The Riddler’s Bizarre Comics and Pop Culture History

Ask even the most casual Batman fan who the Dark Knight’s greatest villains are, and you’ll likely hear the name “the Riddler” near the top. But despite being a rogue who appeared in the first decade of Batman’s career, Edward Nygma (the Riddler’s real name) was not always an A-lister. Far from it, in fact. The Riddler owes a lot of this reputation and rise towards becoming a staple in pop culture history to luck, and a particularly unhinged performance by Frank Gorshin on the 1966 Batman TV show. But the Riddler did make his debut in the comics, way back in 1948.

The Riddler’s Early Comic History

Most of the other signature Batman rogues who debuted in the Golden Age made multiple appearances in their heyday. Batman villains like the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, and (to a lesser extent) Two-Face, just kept popping up in Detective Comics and Batman. Not to mention in the newspaper comic strip. The Riddler first appeared in the comics late in the Golden Age, in 1948’s Detective Comics #140. Just a few months later, he made his second appearance in Detective Comics #142.

Cover art for Detective Comics #140, the first appearance of the Riddler.
DC Comics

Writer Bill Finger gave the Riddler an origin story from the get-go. Readers learned that Eddie Nigma (the Riddler’s original real name, later Nygma) was obsessed with puzzles and riddles from childhood. Growing up and working at a carnival, he found he could stump most people easily with his brain teasers. The Riddler’s origin story makes it very clear where he got his name from. When Batman appeared, he knew he had a worthy adversary at last, and adopted the identity of the Riddler, embarking on a crime spree and teasing the Dynamic Duo with all kinds of sinister puzzles. Of course, it goes without saying that though Joker and Riddler selected names with similar themes, they are not the same person. Although they both do plague Batman.

Though short-lived, these first Riddler appearances in Detective Comics set up the Riddler’s character. For instance, they solidified that the Riddler’s primary powers were his intellectual abilities. But after those two appearances, the Riddler didn’t show up again for seventeen years.

The origin story of Edward Nygma, a.k.a. the Riddler.
DC Comics

So why exactly did DC shelve this promising new character for nearly two decades? We can only guess. But starting in the early ‘50s, Batman comics trended away from costumed Gotham gangsters and leaned into wacky sci-fi stories. Aside from the Joker, many of the Bat-rogues quietly retired. DC editors seemingly decided that Atomic Age era kids weren’t interested in crazed criminals as much as death rays and monsters. And for some time, that was true. But eventually, those sci-fi stories weren’t working anymore, and it was time to go back to basics.

The Silver Age return of the Riddler, in 1965's Batman #171.
DC Comics

But in 1964, Batman’s sales were in the toilet. Comics like Flash now outsold DC’s second-biggest hero. So DC editor Julius Schwartz returned Batman to his roots, with less sci-fi wackiness, and more memorable Gotham City villains again. And the first Batman villain of this new age was the Riddler, unearthed after seventeen years in 1965’s Batman #171, “The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler.”

The Riddler Makes TV Villain History
Frank Gorshin as the Riddler on the 1966 Batman TV series.
Warner Bros.

As it so happened, when ABC execs were looking for Batman stories to adapt for the live-action show’s pilot episode, this then-recently released comic was the inspiration for what would be Batman episodes one and two. As everyone now knows, the Batman TV series was an overnight sensation, and the Riddler, played by Frank Gorshin, appeared on night one. This television appearance Riddler’s place in pop culture history as an icon. Even if his comics career really didn’t imply it, he stood under the same spotlight as the likes of the Joker. Riddler’s TV popularity led to many more appearances in future comics. Not to mention tons of merchandise, and even a song on the radio. Just like that, every kid in America knew who the Riddler was. The Riddler had made it as one of Batman’s biggest foes.

