Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's seventy-ninth installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're returning to the world of Batman: The Animated Series. More specifically, to a tie-in to the series that I feel has been criminally overlooked.
Debuting on November 18, 1992 is the provocatively titled "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?" The story comes from animation veteran David Wise, with direction from the show's co-creator, Eric Radomski. Radomski's the one who brought the heavy shadows to Batman, often having the characters interact with literal blackness. It's a defining feature of this world and this episode leans heavily into that look. Unfortunately, the highly unreliable Blue Pencil, S.I. is the overseas studio this time. The overall bland animation and character renditions actively work against the story.
The plot feels like a melding of Wise's more traditional Saturday Morning work with the more sophisticated approach writers were encouraged to bring to Batman. Software designer Edward Nygma finds himself fired from Competitron after suing his employer. Nygma created "Riddle of the Minotaur," their most popular game. And rather than receiving royalties, his boss Daniel Mockridge is exercising his contractual right to terminate the arrogant Nygma. The spurned Nygma creates the persona of the Riddler, waiting two years to execute his revenge on Mockridge.
All of this is in line with the world of Batman, evoking memories of episodes like "Heart of Ice" and "Feat of Clay." (Riddler even waits literal years before executing his revenge. Apparently a requirement for early Batman villains.) The corporate maggot callously destroying the life of an underling is arguably overdone by this point, but it does set Riddler up as a more sympathetic villain. He's not out to rob banks or hold Gotham hostage. He only wants Mockridge to suffer. To repay some of the hate thrown his way.
Interestingly, Riddler is fired thanks to an explicitly referenced "work for hire" clause. The term "work for hire" was all over the comics-related media in these days, largely due to Jack Kirby's ongoing battles with Marvel Comics. (And, at around the time of this episode, the original Image founders declaring they're walking away from the practice.) "Work for hire" means the creator is automatically giving up his claims to ownership of his works and characters. The corporation is signing the check, ergo they own the work.
The episode is firmly on the side of the creators, casting the executive evoking the term as scum. Why should he pay a dime to Nygma if he doesn't have to? Well, in the years since this episode aired, the shortsightedness of this thinking has been exposed. How many creators today are just handing away great ideas to Marvel and DC? How many new, lasting properties have emerged from work-for-hire contracts since the early '90s? (One of the few creators to gift a major comics company with lasting concepts is Rob Liefeld. And even a young Liefeld knew to arrange a better deal than Kirby received.)
To be far, the major comics companies have made efforts to become more creator friendly. They're not offering full ownership of characters, but royalty payments are now common. Ironically, the world of television writing doesn't seem to have caught up. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created Harley Quinn originally for the animated Batman. And, reportedly, haven't received the compensation they would've been owed, had she debuted in a DC comic instead.
So, clearly, there's an element to the animated Riddler's origin that speaks to deeper, more adult concerns. Unfortunately, the bulk of the episode consists of mediocre action sequences, and a set piece that wouldn't have been out of place on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Batman and Robin dutifully go through the Riddler's maze, exchange some quips, outsmart his puzzles, and save Mockridge. (Robin's a fan 0f the game, placing him more in the mentor role this time.)
It'd seem to be a forgettable episode...until the ending. Not only do the heroes fail to apprehend the villain, but his victim receives no happy ending. The final sequence details Mockridge's new nightly ritual. Locking five separate deadbolts on his door. Checking under his bed. Nervously taking a shotgun into the sheets with him. In a voiceover, a devastating closing line from Batman: "How much is a good night's sleep worth? Now that's a riddle for you."
From this point on, Riddler doesn't leave a noticeable impact on the DC Animated Universe. The producers have acknowledged his stories are difficult to crack, so his appearances tended to be rare. His other standout appearance is "Riddler's Reform," which features Nygma leaving Arkham and becoming a toy designer.
Writers Ty Templeton and Dan Slott didn't seem to share this apprehension about using the character, however. In fact, the Riddler's a key figure in their revived Batman Adventures tie-in series. Joined by artist Rick Burchett, Templeton pens the main story for the revamped Batman Adventures' second issue. (With Bruce Timm again along for the cover.)
"Free Man" follows a theme introduced in "Riddler's Reform." Given Nygma's intellect, why wouldn't a corporation seek him out to create new gadgets? As the story opens, we learn Omnicorp has adopted Nygma's technology to create an innovative new cellphone model.