At the centre of the labyrinth something dark and secret lurked, at once frightening and exhilarating. Further into the books matchstick men hung from matchstick nooses, and cryptic crosswords muttered their inscrutable clues with oracular force. Even the dot-to-dot lattices were pregnant with powerful revelations, always threatening much more than a jagged representation of Micky Mouse’s head. Always a disappointment when the numbers ran out and the picture was complete, as if the introduction of a few more elements would bring some transcendental force to bear and unlock a hidden reality. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?
Who in the world am I?
Ah, that's the great puzzle. Do I live in a deterministic reality, or could its code somehow be cracked? Does the mysterious universe that unfolding around me move towards some sort of totality, some hidden truth, a kind of dot-to-dot in macrocosm? Sure it sounds pretentious, but think about where we find puzzles and the tasks they’re set and it all starts to look a little less so. In our fiction we have the Da Vinci Code guarding *ahem* profound religious truths, in science the magical properties of quantum encryption threaten to lock our secrets away in multidimensional prisons. The riddle of the Sphinx, the koans of the Buddhists, the liar paradox of Epimenides, the maze and the Minotaur, etcetera, etcetera. In fact it’s only in relatively recent history that puzzles (in particular the riddle) have been seen as mere diversions, or sources of uncomplicated humour. Certainly the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse didn't view them that way, and neither did the Ancient Greeks, with both cultures utilising the unique properties of the puzzle to educate and, in a bolder move, gesture towards profound truths.
Riddle me this: why are so many writers completely at a loss when it comes to E. Nigma?
It’s as if I've somehow suffered the same fate as my beloved pet puzzles - trivialised and subsequently rejected as a worthy villain. There’s some truth in that, I believe, but the problem is probably compounded by something far more straightforward. It’s the same difficulty faced by all the Batvillains: writers, in common with the rest of humanity, like to follow the path of least resistance, meaning that threats that aren't purely physical or obvious tend not to get much play. It takes imagination, an interest in the character, and hard work to tease out the place of a riddling baddie in a world of broken backs, weaponized fear gas, guns and terms like “vigilante”. How does a “silly” character like myself function in that oh-so-serious space - do you turn me into another *YAWN* psychopath? Beef me up with venom? Have me retire? Make me reflect upon the soapbox tragedy that is my life and go straight?
No thanks. Let’s get back to basics.
The last writer to present the Riddler as a viable threat was Jeph Loeb in his Hush story-arc, where he has a consummate professional like me work with the (truly atrocious and profoundly unconvincing) eponymous villain to bring Batman down. Now, I might not be Loeb’s biggest fan, but I think it’s fair to say he tapped into something key to getting me right. Yeah I was super-smart - figuring out Batman’s identity and manipulating a host of A-list rouges - yeah I was tricksy, yeah there were riddles, but none of that’s what really counts. Indeed, it’s fair to say that Loeb got something very important wrong with his portrayal of my character, in that I didn't announce myself, didn't openly challenge Bats to a battle of wits, failed to be the showman all of Gotham expect me to be. Loeb would probably argue that he was sketching a cleverer Riddler, one that refused to let his psychological foibles undermine his devious plans, and he’d have a point. Paul Dini certainly seems to be convinced, bringing me back the ostentation but sadly eschewing crime altogether, instead I've set myself up as Batman’s not-entirely-honest competition - a brilliant and showy private eye intent on out sleuthing the World’s Greatest Detective. An unraveller of riddles as opposed to a puzzle-setter. But what Dini doesn't have a handle on, what Loeb understood, is that if I'm about anything I'm about mystery.