The cover to Batman #192, a rare Bronze-Age Riddler appearance.
DC Comics
The Riddler Rises in TV Series and Flails in Comics

Once the Batmania fad was over and they canceled the show, DC editors went the complete opposite route with the comics. DC editors issued an edict calling for a darker tone to the stories, and they jettisoned most characters people associated with the TV show. That meant no Riddler stories for another seven years in the comics. They exiled poor Eddie Nygma once more. But you just can’t keep a good villain down. When the producers of Super Friends needed a Batman baddie for their Legion of Doom, they chose Riddler. (Also, Joker was unavailable to use).

Despite all this, the comics kept shying away from using Riddler. During the ‘80s, the Riddler shows up here and there but doesn’t move the needle much in terms of building his comic history. He’s still too associated with the TV series, which casts a big shadow on the comics. But eventually, DC realized if their old TV incarnations did not hamper Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman, then why ostracize the Riddler? Starting in the late ‘80s, Edward Nygma starts appearing more often in the comics.

Edward Nygma, a.k.a. the Riddler, as he appeared on Batman: The Animated Series
Warner Bros. Animation
Batman: The Animated Series, Camp, and All-Around A-List Status for the Riddler

The next big shot in the arm Eddie Nygma gets is thanks to 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series. The Batman: The Animated Series version of Riddler was not played for laughs, instead, the show portrays him as a calculating genius. Riddler’s intellectual powers get to shine. This version did a lot to rescue the character’s rep from ‘60s camp. Riddler was voiced by actor John Glover, who would later play the fathers of villains Lex Luthor and Sivana in Smallville and Shazam, respectively. B:TAS repositions Riddler as a genius game creator, who becomes a criminal as a way of getting revenge on his abusive boss. He only appears five times on the show, but all five appearances were memorable.

Jim Carrey as Batman Forever's campy version of the Riddler.
Warner Bros.

Unfortunately, the character’s next big media portrayal would double down on the camp factor. Jim Carrey as the Riddler in Batman Forever was playing straight from the Batman ’66 playbook. But, the movie was a big hit in 1995, there’s no doubt about that. And Jim Carrey’s portrayal solidified Riddler again as one of Batman’s greatest villains in the eyes of the masses. In the ’90s, writer Chuck Dixon gave Edward Nygma a revised origin story too. He now had a new real name, Edward Nashton, with Nygma as an alias. This more serious approach counterbalanced any effects the campy Carrey Riddler might have had.

The Riddler as drawn by Jim Lee, in the Batman epic Hush.
DC Comics
The Riddler’s Modern Comics, TV, and Movie Adventures and Future Appearances 

By the turn of the 21st century, it was clear the Riddler was an A-list Bat rogue, and pretending otherwise was pointless. DC made Riddler the true “Big Bad” of their epic storyline called Hush. The Arkham Games increased his profile even more. For many years, he even reformed. Riddler hung up his villain hat to play hero and helped Batman out as a private detective. Of course, that didn’t last, because, at his core, Riddler is a villain.

DC writer Scott Snyder made Riddler the main villain of the Zero Year storyline, making him the principal antagonist to Bruce Wayne’s first year out. And considering that Riddler plunges Gotham into total chaos for a full year, it’s safe to say no one will ever write him off again. TV’s Gotham series even gave us as a pre-Batman Riddler, played delightfully by actor Cory Michael Smith.

Paul Dano's serial killer version of the Riddler from The Batman.
Warner Bros.

Paul Dano will soon play a very dangerous,  Zodiac Killer-inspired version of the Riddler in Matt Reeves’ The Batman. And we have a strong feeling that after this outing, no one will think of E. Nygma as a silly villain ever again. The Riddler might even be smarter than Batman in the new 2022 movie and doesn’t seem afraid to kill. Robert Pattinson’s Dark Knight better watch out. Fans can see this iteration of the Riddler when The Batman releases on March 4.

All in all, the Riddler is an ever-evolving villain. And if the future is anything like his wild history, who knows what wild interpretations will come in the future. (The 2004 animated series made him look like he was in a metal band!) The Riddler’s history reveals that he was saved from obscurity by the classic TV series and has clawed his way to the top of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. Never count out DC Comics’ Prince of Puzzles.

Top Stories
More by Eric Diaz
Trending Topics