When Alan Moore wrote The Killing Joke for DC Comics 28 years ago—excellently illustrated by Brian Bolland—he not only created one of the best stories about the Dark Knight of Gotham City, he also created a lasting controversy between comic fans as to the meaning of the vague final page. What actually happens at the end? Does Batman really kill his arch-enemy or is this a misinterpretation?
The plot, for those who don’t know it already, is as follows…When Batman visits the Joker in Arkham Asylum, in an effort to end their endless feud, he finds that the Joker has escaped. The Joker goes to the home of Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara, who recently retired from her crime-fighting career as Batgirl. The Joker shoots Barbara, crippling her, and kidnaps Gordon. He puts Gordon through some psychological torture in order to drive him insane. The Joker seeks to prove that one tragic day will turn the sanest man into a lunatic, which is what happened to the Joker according to the numerous flashbacks we see in the story regarding his sad origin. Batman finally finds and rescues Gordon, who did not break under the torture. Batman battles the Joker and captures him. He makes one last effort to offer help to the Joker, but the Joker refuses and instead tells a joke which actually makes Batman laugh. The story ends with the two of them standing in the rain laughing together and then the laughter suddenly stops.
The ambiguity of that final scene is mostly in the way Bolland draws it. We see Batman reaching out with both arms, and either puts his hands on the Jokers shoulders or grabs him by the throat. It’s not really clear which. The last few images focus on a puddle in the rain, reflecting a beam of light, while the unseen Joker continues to laugh. The laughter suddenly stops and then the light goes out and we’re left with just the rain, the puddle and silence.
This scene has been interpreted and speculated upon for over two decades. Was Batman choking the Joker or just holding him by the shoulders? Why did the laughter stop so suddenly? What does the vanishing of the reflection of the ray of light symbolize? What does the title mean? Obviously, the joke that the Joker tells Batman is a metaphor for the two enemies. The joke relates to two lunatics escaping an asylum. Both of them survived “one bad day” but have been permanently damaged ever since. One lunatic (representing Batman) offers to help the other (Joker) escape, but his help is refused. They’re left trapped together on that roof with no way off.
What does all this mean to the ending? Let’s look at the arguments for and against the idea that Batman kills the Joker.
Arguments in Favor of Batman Killing the Joker…
1: At the beginning of the story, Batman visits the Joker to end their long feud, and tells the Joker of his fear that their rivalry will end in death. He feels the inevitable result is that either he will kill the Joker or the Joker will kill him, or they’ll both kill each other. The final scene seems to complete that prediction.
2: After two sincere efforts to reach the Joker in a sympathetic way, Batman realizes that the Joker cannot and will not be fixed, so the only way to stop another tragedy like the crippling of Barbara is to break his no-killing rule and kill the Joker.
3: After Batman disarms the Joker and gets the deadly palm-needle with the Joker venom away from him, we see a shot of Batman looking at the palm of his own hand. This indicates the possibility that Batman picked up the needle and placed it in his own palm, and then injected the Joker with it at the end.
4: The Batman may have been choking the Joker as the laughter stops. The disappearing ray of light indicates death.
5: Some argue that the story is a non-canonical Else-Worlds story, taking place in a different continuity from the DC universe proper.
6: Alan Moore meant the story as a future tale, relating the final confrontation between Batman and the Joker, so there had to be a definitive conclusion.
7: The recent revelation in the comics that there have been three Jokers means that Batman could have killed one or even two Jokers in the past.
8: The title Killing Joke means Killing the Joker.
The Arguments Against Batman Killing the Joker…
1: The Joker has continued to appear frequently in DC comics after the events of The Killing Joke, with no mention of his death in that story.
2: Batman has never killed the Joker in any story, no matter what horrible thing he’s done, so there’s no reason to think he would break his no-kill rule here. The disappearance of the ray of light could indicate the fading of the last ray of hope that there can ever be a peace between the two enemies.
3: The idea that Batman poisons the Joker with his own joker-venom doesn’t hold up because it’s been said that the joker is immune to his own venom.
4: While some think that Batman strangles the Joker, that’s not the author’s intention. The original text-script written by Moore, before the illustrations were added, said that Batman and the Joker are falling over with laughter and lean into each other, holding each other up (symbolizing the symbiotic relationship between the two—in a sick way, they need each other.)
5: The theory that The Killing Joke is a non-canonical, alternate universe tale doesn’t hold up. The crippling of Barbara Gordon is an established part of the DCU proper. This story is the set-up for Barbara’s change from Batgirl to Oracle.
6: The story can’t be a future tale of Batman and the Joker’s last meeting, because post-injury Oracle became a part of the DC universe proper.
7: The idea that Batman has killed previous versions of the Joker is flawed, because the Batman is shocked to find out that there has been more than one Joker. If he’d killed earlier versions of the Joker, he’d have to know that the newer one wasn’t the same person. Even if you take into consideration that death is never permanent in comic books, and the Joker may have come back to life, Batman should have had some sort of reaction to having killed his greatest enemy, but there was never any indication of that.
8: After the Joker refuses Batman’s offer of help, the final panel of the comic is exactly the same at the first panel of the story…a puddle in the rain. This indicates that everything is still the same as it was at the start, and their feud will go on. Also, the puddle denotes a reflection, which indicates that Batman sees something of himself in the Joker and, just for the moment, sympathizes with him.
After looking at everything, it seems that the arguments for Batman killing the Joker are flawed and don’t hold water. However, the key to great literature is that it makes you think. The ending was left deliberately ambiguous because Moore and Boland were inviting speculation. At the end of the day, the answer is whatever the reader (or in the case of the film, the viewer) thinks it is.
Do you think Batman killed the Joker in the Killing Joke?