The bizarre comics and pop culture history of The Riddler

Ask even the most casual Batman fan who the Dark Knight’s greatest villains are, and you’ll likely hear the name “the Riddler” near the top. But despite being a rogue who appeared in the first decade of Batman’s career, Edward Nygma (the Riddler’s real name) wasn’t always an A-lister. Far from it, in fact. The Riddler owes much of that reputation and rise to becoming a staple of pop culture history to luck, and a particularly messy performance by Frank Gorshin on the 1966 Batman TV show. But the Riddler made his comic book debut in 1948.

The Riddler’s Comic Book Debut

Most of the other Batman Rogues who debuted in the Golden Age made multiple appearances in their heyday. Batman villains like the Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, and (to a lesser extent) Two-Face, kept popping up in Detective comics and Batman. Not to mention the newspaper comic strip. The Riddler first appeared in comics at the end of the Golden Age, in 1948 Detective comics #140. A few months later, he made his second appearance in Detective comics #142.

DC Comics

Writer Bill Finger gave the Riddler an origin story right from the start. Readers learned that Eddie Nigma (the original real name of the Riddler, later Nygma) had been obsessed with puzzles and riddles since childhood. Growing up and working in a carnival, he found he could easily surprise most people with his puzzles. The Riddler’s origin story makes it very clear where he got his name from. When Batman appeared, he knew he finally had a worthy adversary and adopted the identity of the Riddler, going on a crime spree and teasing the Dynamic Duo with all sorts of sinister puzzles. Of course, it goes without saying that while Joker and Riddler picked similarly themed names, they’re not the same person. Although they both afflict Batman.

Although short-lived, these first Riddler appearances in Detective comics configure the Riddler character. For example, they confirmed that the main powers of the Riddler were his intellectual abilities. But after those two appearances, the Riddler didn’t show up again for seventeen years.

The origin story of Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler.
DC Comics

So why exactly did DC shelve this promising new character for nearly two decades? We can only guess. But starting in the early ’50s, Batman comics moved away from the costumed gangsters of Gotham and into goofy sci-fi stories. Aside from the Joker, many Bat-thugs have quietly retired. DC’s editors apparently decided that the kids of the atomic age weren’t as interested in crazed criminals as they were in death rays and monsters. And for a while, that was true. But eventually, those sci-fi stories didn’t work anymore, and it was time to get back to basics.

The Riddler's return to the Silver Age, in Batman #171 in 1965.
DC Comics

But in 1964, Batman sales were in the toilet. comics like shine now outselling DC’s second-greatest hero. So DC editor Julius Schwartz took Batman back to its roots, with less sci-fi madness and more memorable Gotham City villains. And the first Batman villain of this new era was the Riddler, unearthed after seventeen years in the year 1965. Batman #171, “The Riddler’s Remarkable Cunning.”

The Riddler Makes TV Villain History
Frank Gorshin as Riddler in the 1966 Batman TV series.
Warner Bros.

As it happens, when ABC executives were looking for Batman stories to adapt to the pilot episode of the live-action show, this then-recently-released comic book was the inspiration for what would be Batman episodes one and two. As everyone knows by now, the Batman The television series became an overnight sensation, and the Riddler, played by Frank Gorshin, appeared on the first night. This television appearance places Riddler in pop culture history as an icon. Even though his comic book career didn’t really involve him, he was in the same spotlight as the Joker. Riddler’s television popularity led to many more appearances in future comics. Not to mention tons of merchandise, and even a song on the radio. Just like that, every kid in America knew who the Riddler was. The Riddler had made him one of Batman’s greatest enemies.

The cover of Batman #192, a rare Bronze Age Riddler appearance.
DC Comics
The Riddler Rises in the TV series and Flails in the comics

Once the Batmania fad ended and they canceled the show, DC editors went the completely opposite route with the comics. DC editors issued an edict calling for a darker tone for the stories, and they jettisoned most of the characters associated with the TV show. This meant there were no Riddler stories for another seven years in the comics. They once again exiled poor Eddie Nygma. But you just can’t hold back a good villain. When the producers of great friends needed a Batman villain for their Legion of Doom, they chose Riddler. (Also, Joker was not available).

Despite all of this, the comics continued to avoid using Riddler. During the ’80s, the Riddler popped up here and there but didn’t move the needle much in terms of building his comedic story. He’s still too associated with the TV series, which casts a big shadow over the comics. But eventually DC realized that if their old TV incarnations didn’t stand in the way of Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman, then why ostracize the Riddler? From the late 1980s, Edward Nygma began to appear more often in comics.

Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler, as he appeared in Batman: The Animated Series
Animation Warner Bros.
Batman: The Animated Series, A-list camp and status for the Riddler

The next big shot in Eddie Nygma’s arm is thanks to 1992 Batman: The Animated Seriess. the Batman: The Animated Series Riddler’s version was not played for laughs, but the series portrays him as a calculating genius. Riddler’s intellectual powers shine through. This version did a lot to save the character’s representative from the camp of the 60s. Riddler was voiced by actor John Glover, who would later play the fathers of villains Lex Luthor and Sivana in Smallville and Shazamrespectively. B:TAS repositions Riddler as a genius game maker, who becomes a criminal to exact revenge on his abusive boss. He only appears five times in the series, but all five appearances have been memorable.

Jim Carrey as Batman Forever's campy version of the Riddler.
Warner Bros.

Unfortunately, the character’s next big media portrayal would double the camp factor. Jim Carrey as the Riddler in batman forever was playing directly from the Batman ’66 playbook. But, the movie was a big hit in 1995, there’s no doubt about it. And Jim Carrey’s portrayal has once again solidified Riddler as one of Batman’s greatest villains in the eyes of the masses. In the 90s, writer Chuck Dixon also gave Edward Nygma a revised origin story. He now had a new real name, Edward Nashton, with Nygma as his pseudonym. This more serious approach outweighed any effects the campy Carrey Riddler might have had.

The Riddler drawn by Jim Lee, in the epic Batman Hush.
DC Comics
The modern comic, TV and film adventures of The Riddler and his future appearances

By the turn of the 21st century, it was clear that the Riddler was an A-list bat thief, and to pretend otherwise was pointless. DC made Riddler the real “Big Bad” of their epic storyline called silence. The Arkham Games further raised his profile. For many years he even reformed. Riddler hung up his villain hat to play hero and aided Batman as a private detective. Of course, that didn’t last, because, at root, Riddler is a villain.

DC writer Scott Snyder made Riddler the main villain of the Year zero storyline, making him the main antagonist of Bruce Wayne’s first year. And considering Riddler has thrown Gotham into utter chaos for a full year, it’s safe to say no one will ever write him off again. televisions Gotham the series even gave us a pre-Batman Riddler, played delightfully by actor Cory Michael Smith.

Paul Dano's serial killer version of the Riddler from The Batman.
Warner Bros.

Paul Dano Will Soon Play A Very Dangerous, Zodiac Killer-Inspired Version Of The Riddler In Matt Reeves The Batman. And we have a strong feeling that after this release, no one will ever think of E. Nygma as a dumb villain again. The Riddler might even be smarter than Batman in the new 2022 movie and doesn’t seem afraid to kill. Robert Pattinson’s Dark Knight better beware. Fans can see this iteration of the Riddler when The Batman released on March 4.

Overall, the Riddler is an ever-evolving villain. And if the future resembles its wild history, who knows what wild interpretations will come in the future. (The 2004 animated series made him look like a metal band!) The Riddler’s story reveals that he was rescued from obscurity by the classic TV series and fought his way to the top of the Batman rogues gallery. Never rely on DC Comics’ Prince of Puzzles.

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