BATMAN #32 by Tom King and Mikel Janin
Tom King wraps up his epic saga with an unforgettable subversion of Batman's and Joker's relationship. This choice takes Batman into questionable territory, but cements the Riddler as a diabolical icon of villainy.
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After an eight-issue epic filled with time jumping and complex narrative beats, “The War of Jokes and Riddles” narrows into a surprisingly simple and straightforward conclusion in BATMAN #32. This isn’t a bad thing. The simplest ideas often resonate the most — especially when those ideas contain shocking twists. In BATMAN #32, the twist in question potentially upends everything we know about Batman. Whether or not said twist is one the reader will buy remains to be seen. The Riddler’s real reason for starting this war with the Joker is more palatable. It’s a reason that’s almost too banal to be believed, yet so in-keeping with the Riddler’s character, that you can’t help but let it put a smile on your face — just like the Joker.

Image Courtesy of DC Entertainment

The Joker, the Riddler, and Batman all face off in a mostly silent showdown. Interrupted only by a few “thwaps,” “urghs,” and “nnngggs,” the beatdown proceeds fluidly up until the Riddler grinds it to a halt He lashes out at the Joker for not laughing at his joke. Turns out, the entire war was a plot designed by Riddler in order to solve his own personal greatest riddle — how to make the Joker laugh. Riddler, in an angry monologue, describes how every step of the war was an elaborate plot. This includes the kidnapping and murder of Kite Man’s son, which was designed to turn him into a ridiculous looking villain. The Riddler even planned to lose the war at Kite Man’s hands in front of the Joker, just to provide a farce ridiculous enough to earn the clown’s laughter.

Yet that’s not what makes the Joker laugh: in the end, like always, it’s Batman. Upon learning that everything about this war — down to the murders and mass slaughter — was a charade made for a laugh, Batman does the unthinkable: he thrusts a knife towards Riddler’s face. With every intention of murdering Nygma, Batman is nonetheless thwarted by an intervening hand. No, it’s the not the hand of God — it’s the hand of the Joker. “Now THAT’S funny,” the Joker declares, staring at his impaled hand. Thus the Joker laughs the night away, having saved Batman from himself.

BATMAN #31 Review: The Cow Goes…

I’m a bit torn on this development. On the one hand, Riddler’s revelation is both shocking and appalling. That he slaughtered thousands and murdered an innocent child just to solve a riddle is a truly despicable action. If there were any event so deplorable that would provoke Batman to attempt murder, this would be it. Yet to even suggest, in any way, that Batman would go this far is too implausible to believe.

The dramatic groundwork King lays is convincing, but it still fundamentally goes against everything we know about Batman. The Batman does not kill — nor does he come close to killing. It would be one thing if we were reading a Frank Miller comic or alternate universe storyline. Yet this is the main canonical DC Rebirth Batman — the same one Scott Snyder is writing in his own titles. This Batman simply would not do the things that King is making him do.

Image Courtesy of DC Entertainment

This is the same problem I have had with King’s Joker throughout the arc. A depressed Joker simply doesn’t track, regardless of whatever circumstance put him there. King consistently forces his characters to do things that are fundamentally opposed to their basic nature, simply because it suits his plot points. On principle, I find this to be aggravating and bordering on phony. That said, there is a method to King’s madness. He does what he does because it works unbelievably well dramatically. For that reason, I can (begrudgingly) forgive his actions. This attempted murder does admittedly take Batman and Joker’s relationship in a fascinating new direction. As Bruce tells Selina in the present day, the Joker saved him that night.

Bruce proclaims to Selina that he’s a fraud, that he’s only the man he is today because the Joker made him that way. This idea brings the Batman and Joker relationship full circle. If Batman made the Joker (which the clown often claims), now the Joker made Batman too. This cements the symbiotic nature of their relationship and goes a long way to explaining why Batman would never consider killing the Joker. Since the Joker was the one who stopped Batman from committing a murder, he’s a living reminder of Bruce’s restraint. If Batman were to kill his worst enemy, the entire role the Joker created for Batman would fall apart. With the Joker dead, who would be left to stop Batman?



Image Courtesy of DC Entertainment

This is a fascinating concept from the Joker’s perspective too. When Batman asks the Joker why he saved him, the Joker asks him if he knows the difference between a joke and riddle. Batman doesn’t know the answer. Joker tells him that, when he figures out the difference, he will understand. Selina’s conclusion is that the answer is “who cares?” Yet for the Joker, I think there is a bit more to it than that.

