus being that he was a poor man's Joker, a toothless leftover of the campy show who used a annoying gimmick that supplied his own defeat every time.

And yet, this very same period gave us one of the very greatest Riddler appearances ever, one which should still be a guideline for all writers as to what makes the character tick and shows just why he is uniquely great. So why does no one ever remember this story? Why does no one ever talk about Gerard Jones and Mark Badger's Batman: Run, Riddler, Run?

Well, one big reason why this story has fallen under the radar could be the art. Personally, I avoided reading this book for years because I couldn't stand Badger's artwork. He comes from the same school of 80's artists whom I normally love (like Mark Badger, Kyle Baker, and Bill Sienkiewicz, just to name a few), but his artwork is far more angular and abstract to the point of nearly being grotesque. That said, I've since gained an appreciation for his work partially thanks to this great interview with Badger conducted by the great Michel Fiffe, and partially because of my late-blossoming love of this story. Well, the Riddler of this story, at any rate.

The story itself is a bit more wonky, but that's to be expected of Gerard Jones: author of my all-time favorite run on Green Lantern, as well as... lesser works like Batman: Fortunate Son. Yes, the "Batman thinks rock 'n roll is the Devil's music!" comic. Jones and Badger's first Batman collaboration, Batman: Jazz, was a similarly oddball affair, focusing on Batman's search for a missing jazz legend. That story felt very much like Batman awkwardly wandering into an abstract 80's-tastic jazz battle, which led to things like our hero fighting evil sax-playing monsters known as the Brothers of the Bop.

... On second thought, that's kinda so ridiculous that it's awesome. It sure as hell ain't boring.

Which finally brings us back to Run, Riddler, Run. Much like Jazz, it features Batman awkwardly inserted into areas outside of his expertise. For Jazz, it was a whole culture of music. For B:RRR, it's the class war between homeless squatters and the rich people with the cops on their side. It's usually thorny to mix real life issues that challenge popular conceptions of law and ethics with the black-and-white morality of Batman comics, and it doesn't help that the villain is very dated for directly after the Cold War. It's a mixed bag of a comic by one of the oddest creative teams ever to tackle Batman, and it'd still be worth reading on those merits alone even without the Riddler.

But with the Riddler, it's a must-read refutation to everyone who misunderstands the Riddler. Jones and Badger, to their credit, don't try to counter this with the contrived tactic of trying to make the Riddler a #1 arch-villain badass. Instead, they take a more subtle approach, making Eddie a wild card with a game all his own...

Batman: Run, Riddler, Run begins by introducing us to Donna DiForza, a wealthy businesswoman with a dream:

You'd think that Bruce would be playing up the Idiot Playboy angle, all while quietly ticking off all the red flags that Donna's plan is raising. But no, Jones opts to have Bruce completely buy into her ideas, possibly because she said the magic words "free of crime" (which seems the be the only part of her speech to which he actually paid any attention) and also because he may genuinely be attracted to her. He has plot-related reasons for this which will soon become apparent. In fact, he seems to become even more interested when she informs him of the obstacles in her way.

"The buildings slated to be razed for New Gotham are infested by criminals."

"Criminals," Bruce echoes. Ohhh, that magic word.

"Well... squatters," she clarifies. "No doubt dealing crack or... or... whatever those people do. That's where you can help, Bruce: to relocate those people."

Again, you'd think this would be raising all sorts of red flags, but Jones doesn't have Bruce question her shaky assessment of the squatters as possible drug dealers (it's cute how that's literally the ONLY thing she can conceive of the squatters doing) because as far as this Bruce is concerned, "criminals=BAD" and "pretty lady who no like crime=GOOD." And just as Bruce is all ready to punch some homeless people in the face for Donna's approval, the party screeches to a halt when one woman's wrap dress outfit suddenly becomes unraveled. And who, oh who, could have done such a thing?

Oh Eddie, you dashing, garish asshole, you.

I should mention that another reason I hated this art was because I first tried reading this during my super-anal-retentive fanboy period when I couldn't abide by the fact that there was no purple in his costume. Even today, few things distract my enjoyment from a Riddler story like giving Eddie a green mask.

As Bruce attends to his bleeding hand, a very embarrassed Donna explains that Eddie is on parole, and she hired him because "who's know security better than a reformed master thief?" Yeah, Bruce ain't buying that Eddie's "reformed" one bit, and what's more, he's displeased to see Eddie involved at all since, "I just have a problem... with criminals."

Since he can't beat up the Riddler, Bruce takes this time to go after those other criminals, the damn dirty squatters and their mysterious leader known only as "Bob."

Yeah, not since Denny O'Neil's Green Lantern/Green Arrow has a writer turned their star character into a bigger establishment toolbag strawman than Jones does with Batman here (see again: Fortunate Son).

On one hand, you might think that this works for Batman, who's a rich boy with issues and a hardline black and white mentality. But just a few pages earlier, the story showed Batman making it a point of leaving Donna's tower of wealth and privilege--where Bruce Wayne himself lives his own charade--to be down amid the "real Gotham City" below, which is the territory of the Batman. He has first-hand experience of these people's lives that Donna lacks, and what's more, he's also known his fair share of unethical businessmen and corrupt cops. All of this is thrown out the window to make Bruce more naïve so characters that Bob can "open his eyes, maaaan," and in the process, they can preach to some of the comic readers who might be inclined to side with Donna themselves.

This scene reminds me a lot of the anarchist comics work of Seth Tobocman, particularly his squatters-versus-cops graphic novel War in the Neighborhood. His work is outright propaganda in narrative form, and I have to wonder if any of it (or the real-life events which inspired it) influenced Jones and Badger's story here.

As the building burns to the ground, Batman and Bob struggle to save as many people as possible, but they themselves are saved by what appear to be giant pink robots. Because comics.

And now we've met Donna's new ideal force for public security. Seems spiffy and not at all incredibly suspicious. Say, I wonder how well her private security is looking?

Hee! Once a Silver Age overly elaborate deathtrap villain, always a Silver Age overly elaborate deathtrap villain! But y'know what? Jones actually makes it work:

There is so much I love about this Riddler right away. While cheating has been a part of the character from his very beginning, this is a fantastic argument for the character playing fair, because that genuine risk is key. This Riddler isn't just out to prove that he's smarter than everyone else. He's in this for the fun.

And when Donna shut him down, we see one of the only times in the entire story where he actually frowns. Is it the frown of a petulant child or something far more unsettling, something directly tied to the kind of mental illness befitting an Arkham resident? Keep that in mind as the story progresses. Either way, his snap back to being playful and smirking shouldn't be taken lightly, nor should his little parable.

Meet Friedrich "Fritz" Olmstedt, Donna's head of security and former member of the Stasi, the East German Secret Police.

So yeah, Fritz is a peach. After fleeing Germany following the Berlin Wall's collapse, he was hired by Donna because "he still believes that society needs central planning to take care of its people," but that "he now knows that the private sector should be doing the funding, not an oppressive government," and that she wants to give him a second chance to prove himself. Yeah, and you thought she was short-sighted for hiring the Riddler.

Fritz subsequently shows just how redemptive he is by unleashing fire hoses on peaceful protestors, including Bob. Later, an embarrassed Donna tries to excuse Fritz to Bruce:

While it's clear that she doesn't wish genuine harm on the protestors as Fritz does, she's still puzzled and exasperated by them, completely unable to grasp their perspectives. "These people!" she says earlier on to Bruce, "Don't they know that what we're doing is for them too?!" To elaborate on that, she even tries appealing to them by explaining how there will be available housing to "everyone" in New Gotham, provided that they're "willing to work in New Gotham's retail hub... to abide by community rules... and to live a constructive lifestyle according to New Gotham standards!"

While Fritz is a stock fascist villain, Donna feels refreshingly, frustratingly realistic as a well-meaning person blinded by arrogance and privilege to an astounding degree of naïveté. She's a classic case of "You poor dears, I know what's best for you all, why can't you understand that?" She truly thinks that her plan will benefit everyone, and fundamentally cannot comprehend why anyone would want otherwise, nor can she figure out just why that bothers her so.

The fact that it nags on her indicates to me that she might be able to come around if she ever gets a good double dose of reality and compassion, neither of which would benefit an outright villain like Fritz. And thank god, because in a story with all these issues of legality and ethics, we need the plot-driving power of a Grade-A asshole:

Again with the jazz...!

