This column was originally going to be a one off tumblr post, but I had enough fun with it to make it a series – and an organized series of essays is the kind of thing this website was literally made to host!
While I write my own stories nowadays, the old fanfic writer in me resurfaces every now and then in the form of idle thoughts about how I’d handle certain stories I love. Sometimes these musings lead me to one horrible conclusion: that no matter how much I may love the story in question, I’d be absolutely fuck awful at writing it. This is because the scope of things I’m interested in writing is significantly smaller than the scope of things I’m interested in reading/watching – my muse is a pickier eater than I am.
Still, no matter how awful and off message my bastardized mental versions of these stories may be, they keep popping up now and then, demanding to manifest as stories are wont to do. So today I’m going to exorcise one of them by summarizing it to you.
Today, my wonderful readers, I’m going to tell you how I’d utterly fuck up at writing Batman.
I’m a conditional Batman fan, because there’s a lot of Batman media out there and a lot of it is shit – and also there’s so much of it by volume that even reading/watching only the good Batman stuff would take more time than I can spare. So when I say I love Batman, know that I mean, like, mostly the 90′s animated series and scattered arcs like The Long Halloween that can stand alone, and The Dark Knight, and the Adam West show, and Holy Musical B@man, and some other random Batman stuff. I only know/like some Batman, but the amount of Batman I like is still, like, a lot of Batman. Jesus Christ there’s so much fucking Batman dudes.
But I have some problems with Batman, two of which are relevant to this post because they’re also kind of necessary to its appeal. The first is one that is almost justifiable, although it will undoubtedly sound preposterous to most people: why does Batman have to be so dark?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a horror fan, so obviously I’m not completely averse to darkness in my fiction. A big part of Batman’s appeal to me comes from how it’s rooted in Gothic Horror tropes. It’s a comic about a dude who dresses up as a Dracula to fight monster men in a city that’s literally called Gotham, so darkness has to be part of the story.
But jeeeeeesus christ Batman is needlessly dark sometimes. Does a bat themed super hero really need to be fighting a guy who carves tally marks into his skin for every person he’s murdered? Is the Joker really more interesting when he’s killing everyone he sees than when he committed clown themed heists? Isn’t being a crocodile man enough intrigue for Killer Croc, or does he need to be a creepy cannibal too? Does every villain need to be a murderer?
While the Adam West Batman show is so campy that I can only tolerate it in small doses, it nonetheless makes me pine for a brighter take on the character/series. It’s kind of nice to have bright colors and jokes and a Batman who doesn’t whine about how sad he is, and villains who are more into making elaborate puzzles and traps instead of finding new ways to mutilate their victims. I’d love to see it blended with the complex psychology of the darker Batmans – but more on that after we get to problem number 2.
Which is, of course, Batman himself.
Batman can be an interesting character. In the best Batman stories, I certainly do love him. But, to be totally honest with you, even at his best, Batman is never the main draw to me in a Batman story. He’s like the bun of a hot dog – it’d be weird to have one without him, and a lot of the more interesting ingredients would sort of fall apart without him holding everything together, and you’d have a great big sticky mess on your hands, but… I mean, if I’m honest, he’s not the part of this I’m looking forward to experiencing. Batman isn’t the meat of the meal to me – no, that role goes instead to his villains.
Goddammit those villains are great! Joker, Two Face, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, the Riddler, even the obscure ones like Killer Croc and Clayface, and even the shitty ones like Calendar Man – I just fuckin’ love almost every single one of ‘em, and they’re the reason I keep thinking about how I’d love to just… just utterly ruin Batman.
But when I start thinking of the story I want to tell with those villains, inevitably I remember that, oh hey, I need to have something for Batman to do because, y’know, it’s called Batman for a reason, and my muse just wants nothing to do with that. And that’s why the wheels always fall off.
Well, that and I have a billion other stories to write, but still.
