I write an awful lot about Batman these days. That’s mostly because I’m a pretty big fan, I guess. I suppose I feel that Batman is the grooviest of super heroes because there’s really nothing “super” about him. He’s not from another planet, granted special abilities by Earth’s yellow sun. He was never bitten by a radioactive arachnid. He can’t run at ridiculous speeds. He’s just a dude. What sets Batman apart from all of us other regular dudes? He’s filthy fucking rich and he experienced a horrific tragedy at a very young age. Deep down inside every one of use is that little spark of inspiration and hope. With that kind of money and that kind of training, I could BE Batman.
So, anyway, this time I’m talking about Batman again. I want to discuss one particular Batman story and a recent interpretation of it that just about blew my mind. The tale is Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke.
Batman has been much on people’s minds recently. Between the announcement that the Dark Knight would figure prominently in the Man of Steel sequel and the announcement that Ben Affleck would don the cape and cowl for that film, it seems you can’t look at Facebook or Instagram or MySpace (does anyone still look at MySpace?) without seeing something Bat-related. One of the many things Bat that I like to follow is Kevin Smith’s podcast Fatman on Batman. In it, filmmaker Smith interviews various personalities involved in some aspect of the Batman mythos. Past guests have included voice talent from Batman: the Animated Series (as well as that show’s main writer, Paul Dini) and people involved with the DC comic including writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. It is a definite must-listen for any Batman fan.
A week or so ago Kevin had Grant Morrison on the show for the second time. A prolific comic writer, Morrison has penned such Batman tales as Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and the Gothic story line in Legends of the Dark Knight. Morrison and Smith got to discussing The Killing Joke, Alan Moore’s (Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) well-revered 1988 graphic novel. And Morrison made a suggestion that blew Smith’s mind. “No one gets the end,” Morrison said, “because Batman kills The Joker. That’s why it’s called The Killing Joke. The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story — he finished it.”
Smith responded with his usual “get the fuck out of here” type response and went on to exclaim that he’d never read the story that way before. I certainly hadn’t either and, based on the internet buzz that followed the posting of the podcast, neither had very many other people.
Naturally, after hearing the podcast, I had to go back and look at The Killing Joke, particularly those last nine panels, again.
I think Morrison has a point.
Before I get into that, though, let me explain The Killing Joke‘s story. There are some significant spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t read this 25 year-old story before now, you nay want to do so before continuing.
The tale opens with Batman and Commissioner Gordon arriving at Arkham Asylum. Batman wants to pay a visit to Joker and finds the clown seated at a table, apparently playing a game of solitaire. Bats sits across from him and begins to speak as Joker, undistracted, keeps flipping cards and snapping them onto the table with an onomatopoeia FNAP! each time.
“Hello,” says Bats, “I came to talk.”
“I’ve been thinking lately about you and me. About what’s going to happen to us in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?”
“Perhaps you’ll kill me,” Bats continues, “Perhaps I’ll kill you. Perhaps sooner, perhaps later. I just wanted to know that I’d made a genuine attempt to avert that outcome. Just once…”
Batman, becoming agitated at Joker’s inattention, reaches out and grabs the clown’s hand. “Are you listening to me? It’s life and death that I’m discussing here. Maybe my death, maybe yours. I don’t really understand why ours should be such a fatal relationship, but I don’t want your murder on my… hands.” With that, Batman happens to glance at his own gloved hand and notices it is streaked with white makeup. Joker doesn’t apply whiteface in the comics like he did in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, however. His skin was bleached white by chemicals. It takes Batman no time at all to realize he is speaking not to Joker, but an imposter. Batman, realizing that this can only mean that Joker has once again escaped Arkham, immediately snaps into action, grabbing the flunkie and demanding, “WHERRRE IS HE?”
