Set six months before The Batman, Paul Dano and Stevan Subic’s Riddler: Year One offers a fleshed-out backstory for Dano’s take on the Riddler as it charts Edward Nashton’s journey from a forensic accountant to the fledgeling criminal mastermind we see in the film. The book also marks Dano’s comics debut and Subic’s American comics debut.
Right off the bat, what strikes me most about Riddler: Year One is how indicative it is of the work Dano put into his portrayal of Nashton, of how much thought and background he gave his take on the Riddler. We’ve already gotten peeks at the raw amount of preparation on Dano’s end, but none of those glimpses compare to how much of that preparation that this issue alone puts on display. And to think, this is just the first issue, Dano still has five more issues worth of this in store for us.
In this first issue alone, we see the beginnings of Nashton’s obsession with Batman, a figure who he calls “hope incarnate.” Due to the insular nature of the story, much of the book is told through Nashton’s internal monologue, a perspective which proves itself to be at least a little bit unreliable as we see the hallucinations he experiences throughout his day; visions of hands clawing their way across his vision, or of a fellow commuter twisting into something monstrous as his neck extends and his mouth turns into a gaping, bloody, toothy maw. Even before he becomes the Riddler, it’s very obvious that Nashton is troubled and the hallucinations are only one facet of that. One page screams of intrusive thoughts as we see Nashton envisioning himself throwing his body full force in front of a train as it comes into the stations, he has a constant refrain of his own unworthiness playing in his head as he listens to mindfulness meditation that aims to ingrain the opposite way of thinking in him (if you can’t find CBT a meditation app is fine). It’s hard not to feel for him, and perhaps the thing that I’m most intrigued by in terms of what’s to come is when, and if, that sympathy will ever stop.
Throughout the book, there’s a sense of muddled perception; Stevan Subic’s art, more specifically the choices he makes with the colours evokes the dreamlike quality of dissociation, the feeling of detachment from your surroundings, from yourself. I’ve always struggled to describe what dissociation feels like and I certainly won’t do it justice here but it’s an almost floaty feeling, and somehow Subic captures it with no words needed. Perhaps the lack of words in Subic’s expression of it lends strength to the portrayal, after all, you can grasp at straws looking for what words to use if you aren’t using words in the first place.
This feeling is entirely absent in the scene in which Nashton first sees Batman in person, as Subic bathes him in red light, almost like that of a sunrise. It’s a turning point for Edward Nashton, one we can see clearly even now, only halfway through the first issue of a six-issue story. It’s the same colour we see in all of Nashton’s hallucinations, only here it doesn’t look like blood and gore, here it feels like hope. This is the thick of it, this is the inception of his delusional partnership with Batman, this is where everything starts to go wrong. And yet, it feels like a new beginning, not like the beginning of the end. This is how he sees it, so this is how we see it because this is his story, and we are at the mercy of his distorted perception of the world around him.
With only one issue released so far, Riddler: Year One is already executed far better than some of DC’s other attempts at using unreliable narrators to tell a Batman villain’s origin story. Perhaps we can chalk that up to the fact that they didn’t hire someone whose previous credits consist entirely of The Hangover movies. As well, it’s considerably better than the vast majority of movie tie-in comics, most of which don’t even register anywhere near being a good book, let alone even brushing up against being as good as this first issue. It’s hard to think of the last time I so much as heard of a movie tie-in comic and decided it was worth not only reading, but talking about it with others and even writing about it on social media, let alone writing about it at length. It’s a comic that feels real, not just one that feels like little more than a recap meant to draw in new readers by screaming “look at me! I’m a movie you like but you can read me!”
In short, Riddler: Year One #1 is a very well-done comics debut for Dano, and an excellent example of why Stevan Subic needs to do more work in comics in general, not just in American comics. The most obvious target audience for this is fans of Paul Dano and of The Batman, but it’s also worth it to read even if you aren’t a Dano fanatic, or if you just liked The Batman a normal amount. Or even if you just want to pick up a new Batman comic this week.
Riddler: Year One #1 is available now wherever comics are sold.