Title: Flashlight Bridge
Summary: The only thing separating a decent man and a deranged lunatic like The Joker was one bad day. The only thing separating a deranged lunatic like The Joker and a decent man was one bad day. By any measure, this had been a very bad day. A "Batman" fanfiction based on "The Killing Joke."
Thick drops of rain fell from the sky onto the dilapidated amusement park around Batman and The Joker. The pellets rang off the metal rides with sharp pings, and they made heavy thumps against the faded signs and wooden seats. The sprinkle was still light, but it was would have been enough to cause the thick, white greasepaint on The Joker's face to run, if it had indeed been greasepaint rather than a permanent stain forever etched on his skin.
"Two guys live in an insane asylum," The Joker said, looking towards the abandoned buildings nearby.
"And one night... one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. They decide they're going to escape! So they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight... stretching away to freedom." The Joker spread his arms wide in front of him. In the distance, the grand vista of the Gotham City skyline had lit up for the night. Dots of lights glimmered under the bright, full moon.
"Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend did not dare make the leap. You see, he's afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea. He says, 'Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!'"
The Joker waved with his hands in front of him in a gesture of negation. "But the second guy just shakes his head. He says... He says, 'What do you think I am? Crazy?'" The Joker turned behind him to address Batman. "'You'd turn it off when I was half way across!'"
The Joker went still and stared intently at Batman. The rain rustled through his green hair and down his bleached face. There was something inscrutable in his expression: plaintive, hopeful, fearful, vulnerable. Batman could almost convince himself that the water streaking down The Joker's cheeks were tears.
Then, in a snap, it was gone. The glimpse vanished, replaced with muted mirth.
"Oh, do excuse me," The Joker said. His snickers quickly escalated to expressive chortles and then to loud guffaws.
Infectious laughter bubbled through the abandoned amusement park, threatening to consume Batman, but he held firm. There was something more important at stake.
Things were never straightforward with The Joker. Double-meanings were constant, triple-meanings were common, and his metaphors were often referential similes of allegories. Trying to crack the code was what made dealing with him so difficult, but the fact that there was a code to crack was the only thing which made dealing with him possible.
The obvious interpretation of The Joker's story was obvious: the two guys had to represent Batman and The Joker. What else was there? What was underneath the underneath?
Was it an accusation that Batman was also crazy?
The thought had occurred to him before, but he outright dismissed it. Who could see any similarity between Batman's strict moral code and The Joker's wanton madness? Somebody would need to be absolutely crazy to make such a bad comparison.
Was it an expression of distrust of Batman's offer?
There was always an undercurrent of caution between Batman and Catwoman, and they had actually teamed up in the past. Batman and The Joker had never had the benefit of such a teaming. Somebody would need to be absolutely crazy to trust somebody they had only ever faced as an antagonist.
Was it a desire to be free of the insanity?
Batman certainly to end this cycle of destruction. That was why he had visited Arkham Asylum earlier with his offer, which had led to the discovery of The Joker's escape in the first place. That was why he had extended the offer to help just a minute earlier. Was it absolutely crazy to hope that The Joker felt the same way he did?
Yes, it was absolutely crazy. Hope was more Superman's and Wonder Woman's motif. Batman didn't have the luxury for such childish ideals. He was all about planing, hard work, and unyielding determination to see the job done.
Which was why he had to persist in the face of such insanity. Hoping The Joker could be redeemed was crazy, but even crazier was the idea that Batman would give up after a single rejection.
"The way I heard it was better," Batman said. If The Joker could talk in allegory, then it was only natural to try to reach him on the same level.
"Hee hee heeeee..." The Joker's laughter transformed to an extended wheeze, and he gasped for breath. "Oh? Batty-boy knows a joke? Do tell." He peered forward, and his grin somehow managed to grow yet larger.
"The way I heard it, the first guy then threw over the flashlight and said, 'Then make the bridge yourself.'" Batman opened one of the compartments of his utility belt and extracted a black cylinder.
"Ehh, your jokes are as flat as your personality."
"That's because it's not a joke," Batman said as he lobbed over the cylinder.
The Joker caught it. "What's this? The PUNCHline?" He twisted it around in his hands before pointing one end of it at his face. "Well, never let it be said I wasn't a bad sport for a bad joke. Here's looking at you, kid." He clicked the button on the flashlight, and an intense beam flooded out from it and bathed his face. "Ugghh!" He flung the device down and wiped at his eyes.
Batman picked the flashlight up off the muddy ground, clicked it off, and approached The Joker. It was time to end their latest dance.
It wasn't even close to a match. In a straight-up fight, Batman could overcome The Joker, and The Joker was still flailing around from his having temporarily blinded himself. Batman grabbed The Joker's arm and twisted it behind his back.
"This doesn't have to end with one of us killing the other," Batman said, inches from The Joker's ear. He slid the flashlight into one of The Joker's many pockets.
In the distance, the sirens of the approaching police grew loud enough to be heard over the hiss of the growing thunderstorm all around them.
Footsteps echoed in the Batcave, and Batman automatically tensed in reaction, ready to defend himself. He then recognized the volume and cadence of the taps and settled down. It was Alfred. It was Alfred in a hurry. Batman tensed up again.
"Call for you, sir."
"Is there? I didn't hear the phone." Batman glanced towards the nearest receiver. It was as quiescent as it had been for the past half hour.
"Your other system, sir. It's the Batsignal, I think."
"You think?" Batman's eyes darted over to the dashboard next to the phone receiver. He had sensors automatically searching the skyline for the Batsignal, which ironically made it easier to notice the bright beam of light in the Batcave than from the above-ground Wayne Manor proper. However, the light and siren there remained as quiescent as the telephone.
"Yes, sir," Alfred said. His eyes followed Batman's gaze to the non-flashing indicator. "It looks like the Batsignal, except..."
"Well, it appears that somebody has defaced it."
Assuming that was what actually happened, the list of suspects who could have done such a thing was short. The location of the Batsignal was easy to find, as it was as simple as tracing the giant, modified searchlight beaming in the sky back to its source. Considering it was on the roof of the Gotham City Police Headquarters, though, it took a criminal with equally high amounts of skill and audacity to risk tampering with it.
"How?" Batman asked as he stood up.
"There are several holes in it now. I suppose it could be said to look like a laughing face."
"I see," Batman said.
That wasn't good at all. It was too early to be certain exactly what it was, but laughing faces were the calling card of The Joker, and he certainly had both audacity and skill in excess. As a presumptive culprit, it was reasonable to assume it was him, until Batman discovered some contradictory evidence. That meant that Batman would need to be extra cautious.
"I suppose sir shall be going out for the evening?"
"Yes. Go and prepare the car," Batman said. For his part, he strode over to where he kept the Batsuits.
