For most people, The Riddler is seen as either Frank Gorshin’s iconic performance from the Batman ‘66 series or Jim Carrey from Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. This portrayal of the puzzle-obsessed villain mimics the persona of The Joker more than presenting how The Riddler was shown in the comics. It makes sense, The Joker is the villain we most associate with Batman, and that type of insanity is the element actors pick up on. Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as Two-Face in Batman Forever is another example of someone aping the mannerisms and behavior we would expect from The Joker. So just who is The Riddler then?
The Riddler was one of the later additions to the Golden Age Batman rogues gallery. He debuted in Detective Comics #140 (October 1948), co-created by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang. Despite his late introduction, he would become part of a core four group of villains alongside The Joker, Catwoman, and The Penguin. Unlike these other characters, The Riddler never received a major reboot to his origins post-Crisis. The Joker had The Killing Joke, Catwoman was rebooted in Batman: Year One, and The Penguin had his origins developed in the 1990s by various creators.
Unlike many of his peers, The Riddler had an origin story from his debut. Edward Nigma had grown up fixated on puzzles and riddles. As a teenager, he worked in a carnival and would stump people with his complex brain teasers. When Nigma encounters Batman, he sees a similar mind, an adversary he can unleash his greatest mind games against, someone who could actually solve them, but if he didn’t, it would prove to the world what a genius Nigma was. The Riddler would appear twice during the Golden Age and then disappear from the pages of Batman and Detective Comics. His third appearance wouldn’t be until 17 years later.
During the 1950s, following congressional hearings on supposed links between comics books and juvenile delinquency, the comics industry pumped the brakes. For some publishers, like EC Comics, who put out Tales From the Crypt, this signaled the end of their run. Companies like DC Comics changed the tone and focus of their superheroes books after canceling many of them. Batman’s book became sillier with stories that pitted Batman against science fiction & alien menaces. The Joker would still turn up from time to time but not often. In popular culture, kids were clamoring for atomic age science fiction fare, so it seemed the age of capes & tights seemed over.
By the 1960s, DC had led comics into the Silver Age by rebooting old characters like The Flash and Green Lantern. However, sales for Batman and his strange, sanitized sci-fi stories were tanking the book, so editor Julius Schwartz launched “The New Look” era of Batman. The first supervillain Batman faced as the art style, and writing was updated for 1965 was The Riddler. He would make his triumphant return in Batman #171. A year later, the Batman live-action series would debut on ABC, and the first villain he faced was Frank Gorshin’s Riddler setting the tone for the entire show’s run. This event would ensure The Riddler remained a mainstay in the comic books. However, that doesn’t mean the character would experience tweaks over the next few decades.
In the 1970s, as the wackiness of Batman faded, editors began “The Dark Knight” era where stories became serious, Robin was pushed out of the book, and violence was brought back into the titles. This meant The Riddler disappeared again, but only for seven years. He managed to resurface on television again as a member of the Legion of Doom in the Superfriends animated series. The Riddler would appear throughout the pre-Crisis 1980s but never essential stories. By the late 1980s, the current Batman editors realized the gold mine of villains they were sitting on and began bringing back all of them, including some fantastically obscure ones, including The Riddler.
Millennials like myself got their first major exposure to the complexity of The Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series. Voiced by John Glover (Lionel Luthor from Smallville), the show differentiated Riddler from The Joker and highlighted his role as a calculating genius. Here his origins begin with revenge on an abusive boss. Throughout B: TAS, The Riddler would appear five times, and this portrayal would reflexively influence the comic book version of the villain. During this period, Batman Forever was released and presented audiences with a Riddler that was heavily derived from Frank Gorshin, making sense as that would have been Jim Carrey’s first exposure to the character. From all of this would come a renewed interest in the Riddler, which would lead to writer Chuck Dixon reframing his origins for the comics.
Edward Nygma was a clever alias (enigma) for Eddie Nashton, a genius living completely overlooked in Gotham City. When the epic Batman arc “Hush” rolled around, deconstructing Batman’s life, it was revealed that The Riddler was a crucial figure in helping the mysterious bandaged foe Hush pull it off. Shortly after, The Riddler would be a key villain in the hit video game Arkham Asylum. There was even a short period when Nashton retired from criminal activities to become a private detective. Batman, ever mistrustful, didn’t buy into the going straight shtick, but for The Riddler, it was genuine. His only concern was being recognized as a genius.
Since the New 52 reboot, The Riddler is back to being part of Batman’s coterie of baddies. I’m interested to see this radically reimagining The Batman presents. From marketing, it appears that Batman this version of the character is closer to Jigsaw from the Saw franchise, which is an angle that would undoubtedly work. Years ago, when thinking about the Nolan version of Batman that a citywide terrorist would be the perfect way to fold The Riddler into that particular iteration. I’m eager and hoping we see Batman as a detective for the first time in the Batman films, and The Riddler is the best villain to pit against him in that regard.