A single man trapped in a war he doesn’t understand. That’s the story of Omega Men, Sheriff of Babylon and Mister Miracle. That’s also one of the stories of Tom King’s life, and many other Americans involved in the Middle East. This story has finally permeated King’s Batman in the latest arc, “The War of Jokes and Riddles”.
King’s Batman has drawn from modern warfare since issue one. In that issue, Batman must stop a damaged plane from crashing into Gotham City. Batman tragically realizes he is outmatched and cannot save the day. Other heroes step in to do the job and the day is saved, but this is far from a happy story. It’s impossible for American readers to not think of 9/11 in David Finch’s depiction of Batman steering a burning plane between two skyscrapers.
This strand continues through many issues of King’s Batman. Hell, I Am Suicide is Batman’s Bay of Pigs. He recruits a ragtag bunch of mercenaries to attack the ruler of an island. It doesn’t go terribly well, the villain isn’t defeated, and the situation only gets more complicated with the resolution of the story.
These are not traditional Batman stories, and The War of Jokes and Riddles is not about a “traditional” war. It is not about Batman fighting a villain(s) or good versus evil. It is about a war between two villains, with an immense cast of evil and innocent characters drawn in. The use of urban warfare and terrorist tactics affecting innocent civilians is often highlighted. This two page spread by King and Mikel Janin specifically discusses the use of bombings and shootings into crowds.
Batman feels he must intervene, yet he also struggles to even understand the difference between both sides. He feels outside the conflict, but he created the status quo for almost all the characters involved. Batman’s partnership with the GCPD aggravates and eggs on both Riddler and Joker. Batman removes himself from his narrative of the story’s beginning, but the Riddler is likely in GCPD’s custody because of him and the GCPD likely feel compelled to attack Joker because of Gordon’s partnership with Batman. This is story of every American conflict in the Middle East.
Batman is the American state, or more accurately the Military Industrial Complex, and Kite Man is the American individual on the ground. Kite Man bears a striking resemblance to the protagonist of Sheriff of Babylon, both of which are not far removed from a younger King himself (if King were blond, they’d be triplets). Kite Man’s story also parallels Sheriff of Babylon’s plot, both with an increasingly complicated espionage mission failing and the protagonist realizing the war is bigger than himself. This resemblance was almost taken to the extreme – Tom King originally intended for Mitch Gerads to draw Jokes and Riddles, but was forced to switch artists to meet time constraints after getting Mister Miracle.
This page encapsulates Kite Man’s tragedy. Kite Man has become a joke for the Joker and a riddle for the Riddler, echoed at the end of both issues centered around him. The individual in the fight becomes the joke in an absurd war. Batman, The Joker and The Riddler tower above Kite Man and the other heroes and villains to escape this fate. In the War on Terror, individuals on all sides become “terrorists” while the governments and institutions carry on untarnished. This is Kite Man’s true tragedy. Beyond becoming a joke, he only plays a bit part in the much larger story of Batman. Kite Man can never become a hero or a villain, stuck on the periphery of epic characters. Beyond that, he gets the crap beaten out of him by Riddler, Joker, and Batman.
This is what makes “The War of Jokes and Riddles” morally reprehensible but also so damn interesting. We are saddened by the tragic personal story of Kite Man, while still enchanted by the allure of Batman, Joker, and Riddler. Kite Man is Tom King’s most fully fleshed out character (created by him or others) that isn’t part of the Vision family. You could argue Kite Man is the hero or the protagonist of the War of Jokes and Riddles, but that’s really not true. The name of the book is Batman, Batman’s on the cover, and Batman narrates the story. On every level, Batman is the hero of the story.
It doesn’t help that Batman acknowledges his guilt and immorality in both the story and the narration. This makes him look better and encourages the reader to forgive him and ignore the framing story. This is told as a story to Catwoman to make Batman appealing and human. There’s the added dramatic irony that the War and Batman’s actions destroy countless civilians, heroes and villains, yet he uses this story to romance a villain. Why does Catwoman get a happy ending when Kite Man doesn’t? This is the immorality of Batman telling the story of “The War of Jokes and Riddles”.
Batman 29 is the best metaphor for US involvement in the Middle East I’ve ever seen. As a Batman plot, it makes almost no sense. Batman decides to stop the War by holding a peace dinner as Bruce Wayne, with Riddler and Joker as guests. Bruce attempts to end the War by convincing Joker and Riddler to unite against Batman. When that doesn’t work, Bruce begins thinking about supporting one side financially as Bruce while fighting for the other side as Batman. Speaking as Bruce, he believes the side with more money will naturally win. Thinking as Batman, he believes whichever side Batman fights on will win. This is the ultimate insane, schizophrenic Bruce Wayne. This is the story of America absurdly funding rebels on the ground, while conducting weapons deals with “evil” governments.
Unlike King’s other war stories, the War of Jokes and Riddles takes place in Batman and Kiteman’s home territory. This plays into the central myth or purpose of terrorism: the fear that attackers are right outside your door. Recasting Joker and Riddler as terrorists is an effective modern update on villainy (it worked for Christopher Nolan), but this context spurs the reader to root for Batman’s “war on Terror”. Batman becomes a stand-in for a heroic version of the American state.
Still, it’s a well-worn Batman trope for Gotham to become a warzone. Batman must believe Gotham is a warzone to act the way he does. This plays into the mythology surrounding Gotham, coming from classic stories and King’s run. King’s first arc was “I Am Gotham”, about the way the city warps people. Gotham is an interesting narrative strand throughout King’s run that I haven’t figured out yet, but I don’t think it fits well with this allegorical reading. The arc after “Jokes and Riddles” seems to take place largely outside of Gotham so perhaps King has decided to take a break from that strand. Although realistically, the next arc ends with Batman realizing he needs Gotham and returning.
This allegory can be totally ignored or unnoticed. This is either the best or worst part of the allegory. It’s still a fun story centered around a bunch of Batman villains that speaks to their uncanny similarities and differences. Or the allegory is the point and many readers will miss it (I doubt this). Or the allegory is subtly brainwashing comic book readers (I doubt this too, but it would make Tom King a real life superhero (or villain)). But it’s a unique absurd Batman story with a strange winding plot that could only be written by Tom King. Mikel Janin and Clay Mann’s pencils do a fine job of carrying King’s dense story while staying close to DC house style.
Back to random.org for my next flashback post (selecting a random year from 1935 to 2016). At least I tend to finish those quicker.
I’ll be back soon talking about something from 1961. In the meantime, share this post, follow me on Twitter, and read some good comics.