"Right away, sir."
Alfred, the consummate gentleman's gentleman, had the Batmobile warmed and running by the time Batman reached it.
"Oh, do be careful out there. This time it looks different."
"When am I not?" Batman climbed into the driver's seat.
"Sir." The exasperation rolled off Alfred's tongue.
Batman closed the door of the Batmobile and gunned the engine. Seconds later, he was out of the Batcave, and he caught his first glimpse of what was probably the Batsignal shining in the night sky above.
Alfred's description had been both accurate and completely understated. In the dark image of the stylized bat in the center of the signal, somebody had punched two small holes and a large gouge. It was easy to picture the dots of light on the left and right as being a pair of eyes, and the gash across the bottom as a grin. The malevolent visage loomed down, its deformed appearance of familiarity as ominous as a nursery rhyme being whispered in an abandoned playground.
The similarity to The Joker was unmistakable. The only question was if it was The Joker himself, or if it was somebody trying to frame him. He was extremely high profile, and mimicking his signature was all too easy. Either way, the situation was dangerous.
Batman parked the Batmobile several blocks away from the police station and hid it. He then used his grapple claw to vault up to the rooftops, his true domain in the city. Now that he was close enough, he could confirm that the source of the light was in fact the Batsignal.
He stopped two buildings away from the Gotham City Police Headquarters and took out a pair of binoculars to more closely examine his destination. Ambush was always a possibility, and irrespective of that, it was always better to go in with knowledge than with ignorance.
As was typical for a genuine summons, Commissioner Gordon was present and standing near the Batsignal. Atypical was the squad of police officers also present. Detectives McMillan and Bollock were stooped around the Batsignal, and Officers Wilkes, Montoya, Black, Cooper, Cunningham, and Ikeda formed a perimeter around the roof. The six officers held shotguns at the ready.
Batman turned his attention to the neighboring buildings. A sniper's gun or a remote detonator could be looming in the distance. His eyes darted between the countless nooks and crannies in the silhouettes of venting pipes and air conditioner towers, but nothing appeared overtly suspicious.
It was the best he could do. At some point, he needed to commit, either to entering or to leaving. All the signs pointed to this being a legitimate summons, so his choice was to enter.
He swung across the side buildings, taking the opportunity to check the nearby rooftops from another angle, and he positioned himself where he had spotted a weakness in the police officers' guard. Officer Black's and Officer Cooper's predictable search patterns left a five-second blind spot in the corner of the building. That was just enough time to swing across the last street and land on one of the upper ledges of their building.
Like the rest of the city, the concrete moldings of the Gotham City Police Headquarters was overdue for renovation. They gave the building a definitive Gotham feel, and they afforded numerous easy handhold for an experienced climber. Batman not so much scrambled as flowed around the building's facade to the opposite corner. He peeked his head up to confirm the area was still clear, and then he pulled himself onto the rooftop. That was the hard part done. Now that he was through the perimeter, it was easy to dash from tower to tower until he was just behind Commissioner Gordon.
Batman checked to make sure that an officer with an eager trigger finger wouldn't have a clear shot at him. He then asked, "Bad night?"
Commissioner Gordon gasped out. It was only a gasp, but it was enough to cause all of the twitchy people around him to react. Detective Bollock dropped the kit he was carrying and had his hand in his jacket, undoubtedly grabbing for the gun in his holster. Officers Montoya and Black ran forward, shotguns at the ready.
"It's Batman," Commissioner Gordon said.
All the police visibly relaxed, but Batman remained as stoic and alert as always. There was still the matter of the defaced Batsignal, and until he got a good explanation for it, he still considered the entire situation a potential trap.
"How'd you get here?" Commissioner Gordon asked.
"I'm Batman." It was the truth, and it added to the mythology. A great deal of Batman's power came from his mystique, and he tried to add to it whenever he could.
Commissioner Gordon sighed. "There's been an escape from Arkham Asylum. Bane broke through the walls."
"I see." That was impressive. Bane was preternaturally strong, but his holding cell had been designed with that in mind.
"Several other inmates escaped in the confusion. Chief among them are Poison Ivy, The Scarecrow, The Riddler, and The Mad Hatter."
"The Joker?" Batman suspected he already knew the answer, but it didn't hurt to confirm it. The Joker was always the top priority, so the fact that Commissioner Gordon hadn't said his name first meant that he was not an immediate concern. Presumably he was still in Arkham Asylum, despite the defaced Batsignal.
"Initial reports didn't include him, but I'm having some officers double-check," Commissioner Gordon said. He overtly looked towards the Batsignal, which now only had Detective McMillan hovering around it. Detective Bollock had abandoned his post and was shouting at some officers on the other side of the roof.
There was something else, too. A flicker of motion in the corner of Batman's eye, looming from a neighboring rooftop, in the perfect position for a sniper.
Batman twitched around and flung out his hand. A Batarang flew out, towards the presence there.
The Batarang whirled through the air and then reported back with a metallic ting upon hitting something on the far roof.
"Somebody was listening in. Take cover," Batman said. He then sprinted to the edge of the roof and jumped.
Even before he began to fall, he pulled out his grapple claw and shot it across the gap of the street. It launched him forward and up onto the neighboring rooftop.
If somebody with nefarious intent had been watching him, there was no chance of catching them by surprise, so the value of subterfuge was drastically reduced. Nevertheless, Batman still took an off-angle into cover. There was no reason to make himself an easy target, in case the other person was armed.
In the gloom of the night, the clutter surrounding him all merged together into a single, amorphous, blackened silhouette. It was impossible to make out any individual detail in the mess of vents, pipes, and air conditioning units. That was a curse as much as a blessing. Visual distractions applied to himself as much as to a potential opponent.
Batman systematically patrolled the area, circling from cover to cover in his approach to where he had targeted his Batarang. But nobody was there. He saw the scratch his Batarang had made on a metal pipe and where the Batarang itself had fallen onto the rocky ground below, but no person was present. There were footprints, though. It was impossible to be sure if they were fresh, but they were all over the area. And, based on their positioning, whoever it had been had been observing the roof of the Gotham City Police Headquarters. It was of particular concern that they were the same shoe size as The Joker wore.
Batman swung back to the roof of the Gotham City Police Headquarters and to Commissioner Gordon.
"Somebody was there, but they're gone now."
Detective Bollock spat to his side and said, "What? Got away from the amazing Batman?"
Batman ignored him and continued to address Commissioner Gordon. "Watch yourself. After what just happened, you can't ignore the possibility that somebody is targeting you."
"You mean The Joker is targeting me," Commissioner Gordon said. He once again looked at the defaced Batsignal. Light shone through the metal icon of a bat in its center. It looked like somebody had gone crazy on it with an ice pick, punching out the holes which manifested as the eerie eyes and the creepy grin in the sky.
"No crazy clown's coming anywhere near him. Not while Detective Bollock is on the case," Detective Bollock said. He brandished his pistol at some imaginary attackers.
"We're checking on him," Commissioner Gordon said. "I should hear back in the hour. How should I let you know what we find out?"
"Don't bother," Batman said. He spun around, his cape whipping back as he turned, and stalked away. He had some investigating to do.
There were two distinct possibilities. Either The Joker had escaped Arkham Asylum, or he had not.
If The Joker had escaped, then Batman would need to investigate his cell to learn what he could about his possible location and objectives.
If The Joker had not escaped, then Batman would need to interrogate him. The Joker always seemed to know everything about everything, even more so than The Riddler. If somebody was impersonating him, he would know about it. The trick was to get past his obscuring derangements.
Batman had two ways of entering Arkham Asylum. The first way was the easy way. He could get an appointment, explain his purpose in visiting, wait for the assigned time, and be escorted around the building while he did whatever he needed to do.
The second way was the easier way. He could break in.
Currently it was the evening, so any request to the staff of Arkham Asylum would take hours to complete. Hours was all it took for The Joker to assemble a gang and stage a takeover of anyplace he chose. The correct path was obvious.
Batman parked the Batmobile in the forest outside of Arkham Asylum, far enough away that the flashing lights of the police cars in the front of the looming Victorian buildings were barely noticeable. There was no reason to draw attention to himself on this visit, and there was every reason to avoid it. He would make the final approach on foot.
The large hole in the perimeter wall from Bane's breakout was very visible. As could be expected, the area was swarming with police officers, and construction crews had begun to arrive as well. None of that had anything to do with Batman, and he give them all a wide berth as he circled around to an empty section of the wall.
Early in his crime-fighting career, Batman had memorized the blueprints of Arkham Asylum. There had been a very real possibility that some police officers would have caught him and sent him there himself. Since proving himself, that possibility had dramatically shrunk, but he still kept himself informed of the various renovations to the compound. There was always a drip of editorials in the newspapers saying that he should be sent away.
Ironically, his preparations were much more frequently used to break into Arkham Asylum, rather than out of it.
He had his choice of exploits to infiltrate the compound, and he selected one of them at random. It would not do at all to become predictable, and thus easier to foil. This time, he would use the air vents at the top of the administration building to make his insertion.
The musky odor of hundreds of inhabitants, inmates and staff, embraced him as he made his way through the invisible highway of the building. The smell was unpleasant, but it was certainly better than approaching via the sewers.
Once he reached the specific cell which held The Joker, Batman poked the end of the Batscope out of the metal grating to survey the room. He checked every angle, especially the ceiling, but the room was empty of people: no orderlies, no police officers, and certainly no deranged man. What there was was something drawn on the far side of the wall.
After some adjustments to increase the magnification level of the Batscope, the distant blurry image came into focus and revealed itself to be a stylized image of a bat drawn in some red substance, possibly lipstick. It appeared similar to the Batsignal, with two dots on its sides and a scrawl of a line along its bottom. Along one of its corner edges, written in sloppy, block letters was, "WATCHING YOU WATCHING ME WATCHING YOU WATCHING ME".
It was obvious that The Joker had escaped, but where he had escaped to was anybody's guess. He had his usual lairs, such as the amusement park or the underwater cave, but as likely as not, he had established himself in a completely new location. It was just like his followers in Blackgate Penitentiary. Occasionally The Joker broke them out, but more often than not, he would just recruit a new gang every time he escaped. It was almost impossible to believe how quickly and easily The Joker could re-establish himself, but clearly his charisma and resourcefulness were up to the challenge.
Ideally, Batman would have entered the cell to examine it in more detail. There was information to be had in the sign of the bat that The Joker had left behind. There could be other smaller details he was missing as well, given the limited view the Batscope could provide. However, a voice drifting across the empty room forced the issue.
"It's this way, but I don't see why you're so worried. He's still here, safe and sound."
"You've clearly never dealt with The Joker before. Nothing's ever safe and sound with him," another man's voice said.
There was a jangle of keys and several heavy footsteps from standard-issue police boots.
The arrival of the orderly and the police forced the issue. If Batman were to enter now, it would result in a confrontation with them and a ruined crime scene. A better plan was to leave for now and request permission to do an official examination from the Arkham Asylum administration later. Certainly The Joker's escape would be reported up the chain of command, so the request would received expedited attention. The delay was both dangerous and painful, but it was better to get useful information later than nothing at all.
Batman retracted the Batscope and returned back the way he had come. As he retreated, he heard the viewing window of The Joker's cell slide open.
"See, everything's fine," somebody, presumably the orderly, said.
"Then where is he?" somebody else asked.
"What do you mean? He's right... what the?"
Less than a minute later, an alarm raised across the entire compound. That made Batman's escape trickier, as guards were both less predictable and more attentive when alerted, but it was nothing beyond his abilities. He was back on the rooftop and resealing his entrance in a matter of minutes.
The first thing Batman did upon returning to the Batmobile was make an official request to investigate The Joker's cell. The operator he reached on the phone exhibited shock that Batman knew about it already, but she said she would forward the request. He then started his drive back to the Batcave. He had a search pattern to plan out.
Barring any specific leads, the only real thing he could do was canvas the area for the recent escapees. The chances of finding Poison Ivy in the arboretum, The Riddler in the abandoned toy warehouse, The Joker in the old amusement park, and all of the other criminals was low. However, given the sheer number of targets, there was a decent chance that one of them would reuse one of their iconic hideouts.
His trip was interrupted by an alert on the police broadcasting frequency.
"We have a report of a hostage situation in the Axis Chemicals factory. Unconfirmed sightings of The Scarecrow. Extreme caution is advised. All units, please respond."
Sometimes, a case was cracked after days of meticulous research and thought. Sometimes, a case practically forced itself into the spotlight. Batman didn't mind at all. He banked the Batmobile hard around the next corner and raced to the scene of the ongoing crime.
The Axis Chemicals factory was located at the edge of the waterfront. Pipes, tubes, and conveyor belts sprawled in all directions of the compound, like a hydra from mythology poised to break free and rampage throughout the city. Its smell only added to the sickly ambiance. The clinging odor of chlorine, sulfur, and countless other chemicals suffused the area. Only those with business, legal or otherwise, went to Axis Chemicals.
Batman kept a low profile as he ran across the courtyard. He felt as exposed as a bat who had had his wings clipped. The lack of guards and workers made the trip easier, but it made it feel much more dangerous as well. The absence of any hint of ordinary operations confirmed the report that criminals had taken control of the facility, and he was going in nearly-blind.
Once he got close enough, he grappled up to an elevated walkway. That made him feel better. His vantage point offered him more cover and far more situational awareness. He then pulled out a pair of binoculars and used his height to survey the area a second time.
The front gates of the factory had been shattered. The guardhouse beside the gates was empty. The lights inside the guardhouse were on. The phone under the lights was still on its hook.
Batman put on a gas mask in preparation. He hated being robbed of his sense of smell, but it was a sensible precaution to take. The natural explanation for the abandoned post was Fear Toxin. There had been reports that The Scarecrow was in the area, and a guard who had been dosed with Fear Toxin would very likely have fled into the night.
He increased the magnification level of his binoculars and took a closer look at the gate. That had been the entrance point The Scarecrow had taken, so it was a prime place to look for clues as to what business The Scarecrow had in the Axis Chemicals factory. The answer to that would inform so many things, including the best approach Batman should take in this situation.
The ground was still wet from the recent storm, and deep tracks were very obvious in the soft earth directly lined up with the destroyed gates. That suggested that some heavy trucks were present, more so if they had been strong enough to do that much damage to the gates, so the supposition was that The Scarecrow was trying to steal some supplies. That would match with his profile. Chemical attacks were his forte, and he had to acquire them somehow.
Batman swung across the high walkways of the compound, it being both faster and safer than running, and made his way to the storehouses. He kept a close watch for any motion as he went, but it was the insane, manic laughter which actually caught his attention first. He slowed and transitioned to a more deliberate approach.
Two guards were practically laughing their heads off. They rolled around on the ground, the remains of torn tape clinging to their flailing hands. It was obvious that Joker Gas was also in play here. That meant that, contrary to the police report, The Joker had to be the culprit, not The Scarecrow. Or worse, The Joker could be present along with The Scarecrow. Either way, Batman would need to change his plans.
Past the guards, the laughter in the air only intensified. Through the windows of an office, a scientist was gleefully laughing as she threw reams of paper into the air like so much confetti. Two engineers were taking turns smashing the other's safety helmet with half-filled binders. It was pandemonium, as was always the case whenever Joker Gas was in play.
Then Batman heard what he had been listening for. In the distance, there was the familiar voice of The Scarecrow. That was perfect. Not only had Batman located him, The Scarecrow was also distracted by something.
As Batman quietly stalked forward, the voice of The Joker was added to the mix, confirming his earlier supposition. The Joker's strident voice was full of jocularity, but that indicated nothing at all. He always sounded jocular, even when hanging by his neck above a pit of spikes pleading for his life to be spared.
Of the two criminals, Batman would rather face The Scarecrow in a direct duel. The Joker's irreverent flippancy and unpredictable nature made him a foe far more challenging than his raw skill would have suggested. It was exceedingly difficult to get a handle on an opponent who would blithely hopscotch over a vat of molten metal.
That meant that Batman would use his single moment of surprise to subdue The Joker first. After that, The Scarecrow should be relatively easy to subdue as well. The Scarecrow had always eschewed the physical in favor of the mental, so the only real risk he posed would be the Fear Toxin he loved so much. Batman was already prepared for the airborne variety in the form of his gas mask, and facing a dart gun was far less intimidating than a traditional gun. Also, if it came to it, Batman had fought while under the influence of Fear Toxin before, although that was an experience he would very much not like to repeat.
He checked that his gas mask was secure and then crept forward.
There must have been a falling out of some kind, because The Joker and The Scarecrow seemed more interested in fighting each other than anything else. Batman had been planning on throwing a noisemaker as a distraction, but that proved to be unnecessary when The Joker's ongoing altercation with The Scarecrow brought him into Batman's range all on his own.
Batman fell onto him like a sack of concrete.
Next it was The Scarecrow's turn.
The Scarecrow tried all of his typical tricks. He drew a gun, which Batman knocked away with a Batarang. He tossed some sacks of Fear Toxin, which Batman swatted away like rubber balls. Then he went in for a punch. The unexpected physical action caught Batman by surprise, and his dodge away suffered for it. The few milliseconds of hesitation was all it took, and The Scarecrow's swipe knocked Batman's gasmask off.
Batman had been through this before, and he braced himself for the emotional assault which was to come. He could surpass the distraction of the nearly-overwhelming fear, but it would be a handicap. Against somebody like Bane, it would have been deadly. Against somebody like The Joker, it would have been dangerous. But against somebody like The Scarecrow, the situation was still manageable.
The image of The Scarecrow morphed and shifted, transforming from a man dressed like a straw dummy to a living automaton disguised as a man. But it was different this time. It was as if a little girl had taken the nightmarish visage and had drawn big rosy cheeks and a floppy hat on top of it. It was still grotesque, but the edge of fear had been removed. If anything, Batman felt the inclination to laugh at it, undoubtedly due to the traces of Joker Gas in the air.
Regardless, Batman asserted his willpower over his body, which was much easier than he had expected, and re-engaged The Scarecrow. It only took a few seconds to subdue him as well.
Ideally he would have questioned both The Joker and The Scarecrow, but he was in no condition to do that. Terrifically comic and comically terrifying images swam around his vision. He needed to get his head clear. He could let the police handle things from here.
Batman took a moment to tie the two criminals up and cut free some nearby hostages. He then grappled away.
The courthouses of Gotham City were very stationary, very visible, and very public. This made them a very easy target against which to plan an attack. Its published docket, which listed the specific times high-profile criminals would be in attendance, was practically a written invitation to attempt a breakout. As such, Batman always kept close track of the schedule, in case he ever needed to crash a party. The same attributes which made the courthouses easy to plan an attack against made them equally easy to plan a counterattack against.
However, among all of his plans, backup plans, and backup backup plans, none of them covered this particular situation. The Joker had always been unpredictable, and once again he managed to surprise.
The Scarecrow's arraignment had been scheduled, as had all the other criminals involved with the attack on the Axis Chemicals factory. Everybody had their place on the list, with indictments ranging from Aaron Anderson to Zoe Zegers. There was just one glaring omission, and The Joker's absence from the docket was as conspicuous as thunder without lightning.
That immediately became Batman's top priority. Whenever The Joker was unaccounted for, bad things happened.
A polite visit to Commissioner Gordon revealed that there had been no sign of The Joker at the Axis Chemicals factory when the police had arrived. The Scarecrow and his gang had been there, exactly as Batman had left them, but only them. He also informed Batman that the arresting officer had been Officer Montoya.
While the Gotham City Police Department had its share of corrupt, incompetent, and lazy officers, Officer Montoya was none of those. Something was very wrong.
A polite visit to Officer Montoya revealed that she and her fellow police officers had arrived shortly after Batman had left. They had found the collection of criminals Batman had incapacitated, including The Scarecrow himself, but that had been all they had found. They had had no reason to think The Joker had been there, so they hadn't given the matter any thought.
That was incredibly suspicious. It wasn't impossible for The Joker to have escaped in the time between Batman's departure and Officer Montoya's arrival, and if the air had cleared, the final traces of Joker Gas might have been masked by the vestiges of Fear Toxin. However, even the most casual of interviews with the witnesses in the factory would have revealed that The Joker had been present.
It was time to pay a polite visit to the guards Batman had rescued.
Breaking in was trivial. Batman's entrance of choice was through a window, that being the way least likely to draw undesired attention. He then waited in a dark shadow for his target to arrive home, enter, and close the door behind him.
"Lawrence Thorton?" Batman asked. It was a rhetorical question. Batman already knew Lawrence's biography.
"Wh..what?" Lawrence yelped. A second later, an eternity if this were an ambush, he clawed towards towards the empty space at his waist where he would have kept a gun if he had been on duty.
"What happened at the factory?"
"Oh, god! You're Batman!"
"The break-in at the Axis Chemicals factory. What happened to The Joker?"
"Th.. The Joker? I don't know."
"I left you in clear sight of him. You know something. Now talk!" Batman took a step forward to loom over Lawrence.
"I don't know! He just disappeared!"
That was, at best, a creative interpretation of the truth. Batman had secured The Joker. The chances he had escaped his bonds in that short amount of time were fleetingly small. Not literally impossible, but exceedingly unlikely. And if he had, then Lawrence and the dozens of other guards would have told the police. Something else was going on here.
There were two possible explanations. The first possibility was that Lawrence and all the others had been threatened into silence by The Joker. That was unlikely, given the sheer number of witnesses and how little time The Joker had had. The second possibility was that they were in cahoots with him. Like so many of the high-profile criminals Batman regularly fought, The Joker possessed a terrifying amount of charisma. Recruiting a criminal gang was difficult in the best of times, yet The Joker was able to rebuild a new one time and again after escaping from Arkham Asylum.
In either case, Lawrence had demonstrated his uncooperative nature. It was time to escalate.
Batman stepped forward, grabbed the collar of Lawrence's shirt, and held him up to stare him straight in the eye. The man was heavy, but far from the heaviest thing Batman had ever had to lift.
"I've been trying to stay polite, but you are seriously testing my patience." Some light pressure should help, regardless of which of the two explanations for Lawrence's recalcitrance was the true one.
"He... he..." Lawrence's voice faltered. "I let him go!"
"You did what?" Batman pulled Lawrence forward, such that his face was only inches away.
"It just don't feel right, you know?" Lawrence's thick Gotham accent became much more pronounced in his torrent of babbling.
"No, I don't. Explain yourself," Batman said. He relaxed his grip to the extent that the tips Lawrence's feet once again touched the ground, easing up his pressure as a reward for Lawrence's cooperation.
"He... that is to say... The Joker... he was just trying to help, you know? It don't feel right to be turning him in because of that, you know?"
Batman couldn't believe his ears. The very notion that The Joker had tried to help was like hearing that Wonder Woman had become tired of fighting for peace and was retiring to focus on her side job of drug smuggling. It was technically possible, but so foreign an idea as to be effectively unimaginable.
"How was he 'trying to help?'"
Lawrence's accent only grew thicker as he went on to explain. It began when The Scarecrow had broken into the Axis Chemicals factory. It was only later that The Joker showed up. He had released some captives, spread around some Joker Gas, and ended up in a fight with The Scarecrow. That was when Batman had arrived. After Batman had left, the different witnesses had felt guilty about leaving The Joker to be arrested when he had helped some of them and had fought against The Scarecrow. They had subsequently decided to let him go and cover up his presence.
Batman was not happy, but at least he now knew what had happened. The Joker had disappeared again. That was bad. The only question was if Batman could find him before he struck again.
Sometimes, things really were simple. Criminals robbed banks because that's where money was. Criminals robbed Wayne Enterprises because that's where everything else was. Medicine, furniture, ships, textiles, weapons, satellites. No matter what somebody wanted, Wayne Enterprises had it. Naturally, that included advanced security systems, both for sale and in use.
Those same alarms were busy alerting Batman, as well as a plethora of authorities, that the incident in Wayne Pharmaceuticals to which he was approaching was still ongoing.
As the head of Wayne Enterprises, Batman had full access to everything in his multinational conglomeration, but that was a dangerous form of access to use in situations such as this. It would be all to easy to draw a connection between Batman and Bruce Wayne. It was best to be circumspect and to treat this the same as any other crime scene.
Batman entered through one of the skylight and landed on the rafters along the factory ceiling. This placed him above the bright, florescent lights which illuminated the vast, shop floor. That was perfect. It gave him a clear view of the entire area, and it masked his presence from anybody who happened to glance up.
"Let me go!"
Tiffany Maxwell, the director of operations of the Wayne Pharmaceuticals Northside branch, was trussed up like a caterpillar in a cocoon. Her squirming was as ineffective as her protests were as The Joker carried her over his shoulder across the elevated walkway.
"You should be proud," The Joker said. "A good director always throws herself into her work."
"No, no, please!" Tiffany desperately swung her body around, and she managed to knee The Joker in the chest. The lack of leverage and counterbalancing weight meant that it was, at best, a light strike.
"Ouch! The kid's got a kick to her," The Joker said. He stopped at the edge of a large vat of bubbling liquid and raised Tiffany high above his head. "Smile. It's time for your closeup."
Batman was already moving. He shot his grapple to a distant crossbeam and swung forward.
"What the?" The Joker asked as Batman snatched Tiffany out from above his head.
Batman raised his legs, and the heels of his shoes barely cleared the edge of the vat as he swung over it. He then released, timing it such that he and Tiffany landed on the walkway on the opposite side of the gap, away from The Joker.
"You again?" The Joker asked. "You're like a bad rash, Bats, always showing up in the worst places."
The walkway Batman was on wasn't directly connected to the one The Joker was standing on. If The Joker wanted to attack him, he would need to noisily run around the catwalks. As long as Batman kept listening, The Joker wouldn't be able to surprise him, so Batman took the opportunity to attend to Tiffany.
"What are you planning this time?" Batman asked as he knelt down.
"Hold it, hold it," The Joker said. "Why are we fighting? I'm the hero this time."
"Hero? That's a bad joke, even for you," Batman said as he cut Tiffany free. He was willing to talk for as long as The Joker wanted to. When The Joker was talking, he wasn't doing something more nefarious.
"I'm serious," The Joker said. His mocking voice sounded anything but. "I have a new mission in life."
"Attacking innocents? Doesn't seem very new to me, or heroic," Batman said. He finished releasing Tiffany's legs and then stood up again. It felt much more comfortable, now that he could watch The Joker as well as hear him.
"No. I'm all about workplace safety now. That's something even a grumpy dumpy like you could get behind. You know, 'LIVING with your mistakes is HARDER than you think,'" The Joker said. The way he emphasized his words made the trite slogan sound like a threat.
"That's right. These things are an accident waiting to happen, and it's never polite to keep somebody waiting," The Joker said. He spat into the vat in front of him, and his spittle landed in the liquid with a sizzle.
The metal walkway clanked as Tiffany scurried away, as was the natural impulse for any bystander near The Joker. It was a healthy instinct.
"Not so fast, sugar. You have a date with the front pages of the newspapers. You're gonna be in pictures," The Joker said. He ran to the nearest crosswalk, but Batman moved to intercept him. When The Joker realized that, he stopped again. "Aww, you can't just let her get away. How else am I supposed to raise awareness?"
"Why are you doing this?" Batman asked.
"Isn't it obvious? You know how it goes: An innocent man has a horrible accident which scars him for life, so he dedicates his life to being a superhero to make sure nobody else ever has to go through blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." The Joker opened and closed his hand as if it were a talking mouth. "It's the same old origin story we've heard hundreds of times already."
That was interesting. Despite how frequently Batman had fought The Joker, he had never discovered who The Joker had been before he was The Joker. Pamela Isley, Harvey Dent, Osward Cobblepot, Edward Nigma, Harley Quinn. Batman knew the backstory and origin of practically all of his regular foes, but never The Joker.
Every time Batman had tried to trace back who he had been prior, he found a different supposed history. One time, he had been a jewel thief who had become bored and escalated too far in his search for thrills. Another time, he had been a hitman who had been permanently scarred by a rival faction's attempt at revenge. There was the story of him being a poor and psychotic comedian whose medication had run out. There was the story of a young boy who had been kidnapped and experimented on to generate a plague. The dozens of stories Batman had found all sounded equally plausible.
"Is that what happened to you?" Batman asked. One of the stories was that of a scientist for a playing card company who had suffered some kind of workplace related accident. It sounded like The Joker was suggesting that that one was the real truth.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" The Joker asked. He took the finger he was pointing accusingly at Batman and turned it to point at his own face. "Wouldn't I like to know? No!" The Joker dropped his hand to stand akimbo and leaned towards Batman with a grin. "History is better as a multiple choice exam, don't you think?"
Batman did not take the denial at face value. It was possible that The Joker had just made up that story, but it was also possible that that was a hint of his history peeking out. Batman would need to investigate it later.
It was only years of practice with stoicism that allowed him to keep the disbelief out of his voice. He asked, "So now you've dedicated your life to industrial safety?"
"Exactamundo! See? I knew you'd understand. I was right. You and I aren't so different!"
The Joker was nothing if not unpredictable, and if he was trying to be a hero, it certainly would have qualified as unpredictable. Batman was skeptical, but he couldn't think of any other objective The Joker would accomplish by trying to kill Tiffany. He was willing to tentatively assume it was true, until he found evidence to the contrary.
As unlikely as it was, it was better than the alternative.
Batman could capture The Joker and turn him over to the police, who would hand him to the courts, who would incarcerate him in Arkham Asylum, where he would once again escape to repeat the cycle over and over. Batman was good at planning and forecasting, and he saw the end of that path: the death of The Joker and, by proxy, the death of Batman.
What was one crazy try against the countless previous arrests of The Joker? The only question was what he should do instead of capturing him?
Batman had had no shortage of dealings with misguided heroes. He had given "the talk" to Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and every other hero who had tried to barge their way into Gotham. They knew how to be heroic in the abstract, but they didn't understand the streets of Gotham and the precarious balances which kept the city livable. Their hearts were in the right place. Batman just needed to set them on the right path.
This seemed like the opposite side of that proverbial coin. There was no denying that The Joker intimately knew Gotham. For once, it seemed like the issue was that the would-be hero was instead missing information on how to be heroic.
"No killing," Batman said.
"What?" The Joker asked.
"You are not allowed to kill anybody," Batman said.
"No killing?" The Joker asked. "If a doctor can't use a sword, then what good is he?"
"I'm serious. Nobody deserves to die." Batman glared at The Joker. "Not even you."
"Moi? Bats, I'm hurt. I'm just trying to cut out some cancer here. Let some fresh new thing fill the hole left behind," The Joker said.
Batman flicked a Batarang into his hand, ready to throw.
"Okay, okay! No need to be so touchy. Sheesh," The Joker said. He waved both of his hands in the air in a symbolic gesture of surrender. "Then if I can't do a public demonstration on diamond-girl, what else am I supposed to do?"
"Something else. Report it to the company. Let them fix it," Batman said. He knew Wayne Enterprises, so in this example, knew a specific channel which could have effected some change. However, telling it to The Joker wouldn't help for the next time he targeted a problem in some different company, assuming The Joker was being honest and actually was trying to champion workplace safety.
"Report it to the authorities?" The Joker cackled. "Batman claiming the system works. And they say you don't have a sense of humor." The Joker laughed harder. "What would have happened if I went to you and said your safety standards were trash. 'Who reported it?' 'The Joker!' Would that even get past your assistant's secretary's assistant's secretary? Ha!"
The worst part was that The Joker was probably correct. Any report by him would have been, at best, ignored by the receiving party. It was the other side of having a reputation. It was like when Batman had first begun his own career in vigilantism, when the police had been more likely to shoot at him than not. Beginnings were always difficult, and there was no easy answer.
"Then find your own way," Batman said. It had been a long and convoluted road for Batman to establish trust, including forming a personal relationship with then-detective Gordon, but he had done so. Somebody as creative and charismatic as The Joker could make it happen as well, if he applied himself. "But no killing. I'll be watching."
Batman was prepared for many things, but the interruption of his phone call with Lucius Fox was not one of them. He frantically thought through the conversation he had been having, trying to think if there was anything he had unknowingly revealed. He was always careful, but mistakes were inevitable.
He had been talking to Lucius about doing an audit of the various Wayne Enterprises facilities to resolve any unsafe working conditions within them. The Joker had been right; an exposed vat of corrosive chemicals was a safety hazard.
The timing of The Joker's interruption was both suspicious and concerning, but Batman concluded that he hadn't said anything out of place.
"Who is this?" Batman asked. Bruce Wayne could be excused, or even expected, to not recognize the voice and the antics of The Joker.
"You're probably wondering what I'm doing here," The Joker said.
"How'd you get on this line?" Lucius asked.
"I just found out myself!" The Joker said. "Have you been mangled by a falling anvil?" There was a crash of something in the background. "Has somebody know been hideously scared by a meeting with industrial acid?" There was now a prominent hissing sound. "Don't worry. I'm here to help! Just call out, and I'll be there for you. 'But how?' I hear you ask. That's easy. Anyway you want! I'll be listening." A musical jingle played.
"I'll talk to you later," Batman said.
"Yeah," Lucius said.
Batman quickly closed the line and rushed towards the Batcave. His best resources were there. That would be the place from which to trace down the source of The Joker's attack.
Alfred was the consummate butler, always perceptive, attentive, and discrete. The fact that he had interrupted Batman in a corridor when he was so obviously in a hurry was telling. Clearly whatever Alfred had to say was important.
Batman slowed his pace and asked, "What is it, Alfred?"
"You may be interested in knowing that I just heard something rather odd," Alfred said. He matched his pace to Batman's.
"The Joker, I believe. I had the TV on while I was working, and he came on screen. He was saying something about calling him for something," Alfred said.
"I see. Thanks for letting me know. I'll look into it," Batman said.
The interruption of his phone call with Lucius had sounded strange. The Joker hadn't reacted in any way to anything Batman or Lucius had said, and there had been all of those sound effects in the background. If it had been concurrently broadcast as a TV advertisement, that would explain both of those oddities, and it helped considerably in determining what had happened.
"Do you suspect he's up to something?" Alfred asked.
"He's always up to something."
"Very well. I shall go prepare for you."
Assuming The Joker had tapped into everybody's phones, that limited the number of locations from which he could be operating. Adding the TV to that further reduced the number of places.
Batman used the computer in the Batcave to pull a recording of the TV transmission Alfred had mentioned earlier. It was exactly what he had expected, with the audio matching the voice lines he had heard on the phone. The video was predictable as well. When The Joker mentioned the anvil, one fell through the air and crashed into the floor behind him. When The Joker mentioned the acid, he negligently flipped a doll over his shoulder into a vat.
More interesting was the scene in the window behind The Joker. It showed the familiar skyline of Crest Hill, not unlike the view Batman saw outside the window of Wayne Manor whenever he looked in that direction. He mentally went through his list of potential attack points and confirmed one was in Gotham Heights. That was all he needed.
The Batmobile was fully prepared by the time Batman reached it, and he wasted not a moment in racing out of the Batcave.
It was a short drive before Batman reached the broadcasting station he had pinpointed as the likely position of The Joker. The fact that there was no obvious maliciousness occurring there meant nothing. Crime scenes varied in their visibility, ranging everywhere from an entire platoon of armed criminals guarding the area all the way down to a clandestine breaking and entering by a discreet Catwoman. Batman still approached every scene in a similar way. Having the element of surprise was never a bad thing.
Batman grappled up to a second-floor window and let himself in. He then crept around, scouting the area for information as to if The Joker had attacked, and if so, where he was and what he was doing.
The common motif throughout the building was shouting. There was a great deal of it. Some of it was angry, and some of it was frustrated, but none of it sounded terrified as such. There was also a dearth of hysteria. It did not match The Joker's typical method of operation. If he was present, nobody here knew about it, and given how everybody was scampering throughout the building, his presence would have been quickly noticed.
This place appeared to be a dead end, so Batman let himself out and returned to the Batmobile. He needed to take another look at the recording to see if he could find any additional clues.
A monitor in the Batmobile let Batman replay the video for a closer examination. He paused at a frame with a clear view of the window and zoomed in to better inspect the Crest Hill skyline. Anything might be a clue as to what was going on.
The window in the image was small, but the steeple of St. Patrick's Cathedral was very visible and provided a good reference point. Near the steeple was the silhouette of Gotham Heights High School. Both of them looked very ordinary, but they somehow appeared uncanny, too.
Batman looked out of the window of the Batmobile. It was subtle, but the two buildings looked closer to each other than in the video. That suggested that the video hadn't been recorded in the broadcasting station he had just visited. Moreover, he could use the relative position of the two structures to calculate where the video had been shot.
He compared the actual sizes of the church and the school buildings to their measured sizes on the screen, used that to calculate the angles needed to get the perspective to line up correctly, and plotted all of that information on a map. It all converged onto a building three blocks away from the broadcast tower. He checked it against a map of the transmission lines of Gotham and saw that there was a major nexus of cables flowing straight under his new target. That was enough evidence for him to move.
The new building had been designed in an Art Deco style. It was an off-white stone with numerous square angles and tall moldings in the front. However, in a fundamental way, it was the same as the broadcast tower in that it looked completely benign and quiet. Similarly, Batman remained stealthy in his approach to this newest suspected crime scene.
He grappled up to the third floor, slid open a window, and made his entrance. He then proceeded to scout out the area, first listening and then peering around the corners as he went. It was always better to be the surpriser than the surprised. And his vigilance paid off. He heard The Joker's giggle floating quietly through the air. The telling laugh led an extra-cautious Batman through the building to what looked like a lair that a Poison Ivy who had exchanged her obsession with plants for an obsession with machines might have created.
Wires streamed everywhere, infesting the floor like so many weeds. They sprawled around an anvil, and they draped over what looked like an inflatable pool. There were so many of them that it was hard to track, but they appeared to terminate into the side of some frankensteinian monstrosity on the far end of the room. And in front of that machine sat The Joker, cross-legged on the ground.
The first priority was always to safeguard the lives of bystanders from The Joker's wrath, and Batman quickly looked around the room in search of any hostages. However, his search revealed that the room was bereft of any. No bound and gagged woman hung above the pool of liquid. No man was tied to a chair with a suspicious box in his lap. The only person in the room was The Joker.
The second priority was always to put a stop to the nefarious activities The Joker was engaged with. Here, too, Batman was stymied. The Joker was mostly sitting still, intently listening to a headset plugged into the strange device in front of him. He occasionally giggled. There were no large buttons near him, nor was he engaged in a manic frenzy of activity. If there was a proverbial ticking time bomb, Batman didn't see any evidence of it.
Batman was at a loss. He had never had an encounter with The Joker like this before, and he wasn't sure what to do.
As he didn't have any other ideas, he resorted to his default approach. He would begin a polite conversation and see where it took him. He skulked into a dark corner, loomed large, and then growled out, "What are you doing?"
Unlike Commissioner Gordon, The Joker did not startle or cry out. He didn't even turn around. He pulled off his headset and said, "What now? Can't you see I'm busy? The phones have been ringing off the hook!"
From the headset, Batman could hear the quiet cacophony of hundreds of voices concurrently speaking.
"I asked you a question."
"Well, since you took all the trouble, I suppose I could give you the dollar tour," The Joker said. He leaped to his feet and spun around to face Batman. The Joker then gave a dramatic gesture towards the machine with all the confident bravado of a stage magician showing off his latest trick to an audience. "Behold! My latest creation!"