The crux of this storyline takes place in Batman’s first year. In that time, Joker and Batman’s relationship hadn’t fully formed. However, it’s likely that Joker already sensed Batman’s significance in his life, but couldn’t quite grasp it. That explains the Joker’s depression and his newfound giddiness when he “saves” Batman. Joker didn’t want Batman to destroy himself because then his favorite plaything would be gone. I believe at the moment Joker put his hand in front of that knife, he suddenly understood who he and Batman would be to each other — and so did Batman. The Joker is able to laugh again because his purpose is suddenly clear: make Batman whole.

The dramatics of the whole scenario of BATMAN #32 are so juicy; it basically makes up for the fact that everything is built on a totally implausible plot device. Given what Batman’s almost-murder does for his relationship with the Joker, and for his relationship with Catwoman in the present day, King’s decision was probably worth it.

Moreover, the twist of Riddler’s true motives cemented his place as the vilest and most fascinating version of Edward Nygma to grace the comics. The fact that an entire war was constructed to fulfill Nygma’s precise pathological patterns is wholly appropriate and utterly demented. Batman’s villains are often hailed for their psychological depth, and this revelation continues that great legacy by upgrading the Riddler to a whole new level of twisted pathology. Riddler had been my favorite piece of this eight-part saga, and the twist only confirms his dominance throughout these pages. Thanks to Nygma’s gambit, “The War of Jokes and Riddles” is likely to go down as one of the all-time greatest Riddler stories.

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King grants artist Mikel Janin free reign to work his wonders in BATMAN #32, with the first half of the comic largely silent. Janin utilizes cinematic paneling to start off the issue with the faces of Batman, Joker, and Riddler, interspersed with the credits. It’s a very cinematic opening, which fluidly blends into a haunting two-page spread of the faces of every single person who died in this war. Janin’s use of facial expressions is remarkable, beginning with those solemn images. The faces change into a silent exchange between Bruce and Selina, as he tries to gain the courage to tell her the truth. All this is conveyed through the subtlest of actions. Bruce holds Selina’s hand in his, kisses it, and then turns to look at her meaningfully. Through these images, we sense Bruce’s shame and dread in admitting what he did.

The moment of Batman’s attempted murder contains plenty of great visual build-up. In a heavily paneled page, Riddler’s increasingly unhinged rants are interspersed with Batman calmly focusing on the knife laying on the desk next to them. The views of Batman are like camera shots, with the camera moving higher and higher from the knife, up until we see the entire room. Batman is a foot from the knife, with Riddler and Joker directly across from him. This makes a startling impact when the very next page explodes with a full-shot of Batman thrusting the knife directly in Riddler’s face. Janin’s style is consistently brilliant in establishing suspense and momentum across panels. Reading BATMAN #32 is exactly like watching a movie. The only thing missing is the motion, but Janin practically creates it anyway.

Image Courtesy of DC Entertainment

BATMAN #32: End of the War

Overall, BATMAN #32 concludes “The War of Jokes and Riddles” with surprising revelations and shocking twists. King’s transformation of the Riddler from participant to mastermind shifts our perspective of the entire eight-issue epic. This gives it increased significance in the context of Riddler’s unique psychosis. BATMAN #32 is an important piece that helps ground the narrative of a series that largely felt all over the place. With constant time jumping, the series often read like narrative hopscotch. “The War of Jokes and Riddles” is the perfect example of a story arc that will likely read much better as a graphic novel, with all the pieces aligned. Taking it issue by issue, the tone and pulse of the narrative have been difficult to track.

Having looked at the series as a whole, one thing I can say for certain is that King’s take on Joker didn’t work from day one. His Joker remained the most flawed element of the arc. This last issue does add some fascinating elements to the Batman and Joker dynamic, but only by taking Batman in a direction too implausible to fully believe. Batman as an almost-murderer likely won’t sit right with many fans, myself included. Yet, at the end of the day, this was all about Catwoman. As an event that haunted Bruce so deeply, it rings true that he would have such difficulty confessing his almost-crime to Selina. It provides a point of connection for the two of them as their engagement sinks in. It may have been an odd roundabout journey, but BATMAN #32’s punchline successfully resolves past riddles while paving the road for the future.

One Comment

  1. Jack

    October 6, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    I’m pretty sure you answered your conundrum yourself. This is early career Batman in a flashback. We’ve seen quite a few canonical examples of early Bats nearly breaking his vows over the years, so it doesn’t feel terribly out of place. The thing that feels the most out of place to me is that King has been using Kite Man in the present, but there have been no hints of what seems to have been a fairly deep connection between Batman and Kite Man.


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