So here’s how I’d ruin Batman in a brief pitch: My Batman story would star the villains, almost none of whom are murderers, in a version of Gotham where Bruce Wayne died with his parents, and thus has no Batman.
You’d have a Gotham City much like the one in Year One (I hate to reference a Frank Miller comic but it’s easily the most well known framework for where I’m starting here), ruled by a mix of slightly exaggerated gangsters and corrupt businessmen – more outlandish in their evil than the real thing but not quite on supervillain level. The villains would all retain their origins for the most part, but without a Batman to draw their focus they sort of turn on each other. It sort of splits into two factions: the Freaks, who are victims/products of the corruption inherent to the city, and the Crimelords, who are the few members of the old/mundane criminal element that adapt to the superpower boom and transition from normal gangsters to supervillains.
The resulting conflict would be the story of a bunch of broken people trying to destroy the system that made them, and the horrible remnants of the old crime world desperately trying to return things to how they are – anarchists vs. tyrants.
Now that we’ve got the basic plot/conflict down, let’s go to what I always focus on first when writing a story: the characters. We’ll begin with our protagonists…
The Joker – obviously the leader of the bunch, the Joker is probably one of the characters I would bastardize/alter the most. Nowadays it’s set pretty firmly in stone that the Joker has to be, like, the most evil man in existence. He’s gotta kill people on a whim, physically abuse his girlfriend, cut off his own face and wear it like a mask, and just generally be a real fuckin’ creep. But does he have to be that evil?
Well yes, yes he does, it’s what makes him iconic and is basically his defining trait, and without it most of the stories told with the character wouldn’t be possible. The idea that he’s the villain who gives other villains nightmares is what makes him stand out. If you lessen the depths of his depravity, you’d ruin Batman.
but does he haaaaaaaaaave to?
Imagine if you will a young, down on his luck commedian named Jack Napier who, in an attempt to provide for his wife, accidentally gets involved with the mob. They make him dress up as a (fictional) crime boss called the Red Hood for a caper – he has to act the part to get the police off the scent of the real bosses. Little does he know that he’s a patsy, set up to not only mislead the police but to buy time for the crooks’ escape by getting into a firefight. He’s shot and falls into some chemicals, gets bleached, and wakes up with a new, much more unhinged state of mind. Like the normal Joker, he finds the magnitude of his tragedy to hilariously absurd. Also like the normal Joker, he decides to become an agent of entropy in hopes of dismantling the city that made him a monster.
Unlike the normal Joker, however, the focus of his wrath isn’t a paragon of morality and justice, but rather the corrupt and powerful rulers of Gotham. He becomes the arch enemy of mobsters, crooked cops, and politicians – people the normal version of the Joker also antagonizes, of course, but not to this level. Since his nemeses are different, this Joker never defines himself as a force of evil and corruption. Instead he humiliates – this Joker punches up and brings those in power down a peg.
The “joke” theme because important here, as the Joker ends up creating a lot of schemes designed to ridicule and embarrass his victims as much as destroy them. It’s not enough to just shoot the corrupt politician – he needs to kill their ego and their sense of power. This Joker would much rather scare the shit out of his victim with a convoluted and frankly stupid “death” trap than just shoot them – and he’d be perfectly content just splatting them in the face with a vaudevillian pie instead of actually killing them at the end.
He wouldn’t be an out and out hero – he doesn’t go out of his way to save people or anything – but he’d also be a far cry from the “killing dozens of people a day for the sake of proving he’s evil” Joker we get nowadays.
He also wouldn’t be aware of the fact that other people don’t necessarily get the joke – not in the malicious “BWAHAHA I’M EVIL AND I’M KILLING YOU WITH LAUGHING GAS IT’S FUNNY TO ME BECAUSE I’M EVIL” way, but in the “Look, I know you’re technically in peril here but you have to admit it’s objectively ridiculous that you’re being dangled above a tank full of piranhas, right? I mean, is it even true that they eat people, or is that a myth? This whole thing’s pretty surreal right?” sort of way.
