Stop me if you've heard this one. There's this comedian. Can't make an audience laugh for love or money. Definitely not both. He's got this wife at home, see, and this baby on the way, and you know, he loves 'em and wifey, she's gotta eat for two and he just isn't funny, he can't make people laugh, he can't bring money home for his pretty wife.

He's a loser. A real loser. … what are you whimpering for? Sheesh. Here I am, trying to give you a little per-spec-tive and it's all 'please don't kill me, oh god ohgodohgod, please don't kill me!'

Listen to me when I'm talking to you. I'm just saying: all it takes is one bad day. Just. One. Bad. Day. Y'know, like maybe this one? Is today your bad day?

He worked at Ace Chemicals – chemist as well, our boy, and a damn sight better at that than jokes – but he was always dreaming and he got laid off. Typical. Like I said, he's a perennial joke, he's the punch line of life.

News goes around, and the criminal underworld must be pretty small, because news of this schmuck reaches a gang planning to rob a place called uh… jeeze, hang on a minute... the Monarch Playing Card Company. Yeah. And if it isn't, well you're not gonna argue, are ya? Didn't think so.

They figure, Ace Chemicals neighbours the MPCC, so the guy must be able to help them out. He's pretty damn desperate for money now, so he agrees.

And then he hears, 'buddy, your wife is dead'.

He goes home, because this is another joke in a long line of the blackest jokes life can throw, this can't be true, but it is. She was heating up some milk – who knows why, practise for baby, maybe? – only there's something wrong, faulty wiring, faulty something or other, just something.

And she's just lying there, smelling like, uh, like frying – well, human, I guess. Cause you can say a fried person smells just like pork all you want, doesn't make it true. Trust me, I've tested it out enough times. Sniff and compare sorta thing. Gotta weed out the weaklings, can't have substandard staff.

What was I saying?

Ohh, yeah. So he walks in, and there's the pretty wifey, pretty, pretty, round as the moon with a bunny in it, in a puddle of warm milk – electricity sparking blue across its surface, simmer-zap – and then it's all 'aaaaggh!' and 'woe is me!' and 'nooooo!' He hasn't got it yet.

No no, he doesn't walk in. Cops find him or call him up, tell him there's been a freak accident and that's what he imagines, his wife dead on the kitchen floor, baby boy/girl unknown little thing dead inside her. And it was a lightning strike, that'd be just his luck. Whatever, however, his wife is dead.

It's the end of the fucking world. But either he's in or he's six feet under, so he lets himself be bullied into doing this crappy job anyway, 'cause what's the point any more? His day can't possibly get any worse, right?

So. So there he is, big red hood over his head. Big heavy thing, sorta one-way glass – he can see out, no one can see in. He's the decoy you see. Things go wrong, police are automatically going to assume the whackjob with the helmet is in control – you know how it goes, it's a Gotham Law of Criminality that the flashiest is the ringleader. The job, it starts out okay, it goes fine, but c'mon, he's a loser and this is the worst day of his life -

You can guess what happens next, right? Come on, come on, this is Gotham, what happens to losers in Gotham? What happens to losers pulling robberies in Gotham?

That's right. Along comes a bat. A Big. Black. Bat.

So this comedian guy, he gets knocked into a vat of chemical waste (actually, I think with his luck, maybe he just fell. Yeah. Disregard that first bit, he fell) and he really, really wishes he remembered how to swim. But eventually he gets spat out in this reservoir because he's such a loser he can't even get dying right, mmkay, and his skin's gone pasty white and his hair's green. But he's got a looovely smile out of it, which kinda balances it out.

He stands up, skin still burning and hair flopping into his eyes all weird and curling and just green and you know what? He gets it. The Joke. He finally gets it, and that's when he starts laughing, and I haven't stopped yet.

Did you like that story?

Really. Well. Huh. That's interesting. You didn't look like you did. You know, I don't really think I like it that much any more. It's getting a bit, uh... stuck. Settled. Staid. Other sticky words beginning with 's'. I mean, it's practically accepted, and that's no good, no good at all. I like multiple choice. I mean, why be just one thing when you can be many? Why have just one past? Booorring. And the Hood! Why waste that gorgeous toy on a failed comedian? Nononono. Hm. Okay. Wait a minute, just let me shuffle the deck.

Jack of Clubs. Well, all right then. But I'm keeping the Red Hood thing, I like that.

