Monday, May 17, 2010

Batman Featuring Two-Face and the Riddler

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Batman Featuring Two-Face and the Riddler (DC, 1995)

Here's an interesting case where not only is the book I've read just all over the map, my thoughts on it are equally scattered. This might just add up to an even more incoherent than usual entry.

Naturally, DC Comics would like to cash in on the film versions of their comic books, and so when Batman Forever was released in 1995, somebody compiled this incredibly slapdash 192-page book which collects some of the many stories that featured the film's two bad guys. Each villain gets the spotlight in three tales, and they share space with the Penguin in an interesting additional story called "Original Sins."

"Original Sins" is by far the most interesting thing in the book. It was initially published in the 1989 Secret Origins special edition and was co-written by Neil Gaiman, Alan Grant and Mark Verheiden. Gaiman contributed the frame story about a documentary film crew coming to Gotham to investigate the city's problem with oddball criminals, and the middle story, in which the Riddler explains his life of crime to them. Magically, Gaiman chose to include the Riddler of the 1960s TV series, rather than the comics, and presents a sad, aging man who misses his old colleagues like King Tut and Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, and laments the modern version of the Joker, who goes around killing people these days. This story, and Grant's clever look at the Penguin, are easily the best things in the collection, although the two Riddler episodes from his 1960s heyday are each amusing in their audacious, impossible way.

Was Two-Face always such a boring villain that no writer wanted to bother with him unless they were recounting his origin for the umpteenth time? This book includes his two-part first appearance from 1941 and an extra-long tale from 1990, each of which tells his origin. So does Verheiden's segment from "Original Sins." I suppose there is some mild archaeological curiosity in comparing the way that Bill Finger and Bob Kane told the story in '41 and the ways that Verheiden and Andrew Helfer did it more recently, but crowded into this slim volume, it's too repetitive, and makes Two-Face feel One-Note.

The 1960s Riddler episodes are available in the second and third volumes of DC's Showcase Presents line of Batman reprints, where they make a little more sense placed in the high-concept, bizarrely-told pop art world of that time. The Secret Origins Special should be available from many back issue dealers, although demand from Neil Gaiman's fans might make it a little pricy. As for this book itself, I found it at a publishers' overstock clearout store about a year after its release, and felt good paying just two bucks for it. I'd recommend it if you could find it for less than what dealers charge for the Secret Origins Special, but no more.

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