Cut to outside the cell; Gordon is there with an Arkham guard. “Dear god, he’s gone berserk!” Gordon exclaims, “Open that door, man!” Gordon enters Joker’s cell and demands that Batman unhand the prisoner, “Okay, that’s enough! You know the laws regarding mistreatment of inmates as well as I do! If you harm one hair on his head…”
“Commissioner, if you’re concerned about it, it’s yours,” Batman says, handing Gordon the green wig he’s taken off the inmate’s head. “Take care of it.” Bats returns to interrogating the prisoner, determined to learn Joker’s whereabouts before he has a chance to hurt anyone.
The scene shifts to the Joker, who is apparently now far from Arkham and obviously planning something. He’s inspecting a run-down amusement park and talking to the owner who asks him what he thinks of
the place. “I’m CRAZY for it,” Joker tells him (punching the word ‘crazy’ in classic Joker style), “Well it’s garish, ugly, and derelicts have used it for a toilet. The rides are dilapidated to the point of being lethal and could easily main or kill innocent little children.”
This conversation launches a flashback sequence, a story within the story of sorts, and we see a young man and his pregnant wife discussing financial woes. It becomes clear that this is Joker before he was the Clown Prince of
Crime. Apparently he is trying to work as a comedian and failing miserably at it. Brought back to current time and out of the memory, Joker kills the amusement park owner and leaves his grotesquely grinning corpse perched on a children’s animal ride. Then he sets off after his real goal.
Next we see Commissioner Gordon at home with his daughter Barbara. Jim is working on a scrapbook of news clippings related to the Joker and Barbara is chiding him for not leaving his work at the office. A knock at the door interrupts their conversation and Barbara opens it to find Joker there, gun in hand and two hired thugs behind him. Without a word he fires, shooting Barbara in the midsection. She collapses to the floor as her startled father jumps up and attempts to grab the clown, but the goons intervene and subdue the commissioner.
Moore gives Joker some fantastic lines in this scene. As Gordon shows concern for his shot and bleeding daughter, Joker says. Please don’t worry. Its a psychological complaint common amongst ex-librarians. You see, she thinks she’s a coffee table edition…” Barbara fell through the Gordon’s glass coffee table after being shot. “Mind you, I can’t say much for this volume’s condition. I mean there’s a hole in the jacket and the spine appears to be damaged. Frankly she won’t be walking off the shelves in that state of repair. In fact the idea of her walking anywhere seems increasingly remote. But then, that’s always a problem with softbacks.” Joker’s lines turn out to be foreshadowing puns as we learn in a few pages that the bullet did indeed pass through Barbara’s spine and she will be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. While the thought of being paralyzed by a madman’s bullet would be devastating for anyone, we the audience know it will be particularly bad for Barbara who leads a double-life as the crime fighter known as Batgirl. As his thugs beat on the police commissioner and Barbara lies on the floor bleeding, Joker takes the time to taunt her, saying that the old man is “topping the bill” and, “You know its such a shame you’ll miss your father’s debut,
Miss Gordon. Sadly our venue wasn’t built with the disabled in mind. But don’t worry, I’ll take some snapshots to remind him of you.” Joker starts to unbutton Barbara’s top as she manages to weakly ask, “Why are you doing this?”
“To prove a point,” Joker responds, “Here’s to crime.”
This starts the next “chapter” in the flashback story and we see the young Joker meeting with some shady individuals in a bar. Joker (we never are given a “normal” name for him) is explaining to the crooks that he formerly worked as a lab assistant at a chemical company before quitting to pursue a career as a stand up comedian. He laments that the decision has not been proving to have been very sound and that he’s hard up for money, concerned how he’s going to support his wife and the child that they’re expecting. The crooks have hired him to lead them through the chemical plant to the playing card factory next door which is apparently their intended target (what, if anything, of value could be at a playing card factory is unclear, but its obviously important to the Joker character). The convince Joker that he will be concealed in the disguise they want him to wear, a large red hood. Joker recognizes the disguise as THE Red Hood, a getup that has been associated with a known criminal operating in Gotham at the time. This puts him off the idea at first and he is concerned about wearing the costume, but the criminals assure him that there is no actual “Red Hood” gang leader as Gotham has been led to believe. “There’s just a bunch of guys and a hood,” they tell him, “It doesn’t matter who’s under the hood.”
