Although the twenty-seventh issue of Detective Comics was cover-dated May 1939, the issue was actually released in March 1939, meaning that it was in this month that readers were first introduced to perhaps DC Comics’ most popular character, the Batman. With Batman returning to cinema screens this month, March is the perfect time to celebrate the Caped Crusader so I’ll be spending every Saturday doing just that!
Story Title: “The Riddler”
Published: 23 August 1948 (cover-dated October 1948)
Writer: Bill Finger
Artist: Dick Sprang
After Clark Kent/Superman proved to be a massive success in their Action Comics title, National Comics Publications wanted more superheroes under their banner and charged Bob Kane with creating a new masked crimefighter. Thanks to the long-suppressed influence of artist Bill Finger, Bob Kane’s concept of a “Bat-Man” not only became one of DC Comics’ most popular characters but also a mainstream cultural icon. Over the years, the Batman has matched wits against many colourful supervillains, with some of his most memorable challenging his reputation as the world’s greatest detective, and perhaps none have tested his intelligence more than Edward Nashton, a.k.a. Edward Nygma, a.k.a. The Riddler. Another creation of Bill Finger (alongside artist Dick Sprang), the Riddler has confounded Batman for over eighty years and has earned a reputation as one of the Dark Knight’s most devious and intelligent enemies. Brought to life with delicious relish by the late, great Frank Gorshin, the Riddler has played an integral role in Batman adaptations for years, overwhelming players with riddles and collectibles, seeking to suck the brain waves out of Gotham City, and being at the forefront of some of Batman’ s greatest stories. Since the Riddler made his cinematic return last week in The Batman (Reeves, 2022), this seems like the perfect time to look back at his debut appearance and see how it holds up today.
Our story begins by giving us some backstory on Bruce Wayne/Batman and Dick Grayson/Robin’s newest confounding criminal as we flash back to the youth of the Riddler, known here as Edward Nygma and shown to be a conniving little creep even as a schoolboy. When his teacher sets the class an assignment to complete a jigsaw puzzle to win a prize, Nygma cheats by taking a picture of the completed puzzle using his “flash camera” and continuously humiliates his class mates by challenging them to solve puzzles and using slight of hand and other underhanded tricks to showcase his supposed skill. As he grows into adulthood, Nygma becomes an accomplished con man, fooling and cheating the general public out of their money as “E. Nygma – The Puzzle King”, but grows bored of the lack of challenge his cheating ways bring him. He becomes so sure of his genius and talent with puzzles that he decides to test his abilities against not just the police, but the Batman himself, donning a garish question mark-themed costume and taking the name of the Riddler for the first time.
The Riddler’s first heinous act is to commandeer a massive advertising billboard that features a crossword theme and challenge Batman and Robin to learn a clue regarding his planned crime. Within two panels, Batman and Robin decipher the solution to the Riddler’s crossword and accordingly head to the Basin Street Banquet. However, when they blunder in hoping to apprehend the crook, they find the city’s upper class safe and sound and are stunned to learn that the Riddler tricked them with word play and actually flooded a nearby bank (“bank-wet”). The Riddler floods the bank’s underground vaults using a water main and robs the bank after easily figuring out the combination to the vault, and is safely washed away to safety using the sewers. Bamboozled by the Riddler, Batman is doubly determined to nail his newest adversary, who delivers a massive jigsaw puzzle to Police Commissioner Jim Gordon at police headquarters. Batman has the police transport the giant jigsaw to the football stadium and directs them, via loudspeaker and microphone, in solving it to determine that the Riddler plans to target the Eyrie nightclub atop a skyscraper. The Dynamic Duo head to the Eyrie later that night, and Batman sends Robin in alone, where the Boy Wonder is left to see Gotham’s socialites party away with no sign of the Riddler.