Yeah, in all the goings-on, one almost forgot that Eddie was still there. He sends a note along to Commissioner Gordon which reads, "The German's going out tonight, but he can't get the sitter because she's too high. Who does he get?" The answer, Batman deduces, is "He gets the squatter." Batman races to the tenements just in time to see one of the squatters dead, Bob's car blown up, and Fritz's goons arresting her for murder:

Because he's not a complete tool, Batman glares down Fritz, knowing full well that something stinks here. Realizing that Perfect Security needs public sympathy, Fritz stages a confrontation between one of his men and Batman, rigging his underling's suit to explode. Fritz records the whole thing and leaks the tape to the press, thus framing Batman for murder.
With Batman disgraced, Perfect Security ends up getting formally deputized by the city, much to the chagrin of Commissioner Gordon. It's so effective, even Batman himself fears that he misjudged his attack and was thus responsible for blowing up the man. But one person sees through Fritz's charade:

He built a gigantic slide that ejects people like a human Pachinko machine. I goddamn love Eddie Nigma, and I have to say, I really do love the Riddler delivering little parables. They aren't exactly riddles, but they're just as befuddling, frustrating, and annoying to those around him.

In Shakespearian terms, he's somewhere between the King Lear's truth-telling Fool and the sociopathic trickster Puck. Of course, that makes him sound like he's dangerously close to Joker territory, but as you can see, there's no way the Joker could have worked the same way for this story. No, the Riddler's games are too orderly, even if he's the only one who understands the rules. Well, not the ONLY one. There's also Batman, the one who "makes" Eddie rise "to his true level," just as Eddie's planning on returning the favor. Eddie needs his Batman, and this time, he knows that the Batman's going to need him. Love it!

Unfortunately for Donna, all she saw was the "Fool" part, and thus she ejected him from where she could at least keep an eye on him, leaving the ex-con who was exposed to her secrets to his own devices. She REALLY doesn't think things through, does she? Even still, Bruce is still devoted to her, planning to continue offering his full support to her project while keeping Batman far away as he can.

"City-within-a-city"... oh god, it sounds like she's planning on building the rich-person version of Arkham City! If her dreams ever became reality, all I can imagine is the building from George Romero's Land of the Dead, where the "haves" are protected/imprisoned within their cushy mall tower while the "have-nots" and the zombies are locked out. I know that Bruce dreams of fighting crime, but I truly can't believe that there'd be a Batman anywhere who'd embrace such a plan so completely without sniffing SOME bullshit.

Batman's publicity gets even worse when Fritz gets wind from a cornered, compromised Commissioner Gordon that they were following a tip-off from the Riddler, which Fritz uses to his full advantage in the press:

The Riddler bluntly spells out one of the story's main messages. But then, as he's in full Foolishness, I think he's the only one who's allowed to do so. Thus realizing just how much of a threat the Riddler stands, Fritz chews out Donna for letting him loose (he may be a cartoon villain, but he's not stupid) and proceeds to hunt down Eddie. And Eddie, in turn, makes a move of his own:

Batman races to solve Eddie's riddle while Fritz and his men terrorize known associates of the Riddler for information. Batman deduces the riddle as leading him to a pop art sculpture of a giant rubber stamp (oh Gotham), which was made by a Dutch artist, but when he arrives at the scene, there's no Riddler.

That, right there, is some perfect Riddler. Even if the story ended right here, it would already be near the top of my list for ideal takes on the character, and a principle for other writers to heed.

That said, this is the only scene where Gerard Jones does use one of the Riddler's most annoying traits, which is giving riddles with answers that only make sense to people who know Gotham geography. Like, a giant rubber stamp sculpture made by a Dutchman? We never knew that such a thing existed until AFTER Batman deduced the clue. Me, I far prefer brain-teasers that the readers could theoretically solve for themselves.

I suppose it's similar to people who prefer to read murder mysteries that give the readers enough clues to figure it out, and people who enjoy murder mysteries that withhold information until the very, very end when the killer is revealed. Perhaps it's the difference between readers who want to participate and readers who just want to be entertained. Personally speaking, when it comes to the Riddler, I want to play along. Don't you?

Let's fast forward past the big fight scene: after barely saving the Riddler from Fritz' clutches, Batman takes Eddie somewhere safe where they can hole up.

... Damn it, Batman, don't admit that this isn't your sanctum and thus give Eddie anything he can file away for later. Spilling info like that is probably how he finally figured out you were Bruce Wayne! Also, if Batman has knowingly broke into private property with the intention to hide there, doesn't that make him a squatter too? Or at least, a damn dirty CRIMINAL? Man, Bruce is such an asshat.