The meeting is interrupted by the police who have come to deliver bad news to Joker. Apparently there was an accident and his wife was killed while testing an electric bottle warmer. His reasons for joining the caper gone, Joker tries to back out of the arrangement, but the crooks aren’t having it. The tell him in no uncertain terms that backing out of the deal now would be very bad for his health.
The flashback ends and we see Gordon being held prisoner by Joker at the amusement park. Joker is taunting Gordon, surrounding him with sideshow freaks and showing him the photographs he took of Barbara in various stages of undress (it’s still family-friendly, kids, and adheres to the Comics Code. We see no actual nudity, but it is certainly implied). Joker is trying his damndest to drive Gordon crazy; so much so that he even launches into a song and dance routine, trying to encourage the old man to “go loo-oo-oo-ny.”
We return to the black and white flashback scenes and we see the criminals fitting the Red Hood onto the man who will be the Joker and making him lead them through the chemical plant. They barely make it a few steps into the place when they are surprised by a police officer (or an armed security guard, it’s not made very clear which) yelling “Freeze!”
The crooks open fire on the cop and the situation devolves into a firefight. Terrified, Joker tries to run and naturally, Batman shows up, as do several more cops. This scene apparently took place early in Batman’s crime-fighting career, as one of the cops says, “It’s that human bat guy who’s been in all the papers lately!”
Bats goes straight for Joker, believing him to be the criminal mastermind known as the Red Hood. We see Batman’s looming silhouette from Joker’s perspective as Bats says, “So,.Red Hood, we meet again.” in perfectly melodramatic fashion. To escape Batman, Joker leaps from the catwalk and into a pool of chemically contaminated water below. Emerging from the water, Joker complains that it burns and rips off the Red Hood so he can see. The last few panels in this sequence have Joker giggling his charactaristic manic laughter and finally end with a close up of the Clown with his newly bleached white skin, blood-red lips, and green hair, the classic “HA HA HA HA HA” behind him in white on a black background. The Joker is effectively “born” in these pages.
Although Joker was first introduced to the Bat-world in Batman #1 in 1940, an official origin for the character had never previously been established in any DC publication. The origin depicted in The Killing Joke has since been adopted as canon.
Back to the present time in the story, Joker is continuing to taunt Gordon with the goal of driving him mad. Batman is scouring Gotham for clues to the clown’s whereabouts. We see him showing a photo of Mr. J around town, interrogating other Arkham inmates, and finally he is hand-delivered an invitation to Joker’s twisted amusement park. Bats arrives quickly and immediately finds Gordon languishing naked in a cage. The Caped Crusader’s first concern is for his old friend, telling him, “The police are following right behind me. I’ll stay here with you until they arrive.” Gordon refuses, however, and tells Bats, “No. You have to go after him. I want him brought in and I want him brought in ‘by the book!'”
Only in Gotham City would “by the book” include the police sending a masked vigilante after a known homicidal maniac, I suppose.
Bats goes after Joker and chases him into the fun house (of course). During the chase Joker lays out the reasons behind his entire scheme, explaining that, ” I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! 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.” Joker turns his scrutiny to Batman and continues, “You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day once and everything changed. Why else would you dress up as a flying rat?” Of course we know that Joker is right. Bats had a terrible day when he was eight years old and his parents were gunned down in front of him in Crime Alley.
Of course Batman does finally catch up with Joker, who tries to subdue Bats by cracking him in the head with a 2×4. Naturally, Batman overcomes the clown and delivers to him the message that he’d originally intended to bring him in Arkham Asylum. “Do you understand I don’t want to hurt you?” Batman asks him, “I don’t want either of us to end up killing the other, but we’re running out of alternatives and we both know it. Maybe it all hinges on tonight. Maybe this is our last chance to sort this bloody mess out. If you don’t take it then we’re locked onto a suicide course. Both of us to the death.”
