13 QUICK THOUGHTS: Why the RIDDLER Was the Perfect Childhood Villain

Riddle me this…

Y’know how we all have childhood heroes? I mean, you probably wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t.

Mine was Batman, naturally, and except for a burnout hiatus in the ’90s, I’ve never outgrown him. But every hero needs his villains and I’ve found myself thinking a lot lately about one of them: the Riddler.

The main reason is that there’s a new Batcave Podcast out and it’s my latest visit with host John S. Drew talking about the Filmation Batman episodes. We’re finally up to the first Riddler installment and you can listen in here or here or get it on iTunes or Stitcher. We have a great time, so check it out.

Anyway, the episode got me to thinking about the Riddler and how I loved him so much when I was little. And it hit me: The Riddler was the perfect villain for a kid.

Here are 13 QUICK THOUGHTS on why:

1. Naturally, it started with Frank Gorshin and his manic appearances on Batman ’66, which we’d watch religiously after school on New York’s Channel 11. A Riddler episode was like a special occasion. Gorshin was wild, loose-limbed, menacing and a gas, all at the same time. Frank Gorshin as the Riddler rocked.

2. As much as I dug the other major villains, I was too young to appreciate Burgess Meredith’s superb Penguin and too innocent to fully appreciate Julie Newmar’s Catwoman. Cesar Romero’s Joker? He wasn’t as cool as the Riddler. In adulthood, those opinions have changed substantially to the point where I now find Gorshin’s Riddler a little annoying at times. Newmar was mesmerizing, Meredith was brilliant and Romero was a master showman. But as Young Dan, the Riddler was it: Colorful and charismatic. And it carried over to the comics and elsewhere, too.

3. One of my favorite comics growing up was Batman #263 — simply because it was a Riddler issue. (I can barely remember the story.) It came out in 1975, when I was 8 — the sweet spot for a growing comic-book kid. And one of the jewels of my back-issue collection was Batman #171, with its neon-pink background.

4. The Joker, thanks first to Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, reasserted himself as Batman’s top foe in all his homicidal glory in the ’70s but I was still taken with the Riddler. Maybe it’s because he was a little less scary — they used to make the point that he wasn’t a killer — and his schtick was entertaining. The riddles were fun. I used to collect as many as I could from books and magazines so I always had a stash ready for whenever I would play with …

5. … my Megos! This guy looked great. Very true to the comics, Mego Riddler was a mainstay of my Bat-adventures on the living-room floor.

6. The funny thing was, though, that whenever I did Mego Riddler’s voice — it occurred to me years later — it was Ted Knight’s Filmation version. Ted Knight, though, seemed to be doing a riff on Frank Gorshin, so there I was in shortpants, doing my version of Ted Knight’s version of Frank Gorshin.

7. Another big favorite:

8. On the other hand, I couldn’t abide John Astin’s Riddler. Nearly everything about his performance went against what we knew about the character. Astin was far too contained. Even now, I find it hard to watch that episode, even if it does feature one of the show’s greatest Batfights — the underwater bank melee.

9. That actually leads me to one of the few things that Batman: The Animated Series got wrong. As much as I liked If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? for its very Batman ’66-ish Minotaur maze, the Riddler himself seemed intentionally restrained, making himĀ a more run-of-the-mill villain. DC Comics has also taken much of the Riddler’s punchiness away, so we’re left with a character who’s only a shadow of his delirious self. I think some people consider the Riddler to be too silly, so they tone him down. Me? I think we could use more silly, not less.

10. I remember being annoyed that one of the greatest comics of the ’70s — the treasury-sized Limited Collectors’ Editon C-37 — featured Two-Face on the cover (and Scarecrow on the inside, to boot) and the Riddler was nowhere to be seen — except in a feature on the TV show. I guess the editors were trying to play up Batman’s darker side, but, man that just seemed wrong. So I used to carry my copy of Batman #263 with it to sort of complete the package.

Hey! Where’s the Riddler?!

11. More favorites:

12. Jumpsuit or suit and tie? Jumpsuit. But here’s a picture of him in the suit and tie, which is pretty damn cool nonetheless.

Don’t forget the bowler!

13. The Bat-Bible of the day was a glorious hardcover called Batman: From the ’30s to the ’70s. In it was Riddler’s origin story by Bill Finger, Dick Sprang and Charles Paris from Detective Comics #140. But it was in black and white! It would be decades before I saw it in color. Story holds up too.

Don’t forget to check out the new Batcave Podcast! You can listen here or here or get it on iTunes or Stitcher.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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5 Comments

  1. That’s how I first fell in love with Batman, too, Dan — by watching the reruns of the Adam West series on WPIX 11 in New York in the late seventies/early eighties. A hero is only as good as his adversary, and Batman truly is blessed with the best rogues gallery ever! In many respects, Batman ’66 set the standard with respect to casting by always having the top actors of the day portray the villains, a template followed by the later Burton/Schumacher films.

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  2. As I’ve said many times like your caption of number 10….I don’t understand the sudden ret-conned absence of The Riddler. He made the original show – was always my favorite villain. Was thrilled when I found out it was him. He was the first guest villain. Gorshin’s Riddler was it.

    On a personal note, I met Gorshin and saw him on Broadway three times near the end of his life. He was the man to me in real life too.

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  3. It’s fitting that you used the Filmation Riddler voice when playing with your Megos. Just look at that cock-eyed grin: Mego was clearly channeling Filmation in their sculpt, or maybe both were channeling the classic Infantiono/Anderson Riddler poster image where he’s strangely pointing at his feet. But either way, the grin is the same in all three!

    Gorshin was always my favorite TV villain too, and still is. I can appreciate the subtleties of all the main baddies now, but Gorshin’s manic energy made him Batman’s most dangerous opponent on the show, and it still comes through. He rattles Batman like no other.

    I LOVE Batman #317! One of my earliest Batman comics, and one of the few where Batman and Robin are together. It took me a while to understand why Robin was away at college in the comics, but always with him on Batman “66, Super Friends, etc. The “summer break” issues of Batman were always a treat.

    Great article!

    Chris

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    • Oh, and one more thing: Is it just me, or does the Filmation Riddler sound a bit like James Cagney? Or at least the stereotypical “You dirty rat” impression of James Cagney everyone used to do? And didn’t Gorshin himself do a Cagney impression? Very meta!

      Chris

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  4. On the Batman 66 Facebook group , they posted a theory about John Astin’s portrayal as the Riddler . The idea was that there were two different Riddlers . They were brothers , and the John Astin Riddler took over his brother’s shtick when he was in prison .Frank Gorshin’s Riddler was the original Edward Nigma character . John Astin’s Riddler was Edward’s brother Edgar Nigma !!

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