Harley Quinn – Harley is my favorite Batman character when she’s written well, but sadly she’s normally written absolutely horribly so I’m kind of happy to just fuckin’ ruin this story for her sake. Part of her problem is that the core concept for her character is “psychiatrist is seduced by patient, subjected to psychological and physical abuse by him, and because of said abuse becomes a supervillain.” I mean, a lot of Batman villains also have the “horrible psychological problems make people evil” thing going on which is, y’know, horribly unfortunate, but I feel like Harley’s hit harder than most.
But since the Joker isn’t nearly as much of a bastard in this story, maybe Harley can get out with a nicer origin as well?
This version of Harley isn’t the Joker’s victim so much as a collaborator – maybe the Robin to his Batman? They’re kindred spirits in their love of whimsy and their distaste for how the city is run – Harley in particular has a focus on the corrupt nature of the mental health facility she works at (I mean, Arkham’s not particularly good at its purpose even in the normal Batman universe). Like Robin, Harley softens the Joker’s war on Gotham’s criminal underworld a bit – she drags him into a more compassionate viewpoint. Unlike Robin, she’s not a subordinate/ward – while Harley plays on the Joker’s clown motiff, she doesn’t follow his schemes without question, and always argues for a different way of doing things when the Joker’s plans get too mean-spirited. They’re actual partners in crime, as opposed to the victim/abuser dynamic they had in past fiction.
I realize this is the kind of alteration to canon – y’know, making the main villain sympathetic and a canonically abusive relationship into a healthy romanticized one – that makes people use the word “fanfic” as a pejorative, but, well, I did say this is how I’d ruin Batman.
Catwoman – while the Joker is obviously going to be the leader of the bunch, Catwoman would be the deuteragonist, both because she’s just as iconic and also because she’s probably the closest thing to Batman in this world, and it is still ultimately a world designed to work around a Batman-ish character. Born poor, Catwoman pickpockets her way into wealth, specifically targeting the most corrupt of the wealthy. Unlike most of the other Freaks, she has the option of living a normal life, but is ultimately compelled to keep robbing from the rich and giving to the poor (and also herself – look, she has a lot of cats to feed). Catwoman grounds the Freaks in reality and helps them understand the rules of the system they’re trying to break – and, with her status as an up and coming socialite, is able to give them valuable intel on some of their targets.
Mr. Freeze – honestly you could just transplant the Batman: The Animated Series take on him right into here, because it’s kind of baffling he was considered a villain in the first place. It takes literally no effort to make him a heroic figure – you just have to remove the more-traditionally-heroic Batman to make him shine. Mr. Freeze isn’t as daffy and volatile as the Joker, but is every bit as determined to bring Gotham crashing down and to make the corrupt pay for their cruelty toward people like him. He’s also hilariously serious, providing a stoic counterpoint to the more flamboyant personalities of the other villains.
Poison Ivy – Poison Ivy’s motivation has been “protect the environment, plants specifically”, which is pretty noble to be honest – it’s just that her methods are unnecessarily homicidal. So, y’know, maybe tone that down a bit? Less “mind controlling innocent people and murdering them for money to build a plant park” and more “using convenient giant animate plants to halt construction that threatens local parks” sort of schemes. She’d basically be an environmental sciences themed vigilante – Captain Planet with an aggressive streak.
I know it’s more traditional to pair her with Harley Quinn, but I’d kinda like to try setting her up with Catwoman instead – both of them has this history of being femme fatales/evil seducers of men, so it’d be kind of fun to have a story where they just have none of that at all. Though pairing her with Harley and making the Harley/Joker relationship purely platonic is an interesting dynamic too…
Killer Croc – he’s a great big crocodile man who lives in the sewers because no one above ground accepts him, on account of him being a big crocodile man and all. Despite his fearsome appearance and prodigious strength, he’s a pretty swell guy – the gentle bruiser of the group.
