DC Comics’ Rebirth slate is chugging into its second year, which means giant sized anniversary issues — issue #25s for the double-shipped books — are hitting shelves and kicking off new arcs. For Batman that means part one of the highly anticipated “War of Jokes & Riddles” storyline, a plot that has been seeded through writer Tom King’s run on the book from the very start — pulling back even further to play in the sandbox set up by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s now-legendary run in the New 52’s “Zero Year” arc.
The issue begins in media res during one of the Joker’s murderous plots — he’s auditioning stand up comedians, and then executing them when they fail to make him laugh — coupled with narration boxes that are instantly recognizable in King’s trademark poetic style that inform us what we’re seeing is a flashback, a story being told in the past tense by an outside observer.
This is the first time the Joker has been featured in Rebirth’s Batman book proper and the introduction is suitably terrifying. King and artist Mikel Janin have constructed a take on the character is a far cry from the gleeful, manic clown we’ve seen in the past, instead imagining him as a brooding, sullen, shadowy figure who is, we come to learn, unable to find anything funny. That’s the problem. The Joker can’t laugh.
The Riddler, however, has no such problem. We meet him (also his Rebirth debut) as he stages a violent (and undeniably smarmy) escape from prison, a smirk glued to his face despite the blood on his hands.
While King’s dialogue demonstrates his usual brand of restraint and rhythm, the real strength of the book rests on Janin’s ability to render facial expressions. His intimate, zoomed-in paneling forces readers to focus on minute shifts in lips and eyes, tiny shifts in posture that determine who is being threatened by whom and where the stakes of a moment actually lie.
The contrast King is building is immediately apparent — a confident and wholly unbothered Eddie Nigma standing next to a Joker in the middle of a villainous existential crisis — and sold beautifully by Janin’s impeccably crafted layouts. The issue is literally bisected by a back-to-back double-page, single-panel spread: the Riddler, alone in the Joker’s office, asking “Knock, knock.” Followed by a new angle on the same room, the Joker, alone at his desk, responding “Who’s there?” A call and response, two sides of one murderous coin.
The fact that King and Janin have decided to mirror Eddie and The Joker off one another, rather than against Batman himself, builds the groundwork for a shockingly fresh take on two of Gotham City’s most famous and well known rogues, something that’s not easy to do for characters who carry with them a laundry list of iconic, fan-favorite stories. It doesn’t feel like The War of Jokes & Riddles wants to reinvent the wheel — both Eddie and The Joker feel and look familiar, if slightly tilted on their axis — but it does feel suitably “reborn” into DC’s new status quo.
Batman #25 paints an exciting picture of things to come for the Dark Knight’s second year in the Rebirth era.