It turns out that the Riddler actually meant that he was planning to rob the home of Harrison Eagle, a millionaire collector, but this time Batman is smart enough to figure this out and interrupt the Riddler…though he is momentarily stunned by the Riddler’s gas bomb and the puzzle master is able to slip away as Batman is forced to break apart an elaborate steel rod trap before Harrison Eagle suffocates to death. Riding high on his momentum, the Riddler’s next conundrum is a little more direct and dangerous to the general public as he sends a truck careening through the streets carrying a massive corncob and a devious riddle: “Why is corn hard to escape from?” Luckily, Batman and Robin are on hand to halt the out of control vehicle with the Batmobile, and Batman deduces that the solution is “maize”; or, more specifically, the big glass “maze” at the Pleasure Pier amusement park. Despite arriving in time to spot the Riddler fleeing into the glass maze, having robbed the park, the Dynamic Duo find themselves trapped in the translucent labyrinth and left at the mercy of the Riddler, who has planted a bomb in the maze that is set to go off in half an hour! Although the glass is shatter-proof, Batman marks their route using the “diamonds on [his] badge” but, when they reach the exit, they find it closed up and the Riddler watching them as time ticks down. Batman comes up with the
unlikely ingenious plan to pile up rolls of carpet against the glass panel and set it alight; the heat expands the glass just enough for Batman to force the pane open, but the Dynamic Duo are left with no time to apprehend the villain as they have to dive for cover to avoid perishing in the Riddler’s explosion. Trapped on the edge of the pier, the Riddler is flown into the sea, cursing his failure, and leaves behind only a question mark where he landed and the lingering riddle of whether he drowned or escaped to bewilder the Dark Knight another day.
I was pleased to find that the Riddler’s conundrums weren’t as simple as they first appeared; Batman and even Robin easily decipher the Riddler’s clues, only to be fooled by the master of puzzles thanks to wordplay and deceit, as is his speciality. Thanks to his devious ways, the Riddler is able to make fools out of the Dynamic Duo and get away with bags full of loot, and his victories only spiral his superiority complex into overdrive. Crucially, however, it’s important to note that the Riddler eludes capture, and Batman, at every turn; even when Batman is upon him, Nygma slips away using a smoke bomb and endangering an innocent man’s life. The Riddler constantly stays one step ahead, and traps the Dynamic Duo within the glass maze, and is only undone because his hubris demands that he lord it over his adversaries. However, even in defeat, he remains ultimately victorious as he eludes capture, imprisonment, and consequences for his crimes, and is even afforded the luxury of being assumed dead so he can carry out more elaborate crimes at a later date.
“The Riddler” is certainly a colourful and whimsical debut for one of Batman’s most notorious and clever adversaries; Edward Nygma is presented as an arrogant and deceptive little creep who cheats and uses underhanded tactics to bamboozle others with his supposed genius when, in actuality, he’s just a liar and a con man. Having cheated his way to victory countless times over the years, his narcissism is exacerbated by an inflated sense of accomplishment to the point where he’s no longer satisfied with duping the general masses and wishes to pit his “skills” against the Gotham police and the ultimate challenge: The Batman. Ultimately, “The Riddler” is a wholly ridiculous but fun little tale from Batman’s Golden Era, one that is more about presenting a quick, colourful tale that taxes Batman in a new way with a bombastic new villain, but I can’t say it’s the most memorable or influential story of Batman’s early years. It’s fun seeing the absurd means that the Riddler delivers his puzzles, and to see him outwit Batman on technicalities and semantics, and the bizarre ways that Batman gets out of his predicaments during this time is always amusing, but there are definitely better Batman stories from this era – and Riddler tales – to find.
Could Be Better
Have you ever read “The Riddler”? What did you think of the Riddler’s debut and the puzzles he threw Batman’s way? Did you correctly solve the Riddler’s conundrums or were you also outwitted by his deceptive ways? What are some of your favourite Riddler stories? Which interpretation of the Riddler, whether animated, pixelated, or live-action, is your favourite? Whatever you think about the Riddler, sign up to share your thoughts below or leave comment on my social media, and be sure to check back in next Saturday for more Batman content!