Review by Trey Jackson
“There’s No Place Like Home”
Batman has the best villain roster in comics. That’s not much of a debate. One of the reasons so many of his villains are popular is that they have some very memorable origins. You’ve got Harvey Dent’s scarring and split personality and Joker’s game of multiple choice from The Killing Joke. And who can forget Heart of Ice? There are plenty of great Batman villain origin stories to choose from, and this is part of their overall appeal.
Why bring this up now? I think Riddler might be getting there with Riddler: Year One.
I don’t know that we’re there yet, mind you. We’ve still got a couple of more books to go. And this Riddler is so firmly planted in the world of The Batman saga that it will be interesting to see if any elements from this story make their way into the Riddler’s history in other continuities, or even influence them. But judging from the quality of this story so far, this will become part of his narrative and it should.
The reason I’m focusing so much on Edward’s origin is that issue 4 spends the whole time in a flashback to his childhood. So if you’re dying to know what happens next after the end of issue 3, sorry, you’ll have to wait and see. But in the meantime take a detour to an absolutely gut-wrenching childhood.
The issue begins with a child abandoned on the steps of an orphanage, with no identifiers except a note (we only see the initials E. N. on it). He’s taken in and given a name, a pacifier, and a drop of alcohol to calm his crying so that he’ll fall asleep. So begins the life of Edward Nashton. Soon we see him as a toddler, and his caretakers inform him that his biological mother has just died while being treated in Arkham. He doesn’t speak, though he’s already trying to communicate through ciphers using numbers to spell words, this time crying out for his mother. Even now, he’s using riddles because that’s the only way he knows to say anything. The scene is quickly interrupted by the arrival of the Wayne family, who represent the only real hope for Edward and the others to live a better life than what awaits.
We see quite a few scenes from his childhood that are illuminating and heartbreaking. Children freeze to death in their beds while on their fingers. Edward, the brilliant kid that he is, concocts a zinc sulfide nightlight for himself. But this is mainly to stay awake since he had to get a series of rabies shots after a rat bit through his thumb while he was asleep. Oh, and one of the caretakers makes Edward drown the rat to overcome his fear of them. Despite the regular horrors, the boys practice singing as a choir, most notably the Ave Maria prayer. And in one particularly harsh scene, another kid bullies Edward into throwing a rock at a turtle to see how strong its shell is. It’s hard not to see the turtle as representing Edward, trying to stay safe and secure inside his shell. But it can’t last, and it doesn’t. Edward reacts violently and crushes the turtle with his rock, and it’s after this that we start to see the familiar grey dialogue boxes representing Edward’s inner thoughts. So he’s at least talking to himself now if no one else. He gets revenge on the bully by tricking him into making a chemical explosive that blows up in his face.
The pivotal sequence is when Thomas Wayne visits and announces the creation of the Renewal Fund. We see flashbacks to this in the movie, but here we also see Edward meet Mr. Wayne, and speak out loud to another person for the first time. He tells him he wants to go to a school where other kids are good at math like him. And Mr. Wayne, the loving father that he is, tells him that he believes in Edward and that Edward matters and has a bright future. The very next page shows Edward applying for assistance from the Renewal program, only for the other kids to find it and burn it, mocking Edward for thinking Thomas Wayne actually cares. Edward fills out another one and delivers it to Wayne Enterprises himself. The police give him a ride back to the orphanage, where he learns the Waynes were murdered that very night. And when his rejection letter comes through the mail later, we see the first of his disturbingly portrayed mental breakdowns.
The rest of his childhood is a series of foster homes, rejections, abuses, and disappointments. Edward slowly shuts the broken part of himself out to keep from falling apart. As we saw earlier in the book, the shell is broken, the turtle is dead, and the only thing left is a bloody rock. All the while his hatred of Bruce Wayne grows, the orphan everyone loves seems to have everything Edward desperately needs. When Edward finally ages out of the orphanage, he attends community college and naturally excels. This is also where he gets introduced to his future boss Mr. Stone. While he may look like he’s getting his life together on the outside, the last panels show him leaving behind that scared little boy he used to be, trying to bury his trauma instead of healing from it. Oh, and he’s left one more cipher, a simple “help me” as he sits alone in the dark.
Like I said, this entire issue is a flashback detour, so there’s no plot advancement. But the plot is almost secondary at this point. The book is about Edward and how he comes to be so broken. So does this issue do a good job of exploring Edward’s character and showing us how he winds up a terrorist? Absolutely it does. It will be hard not to think about some of these horrifying stories from his childhood when rewatching the movie or (hopefully) seeing him in future installments. His life isn’t something you’d wish on anyone. And speaking as a parent, it was difficult to see a kid go through so much. They don’t deserve that, and we owe it to kids in rough situations like that to protect and care for them as much as we can. But yeah, this book and this issue in particular show you exactly where Edward is coming from when he makes his villainous turn.
The art is outstanding again. The impressionistic style works so well to convey the darkness and the torture he’s enduring. Past issues have used a lot of illuminated blues to show Edward in a world of screens and detachment. Here his childhood is shades of green with black, white, and grey. But we do get occasional splashes of red when the outside world breaks in and something traumatic happens. We get more clear faces and good looks at the people Edward cares about and the ones that care about him, while the rest are less defined, almost just part of the scenery. It gives me the sense that those he trusts really stand out while the rest of the world just exists to torment him, at least from his perspective. I can’t imagine staying sane in a life like that for very long, and we know he doesn’t. Soon we’ll see the rest of the breakdown. – Trey Jackson