Heh, I also love how Eddie's riddles are actually able to get under Batman's skin. The Riddler is usually at his best when he's pushing Batman's deductive reasoning to the limit, but here, he's able to hit Batman on a more personal, emotional level, screwing with his esteemed opponent's mind. There's definitely potential there for another writer to build upon.

Batman gets called away because Fritz is making his move on the squatters. Quick recap of what I've skipped: Bruce Wayne paid off Bob's legal fees and got her released, much to the displeasure of Fritz (who thought she was out of the picture) and Donna (who felt betrayed by Bruce). Meanwhile, Bob and the displaced squatters occupy one of the buildings slated for demolition: an old coffee factory which, according to Bob, "used to give real jobs to real people, but DiForza probably going to turn it into pet boutiques and condos for soap opera stars." I'm not sure that Donna is that tacky, but I'm not putting anything past her. Batman tries to talk them out of it, and when that fails, he gets them to at least consider having a face-to-face discussion with Donna DiForza.

Fritz tries to storm the building, but he's prevented by Commissioner Gordon, who is putting his own career at risk by defying the Mayor's beloved new security force. When Fritz furiously demands that Gordon now be investigated for "protective that rabble," Donna puts her foot down and dismisses Fritz, the tension between them finally reaching a fever pitch. Then Bruce makes his move:

In Donna's last gasp of defiance, she shows the full extent of her arrogance and superiority, but she has enough sense to realize that she's in a tough position. After Bruce points out that she employs people with minds like Fritz's, she capitulates and agrees to meet with the protestors. Fritz witnesses all this via the same security cameras that the Riddler used to spy on him, and he smiles in a sinister German way, hardly befitting the manner of someone who comes from the Land of Chocolate.

Batman rushes back to the hideout to get the Riddler, but what sinister machinations has Eddie been scheming in our hero's absence?

Oh Eddie. While the Joker is incredibly smart, I like to think that Eddie's own Eddie-logic can frustrate and annoy even Joker, just as the Joker's own "makes sense only to the Joker" not-logic would boggle and exasperate Eddie. Chaos and gamesmanship do not mix.

Meanwhile, Fritz sends his men after the squatters and Donna alike, both of whom are having their meeting.

Slashy-slashy? Well, Bob is gay, or at least that's what I assume the none-too-subtle pink triangle she wears throughout this story is meant to indicate. In all seriousness, I'd much rather see that relationship than Donna and Bruce, who seems more interested in her for how she appeals to his "RARGH CRIME BAD" sensibilities. But the meeting--and any subsequent potential for slashiness--is very short-lived, thanks to the arrival of everyone's favorite wall-hating asshole:

Batman arrives--with the Riddler on the sidelines--and helps the protesters escape, but he fails to save Donna, and he seemingly perishes in the struggle. Oh noes! After subsequently blackmailing Donna into silence and forcing her to play along with the pretense that she was kidnapped, Fritz assumes his newfound power, as according to him, "Whoever works hardest to protect a system will eventually control it." Social commentary all up in this Bat-Book!

So, now that evil has seemingly triumphed, it looks like back to business as usual for Eddie, who has a very important appointment to keep:

This is why Eddie's parole officer drinks. Also, seeing him in that awful 80's-tastic outfit only makes me further lament that Badger didn't draw him in the suit and bowler derby. Why the hell did it take comics over twenty years to start drawing Eddie that was on a regular basis? Even then, people keep sticking him in the spandex! Who the hell really prefer the spandex, I ask you?!

With the Riddler back in his hands, Batman confers with Eddie about storming DiForza's tower, which will involve navigating past Riddler's still-intact "all death traps all the time" security system. When it comes to bringing down Fritz and clearing his own name, Batman is willing to do whatever it takes, and he's well aware of the costs:

Once again, the Riddler (now with Batman at his side) delivers the moral on a silver platter, along with a bit of foreshadowing for what's coming up at the end. Well, the end of this particular game, anyway.

Let's skip forward past the scenes of Batman defeating Fritz's henchmen, of Commissioner Gordon defying Fritz and quitting in front of the Mayor, and of Bruce vowing to save Donna and be her "knight in shining tuxedo," not even making that up, and let's go straight to Batman and Eddie breaking into Donna's tower to find the Riddler's tape which will bring down Fritz:

After that narrow miss, they have to navigate the next trap: the dreaded Sliding Blocks! It should be easy, but as the Riddler says, "Hopefully they haven't changed THAT one too!" Batman, meanwhile, is all like "Uh huh. Sure."