So there's this guy. Yeah. And he's a mook, a goon, a, in the vernacular, thug. Only he's not. I mean, he's slick, he's real slick. He's a cut above the vernacular. And he's called Jack or John or Thomas or Hap or… you get the picture. Got a different name for every week, a different handle for every job. Napier. How's that. His name's Napier, and he's small time by today's standards, but back then he was big stuff. He's not pure evil, he's just a career criminal, same as Falcone or Maroni or any of those boring guys. He's smart enough to slip under the radar though, so you'll never hear of him, you look back through old records. They didn't do theatrics in those days. Heh. Look at it this way, I was the first big thing.

Right. So there's this crook. And he's in control, and he keeps his hands spotless, and if there's a time or two when he actually gets called in, he's got a team of hotshot lawyers that'll keep him Scott Free – Lawyers. Ah, now there's evil that makes me pale in comparison.

Hey, have you heard the Metropolitan version of that joke? You know the one, of course you do – what do you do if you're trapped on an island with Hitler, yours truly, and a lawyer, and you've got a gun but only two bullets?

You shoot the lawyer twice.

I love that one! Because you know what a real Gothamite would say? Yep, just that. 'I'd shoot the Joker, the psychopathic mass-murdering fuck.' Not such a great punchline, but hey, you know, that's Gotham. Gotham, with her Big Bad Bat, and her stinking streets and all her twisty mish-mash of great mouldering piles of gothic architecture and Metropolitan glass tower imports.

There are things about Gotham, you know, they're unique. Gotham attracts the crazies like bees to honey. Or maybe flies to roadkill, you think that's better? Yeah, flies to roadkill, that's what I thought. So there are these things you do that are totally unique to Gotham, that you don't do anywhere else in the world – you don't pick flowers in Robinson Park. Just in case. You see a puppet, you walk away as slowly and unobtrusively as you can manage. You don't put 'trespassers will be shot' signs up; you put up signs saying 'Batman broke the leg of the last guy to try robbing here'. You don't go to places with twos in their names or addresses on the second, the twelfth, or the twenty-second, especially not in February or December. You don't hurt a kitty cat – you hand it over to the cat shelter. You know, Gotham's cat shelter is the best in the state? Damn, that girl needs to find something better to do with her time.

You say 'clowns aren't scary' because they are, and every time you're tricked by your unenlightened friends from those nice normal other cities into going to a circus you sit there with your hands on your knees, shaking like a little mouse in front of a very big cat, and you laugh dutifully with just the teensiest edge of hysteria at every joke because you're never quite sure if that white face is paint or not.

That's Gotham. Fantastic, right?

Relax. Relax. Stop shaking, you're really putting me off, and it's bad to do that, as your dear grandma could tell ya. Well, if she weren't, you know, scattered across half the kitchen, but details, details. ...where was I...? Oh, oh yeeaahh. Okay. This crook, he's a smart guy, he knows to keep a step or two removed, you know. Slippy, untouchable. Only he misses it, the adrenaline of good job, the gun in his hand. But hey, smart guy, smart guy. He quickly thinks something up. That's where that ole red hood comes in. God, I love that thing. Wouldn't use it these days, dashing good looks and all, but for that time, fabulous.

And whaddaya know, in comes Batsy again, dear darling Bats. Well, the jig's up and all that if he's unmasked, so he goes swimming (I swear it's deliberate this time, split second choice and all, not sheer loser-ness). Too bad the hood isn't, I dunno, sealed or something. Hehe, like a diver's helmet. Whatever. Got a smile to kill for now anyway. Woulda been nice if I'd thought of something else, but a hell, giant bat comes crashing through a fucking window right on top of ya – you try and keep your head.

It's not really a twist of anything for our mook. Just a new look, superior to the old. Everything in his head, that's all the way it was before, 'cept it comes out different. Everything is as meticulously rehearsed and expertly planned as it was before, it just looks random. Staying under the radar, that isn't so fun anymore. Committing crimes, getting away from them, being professional, that isn't it anymore. There's a bat, a big black bat, and it's not really a matter of revenge, just so we're clear. Well okay, maybe at the start, but Bats, Batsy, he's just there and he's just so interesting. Fun. Funny. He's fun.

It's all a matter of perspective.

Shuffle. Pick a card. I'm bored of this one too. Besides, you have that twitchy little look of horror that means you might think this last little story might be of some use to a psychiatrist trying to get me tried and found sane for once. It isn't.

Oookay! Jack of Diamonds. I quite like this one, it's pretty fresh, and it sticks like teflon, which is the important bit. So there's this hired killer. We'll call him 'Jack'. Well, when I say hired killer, I mean Renaissance man of crime, because this guy? Sociopathic genius. He's not just good at his job, he's the best. He's so good that the toughest of robberies, it's just too easy. He's got nerves of steel, ice water in his veins – and so on and so forth, blah blah – and he's brilliant and cruel and truly without equal. If he's a victim of anything, it's his own success. He's so bored of it, he causes a disturbance mid-robbery and hands his gun over to the security guard that comes running and tells him to shoot him ferchrissakes.

This is when Batman comes in, naturally. "Hold that thought," our guy says, and he looks back out at this man in a flying rat suit, this so-serious man who looks like he's only going to stop punching when he's dead, and possibly not even then. He looks ridiculous, and a smile starts spreading over our dear master criminal's face for the first time in years. The light has well and truly flipped on. It's never going to be about anything else again.

You see, there's this Batman, and he's one end of the continuum, world's greatest detective. And then you've got Jack, who's just as brilliant at what he does. I hate to use coin imagery, Half-Baked Harv having the monopoly and all, but yeah, they're two sides of the same coin.

Jack goes out, and he does his brilliant thing, commits crimes for the sake of committing, drives dear Bats up the wall with distraction. I mean, think about it, what's the first thing you look for when you're detecting? Motive, sweetcheeks, motive. Cui Bono. And the only thing Jack wants is Batman, Batman's attention, and of course, Batsy doesn't get it, still doesn't get it.

Jack decides to make it obvious, stages something very big and very flashy that the Bat will have to pay attention to, walks into a masked ball (seriously, why do people in Gotham still do those? It's asking for trouble). By all means, run, scream, give me a reason to shoot, he tells them, and that's when Bats appears through the floor (flexible. It's always good to keep people guessing) and slices his cheeks open with one those shiny sharp toys of his. He's gotten rid of that one, by the way. Prototype. Disappointing I know, fond memories and all, but I like knowing the experience was so damn definitive he can't stand to use it again. Hang on, I think I've seen the new bat-patsy using it, the one without a face. That's so-! Hmph. I hate to repeat myself, makes people think they can survive me, but seriously, just a little crowbarring wouldn't go amiss.

While Jack is getting some real cheap surgery for his enhanced smile the Bat decides, shit, there is no way to deal with this guy, and he calls up this thug called Maletesta (maybe) one of the few left from Bat's systematic attempt of destruction of the organised criminal underworld in Gotham and tells him, look, this guy Jack, this is where he is, knowing as well as anyone what Maletesta will do.

Don't ask me why they choose a chemical plant for their, frankly, really substandard attempts at torture and killing, but they do. Chemicals, chemicals, gotta love 'em. By the time they've moved on to trying nasty things with matches Jack is pretty bored of hanging upside down and Bats has had a crisis of faith or whatever you call it, and is storming to the rescue. I think you can guess what happens next.

Forget the Bat epiphany, Jack sees the light in green this time, the bunny in the moon, so to speak. He's cured of apathy in madness, in existence without any of that pesky order or clarity. He's a cured man and he wants to share his medicine with all the poor little sickies of Gotham. But more than that. More than that, he wants to thank Bats for his epiphany, he wants Bats to get the joke too, and they start dancing, fists and feet and toys flying and the whole world just slots into place, this is the way things are meant to be. There's a Batman and there's a Joker. There's order and there's chaos, there's sanity and there's madness, and both equally... quite... brilliant. Get it? Get it?

Disregard everything you've just heard, I've just thought of a new one! Or maybe it's an old one? In fact, just plain forget about origins, they're so passé, I don't think I want one at all. I'm the shark from that toothy movie. Just cuts in and out of your life and takes nasty great bites out of you and swims off for no reason except it can. I don't need to be explained, I just am, smile and all.

That's right, nod your little head off.

Did you just say 'please don't shoot me'?

You really think that's the worst thing I've got in my repertoire?

I don't do 'tried and true'. Gimmicks. Freezey's gun, Ivy's plants, Eddie's little riddles. I don't like to be... fixed. I'll use anything and everything, all things in their place. I can make a toaster into a weapon, if I want. You probably don't want to hear how. I'm very fond of the Joker venom, of course. Lotta work went into that, into all its variants, and I can always think of something new to do with it. It's flexible, like me.

But really, the point is I can be anything, I do anything, I don't even do basic predictability. Isn't that what's scariest? One day I might cripple a guy attempting to rape you, the next I might cripple you. Wanna know what day it is today? Today is a day when my fondness of knives exceeds my fondness of flammable things. Today, I suspect, is a 'kill everyone in the room' day. Feels like the sort of day I'd gas a class of kindergarteners on. But I don't see any little kiddies round here so you'll just have to do.

Stop crying. It's not the end of the world, just the end of yours. Stop being so damn serious about it all. Just smile.