Earlier this year moviegoers were treated to a new vision of DC’s caped crusader in the Matt Reeves-directed The Batman. With Robert Pattinson under the cowl as the Dark Knight, the movie reimagined a number of members of the hero’s iconic rogues gallery. No villain got a more radical reimagining than The Riddler. Portrayed in the film by Paul Dano, the prince of puzzlers became a Zodiac-like serial killer, bolstered by a cult-like online following who ultimately mobilize around him in the film’s third act.
The question of how Edward Nashton ended up wearing a creepy all-green outfit and murdering people is hinted at a bit in the film, but the upcoming DC Comics Black Label series The Riddler: Year One will more fully explore Edward’s dark origins. Written by Dano and illustrated by American comics newcomer Stevan Subic, the series debuts at the end of this month, just in time to fill you with nightmares before Halloween. The Beat took part in a roundtable discussion with Dano, where he shared how the series developed out of his work on the film, what Subic’s art brings to the series, and how Edward’s journey serves as a dark mirror for Bruce Wayne’s.
Diving right into discussion of Subic’s work, Dano said at first that he thought the artist wasn’t right for the project, but upon seeing more samples he was convinced. “I felt like there was some kind of emotional strength in his work,” Dano said, and noted his inkwork in particular as being strong. “We have a sort of intense, good relationship, and I’m really proud of him,” he added.
“This idea was always a comic,” Dano said in response to a question about exploring Edward’s origin in the medium vs on film. He cited the ability to examine a character’s internal monologue as a pain strength, as well as the excitement of telling a story that is both personal and archetypal. “I love comics for the sort of elemental essence of the images and the panels. It’s not about fancy camera movements, it’s about the image and the cut.” He again praised Subic’s work for transcending the images that Dano has in his head.
On approaching a character like Edward, who is very sympathetic in this series as opposed to how he appears in The Batman, Dano said his task as an actor was to find a way into the character, and that he latched onto the question of nature vs. nurture. He noted a conversation he had with Matt Reeves about the two sides of trauma, with one leading Edward to The Riddler and the other leading Bruce Wayne to Batman. He sees Edward’s journey as being a combination of nature and nurture, and that his ability to solve puzzles and riddles is some of the only positive feedback he’s ever received in his life. Dano added that he considered Edward, in his circumstances, to be destined to become The Riddler, but that under different circumstances he hopes not. “I hope, if anything, it ends up being a cautionary tale,” he said, especially since readers already know how Edward’s story turns out.
Asked about what he considers the most important aspect of the character, Dano said he wanted to explore the impact of Edward’s trauma on him and how it drove him to become what he did. He also spoke a bit about how the story has evolved beyond what he originally envisioned to play the character. “I’ve actually been really interested in how the story has grown since my backstory,” he said. “I cultivated a lot of backstory to play the part, but this comic needs to be its own thing and stand on its own two legs, and it cannot be just in service of the film.” He described how much the series and his own comics writing evolves over the course of the series, and said he’s learned a lot in the process. He also said that working with DC and his editor, Jim Chadwick, has been great, and that his collaboration with Subic has been equally rewarding.
Dano said the externalizing of a character’s backstory in a comic is similar to what he does as an actor, while also being completely different. He described having to find ways to convey Edward’s story through action and image as opposed to simply through internal monologue, particularly when it comes to the intrusive thoughts in Edward’s head.
Asked if The Riddler: Year One is a horror story, Dano said “a little bit.” He said that “on a plot level it’s about corruption, but really it’s an emotional horror story about trauma.” Edward is a character who’s “struggling,” and Dano said that the intersection of corruption and trauma is what ultimately drives Edward to become The Riddler.
Dano said that his personal taste in film and how he sees stories has helped him with the transition into comics. “It’s a different reality, too,” he added, given the separation between a human actor and a character on a page, which offers a different path to explore a story. He also said he enjoys the reader aspect as they project themselves onto the character they’re reading.
“Riddles are not easy to write for me,” Dano admitted with a laugh. “That’s one of the most challenging aspects of this by far.” He said that he approaches the riddles with the idea in mind that solving them is the thing that grounds Edward and takes him out of his head. “In the second half of the series I think something [in the riddles] sort of gets unlocked, and that [leads to] more of The Riddler we’re walking towards in the film.”
Edward is shown hallucinating in the first issue, and Dano said those images represent Edward’s intrusive thoughts, and that they play a key part in the series. He described intermittent black panels as Edward closing his eyes to try to shake off those thoughts. Subic lives in Serbia, and Dano said they Zoom a lot, and work through all of the artwork together to develop the visual look of the series. “Issue one is all about setting our comic language together,” he said, and mentioned the role that letterer Clayton Cowles has played in expressing Edward’s mental state throughout the series.
The question of nature vs. nurture is what drives the series, and Dano said that that question is “unanswerable,” but that that works in the series’ favor as “it’s all about being tortured by the questions.” He added that getting into the character through writing as opposed through acting has been the most surprising part of working on the series.
Asked about titling the series The Riddler: Year One given the weight of history behind the “Year One” moniker, Dano said he was nervous about it at first. He said that on the script for The Batman, Reeves had subtitled it “A Year Two Story,” so Dano sees the “Year One” on this series as setting it in relation to the film. On whether he feels any pressure following in the footsteps of iconic stories like Batman: Year One, Dano said “Yes and no,” because that series is not just one of the greatest Batman stories but one of the greatest comics of all time, so “what’re you gonna do.”
Does the portrayal of Edward’s mental illness in this series inform or reinforce real-world biases about mental illness? Dano said he didn’t know. “People who are mentally ill aren’t necessarily going to become criminals,” he said. “I think it is speaking to how trauma can impact people. I think people need care, and this is somebody who never had it.” He added that he does think those biases are important to consider when working on a story like this.
Dano said that he didn’t really look at any previous iterations of The Riddler when developing his version of the character, though he did say he read “a lot of Batman comics” because Edward saw The Batman as an idol of his. He said he was trying to get at the archetypal version of The Riddler without drawing too much from any specific version of the character.
Asked about exploring Edward’s digital radicalization, Dano noted its relevance to real life as people increasingly turn to online spaces to find acceptance and affirmation. “I think a lot of modern stories are going to be about the permanent shift of geography” into the online world, he added.
What does hope look like for Edward? “Not being in pain,” Dano said. “I think he’s a guy who wants to help, he’s just at the tipping point and I think he’s struggled. I think he’s angry and full of rage as well, and has a very negative self-image.” He described The Riddler: Year One as the opposite of The Batman, with the latter being a journey of vengeance to hope for Batman and the former being the other way around for Edward. The question of how the idea of hope shifts for Edward will reveal itself to readers as the series progresses.
“It’s a ‘love at first sight’ moment when he sees The Batman,” Dano said, noting that that’s actually what hope looks like for him in that moment. He mentioned a book called Inner Gold by psychologist Robert A. Johnson, which he read a lot while working on the film, and which talks about the idea of projecting your hope in someone else because you’re not able to hold it yourself, which is what Edward does with Batman. Asked if Edward has a specific breaking point that pushes him to become The Riddler, Dano simply replied “Yes.”
On the subject of what he wants readers to take away from the story, Dano reiterated that he sees The Riddler: Year One as a cautionary tale, and said he’s also “really curious to see how people respond to it and to Stevan’s work. I know it’s got some heavy stuff but I hope it’s also a fun enough read.”
The Riddler: Year One #1 is due out from DC’s Black Label imprint on Tuesday, October 25th.