Two-Face – like Mr. Freeze, you really don’t have to alter much to make him a good guy. Just keep Two-Face pointed at mobsters and he works as a hero pretty well.
The Riddler – In this world, the Riddler begins as a cop who, while clever, isn’t corrupt enough to excel in the police department. His superiors assign him to the Freak case in hopes of getting rid of him (preferably in a fatal sort of way), but that plan succeeds in the worst way, as he ends up defecting to their side. The Riddler helps the Freaks make their schemes truly bizarre and unpredictable, and helps them get to the bottom of who is truly running Gotham City. He’s also a smug prick about it, because smugness is key to his character.
Clayface – a star of Gotham’s theater scene, Basil Karlo is convinced to try an experiment age-defying makeup which turns him into a giant shape changing mud man. He becomes the group’s master of disguise and also ups their general theatricality, and can back up Croc as the muscle in a pinch.
Penguin – a petty thug with delusions of grandeur, Penguin wants to rise to the ranks of the social elite and goes to great lengths to seem more educated and “classy” than he is. While he is never accepted by the rich people he idolizes, he continues to do their dirty work in hopes of getting their approval. He is cunning in a way, though, and rises to prominence throughout the story as one of the few criminals who can keep up with the increasingly eccentric Freaks – probably because he’s basically one of them despite his protests.
Scarecrow – a corrupt psychologist at Arkham Asylum who helps the mafia by providing insanity defenses for mobsters and driving key witnesses insane, Scarecrow’s obsession with fear would spiral out of control throughout the story. Eventually he’d switch sides to the Freaks when he gets too weird for the oldschool criminals to tolerate, although he’d never be well liked by either side.
Firefly – a particularly skilled arsonist for the Maroni crime family. Not much more than that.
Deathstroke – the greatest assassin employed by the Falcone crime family, Deathstroke takes himself very seriously, which is to his detriment considering the pack of ridiculous monster men he’s facing in this story. He has a bitter rivalry with…
Deadshot – the greatest assassin employed by the Maroni crime family. Deadshot doesn’t take his work very seriously at all and is prone to sarcasm and flippancy. He kind of loves the fact that the freaks are causing so much ridiculous trouble for his employers, but that doesn’t mean he won’t kill them for a paycheck.
Bane – a mercenary hired by the crime families to take down the Freaks. Bane eventually switches sides; he may be a bad guy, but he also cares about the downtrodden having grown up in a city not unlike Gotham itself.
Calendar Man – the youngest son of the mafia boss Carmine Falcone, Alberto Falcone is inspired by the theatricality of the Freaks and becomes a holiday themed serial killer, targeting enemies of his father’s business in a misguided attempt to earn his approval.
Black Mask – As the different crime families slowly dwindle in number over the course of the story, Roland Sionis, an underboss for the Maroni family, eventually rises in the ranks (due to his superiors dying) and unites what remains of the mafia under his iron fist. Deciding to fight fire with fire, he crafts a grim alter ego for himself in hopes of striking fear into the Freaks. It doesn’t work because he’s just not theatrical enough to pull it off, but he does manage to be a thorn in their side for a while.
Hugo Strange – the chief psychologist of Arkham Asylum, Hugo Strange is an awful, awful man. He’s also an incredibly intelligent one, master minding many of the problems the Freaks encounter. He’s not the root of Gotham’s problems, though, as he ultimately serves…
Ra’s Al Ghul – an ancient sorceror who has made and destroyed countless societies in his many centuries of scheming, Ra’s Al Ghul made Gotham City into a nexus of misery and cruelty in hopes of awakening a world ruining entity – i.e. basically he’s trying to bring about Gozer the Destroyer. ‘Cause why not bring in a bit of Lovecraftian terror to a setting that has a madhouse that makes monster people that’s literally called Arkham Asylum?
And that’s it. That’s how I’d ruin Batman.
I’ll probably repurpose some of these ideas into other stories like I do with most of my fanfic ideas, but man, this sure is shitty as a Batman story, huh?