I really like the marriage of Badger's art with Willie Schubert's lettering. I always associate Schubert's work with Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!, so the combination of him and Badger really make this such a perfectly 80's comic in all the best ways.

After surviving, they have one more trap ahead of them, the very worst of them all. What, oh what, could the worst Riddler deathtrap be like? Well, naturally, it's...

Oh Eddie, you fanboy, you. It's moments like this where I dearly want to hear John De Lancie (Q from Star Trek fame) voice the Riddler, because it amuses me to think of Batman being his own Jean-Luc.

They find Fritz, who is searching for the missing tape, and a merry chase begins! Meanwhile, Bob and the protesters take the fight directly to the tower outside, and reporters soon follow. Between the press, the "rabble," and the idea of those records coming out, Fritz begins to panic and fall apart ("just like the Wall!" he says, because yay for obvious metaphors!) as he frantically tries to clean house. Listening in on Fritz's ravings, Batman soon becomes alarmed when he figures out the next target.

Yes, send the Riddler. Great idea! Man, maybe Bruce and Donna really are better suited for each other, since they both put too much stock in the Riddler carrying out their orders as they'd intended. Eddie complies, rushing to find a broken, defeated Donna, who is in even less mood to play along. Not that that'll ever stop Eddie.

Oh Eddie, you bastard. Unable to figure out his riddle, she refuses to play the game at all, and instead relies on her own judgement. Whuh oh. I mean, her reasoning is relatively sound, right? She takes the stairs because in case of emergency, use stairs. What she doesn't take into account is that someone else might have the same idea:

Jesus. She survives this, but only barely, as Batman arrives just in time. Fully pissed off, Batman attacks Fritz and a huge damn fight commences. Over the course of the battle, Fritz gets more and more unhinged, until by the end, he's started to sound like the Hamburglar.

Om nom nom. Well, you just knew that shark had to be put to good use somehow, didn't you? It's like Chekhov's Gun, only with a goddamn shark, which is thus more awesome. Personally, I think Russian plays could have used more sharks. Welp, all's well that ends well... right? Oh, right. There's still the matter of Donna.

Batman, you dick. And that's how the Riddler misses his meeting with his parole officer and ends up back in jail. No, really, that's what actually happens. Dick move, Batman! Dirty, cheating dick move, because it's not just the game he's cheating, it's the system of law and order itself! Legally, Eddie has won, and Batman sabotages that. This is one of those cases where Batman's methods of delivering justice are even sketchier than usual, and it makes his hardline anti-"criminal" stance all the more worthy of side-eying.

Recovering from her injuries, Donna steps down from the New Gotham project, passing it over to Bob and the squatters with Bruce's financial backing and Eddie goes back to prison for failing to meet with his parole officer. A happy ending for all, right? Sure, let's go with that.

Still, not a bad story when all's said and done. All in all, Run, Riddler, Run was less concerned with the Riddler himself and more in social commentary about class warfare, with Batman written as being substantially more naive so that his eyes could be opened to the world around him. When you think about the real plot, the Riddler himself almost seems tacked on, a living subplot run amok.

But that's not a bad thing. Like the Joker, the Riddler works as a character who can wander into pretty much any event, whether he "belongs" there or not, to be the wild card. But unlike the Joker's terrifying presence, everyone underestimates Eddie as being a nuisance or a fool, just like so many writers and readers do. A great Riddler story shouldn't try to defy these expectations directly by making him "cool" or "badass." No, Run, Riddler, Run proved that Eddie can be at his strongest when Eddie plays these expectations to his own advantage.

As I said before, this Riddler is something of a trickster, but he's no chaotic Joker nor Puck. His games have rules, even if no one sees them or wants to play by them. What makes him truly dangerous is that he doesn't CARE if you play along or not, because according to him, you're still playing by his rules. If you lose, you lose, and he'll shed no tears because, well, you just weren't smart enough.

As a bonus, here's a recent commissioned piece of the Riddler by Badger, which I found on ComicArtFans.com. Badger still hasn't lost his touch, I see. Whether that's a good or bad thing, however, is entirely up to your own tastes.

Tags: gerard jones, joker, mark badger, non-two-face-related-ness, overly elaborate deathtraps, riddler
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