Solving Crosswords and Stopping Bad Guys With Superman!

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

When you think of comic books and puzzles, one character instantly springs to mind: The Riddler. He’s easily the most iconic puzzly figure in comics, and his many twisty challenges for Batman have ranged from simple word games to death-defying escape rooms.

But did you know that Superman also has some puzzling in his expansive superheroic past?

In fact, Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to complete crossword puzzles!

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[Image courtesy of Superman Fandom Wiki.]

Yes, back in 1948, from April 15th until May 3rd, The Adventures of Superman radio show (aka the Superman Radio Program) featured Superman facing off against a gang of kidnappers and thieves, as well as a devious mastermind, in “The Crossword Puzzle Mystery.”

At that point, the crossword hadn’t even become a daily feature in The New York Times yet. (The first Sunday edition crossword debuted in February of 1942. The daily version wouldn’t appear until 1950.)

So how did crosswords cross paths with The Man of Steel?

Well, it all starts with Lois Lane on an airplane, solving a crossword in order to find out where she’s going. Lois had received a tip from Horatio F. Horn, a local correspondent for The Daily Planet, and now she finds herself on a hunt across (and down) America for her next destination.

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[Image courtesy of DC Comics, via Alpha Coders.]

The puzzle leads her to Moundville, a mining town where Horatio has gone missing. She meets a sinister gold-toothed man, and then goes missing herself. Cub reporter Jimmy Olsen soon arrives in Moundville, trying to locate both Lois and Horatio, but having no luck.

Eventually, Clark Kent gets involved, solving the same crossword puzzle as Lois and heading to Moundville himself. He arrives just in time to save Jimmy Olsen from being dragged off a cliff by a spooked horse. (You know how it is with spooked horses in old mining towns.)

After a hotel fire (an attempt on Jimmy and Clark’s lives), Clark finds three more crossword puzzles, but they’re partially destroyed. So he returns to Metropolis to track down solvable copies of each crossword, hoping they’ll reveal the whereabouts of Lois and Horatio.

Yes, one of the episodic cliffhangers was Clark solving crosswords while Lois and Horatio were held in a secret cave at gunpoint. It’s gloriously silly.

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[Image courtesy of DC Comics, via David Morefield.]

Solving the crosswords leads Superman to believe that someone in Moundville is planning to steal a shipment of gold, so he returns to the town and teams up with Jimmy and a local sheriff to get more information. He deduces that a particular shipment going out that night is the target, and manages to rescue Lois and Horatio from the gang of ruffians planning the theft.

It turns out that the mastermind of the thefts is the owner of a Metropolis newspaper syndicate — who supplies puzzles to all the papers, including The Daily Planet — and would alert a vast network of gangs in the West to various gold shipments going out by putting the name of the town in the puzzle.

That’s how Horatio ended up investigating in the first place: he’s a crossword fan himself and noticed the pattern.

The serial concludes with Superman capturing the rest of the thieves in Moundville while the Metropolis police arrest the nameless puzzle mastermind. Good job, everyone! Another crime spree thwarted, thanks to solving puzzles!


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[Image courtesy of DC Comics, via View Comic.]

The plot of this radio serial is quite similar to the plot of the first Crossword Mysteries film — both featuring thieves informed about targets through the local crossword — and honestly, it tickled me to imagine all these gun-toting ne’er-do-wells scattered throughout the western states, solving crossword puzzles every day and waiting to see where they’d need to go robbing.

This plan also implies that the crossword constructor NEVER mentioned towns or cities at other times, because that would send his goons on wild goose chases. Imagine all the abbreviated Canadian provinces they’d be searching, not to mention the European rivers.

Perhaps this fiasco resulted in The Daily Planet hiring their own crossword editor, because later on in the comics, we see someone in the newspaper offices with a crossword pattern on his wall:

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[Image courtesy of Adam Talking Superman, who offered this caption: Huge fan of the newest Daily Planet character, crossword puzzle guy listening to Perry White’s vocabulary!]

Still, it’s fascinating to know that a major radio program — one with over two THOUSAND episodes — devoted literal weeks of airtime to a crossword-themed mystery.

It also makes you wonder what else is lurking in the daily crossword grids. What other devious crimes are afoot right under our noses?

I guess we better keep solving, folks! Our puzzly vigilance could be a crime-riddled town’s only hope!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Garfield

Puzzles are ubiquitous. Once you start looking around for them, you’ll find them in every nook and cranny of popular culture.

Sometimes, they’re the basis for an entire episode of television, as in Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Parks and Rec. Sometimes, they serve as a linchpin metaphor, as they did in Sleepy Hollow. Other times, they’re good for a funny aside, as in Gilmore Girls, or as a prop to reveal deeper character insight, as on The West Wing.

Over the years, I’ve seen puzzles incorporated into storytelling in dozens of ways. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to stumble across puzzle references where I least expected them: the funny pages.

Yes, they’re such a part of the cultural fabric that they’ve even infiltrated comic strips.

