My friend Bret and I often like to play the popular Nerd Sport of “If I Was In Charge…” where we take over creative direction and editorial control of Star Wars, or Marvel, or whatever, but usually with an incredibly specific remit such as “Construct a team of Avengers that has a specific mission or area of expertise” or “Make a team of 80s/90s villains to face off against the Expendables”. One of the most recent ones that Bret posed to me was this:
“You have been given the job of killing off Batman. DC have decided it’s time to let him die and to try something radically new. You have to come up with the storyline that leads to his death, but it has to involve a C-list member of his rogues gallery who is revealed to have been pulling the strings in his life all along.”
Of course, this is never something that DC would go for – Batman is their number one cash cow, and to radically rewrite his history at the same time as killing him off would cause some kind of collective fanboy aneurysm. Still, you have to buy into the premise in these exercises, and with that said, I managed to provide an answer that resulted in Bret saying “You have to write that up and share it – I don’t care if you get death threats.” So, with our criteria clear and the understanding that this will never, ever actually happen so if you stumble across this and feel the need to rent your frustrations in Caps Lock, take a breath and reconsider your life, here’s what I came up with:
HOW I KILL BATMAN
Our story opens with a flashback to (stylistically) late 60s Batman, just before Neal Adams reworked the hero to be closer to the gothic badass we are familiar with today. Robin is still Dick Grayson, and comic books have not yet fallen into the chasm of “dark and gritty means grown-up”. Robin and Batman are dealing with a riot at Arkham Asylum. In the midst of the fighting, Batman is thrown from a high stairwell and his grappling hook fails to connect. He falls heavily to the floor and is briefly knocked out. After a few moments, he reawakens to find his nose bloody, his ankle sprained and some of Arkham’s inmates advancing on him, but despite his grogginess he manages to defeat them, and resume bringing the asylum under control. However, in the shadows at the base of the stairs, a figure watches him swing off, their plan already in motion.
Jump forward to the Batman of today (for your information, I’m not bothering working out where this all stands in the whole “New 52” continuity – I’m working with old school Bats) and there is a mass breakout from Arkham Asylum. Over the course of what is likely almost a year’s worth of issues, Batman finds himself dealing with most of his major foes in some way or another, all free and causing trouble at the same time. So far, so Knightfall, right? Well, yes and no, because not only are the villains free, they seem dangerously co-ordinated. There are multiple attacks on Wayne Manor by villains that have no idea about Batman’s secret identity. Others go to work on isolating Gotham, disrupting the efforts of other heroes (both in the Bat-family and the wider universe) to help. Batman slowly becomes cut-off from his allies and increasingly stretched thin.
Needless to say, Batman suspects some kind of conspiracy or massive villain team-up, but even when captured and exposed to the standard Bat-Intimidation-Techniques, multiple villains claim no knowledge of a wider plan - they just happen to be working in unison, with no larger goal. As the attacks step up and Batman becomes less and less able to combat the free-roaming villains, the Joker kills Alfred and Commission Gordon. Batman is justifiably pissed, and we see what we think must be the start of a roaring rampage of revenge, as Batman gets his groove back and takes all the villains to school. But when he drops in on the Joker, he finds himself ambushed by several villains (the notably tougher/more combat able ones) and eventually captured.
Returned to the partially ruined Wayne Manor, Batman rages against the Joker, who lords it over him, but then a voice rings out "It wasn't his idea. It never was" and from the shadows emerges Jervis Tetch, the Mad Hatter.
The Mad Hatter explains, through a series of flashbacks, that he was always far smarter and far less crazy than Batman gave him credit for. His time as a supervillain was a mere distraction, a break from the day to day. Really, an obsession with Alice in Wonderland and hats? What did Batman take him for? His insanity was a smokescreen, produced by a chip in his head that would allow him to appear a harmless (or at least, borderline harmless) madman for weeks at a time while his normal consciousness worked on scientific problems, then return him to his normal self at a designated time. His own mind was the first he ever controlled. Well, almost the first, he says, gesturing towards Joker.
Poor Joker. He had to test his insanity simulator, of course, and thank the Lord he did. A faulty connection in the nanocircuitry led to Joker being uncontrollable insane until Tetch was able to correct the implant a few years ago. Of course, by then, he had also implanted almost every other foe in Batman's rogues gallery, certainly any of those who ever passed through Arkham. It's incredible what you can smuggle in once you have a guard under your control. Why did Batman think so many of his foes were so utterly consumed with foiling him? Why had so few ever left Gotham to practice their criminal activities in less well-protected cities. Why did none of them respond to treatments for their insanity. Because Tetch wanted them crazy and focused on revenge. He wanted Batman's life to be one of unending struggle against evil.
Why? Because Batman had embarrassed him, that's why. His forays into supercrime had been a whim, trying out what seemed to be a fashionable craze, and Batman had defeated him, beaten him and thrown him in Arkham. He would have his revenge. He would turn the dark side of Batman's city against him, forever. There would be no peace for him. No respite. His fight would be eternal, as long as Tetch desired.
Of course, that had changed slightly on that fateful day years ago, when Batman had fallen, unconscious, at his feet in Arkham. You see, Tetch could now see that Batman was as sick as the very criminals he fought. He may not steal or kill or torture, but his obsession was palpable. If he had set aside his quest for justice, he could have recovered from the death of his parents, rather than dragging other people into it. He could have spent the Wayne fortune creating lasting change in the city, eliminating the conditions that created so much crime. But no - that would never be enough. Tetch would see to it. You see, in that minute when Batman had laid helpless at his feet, he too had fallen victim to the Mad Hatter. He too, was under Tetch's control.
It was only subtle pokes and prods, of course. Just enough to steer him towards his endless, un-winnable crusade and away from any hope of a normal life. And he could have been normal, have been happy. Tetch has seen his thoughts. But no, he would be punished for his slight, for his arrogance. The villains would never stop coming, and Batman would never retreat. He was locked in an endless conflict that would eventually kill him. Unless, of course, Tetch decided otherwise.
At this point, Tetch pulls out a small device and explains that he's going to do what Batman never could. He will end the devastation of Gotham, the plaque of supercrime, and he will give Batman his happy ending. And with a push of a button, the assembled villains (excluding Tetch) collapse, blood leaking from their ears, their nose, their eyes. And deep inside Batman's brain, a tiny, undetectable web of nanomachines triggers, rewriting synapses and channeling chemicals to new spots. And Tetch? He simply walks away.
We move forward six months. Gotham has recovered from the villain's wave of destruction and for once, things are actually looking up. Reconstruction is ahead of schedule, and crime is down. The city is improving. In the newly renovated, mostly empty halls of Arkham Asylum, a man talks with one of the doctors. The damage to his friend's nervous system is irreparable - he can function more or less normally, but his fine motor skills and hand-to-eye co-ordination are shot, as is his concentration. He's the same man he was, he's just clumsier and less focused. No, replies the man, this isn't anything like the man I knew. His drive is gone. He remembers everything, but he doesn't care anymore. He's...happy.
He takes a seat in the Visitor's Room and his friend, Bruce Wayne, is brought through to see him. He doesn't understand why he's being kept here, but he doesn't mind. He gets to watch TV and talk to people. Hey, he thought of a joke. Would you like to hear?
"Sure" says the man who used to be the Joker, his face recovering from a round of plastic surgery to return it to normal - only two more to go.
"Why didn't I do well on my date? Because I had BAT breath! Get it?"
The Joker laughs, humouring his friend, then pats him on the hand and leaves.