How redeemable can you make a villain?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course. The fluid nature of storytelling means that you can do whatever you please with a villain: an antagonist can be good, evil and anywhere in between. Nor is “redeemability” some sort of hard metric: when Darth Vader can still become one with the force after everything he’d done, anything’s possible.
But the reason that question is so important is for the clarity of your story’s message. If you plan to make someone evil for the sake of being evil, know how and why you plan to show that. Likewise, try not to give your villain completely reasonable talking points if they plan, in the same breath, to suggest killing a busload of civilians (hello, Marvel).
It’s a question you should ask as you read this book, too. Edward Nashton is a depressed, complicated man with plenty of reasons to hate the personal hell he lives in. In many ways, he displays a series of traits and experiences you will find in many of society’s disenfranchised. But, unlike Edward, the majority of these people are victims, not political extremists and supervillains. Does this book justify the sympathetic light it puts Riddler in, without handwaving the depths he sinks to during The Batman?
Personally, I think it does – and I’ll be happy to tell you why. But before I do, consider this question for yourself as you read this review; it’ll only become more important once issue #3 comes around.
Written by Paul Dano and illustrated by Stevan Subic, The Riddler: Year One is clearly going to read a lot better in one sitting, as opposed to three issues with several months in between release. I understand DC doesn’t want to get rid of their standard comic book format if they can’t help it: obviously you get more money by releasing this in three parts before you release the collected edition. But I tried reading this book blind after having spent so long since reading the first issue, and I can tell you: you will want issue #1 fresh in your mind when you dive into this.
Building off of its last chapter, we see Edward investigating the secrets hidden beneath the Gotham Renewal fund: telling us exactly what tips Riddler off to the conspiracy so prevalent throughout The Batman. Naturally, Riddler sorting through shredded documents doesn’t have the same kind of pizzaz as Batman zooming through the streets of Gotham – but anyone who’s seen Better Call Saul would tell you it’d be foolish to discount it for that alone. Here, instead of a character, Batman is present in the book as a parallel. Batman mirroring his villains is hardly new, but doing it from Riddler’s perspective is a clever inversion! Instead of Batman seeing his adversary as a twisted mirror, Edward views the caped crusader as an idol: doing everything he wants, but feels unable, to do. Batman is a symbol: but the symbol is a nebulous one, open for Riddler to project whatever he likes onto it.
This is a very thoughtful comic: both on an emotional and technical level. Stevan Subic’s art becomes a double-edged sword for that exact reason: he perfectly immerses you in the mind of the Riddler, to the point where it’s sometimes a little difficult to distinguish one person from another. In this issue, there’s an important character Riddler’s tracking on his investigation named Mr Joon. In some scenes, Joon is perfectly identifiable. In others, it’s hard to make head or tail of who is exactly who, and I found myself often confusing Joon for Higgins, another character working under the Renewal conspiracy. Subic’s colouring is beautiful, vibrant, expressive: it’s also a little extreme, encouraging you to give each panel a second pass.
Fortunately, you should give this art a second pass. Not only is everything here very, very good, but it’s essential to understanding the core thesis of the comic.
In my review for issue #1, I said I believed the book was a little too dependent on narration – and I still agree with that assessment. What mitigates that is the level of personality going into the narration, dancing perfectly with the tone set by the art. The art doesn’t need the narration, it’s true: but the narration does not need the art. In a way, they’re two separate entities, combining together to create a product that enhances both.
The oppressive feeling of dread that overpowers Edward Nashton every waking second is essential to understanding why he does what he does in this issue – as well as why he will grow into The Riddler by the end of the story. The harsh reds of Gotham’s streets, the dim green of his room: these oversaturated colours, framed by darkness and shadow, make it all the easier to understand the pure isolation Edward is feeling. Loneliness is not merely a passive ache in this comic; it’s an active enemy. It seeks to overpower Edward’s senses, steering him down the only path that makes him feel like he belongs. Through this art, you understand the way Dano and Subic seek to portray the transition to extremism.
For me, that’s the key to why this book has been a success so far. Neurodivergent people – and I would argue that’s exactly what Riddler is portrayed as here – are all too often the victims of a system that puts them down, rather than the perpetrators. It’s a point I’ve been making since one of my earlier reviews in Joker’s Year of the Villain special. I think Dano believes this too: because while it’s easy to see this as a story of a mentally ill person turning into a comic book villain, I read this as a condemnation of a system that makes extremists feel like they have little choice at all.
- You’re patient enough to parse the meaning of a comic’s art from its mood.
- Riddler’s story in the film was tantalizing enough to need more context.
- You’d rather a laser-focus on one character over having an ensemble cast.
Several of my gripes with issue #1 remain in issue #2 of The Riddler: Year One – though I didn’t exactly think Paul Dano would change the script thanks to the ramblings of an obscure internet reviewer. And while those critiques remain, the story’s positive qualities shine through just as brightly! Like a good riddle, this book encourages you to think… but not about its plot. In this book, Riddler’s puzzle isn’t a ridiculous maze or an elaborate pun – the puzzle is his own mind, and it requires an exercise in empathy to solve it.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch