Have you ever wanted to write a Batman story?
Have you ever wanted to take pen and paper to wear the cape and cowl and bring The Dark Knight to Gotham? Don’t be bashful – you still have a noir caper in the back of your mind begging to be solved, that buddy cop team-up adventure that would paint Gotham red, or that blockbuster Justice League story that, you swear, will change the DC universe forever, don’t you? You just haven’t gotten around to it and – you don’t know where to start. Let me help you. Let me show you that you only need three things for your trip to Gotham.
The first thing you need is a hole. Every Batman story starts with Bruce Wayne falling down hole, so you’d better dig one.
Batman: Year One saw Batman don the cowl for the first time to climb out of the hole in his life left by the death of his parents.
The Long Halloween and Hush helped Batman realize how deep trenches can go in Gotham and how they can disfigure the people who fall into them.
The Killing Joke warned Batman how easy it would be to succumb to the darkness inherent in the abyss while Arkham Knight showed us how frightened he is of falling into the abyss within himself.
Grant Morrison forced The Dark Knight to face meta-abstractions and musings about his incessant flights through the pit after asking him, “do find the pits or do we create them ourselves?” in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.
The Dark Knight Rises features Batman in a very literal hole.
Tom King just finished a magnum opus asking us if Batman can find happiness rooting himself in the void. James Tynion IV’s run on Detective Comics reminded Bats to lean on his family to warm himself in the crevice. And Scott Snyder, by means of the The Court of Owls, Dark Knights: Metal, The Last Knight on Earth, and the grand totality of his work in Gotham preached the importance of never losing hope in even the darkest of chasms.
The anatomy of any Batman story has always and will always be predicated upon Batman finding a hole in the human condition and navigating it; the rest is plotting and prelude to usher the fissure.
Macabre detective capers allow him to dive into the dredges of the human experience. Multiversal collapses are chances to prove to The Justice League that even the most grandiose threats can stem from the simplest of human maladies. Quiet fables of him standing firm to help a single person in Gotham remind us that we are all important while legends of him standing firm in the face of legions of dark remind us to fight as long as there is light.
You can begin to challenge Batman once you’ve chosen the depth of the story. He needs an antagonist to struggle against, one that can challenge his views of the hole and his resolve to escape it. Yes, this is the fun part. The second component of a great Batman story is the villain.
We haven’t seen Two-Face a lot lately. It’s good to remind readers that he’s spent decades in the throngs of physical and psychotic disfigurement from which he’s brought mayhem to Gotham. Big Bad Harv will contrive some plot that will force Batman to ponder the duality of man and, while holding The Bat at gunpoint, will manically insist that his Two-Face persona is the truest version of Harvey Dent. Batman will eventually free himself and wrestles Two-Face to a lucid interval and the story will end — as so many do — with Harvey surrendering as Batman watches in the distance, resolute still to find a way to help his friend.
If the whole “I believe in Harvey Dent” thing is a bit passé for your taste, consider Clayface or Killer Croc. Croc and Clayface are creeping monstrosities that haunt a city that shunned them. Through the abuses and ignorant indignities they’ve suffered, Basil Karlo and Waylon Jones have long since begun to believe they have become the creatures they’ve been named and lash out accordingly. Violence, murders, and dashes of cannibalism are often featured in their stories and we may want to follow suit however, while Batman will eventually subdue them, he will show them kindness and friendship to plead to the humanity in them.
Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze are often regarded by Gotham as anti-social eco-terrorists for all their anti-social eco-terrorism. Will Ivy return from whatever solitude the last author left her in to terraform Gotham into a rainforest? Isn’t Freeze going to ice up a building to snag a McGuffin that can cure his beloved Nora? They obviously will and it won’t be long until The Bat appears to foil their plans.
But before our Batman uses his arms to break them, he’ll use his heart to reach them. Batman knows that Pamela Isely can’t rest knowing that planet is dying and Victor Fries is just some guy that misses his wife. After all, what victory can be had in brutalizing once proud scientists trying to better a world that they have tragically lost their tethers to?
Personally, I want an angry Red Hood story. Red Hood is the boy The Bat failed and though the two have moved past the crowbar, an anger still festers in Jason Todd as much a guilt wells within Bruce Wayne. This dynamic explains Batman’s decision to look away when Red Hood utilizes his brutal means however, the two are rarely more than one bad panel away from a confrontation. The two could come to blows and Batman can remind readers that any burned bridge can be rebuilt by saying “I’m sorry, I love you.”
Are you seeing the common cadence of The Dark Knight’s crusades? Are you seeing what the villains highlight about him or do we need to keep shopping for bad guys?
What about Ra’s al-Ghul? Imagine The League of Shadows descending upon Gotham raining arrows, throwing stars, and other ninja stuff. Ra’s, at a pulpit befitting his egomania, will spew some sociopolitical gibberish about how man will cannibalize itself via decadence, destruction, and Instagram. Panels will be lathered in fire and blood, with shots of Nightwing and several Robins hosting arrows in their extremities, and we’ll see Batman having a sword-fight with The Demon’s Head at the top of GCPD.