The other day, I stumbled across this Garfield comic strip from last year:

Now, it’s meant to be funny, but I think any puzzler who has stood onstage in front of a whiteboard at ACPT, Lollapuzzoola, or another crossword tournament would agree with Jon over Garfield here.

That was one example. As it turns out, when you start digging, you find crossword gags strewn through the Garfield comics.

Like this one from November of 2005:

That’s a pretty simple gag, but it’s also a nice bonding moment for Jon and Garfield, as Jon’s rampant procrastination dovetails nicely with Garfield’s bottomless love for Italian food.

Jon has less luck making a puzzly connection in this comic from February of 1998:

If you ask me, a cookie and a crossword puzzle sounds like an excellent way to spend time with someone interesting. But I’m biased. I love cookies.

And as you can see in this comic from February of 1979, Jon’s crossword struggles have been an ongoing issue for decades now:

But it’s not just crosswords. Sudoku has gotten a fair amount of attention in the Garfield strip over the years. That’s understandable, as it’s one of the most recognizable pencil-and-paper puzzles in the world.

And as someone who isn’t the fastest Sudoku solver in the world, this series of comics from January of 2010 (an entire week’s worth!) speaks to me. I get it, Jon. I get it.

Honestly, it makes sense that Odie would have Sudoku wired. He’s a puzzle dog. He’s been appearing in crossword grids for years.

There’s a lovely callback to that previous crossword gag.

Finally, Jon triumphs! I admire both his resilience and his unwillingness to give up. Though, given that it took a week to complete a Sudoku, maybe Jon should stick to other puzzles.

Heck, our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have the perfect book for him to try out.

[All images are courtesy of Garfield.com.]


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Riddle Me This, Batman!

With so much Dark Knight-related news floating around, this might very well be the Year of Batman.

Not only is it the 75th anniversary of Batman’s first appearance in comics, but he’s going to be all over screens in the coming months. There are already teaser images out for the 2016 Batman Vs. Superman film, plus Fox’s upcoming prequel drama Gotham. As if that wasn’t enough, it was recently announced that the entire 1960s television series is coming to DVD and Blu-ray!

So it’s the perfect opportunity to take a look at Batman’s puzzliest foe, The Riddler.

Played by Frank Gorshin (and John Astin, in one episode) in the 1960s TV series, The Riddler was absolutely manic, often breaking into wild fits of anger and laughter, compulsive in his need to send taunting riddles to the Caped Crusader. (This actually became a point of contention with his fellow villains in the Batman film, since they didn’t appreciate Batman being tipped off to their plans by the Riddler’s riddles.)

His riddles were similarly inconsistent and unpredictable. Some of them were genuine puzzlers (highlight for answers):

  • How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people? Make applesauce.
  • There are three men in a boat with four cigarettes but no matches. How do they manage to smoke? They throw one cigarette overboard and make the boat a cigarette lighter.

Others were similar to children’s jokes, silly in the extreme:

  • What has yellow skin and writes? A ballpoint banana.
  • What suit of cards lays eggs? One that’s chicken-hearted.

While Gorshin’s Riddler is probably the most famous and familiar version of the villain, my personal favorite was the Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series.

This Riddler (voiced by actor John Glover) was more suave, sophisticated, and cunning. In his debut episode, entitled “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”, he challenged Batman and Robin with a boobytrap-filled labyrinth, complete with numerous riddles that were far more challenging than Gorshin’s Riddler would ever use.

Fittingly, a final riddle — the Riddle of the Minotaur — awaits Batman at the center of the labyrinth. Can you solve it?

I have millions of eyes, but live in darkness.
I have millions of ears, but only four lobes.
I have no muscles, but I rule two hemispheres.
What am I? The human brain.

This version of the Riddler only appeared a few times in the animated series, due to the writers’ difficulty coming up with his riddles and keeping his complex plots simple enough to fit into a single episode’s runtime. Nonetheless, this Riddler remains a fan favorite.

In the film Batman Forever, Jim Carrey actually gives us three versions of the Riddler: the scientist Edward Nygma (who definitely has a screw or two loose), the businessman Edward Nygma (a charming, public facade betraying none of his truly villainous tendencies), and the Riddler (a diabolical, borderline insane villain with an ax to grind with Bruce Wayne). Whether you like Carrey’s take on the character or not, he embodies an effective combination of Gorshin and Glover’s Riddlers.

Of course, despite his bizarre plan to read people’s minds through television and become smarter by doing so, this Riddler had one advantage over the previous versions: he had puzzlemaster Will Shortz designing his riddles for him.

While each riddle by itself meant little, except for providing a challenge to Batman’s intellect, all of them combined revealed the Riddler’s identity and set up the final showdown between the heroes and villains.

As for the newest version of the Riddler in Fox’s fall premiere Gotham, we don’t know a lot about him, since this is set in the days before Batman prowled the streets.

Apparently, the younger Edward Nygma (played by theater actor Cory Michael Smith) is a forensic scientist working for the police (who may formulate his notes in the form of riddles).

Hopefully, this Riddler will carry on the fine tradition of Riddlers past, challenging the defenders of Gotham to outthink him, rather than outfight him.


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