Between the Milestone years and the time he found newfound respect in the animation industry, Dwayne McDuffie worked as an online journalist to pay the bills. Nevertheless, he still persevered pitching comic ideas as hard as he could, despite the ongoing frustrations with the industry and the comic book market crash.
One such pitch was an Elseworlds quasi-sequel to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s infamous The Killing Joke. As McDuffie himself described it, “This is my favorite DC idea, if a bit radical. It’s sort of a a sequel to The Killing Joke, featuring an all-new Batgirl. I pitched it as an Elseworlds. Two group editors hated it. I still like it.”
McDuffie definitely takes it to a darker place than his usual work, but given the subject material it’s only natural. Read the pitch below-
Batgirl: The Last Laugh
“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.
That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
The Last Laugh
The Joker may have been overstating his case. For Barbara Gordon, it took two bad days. The first, we all know about; Her father came by for a visit. She made him hot cocoa while he cut out newspaper clippings for his scrapbook. Then she answered the knock at her door. The laughing man from her nightmares smiled and raised a revolver. The Joker shot her, point-blank in the stomach. One moment, she was Batgirl, a hero and adventurer, one of the finest athletes on Earth. An instant later, she was an invalid with a shattered spine, paralyzed from the waist down. The Joker, she learned later, was simply trying to illustrate a point. Something about insanity being the only rational response to an irrational world. Crazy talk. But Barbara knew better. If the world seemed irrational, you simply lacked sufficient information. Reason is the only workable tool to deal with an admittedly complex world. Knowledge, gathered assiduously and applied efficiently, truly is power. Batgirl, the costumed adventurer remade herself as Oracle, mysterious spider at the center of a vast technological web of information. She continued the fight against evil from her wheelchair, now more effective than ever before. Eventually, she even stopped having the nightmares. All that, of course, before her second bad day.
Barbara Gordon had always suspected that when the Joker shot her, all those years ago, he somehow knew she was secretly Batgirl. Now suddenly, impossibly, there he was again. —At her door, in her house! No one knew who she was, or where she lived. But the laughing man was standing right there in front of her. She, of course, was sitting. “Stop me,” he said, leveling a familiar revolver at her, “If you’ve heard this one before.”
For the record, Batman didn’t know where Oracle lived, either. But in truth, he had deduced the well-hidden location long ago. Good thing too. While he was busy foiling the Joker’s latest attempt at mass murder, the Joker managed to slip away, his last words promising a replay of his killing joke at Barbara’s expense. The Batmobile is a very fast car, so despite Joker’s head start, Batman managed to arrive promptly at the scene for what should have been a routine last moment rescue. He’d done this a hundred times. A thousand. But this one was different. Surprised at Batman’s arrival, the Joker whirled to face him, took careful aim at the bat insignia on his chest, squeezed the trigger…
And missed. Which is a shame, really. Because the form-fitting, high-tech, body armor Batman wore under his tunic would have easily stopped the .38 shell, even from this range. Instead, the Joker’s aim was high. The bullet went into the opening of Batman’s cowl and came out the back of his head. The greatest crime fighter the world had ever seen was dead before he hit the ground.
Even the Joker didn’t laugh, this time. Instead, quite sensibly considering he’s a madman, he ran like hell.
The Joker, perhaps more insane than he’d ever been, found himself fighting off or outsmarting most of an enraged superhuman community. Catwoman got to him first. She died with Bruce’s name on her lips. Dick Grayson never had his chance at revenge. Only weeks before, he had given his own life alongside the Titans. Their sacrifice saved the world. Some people said the Joker only got the drop on Batman because Batman was still grieving. But no one who said that knew Batman very well. A stunned Jason Todd left a substantial inheritance untouched. He hung up his Robin costume and just walked away. He later became, by all accounts, an excellent child psychologist. It was Superman who finally brought the Joker to justice, very nearly breaking his oath to never take a life, then realizing that Bruce had passed up many chances to rid the world of the Joker. Superman decided to live up to the example his friend set. The Joker would go back to Arkham, until the next time.
Although even her closest confidants wouldn’t have known it, Oracle had completely planned her revenge before the first spade full of dirt hit the top of Batman’s coffin. The Joker had shot her, killed her, really. When he put her in this chair, he’d taken away Barbara Gordon’s life. She thought she’d forgiven him. But this was all her fault. When the Joker killed her friend and mentor, Batman was trying to save her. Because she was helpless again. Helpless to stop him. Helpless even to keep him from running away. Never again. It might take her a while to put it all together but the Joker was going to die.
And Batgirl was going to kill him.
It was three years before Oracle found the right tool. Tia Kendall was at a funeral herself, when the woman in the wheelchair approached her. Tia’s a young gymnast, a Dominique Dawson-type (she should be either Latino, African American or Asian American, nobody should be able to mistake her for the DCU’s version of Batgirl, even at a glance). Her parents were now dead, their double-murder, unsolved. Probably unsolvable. But the woman named Oracle had a proposition. If Tia would do exactly as she asks, Oracle promised her both the name of her parents’ killer, and the power to avenge them.
