So What Really Happened At The End Of ‘The Killing Joke’? [Opinion]
In case you haven’t heard yet, Grant Morrison recently offered his take on the end of The Killing Joke, the seminal 1988 story from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. Widely considered one of the greatest Batman stories — and possibly the greatest Joker story — of all time, the ending is, arguably, a bit ambiguous. In an interview on Kevin Smith’s “Fatman on Batman,” Morrison said he believes that one-shot was Moore and Bolland’s take on what would be a final Batman story –similar to Moore’s Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? — with the story ending when, in his mind, Batman chokes the Joker to death as he laughs maniacally.
The timing of this comment from Morrison is interesting, because I was talking about this scene a few days ago with a friend who I’ve been having this same argument with since 1998. She’s on Team Morrison, believing that Batman kills the Joker as well. It’s an interesting theory, and one I understand, but here’s the thing: Not only do I think both my friend and Morrison are wrong, but I think Batman killing the Joker would make for a completely pointless story.
Here’s the interview, in case you haven’t heard it:
First, some background. The Killing Joke starts with Batman heading to Arkham, attempting to have just one sane conversation with a man who is quite possibly a) the craziest human being alive, and b) the only person who legitimately scares him. He just needs to know that he tried, at least once, to reach out to him, acknowledging that eventually one of them is going to kill the other.
Batman discovers that the Joker has once again walked out of the revolving door that is Arkham Asylum, and this time he hurts Batman in arguably (with apologies to Jason Todd) the worst way he could: He shoots Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl, leaving her a paraplegic. He then goes on to kidnap and torture Commissioner James Gordon, Barbara’s father and possibly Batman’s best friend. And in the book’s other moment of ambiguity, it’s hinted that the Joker may very well have raped both Barbara and James, all in an attempt to prove that the entire world is just one bad day away from being just like him.
He’s wrong, of course. Batman rescues the Commissioner and, before he goes after the Joker, Gordon has quite possibly his greatest moment:
This scene is the crux of why I disagree with Morrison, but I’ll get back to that.
Batman eventually catches the Joker, but not before the latter explains to him what his motivations were for all of this, hoping to drive Gordon, a good man and the head of the city’s police department, insane, thus proving how tenuous the concept of sanity is. At the end, they have the conversation Batman hoped to have back at Arkham, as Batman, despite everything the Joker has put him and his friends through — at this moment and over the years — offers to help him:
In what’s probably the only natural moment of sanity the character has ever had (Martian Manhunter once forced him to be temporarily sane during Morrison’s JLA run), the Joker briefly considers taking Batman up on his offer, before telling him that it’s “too late.” He then shares a joke that serves as pretty much the best analogy of their relationship that you will ever likely see, the two laugh together, and the book ends as the cops show up to take the Joker to prison, or if Morrison is correct, to take Batman to prison and the Joker to the morgue.
Now, I’m not going to make the “Morrison is wrong because OMG Batman doesn’t kill” argument, because that’s overly simplistic in this case. Part of his hypothesis is that The Killing Joke is presented as a “final” Batman story, so that argument gets thrown out. I’d rather look at it within the context of the comic, where I still don’t think it makes any sense.
First off, let’s just look at the last panel you see the two in:
Batman’s hands are clearly no where near the Joker’s throat. He could have easily moved them up to his throat in the next panel, when we no longer see the two, but I’ve always felt that if Bolland were consciously trying to show that Batman was about to snap his neck, he’d have made this panel look slightly different, likely by having his hands up on the Joker’s shoulders. For his part, 20 years later, Bolland continues to keep things ambiguous. From the end of his afterword to the 2008 deluxe edition:
Speaking of which, it’s time I revealed what really happened at the end of The Killing Joke: as our protagonists stood there in the rain laughing at the final joke, the police lights reflecting in the pools of filthy water underfoot, the Batman’s hand reached out and…..
You win this round, Bolland.
Second, and most important, is what Gordon says to Batman about bringing the Joker in by the book. This represents the entire point of the story. The Joker is trying to prove to everyone — and himself — how close they are to being just like him. And despite everything he does to Gordon — crippling his daughter, torturing him — he’s okay, and he’s still determined to show the Joker that the system, with all it’s flaws, is inherently sound, and that the Joker is wrong. He knows he’s wrong, and Batman needs him to be wrong. As a society, we all do. And Batman takes the Commissioner’s words to heart:
That moment, right there, is wholly antithetical to the idea of Batman suddenly choking the Joker to death, especially after they’ve just had the closest thing they’ll ever get to a real conversation. Batman wants to help him, in part because he knows that he very easily could have been the Joker, or at least someone similar. It reminds me of something Frank Miller once said about Daredevil: given his origin, he could have been a villain. It’s one of the fascinating aspects of super hero comics. Once you get past the idea of men in tights and high boots beating up the mentally disturbed, super hero comics are often an examination of how we respond to tragedy. That said, I think that gets taken much too far at times — not every human being needs to have a loved one murdered or crippled in order to be compelled to do the right thing. That’s one of the reasons Tim Drake as Robin serves as such a nice contrast to Dick Grayson and Jason Todd. Until, you know, they kill his dad in Identity Crisis, because Identity Crisis is terrible. But I digress.
And finally, I think the main reason I’ve never felt Batman kills the Joker is because, simply put, that wouldn’t be as good a story. That ending makes less sense in the context of what happens. I’ve never liked the idea of Batman completely disregarding Gordon’s words. After all, Gordon is the victim here, not him. This was his call, and Batman respects that completely, because if Jim can keep it together in the face of everything that’s been done to him, Batman has no excuse not to. If he kills the Joker, he fails everyone: Jim, his parents, and even Barbara. If he found her afterward and said “After what he did to you, I couldn’t let him live,” I can’t imagine she wouldn’t be disappointed.
For what it’s worth, Moore’s feelings on the story are very telling. As pointed out by Robot 6, in a 2000 interview Moore himself confessed he wasn’t a huge fan of his own story: “I mean, Brian [Bolland] did a wonderful job on the art but I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting.”
I don’t think he’d have said that if he truly meant for Batman to have killed the Joker. If nothing else, that would certainly be interesting.
So no, I don’t believe the Joker dies at the end of The Killing Joke. That said, it’s a compelling argument. I love that the story has taken on such a life of its own that people make that argument, and I love that Moore is such a gifted writer that people are more than willing to believe that there is some sort of intentionally vague meaning here. I just don’t see it.
That said, I’ll probably still be having this argument in another 15 years.