Ra’s will beseech — as he so often does — “Join me, Detective! Together we can bring a better world.” Batman will pause, knowing that Ra’s resources would allow him to bring his crusade to its highest fruition only to rebuke him citing his belief that man will rise above Ra’s Hobbesian theories.
It might feel like we’re drowning in Harley Quinn stories. There’s an entire cottage industry dedicated to her likeness. If she shows up in the middle of some sort of calamity at this point, it was really likely just a result of her trying to wipe away some of the maim and murder in her ledger. The Caped Crusader will show her patience, acceptance, and, most of all, forgiveness to encourage Harleen on her path to atonement.
Has Scarecrow concocted a new fear gas? Batman will bear through to show us that fear will always cower to courage.
Shock! Bane and Deathstroke just teamed up!? Editorial would love the sales spike as Batman reminds us that no dread is unconquerable.
The Court of Owls? Who has the tact to use an insidious illuminati of Gotham’s elite and their army of undead assassins to allegorize the suffocating shadows of current socioeconomic trends? Herein, Batman would remind us to use our blessings and our strengths to build the community around us.
Have you found the subtext? You know, the funny way Batman combats brutality with humanity? If not, maybe it’s time to ask the clown.
The Joker, according to an implied and heavily asterisked backstory, was born the same way Batman was — to the sound of screams amidst a random horror. Joker, realizing he had been baptized by blood without reason, christened himself a nihilist, arguing that if life can end without meaning then there is no point in placing importance on living. Living in all its forms, he believes, is a joke and thousands have been massacred to deliver his punchline.
The best Joker story will have some meditation on his perceived contradiction. Joker terrorizes Gotham to demonstrate how easily anything can burn. He corrupts and mutilates to outline the borders of sanity. He’ll kill anyone close enough to hear his cackles to show that all are meant to die. And once his blood lust has abated, The Joker will stand before the carnage he’s wrought, giddy with manic psychosis, and ask Batman to kill him.
“I’ll kill ten for every life you save Bats,” he’ll threaten.
“Why fight when they’ll forget you all the same,” he’ll argue.
“For every light you kindle, a darkness will snuff it out!” he’ll cackle.
“So just do it Brucey! Just throw a Batarang into my chest. Shoot your grappling hook into my brain. Hell, throw me off a roof and say I fell! Ha! Do whatever, just make sure you send me to the barbeque house down below to show everyone that we’re above life’s little sham or I’ll just kill, kill, kill!” he’ll promise.
Batman will remind himself that he’s heard these taunts since April of 1940. He’ll tell himself that they’re rabid platitudes The Joker shrieks whenever Joker’s trachea starts to buckle under the pressure of his hands. Batman will then think of what Joker has done in our story. He’ll think of how he poisoned a city, or how he killed a Robin, or even how he ripped a hole in the Galaxy with Lex Luthor and Sinestro but, it’ll make no difference.
Regardless of what hell the clown has conjured, the best Joker story will often boil down to this one moment. This one moment, set to a scene of horror and a score of screams, with Batman’s hands on The Joker’s neck and Joker begging him to “do it.”
Think for a moment, what would you do if you held your greatest enemy in your mercy? What would you do if they’ve just committed an atrocity in the name of breaking your sanity? Would you be able to stay calm as they start rattling off names of loved ones they’ve taken? Could you hold still as they remind you of the scars they’ve left on your person? Could you hold yourself as pain rages against loss and sorrow to create a maelstrom within you? And beyond all of that, could you still believe in a better tomorrow?
This is the third, most crucial piece of a Batman story.
Batman doesn’t fight for vengeance nor justice. He isn’t fueled by the death of his parents, the vow he made on their graves, or romanticized tragedy. He doesn’t obsessively build gadgets and stalk in the dark to fashion himself as a demon to scare criminals, no. If you strip away the cape and cowl, if you look past The Justice Leagues and The Crisis’, and if you can decipher the reboots and retcons you’ll see that Bruce Wayne is simply a man who fights for a better tomorrow.
So, Batman subdues The Joker and brings him to Arkham to show us that we cannot meet darkness with darkness. He fights back the malice that Ra’s, Bane, and Scarecrow conjure to promise us that we are stronger than we know. He will always hold out hope for Two-Face, Red Hood, Clayface, Croc, and Harley to remind us that everyone can be helped.
And Batman will always do all this while defending a city beached on the shores of hell, battling through exhaustion and blood loss, and climbing out of whatever existential crevice he’s fallen into, all in the name of showing us a better way.
That’s how you write a Batman story. Have Batman fall into a hole, have him face the rogue languishing within it, and have him climb out of it to a better tomorrow. Simply define your problem or monster for your means. Match that problem to a villain who can best demonstrate it. Then work with Batman to find a way out.
That’s it. That’s every Batman story since 1939.
So, now you’re in Gotham with your pen and paper. Have Batman fight the demons that haunt you in the guise of a mystery to solve or hole in the universe that needs mending. Preach that Batman doesn’t kill because blood begets blood. Promise us that Batman won’t leave Gotham because nothing and no one is beyond saving. Prove to us that Batman doesn’t always win, he just never gives up. And, more than anything else, show us that Batman fights for a better tomorrow.
Go write Batman. Go write a better tomorrow.