In return, when she was ready, Tia would do one favor for Oracle.
For Tia, this would mean giving up the Olympic gymnastics team, next year (hell, she almost made the team when she was thirteen, today she was easily the best in the Western Hemisphere). She had no problem with that. In two minutes, Tia willingly decided to give up everything she had been training for since she was three years-old. No big deal, she said. “The only reason I was going to the Olympics was to please my parents, anyway. Nobody left to please.”
Perfect. Oracle would school Tia, training her in the intricacies of crime fighting; morals and ethics, martial arts, forensics, information gathering. Over the years, as she progressed, she would first become Oracle’s legs, an unnamed, incredibly resourceful creature of the night, running down minor crimes at Oracle’s behest. Gradually, she becomes an independent hero in her own right. Grudgingly, Oracle acknowledges (if only to herself) that Tia was already better than she had ever been.
On Tia’s 21st birthday, Oracle gave the young woman who was by now like a daughter to her a present. Oracle had completely redesigned the Batgirl costume, incorporating all of the gimmicks that Tia had been using in her own fighting togs for the past few years. Tia’s five foot three inches was positively lanky by gymnast standards and she was a hundred and fifteen pounds of pure muscle but she had yet to run up against an opponent who didn’t outweigh her by at least 75 pounds. And her opponents usually came in bunches. Tia had decided years ago that she was going to bring a little more than just her formidable martial arts skills to the party. Her gloves were reinforced with an exoskeleton that “locks” into fist shape. Tia hadn’t broken a bone in her hand since she started using them. Anyway, she didn’t need to throw as many punches these days. Two wrist-mounted air guns carried a load of 30 ball-bearings each (that could be launched at variable speeds), or fired twenty yards of super strong filament with grapples on the front end. Finally, Tia’s collapsible Bo Staff was central to the unique and deadly fighting style she had developed over the years, taking advantage her gymnastic moves to create a particularly aggressive, hard form. Oracle’s new Batgirl costume included new versions of all this equipment, and added a wrist-mounted fleschette blaster, flash bang bombs, bat-shaped throwing stars and a bullet-proof cape.
Not to mention the goodies on the Batcycle.
The new Batgirl is ready, Oracle says. Ready to take revenge. Tia’s parents were killed by the Joker. That’s one of the reasons Oracle chose her. All Tia has to do to discharge her debt is kill their mutual enemy. Oracle shows Tia the gun the Joker shot her with, the same gun he used to kill Batman. “The Joker is the most dangerous man alive. Don’t play games with him. Don’t talk to him. Don’t give him a chance. Walk up behind him and blow his brains out. It’s the only way this can ever be over.” Without saying a word, Tia takes the gun, checks to see if it’s loaded and exits. Oracle watches her go, almost disappointed that after all this, she agreed to kill the Joker. Oracle thought Tia had grown to be too good a woman to go through with it. Just goes to show you, when it comes down to it, you never really know what anybody’ll do.
Batgirl finally finds the Joker, free again, plotting again. She’s got the drop on him, but can’t pull the trigger. She has to ask him. She just wants to understand why. Joker explains his worldview. While he does, his henchmen get the better of Batgirl. She eventually turns the tables. Finally it comes down to Batgirl and the Joker. He offers to tell her a joke. She smiles, then asks him to instead explain to her “the rule of threes.” The Joker explains that, when you tell a joke, there are always three items in it. Never two, never four. Like a Priest, a Rabbi and a Minister, for instance. The first one is the set-up, the second one is similar to the first; it establishes the pattern. The third one is the pay-off. It’s funny because the first two items lead you in one direction, but the third one is the punch line. It always breaks the pattern… The Joker considers what he’s saying. “Oh. I get it.” He starts laughing hysterically. Batgirl joins in, laughing heartily. She’s got the gun again and is pointing it at the Joker. “Good one,” he says through his laughter.
Then, deadly serious, Batgirl blows his head off.
Oracle is sitting alone in her monitor room, lit only by the screens. Tia comes in. “He’s dead. Do you feel any better?” The Batgirl costume is in a box. She gives it to Barbara. Barbara is confused, she doesn’t know why Tia is returning the costume. She’s proved herself worthy by finishing the Joker. Anyway now Tia is the only one left who could take the mantle of the Bat. Tia disagrees, by killing the Joker she proved that she wasn’t worthy of Batman’s legacy. In fact, it was Barbara who taught her what that legacy meant. Tia says she failed the tradition, then walks away. Barbara sits there. She accomplished nothing but the tarnishing of Tia’s soul. She’s still never walk again and the world is still without a Batman.
Alone among her flickering computer monitors, each with an image of the Joker’s smiling face, Barbara wonders who really had the last laugh.
Second Draft, Oct 7, 1998