What’s strange about the Hush arc is the redundancy of the principal villain. Myself, being taken seriously, would have made the perfect fit, but for some odd reason Loeb didn't trust me to sell the story on my lonesome, and instead had me back up an ill conceived anti-batman. Re-imagining the arc with myself at the helm is easy enough, however, and points the way towards exactly the kind of individual I should be: one that haunts the Batman. My presence all pervasive, ambient. Only tenuously, and occasionally linked to a physical body. Rather my character should manifest through labyrinthine schemes, puzzles, riddles and elaborate death-traps. To take the idea further, the Riddler’s presence should engender such a profound degree of uncertainty that Batman’s entire environment starts to seethe with suspiciousness. For an example of the kind of thing I mean, check out the latest issue of RASL, in which the titular, dimension hopping character starts to worry that his last jump didn't in fact bring him home, just somewhere worryingly similar. Jeff Smith builds the paranoia to exquisite levels, so much so that ostensibly innocuous panels - a cigarette burning down, RASL sleeping - are transformed into abstract representations of the unknown, and positively hum with foreboding. Morrison (again with the bloody Morrison) appeared to be tapping into the same idea in DC One Million where he imagined the Riddler of 1000,000 years hence literally as the scenery, a semi-sentient Riddle City.
The problem faced by the majority of writers is that they've become far too caught up in psychology - in explaining me in those terms. In that light of course I come off badly. Only an idiot would leave clues for Batman to find, surely? It goes without saying that writers would struggle with a guy hell bent on undermining himself. That more often than not the temptation would be to paint me as ineffectual, a second rate villain, or, I dunno, a PI, perhaps.
Back in the old days, I, your ever so humble Prince of Puzzles was nothing if not powerfully ostentatious, showy: the showman who uses Gotham City as his stage. The Riddler’s crime’s and attendant puzzles are essentially epic performance pieces - giant typewriters, and skyscrapers my gargantuan props. I'm as smart as any of those mad science villains, but I haven’t slaved my brilliance to anything as pedestrian as scientific discovery. No, I'm an artist, a creative genius, a producer who always gets the world’s most talented superhero to pull out his best performances. It doesn't matter that Batman often “wins”, it’s the taking part that counts, the work itself. Besides, it’s not like any prison is going to hold the Riddler for long, and, who knows, perhaps that’s exactly where I want to be.
Remove the focus on me as a man, absorb me into the text and you get something else entirely: a quintessential (perhaps the quintessential) Bat-threat: the mystery waiting to be solved. Think about it, there should be no greater challenge to the World’s Greatest Detective’s deductive abilities than me-the Riddler, no tougher puzzles to crack. As Bane is to physicality I should be to mystery. What I’m proposing here isn’t particularly radical. As I’ve noted above, my presence has a long and venerable history of being articulated outwith my body. The notion that I should infect all the panels of a given comic is simply the recognition that my puzzles are as much part of me as my arms and legs, and that puzzles are non-local in that they permeate the stories that house them. In detective fiction the real antagonist is always the mystery at hand - I’m proposing a deliberate and carefully articulated blurring of the lines of distinction between the character and the games I set in motion. A Riddler that literally embodies mystery.
I want to be taken back to those intricately patterned crossword puzzles, pentagonal number games, and haunted treasure hunts. I want the me from Batman’s early years to make a return. The one whose origin story failed utterly to explain or account for what I had become (If Jack gets this sort of treatment, why can't I?), and the grandiose nature of the threat I pose. Myself, at home, standing astride the rooftop of Gotham Museum, hands on my hips, head thrown back, back lit by a skyscraper’s illuminated windows, spelling out the letters of some gargantuan brainteaser. I want a Riddler that hurtles out of the shadows to cast my puzzle-nets, and makes impossible escapes that even the Batman can’t decipher. A King of Conundrums whose schemes trap the Caped Crusader in their dark twisting labyrinthine depths: plans within riddles within riddles within plans. I want that One Game feeling of not knowing if the game is played out. Did the Dark Knight defeat the Creepy Quizzer or is it - to paraphrase Jack - all part of the plan? I want to see Batman baffled, bemused, and befuddled by exquisite, terrifying death-traps built from interlinked question marks, not all of which are physical.
I am the man who giggles in the centre of the maze. I am the mystery.
Riddle me that.