King & Janín's "War of Jokes and Riddles" a crime saga of Coppola-level proportions

King & Janín’s “War of Jokes and Riddles” a crime saga of Coppola-level proportions

By Jarrod Jones. It has been more than a year since DC Comics kicked off its highly successful Rebirth initiative — and with it, an era of intrigue, mystery, and destiny.

Tom King and Mikel Janín — two creators once paired with Tim Seeley and Jeromy Cox during a stunning run on DC’s Grayson — have reunited to tell perhaps the most ambitious Batman story in recent memory. “The War of Jokes and Riddles” is a Year One Batman tale of sorts, detailing the strife between Edward Nygma and The Joker over who gets the honor of killing the Caped Crusader. It’s a Gotham City crime story told in three acts. A companion saga to Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Zero Year, with shades of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, and by extension, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

That act structure breaks down like so: Batman #25-26, #28-29, and #31-32. Issues #27 and #30 are “interlude” chapters; issue #27 being a side story featuring the Rebirth origin of noted scrub, Kite-Man. (And if you haven’t read it yet — or any of the preceding chapters to “War” — well, you oughta. They’re pretty damned great.)

Now that we’re caught in the middle of this destructive turf kerfuffle, let’s take a closer look at “The War of Jokes and Riddles” by diving right into Batman #28. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

'Batman' #28, in stores now from DC ComicsBatman #28

Written by Tom King.

Art by Mikel Janín.

Colors by June Chung.

Letters by Clayton Cowles.

“War” Games. The fascinating bit about “The War of Jokes and Riddles” is that we’re given a window into the inner turmoil amongst the Gotham City underground. The Joker vs. The Riddler. One considered to be the mortal enemy of the Batman, the other markedly less so.

You see, Eddie has ambitions beyond his station. And after the events of Zero Year, the Riddler brand has a bit more cachet than it used to. So it’s not long before The Punctuated Profligate begins to amass an army of Arkham rogues in defiance of the Joker, who is forced to do the same in retaliation. After all, it’s important to save face, especially when the other guy is grinning right into yours.

Another wrinkle in this sordid shoving match is that the Joker is mired in self-doubt. He can’t seem to kill the Batman. He’s not sure he wants to kill the Batman. All he knows is that when Batman gets his, it’s gonna be the Joker who does the giving. And here comes this upstart smartass in a green blazer purloined from Express For Men, thinking he’s got the wits to outsmart the Clown Prince of Crime. The cheek on this guy. No wonder The Joker is suffering from perma-frown.

That’s what makes this story so incredibly fun. The Joker and The Riddler are provided dimensions here, even though they’re a bit single-minded at the moment. The greatest achievement of “War” so far is that Tom King and Mikel Janín have put their own stamp on these characters. That’s especially so in the case of The Riddler, who is as much an overconfident shit here as he was in Zero Year. But in “War,” with his slicked-back hair, surly pug nose, and inconceivable muttonchops staring back at us, The Riddler has become a villain we can truly hate. The Joker may be a murderous devil, but in this story? The Riddler is such a bastard.

Interior panels from 'Batman' #28. Art by Mikel Janín and June Chung/DC Comics

Interior panels from ‘Batman’ #28. Art by Mikel Janín and June Chung/DC Comics

Janín, jammin’. I imagine the editorial team on Batman likely keeps a case of champagne on ice at all times these days, considering Mikel Janín is consistently turning in some of the best work of his career. Batman has always been a book that’s lovingly held onto is cinematic ambitions — especially so during the Snyder/Capullo years — and Janín’s contributions to the title provide the book the added widescreen heft King’s tale demands. There are panels here that are, simply put, astounding. (A single-page face-off between Deathstroke and Deadshot is one for the history books.)

June Chung has been making DC look good for over a decade. Her collaborations with Jae Lee have produced the closest thing to fine art I’ve seen from the superhero genre (pardon me while I go soak in those Catwoman covers one more time), so it should come as no surprise that her work with Janín is equally stunning. Everything Chung touches, from Catwoman’s sapphire eyes to (strangely enough) Jim Gordon’s lily-white undies, takes on a form that one could easily confuse for reality. These page demand our attention. It’s only right that we oblige.

Pardon my hyperbole.

Interior panels from 'Batman' #28. Art by Mikel Janín and June Chung/DC Comics

Interior panels from ‘Batman’ #28. Art by Mikel Janín and June Chung/DC Comics

Tom’s talking. For the series’ first twenty-four issues, I really struggled with Tom King’s Batman. The reason? His dialogue.

No one stages a comic book like Tom King. He as an imagination that staggers me. The Vision was captivating as much as it was frightening. The Sheriff of Babylon became one of Vertigo’s finest hours. In Batman, King’s imagination at times becomes tangled in his inspirations. There’s often echoes of Grant Morrison in his run, and there can be little argument that Scott Snyder’s stamp is still felt under the book’s banner. In attempting to make this book his own, King can get a little too clever for his own good. And when that happens, his dialogue begins to suffer.

Let’s take a look at the captions found on page one of Batman #28:

‘Have you looked at the map?’ he asked me.”

‘I’ve seen the map,’ I said.”

‘The city has fallen,’ he said.'”

The city has fallen before,’ I said.”

These captions are scattered across Janín’s eight-panel page, which features Jim Gordon preparing to have an audience with both the Joker and the Riddler, and there’s a vague sense of lyricism at play. But when you realize that this is actually dialogue, that this is Batman relating the events of this war to Catwoman in real time, the power of these words deflates on the page.

Beyond that particular gripe, “War” has given us some of King’s strongest Batman work yet. I’ve been reading each successive issue voraciously, which is precisely what I want from a Batman writer — a driven need to see what they’ll come up with next.

Interior pages from 'Batman' #28. Art by Mikel Janín and June Chung/DC Comics

Interior pages from ‘Batman’ #28. Art by Mikel Janín and June Chung/DC Comics

Just when I thought I was out… “The War of Jokes and Riddles” is the slow-burn, atmospheric Gotham City crime saga I’ve been waiting for ever since DC’s Rebirth began. It’s engaging, thrilling, audacious — every inch the saga it aspires to be.

Batman, as DC’s #1 superhero, has been painted as a near-mythic creature in his ubiquity. He’s Sherlock Holmes, Bruce Lee, and Satan, fortified with bleeding-edge gizmos. He’s confident, formidable, prepared on an almost supernatural level — and that has a tendency to cast a pall over his quieter adventures. It’s difficult to appreciate a street-level Batman story when every other in-continuity book features the character doing ludicrously over-sized things. (That Metal is upon us, with Batman traversing a Dark Multiverse, portends that things will likely become more ridiculous before it’s all over.)

“The War of Jokes and Riddles” is here for Batman readers who want to feel the grit between their fingers. Batman #28 puts the Dark Knight in between the anvil and the hammer, and our hearts ache for him. It’s a Gotham City mob movie. Denny O’Neil by way of Francis Coppola. It’s terrific.

8.5 out of 10

Are you enjoying “War of Jokes and Riddles”? What’s your favorite Gotham City epic? Sound off in the comments below.

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