“It's an emotional horror story about trauma,” says Paul Dano. “It's a guy who's, I think, he's struggling.”
The guy Dano is talking about is the Riddler, antagonist of the first movie in the Matt Reeves-directed Batman trilogy. However, it’s not that movie that Dano’s talking about; it’s the prequel. And as he’ll explain shortly, it is decidedly not a film.
The six-issue comic book series Riddler: Year One puts Dano back in the puzzling mind of Edward Nashton, not as an actor, but in a role Dano hasn’t played until now: a comic writer. Ahead of the title’s release, Popverse was able to join Dano in a roundtable discussion as he explained getting back into the Riddler’s twisted, broken mindset, and why comics is the best medium in which to do it.
“This idea was always a comic,” says the Critics’ Choice Award-winner, “and I think that is because the medium offers an interesting way to work with internal monologue. I wouldn't want to see a film that's two hours of voiceover, and I think that Edward’s thoughts and his internal monologue are… they’re some kind of Dostoyevsky-an rant. That'll pick up as the comic goes.”
Dano says comics can tell stories that are both “personal and archetypal,” that there is an “elemental essence” of panel-based imagery that examines character in a way film can’t. In order to make that examination matter to the reader, though, Dano needed an artist who also cared about who Edward was, who could visualize his internal monologue. Enter Stevan Subic.
“There was an image of the Batman of his that I just loved,” says Dano, who hand-picked Subic for Riddler: Year One. “I felt like it was exactly what Edward would want to put on his wall above him to look at. [...] I felt like there was some kind of emotional strength in his work, just something about the panels, the storytelling and the way he works with ink.”
Together, the pair came up with what Dano calls a “comic language.” Subic transforms Edward’s internal monologue into disturbing hallucinations, with Dano’s narration layered on top. That narration lives via the work of letterer Clayton Cowles, whom Dano credits as exemplifying Edward’s growing rage. The trio’s work, says the writer, creates a “living and breathing comic.”
Check out this preview of The Riddler: Year One #1:
Like any living thing, Riddler: Year One has a purpose. That isn’t just to explore what’s in Edward’s mind, but to investigate how it got there. Here’s Dano speaking on Edward’s psyche:
“I was always interested in what is nature and what is nurture. I think a certain element of this character and story had to be nurture, because it's about Gotham, which is a sick and corrupt city. [...] And I could be wrong, but I guess what I'm saying is it couldn't all be nature, meaning he was just born a psychopath. How does nature meet the nurture? The nurture he never had?”
Dano talks a lot about nurture versus nature, that is, whether a person is born one way or made that way by their circumstances. “Which is an unanswerable question,” he clarifies, “and which is good for this because it's all about being tortured by the questions. I don't think, you know. somebody becomes the Riddler without nature. But I also think, again, the story is nurture.”
So what kind of nurture did Edward get? The most accurate answer seems to be: none at all. Dano says part of Edward’s tragedy is that he simply did not receive the care he needed. That Gotham, the “sick and corrupt” city he talked about, just didn’t care about him, so he desperately craved positive affirmation. You can probably guess where he found it.
“Riddles,” says Dano. “The first key is that. The positive affirmation that he might get from solving a riddle or a puzzle or a game is literally the only kind he knows. It's what grounds him. It's the only thing that can get him away from his thoughts or give him any positive feedback in his life.”
To showcase his riddle obsession, the comic sees Edward using fictional site ‘nigma.org.’ The name is a wink at Riddler’s original alter ego, but its connections to comics go deeper than that. Like Batman: Year One (which Dano calls “one of my favorite comics”), RYO becomes a psychological origin story, the tale of a traumatized person and the symbol they use to cope.
And yet, Dano makes it very clear, this is not the origin of a hero.
“He's a guy who wants to help,” says the writer. “But he's just at the tipping point, you know, and I think he's struggled. And I think he's angry and full of rage as well and has a very negative self-image. If the film The Batman is a journey of vengeance to hope, this might be the opposite. [...] It's a kind of interesting and twisted journey because, to himself, he's actually coming into his own power. But to the reader, he's going downhill.”
Here are the variant covers for The Riddler: Year One #1:
Readers know that at the bottom of that hill is a quizzical serial killer that turns Gotham into a house of horrors. As Dano’s made it clear, those external horrors originated internally, in the emotional horror that he mentioned earlier. But for all the psychological, nature-vs-nurture questions it asks, there’s another purpose to this comic, and it’s a prescient one.
“I hope, if anything,” says the man who brought Edward Nashton to life, “[Riddler: Year One] ends up being a cautionary tale. [...] I would like to hope that if the circumstances could have been different, would somebody like that have to go on to be that in pain, or that broken? That they would have to go on and do what he does?”
That’s a riddle that Edward Nashton never gets to answer. Hopefully it’s one that we can.
Riddler: Year One #1 (of 6) hits comic store shelves on October 25. For more coverage of the psychological thriller, and any of the titles DC Comics has in store, stay tuned to PopVerse.
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