“It doesn’t have to end like that,” Bats continues, “I don’t know what it was that bent your life out of shape, but who knows? Maybe I’ve been there too. Maybe I can help. We could work together. I could rehabilitate you. You needn’t be out there on the edge anymore. You needn’t be alone. We don’t have to kill each other. What do you say?”
A textless panel follows this and Joker appears to be considering Batman’s words for a moment. Finally the clown responds, “No, I’m sorry but… no, it’s too late for that, far too late. Hahaha, you know, it’s funny… this situation reminds me of a joke…”
And Joker launches into the titular Killing Joke. “See, there were these two guys living in a lunatic asylum and one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum anymore. They decide they want to escape. So, like, they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town stretching away into the moonlight, stretching away to freedom. Now the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem, but his friend, his friend daredn’t make the leap, y’see? Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So 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.’ But the second guy shakes his head. He says, ‘What do you think I am, crazy? You’d turn it off when I was halfway across. Hahaha!” As usual, Joker starts manically laughing at his own material and, uncharacteristically, Batman laughs as well. First with a single, “heh” and then in the next panel he is laughing right along with Joker at a joke that, really, is not all that funny.
Then, in the central panel on the page, we see the silhouette of Batman grabbing that of Joker with the typical Joker HA HA HA’s in the background. We see this laughter continue over the next few panels and the “camera” changes focus to the rain water rippling in puddles on the ground, illuminated by the headlights of the Batmobile. The laughter abruptly stops in one panel, then the light is gone in the next and the final panel just shows drops of rain rippling in a puddle.
That’s it. The end. It’s over.
To be honest, I’d never for a moment considered that this scene represented Batman killing Joker. Not once. Not until Morrison said it, anyway. Looking at it closely, with that in mind, however it starts to make sense.
That doesn’t mean that its really there though.
I remember in the early eighties when some religious wacko “discovered” the “backwards-masking” messages in Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Like most kids my age at the time, I found myself in my room spinning my copy of Led Zeppelin IV backwards on my turntable. The first few times all I heard was gibberish. Then I obtained a copy of a newspaper article which included all the “messages” that were supposed to be there and god damn if I didn’t hear them, word for word. This could be like that, I suppose. But if it really was Alan Moore’s intent to make this the final Batman/Joker story, then combining it with the Joker’s origin story is an act of sheer genius. The birth and the death of the Joker in one volume? That’s easily worth the price of admission alone, isn’t it?
And then there’s the title. The Killing Joke. It certainly implies that someone ought to be killed in the story, doesn’t it? With the death of the Joker not a part of the equation, the only one who dies is the poor sap who sold the amusement park to Joker. Surely someone other than an ancilary character needs to shuffle off the mortal coil, right?
Naturally people have been arguing both sides of the idea ever since this “news” hit. While it is fairly easy to see where Morrison gets the idea (after going back and looking at the panels with his explanation in mind), it can also easily be argued that since its publication, The Killing Joke essentially became DC canon. Barbara Gordon is shot and paralyzed by the Joker in the story and in her subsequent appearances in the DC universe, she remains in that wheelchair as Batman’s “support” character, Oracle until the re-launching of the DC Universe with The New 52 (now Batgirl has healed from her Joker-inflicted spinal injury). If the story is Canon and Joker died in the story he surely couldn’t have continued spreading mayhem in the countless Batman stories he’s appeared in since.
Various Bat-fan sites have posted images of what is supposedly Moore’s actual Killing Joke script. If any of these are genuine is impossible to say, but none seem to give any indication that artist Bollund was instructed to draw a Joker death scene but somehow keep it shrouded in mystery.
In the end it stands to reason that the ending of The Killing Joke was left purposefully ambiguous anyway and that this is just one more way to interpret the end of that story. That’s what art is supposed to do, isn’t it? Make us think? For centuries people have been wondering about the Mona Lisa and her sly smile. Perhaps for centuries more geekdom will be asking, “DID Batman kill the Joker at the end of The Killing Joke?”