"What is it?"
"With this puppy, I can hear anybody who might need me," The Joker said.
"You're listening in on all the phone calls of the city?" Batman asked. It wasn't hard to imagine somebody compromising the large number of grids which ran underneath the building. Batman could certainly do so if he needed to, and if he could, then he was sure that somebody as resourceful as The Joker could as well.
"Preciseamundo!" The Joker said. "If I can't take a hands-on approach, I'll do a hands-off approach."
The idea of The Joker listening in to all the telecommunications of Gotham was terrifying. Anybody with that amount of information was dangerous. The potential for blackmail alone was staggering. As careful as Batman was, sometimes he let slip something he shouldn't in a place he shouldn't, and ordinary people were far less scrupulous than he was.
Batman reached down for some cords strewn across the ground and tore them apart.
Batman ignored The Joker's protest and ripped another handful of cords apart.
"What are you doing?" The Joker shouted. However, he didn't make any move to stop Batman.
"You can't spy on everything that goes on in the city," Batman said. He took The Joker's lack of motion as an opportunity and ripped the central device free, throwing it across the room. It smashed into the anvil with a loud crunch.
"Why not? You do it all the time," The Joker said.
Batman had no good response to that accusation. He did have a large passive surveillance system, and he had actively breeched the security of others when he had needed to. Still, it wasn't the same. He could go into details about the precautions he took to avoid violating the privacy of the citizens of Gotham, but The Joker could say he would do the same. Batman could say that his history showed him protecting the citizens of Gotham while The Joker's history showed him exploiting them, but Batman had not had that history when he had started his career in crime fighting.
Ultimately it was a matter of trust. Batman trusted Batman. Batman did not trust The Joker.
"Find another way," Batman said.
"Like what? How am I supposed to know where there's a problem. Ask some all-knowing oracle or something?" The Joker asked.
"That's your problem," Batman said. "This is my city, and I will protect it."
"Sheesh! All your fussy rules!"
Batman spun around and walked away.
The Joker hadn't been directly harming anybody this time, and as misguided as it was, it sounded like he was trying to do the right thing. It would be hypocritical in the extreme to turn him in to the police for trying to engage in some vigilantism.
A man like The Joker was impossible to forget. However, compared to the immediacy of Poison Ivy's poisoning of the city's water supply, Clayface's replacing of Commissioner Gordon, The Penguin's robbery of the charity auction, and all of the daily muggings, kidnappings, vandalisms, and other crimes of Gotham, The Joker's quiescence was easy to overlook.
And months passed by.
Batman must have thought about The Joker at some point, but specifically where and when was impossible to say. It was hard to link a brush war amongst some warlords directly to him. The idea that an adventurous and energetic man could find opportunities in Africa was likewise amorphous. With the benefit of hindsight, both of those developments were related, but that was only with the benefit of hindsight. Maybe it was the rumors of flashlights being some strange new banner which had caused Batman to subconsciously make a connection.
Regardless, when Batman read the headline of the Gotham Gazette, he was far less surprised than he felt he should have been, considering The Joker was declaring he had founded a new country in Africa. Vicki Vale's exclusive interview explained how he had fled the stifling atmosphere of Gotham to do some real good in a place where his unique talents would be appreciated. He loved the carefree world he had found, and he welcomed anybody to come join him.
The truth of the reality on the ground was hard to determine. At first, several self-proclaimed generals had denounced The Joker as a violent madman who had invaded and conquered them, but it was hard to take the reports of men who used kidnapped children as a military force to control diamond mines seriously. Then those very same generals started dying in conspicuously gruesome ways, and the denunciations quickly came to an end.
There were some motions in the United Nations to organize a peacekeeping force to render assistance, but those weren't expected to go very far. Piracy near the coasts of Africa for Wayne Enterprises had been reduced by 10% in the last quarter, and they weren't the only ones. Combined with the rumors of a slowly improving infrastructure there, it was hard to find anybody who was too negative on the recent events. The pragmatic reality was that there were a great many organizations who unofficially approved of the change in the status quo, even if few could openly express that support.
The Joker had transformed from a local problem into an international geopolitical issue, but that was fine for Batman. As long as The Joker did nothing to threaten Gotham, Batman was content to leave him be.
This story had two inspirations. It began when I heard somebody commenting on the "you and I aren't so different" speech and how it was so trite. That got me thinking about how it is fairly cliche: the villain says it, the hero has one of maybe three different reactions, and then he ultimately rejects it. It then occurred to me that if the villain postulates that he and the hero aren't so different, then why is it never the villain who changes as a result of that realization?
Then I read "The Killing Joke." The ending of that storyline was an interesting one. The Joker rejected Batman's offer, but he clearly regretted doing so. It's not too hard to imagine another universe in which he took the metaphorical bridge out of the asylum.
That made me curious if there were any stories which tried to redeem The Joker. However, after a few minutes of searching, I failed to find any, and that really surprised me. If characters like Voldemort, from the Harry Potter series, have stories in which they are redeemed, why didn't The Joker? All it would take was one minor change to the ending of "The Killing Joke."
So, as I've done before, I got to the point that I thought, "This story should exist, but I can't find it, so I guess I'll need to write it myself."
The fundamental question for me was, "What does redemption look like for somebody like The Joker?" I had numerous ideas, including: him being a Punisher-style kill-the-deserving vigilante, him becoming a workplace-safety advocate due to his trauma from being exposed to industrial chemicals, him joining Batman as Batclown, and several others. In the end, I concluded that The Joker was not a nice person, so the most reasonable idea was for him to engage in anti-hero style behavior in a place where it would be better than the alternative.
Annoyingly, I feel like this story has a fundamental problem. At its core, The Joker is its main character. He is the one who is being proactive in his decision making, he is the one going through all the character development, and he is the one who is driving the narrative forward. This story really should have been told from his point of view.
However, I didn't realize that until long after I had finished my first draft of this version. I began a rewrite, but I just didn't have any interest in doing the substantial work needed to complete it. This story had already taken much longer to write than I feel like it "should" have, and I had no enthusiasm to do it all a second time. Incidentally, I'm becoming increasingly familiar with why story rewrites so frequently end up abandoned.
I was left with the dilemma of whether or not I should spend the time revising and polishing this story, flawed as it is. My final conclusion was that I think that people would prefer to see something than nothing, and this is the result of those decisions and efforts.
Perhaps one day this idea will get a better treatment. Possibly I'll become motivated to come back and properly rewrite it. Possibly somebody else will be inspired to write their own story which redeems The Joker.
Regardless, I would very much appreciate it if you took a moment to let me know what you thought about this story. I hope you enjoyed reading it.
Last Updated: June 24, 2021