Prose superhero stories have always struck me as odd. On the one hand, comics aren’t that far removed from novels and other works of literature that the roots are completely covered, but as a medium in and of themselves they’re set apart in many ways. The most obvious is that, while reading is a requirement and they are obviously dependent on text for storytelling purposes, comics are also an incredibly visual medium. What can take two pages to describe with words can be shown in a single panel in a comic, with narrative boxes, the characters’ dialogue, the work of the artist, and even our very imaginations filling in the blanks as to what is happening.
This problem is evident in this book, a prequel to the Arkham Knight video game that details the rise of the Riddler as the new head of Gotham’s supervillain community. Thankfully, though, once the book hits its stride and author Alex Irvine gets more comfortable with his prose, it becomes a pretty enjoyable read.
The plot is fairly simple: the Joker is dead, and the Riddler takes it upon himself to prove he has what it takes to be the new Number One Rogue in Gotham City. To do this, he sets up a game that Batman and Robin must play, or else people will die.
“Sometimes it seems like there’s always a haze hanging over Gotham City. I’ll bet they see the sun in Metropolis.”
A lot can be done with a story like this, and a lot has been done in the past. Irvine manages to keep things fresh, though, by utilizing a few different storytelling techniques to keep the action from getting stagnant. The one that becomes evident earliest in the book are news reports and blog posts that serve as chapter breaks, and this was one of my favorite things about this novel. They’re written by a few different people, including the snide Rafael del Toro of GothamGazette.com, Jack Ryder (alias the Creeper) from his own show, a trashy fan blog called the Ryder Report and Vicki Vale. Irvine does well by giving each of these breaks their own character and feel: Ryder is obviously a showman who is grateful to Batman for saving his life, but still wary enough to keep his audience happy; Vale is no nonsense, once again thankful to the heroes almost out of obligation but still keeping one foot in the speculative camp; and the blogs read like, well, clickbaity trash blogs. They break up the tension well, provide exposition without being forceful, and give a citizen’s eye view of the superheroics going on daily.
“Don’t put yourself at rick, just because you’re too loyal.”
“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘too’ loyal.”
The first forty or so pages are a bit of a chore to get through, with some incredibly clumsy dialogue (“What does it have to do with that maniac, the Joker?” Gordon asks at one point) and a reliance on overly descriptive dialogue. For awhile Irvine show, he tells; case in point, Batman takes a USB drive that kicks off the Riddler’s scheme and investigates its contents on the Batcomputer in the ‘Cave. There’s lots of technobabble about what the computers are actually doing, and even the action of plugging the drive into a backup server is detailed in far too many words. I get that we don’t have the benefit of illustrations, which would have depicted all of this in maybe five panels tops, but less is definitely more. Complaining that a book has “too many words” sounds silly, and something like this wouldn’t normally be a problem, but when it gets to the point of explaining details of Batman’s suit or something else we’re pretty familiar with, it gets to be a bit much.
Thankfully, Irvine quickly finds his story, and when he’s on the book is actually quite good. The crux of the Riddler’s plot involves Batman and Robin working together through the puzzles, but from different locations. Robin investigates the old Sionis steel mill, where he comes upon the actual “game board” for Nygma’s trap. Batman, by contrast, has to take the clues presented to Robin and rush around the city, trying to find the villains they coordinate to. Some of the deathtraps and rooms Robin finds himself in are actually incredibly clever, and the related chess theme and escapes from the traps are the strongest parts of the book.
One room, for instance, has dozens of spheres suspended from the ceiling, and the room itself is getting colder by the second. Risking hypothermia, Robin has to wait while Batman confront Mr. Freeze about the different chemical compounds used in batteries he developed for the Riddler. Each sphere represents an element, and once they’re put in the proper configurations they start to heat up and eventually explode. It’s a really clever puzzle, and Robin’s helplessness while Batman has to do the work to find the solution provides some genuinely gripping drama.
“All thoughts of grandeur were delusions… until one made them real.”
Also strong is Irvine’s handling of the Riddler’s character, who is rightly arrogant, methodical, and the smartest man in the room, even if nobody else knows it. There is one peak into his mind late in the book where Nygma almost worries about what would have gone wrong had a single element not worked, which I found to be a slight misstep (the Riddler should not show the slightest hint of humility, at least in my book), but it’s not a huge deal. He gets enough right elsewhere that it doesn’t really matter: Nygma does have his sights set on some civilians, and does go as far as arranging murders to meet his ends, but he isn’t a cold-blooded killer. Their deaths are just part of his grander plan, pawns that must be sacrificed to reach the endgame. Ultimately, he wants to best Batman, to prove that he’s smarter than him and everyone else. The loss of a few lives is just to be expected.
“It seemed ridiculous, but when you lost someone who was a part of your life- even if that person had spent decades trying to kill you- perhaps it was natural to feel that loss.”
Also interesting, but not explored nearly enough, is Batman’s mental state after the Joker’s death. He catches himself at different points almost missing his enemy, grieving over him in a morbid way. Irvine does seem to understand their relationship pretty well, which is a relief, especially with this internal monologue of Bruce’s:
The Joker is gone, and I was Batman before he ever appeared, and I’m still Batman without him. Gotham City is what defines me, not the homicidal lunatics who plague it.
While Batman is a response to crime, and a devotion to rid the world of it, the idea that you should look to the city he’s trying to save rather than the villains he has to stop is a solid one. Whether Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Crazy Quilt, or whomever was wreaking havoc or a family was being held at gunpoint by a single mugger, it doesn’t matter; Batman is there to stop them.
The final act is a bit much, as it involves Robin eating a piece of paper and then jumping in one of the Wonder City Guardians that Ra’s Al Ghul used in Arkham City (Robin notes that they “reminded him of some robots he’d seen in an old Superman cartoon” which is insanely meta), only to be controlled by the Riddler via nanomachines. In action, this craziness would have made for a fun boss fight or entertaining climactic cutscene, but there are only so many ways an author can describe a robot blowing things up. The way the gambit culminates is rather clever, with every villain, clue, puzzle, and even solution being necessary to figure out the final piece, but even then it feels padded out by at least ten pages.
Early on, there’s a pretty glaring continuity error that made me wonder how it got passed anyone. Batman is conversing with Oracle, and wonders to himself if she knows he’s really Bruce Wayne. Seeing as how Barbara calls him Bruce at least once in Arkham City alone, that’s a pretty huge goof. The timeline with some of the comics is fluid at best and it’s easy to write off those type of errors for that reason, but this was just unforgivable.
So is it worth it? That’s tough to say. Nothing is really at stake with any of the characters, but there are still some points where the suspense and drama are high. Irvine’s writing is a bit shaky, especially in the first act, but he finds his footing and mostly keeps it from then on. If you can’t get enough Arkham Knight, or want to spend a lot of time in this world, then I’d say it’s worth reading. The casual Batman fan would find plenty to like as well, but anyone who isn’t familiar with the characters and world probably won’t find much of interest.
For all its weaknesses, though, it does get pretty compelling for long stretches, and even the limited time it devotes to understand the psychology of the characters is spot-on and right with the characters. Think of it like the Riddler challenges in the Arkham games: not necessary for the main narrative, occasionally frustrating, but satisfying upon completion.
*Special thanks to Titan Books for supplying Batman News with a copy for review.