I’ve been thinking about fan theories lately. Sometimes they’re a lot of fun, but sometimes they’re just flat out idiotic. And sometimes, as both Greg H. and Jim have observed recently, they’re made up by people who just missed the damn point.
I’ve decided to tackle two fan theories in particular that bug me, one this week and one next. That way, whenever I hear them come up from now on, I can just link to these columns instead of getting into the same damn arguments all over again and driving up my blood pressure. Like a lot of fan theories, these sound really cool when you first hear them, but once you start thinking about them a bit more, you realize that they really don’t make any sense at all.
Which brings me to Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke. (Since I’m going to have to discuss the ending to The Killing Joke in detail here, SPOILERS apply.) Namely, the idea that Batman kills the Joker at the end of it.
This theory has been floating around for six years now, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. It started out in an August 2013 episode of Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman podcast. Here’s audio of the relevant portion:
In case that YouTube embed isn’t working for some reason, here’s the transcript:
MORRISON: Killing Joke‘s good. I kinda like Killing Joke‘s… Did we talk about this? No one gets the end. ‘Cause Batman kills the Joker.
SMITH: No! All right, we didn’t talk about this.
MORRISON: That’s what I love about it. No one’s noticed in… how many? 30 years on, almost. 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 then 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: Get the fuck out of here!
MORRISON: But he did it in such a way that it’s ambiguous, so people will never have to be sure, which means it doesn’t have to be the last Batman/Joker story. It’s brilliant!
SMITH: So for those… Walt Flanagan, my friend Walt Flanagan, he’s like, “I can’t stand the end of that. They’re just laughing.”
MORRISON: No no no. They’re laughing, and Batman reaches out, grabs his neck, and breaks it. And the laughter stops. It actually abruptly stops, which tells you he’s just reached out and killed him. It’s really obvious if you look back at it.
SMITH: So the only thing that’s missing is a “Krik,” or something like that, a sound, a little onomatopoeia…
MORRISON: But that would’ve made it too obvious, wouldn’t it? I’m sure that Alan wanted to make it… This is the last Batman/Joker story, this is the inevitable end, this is the Killing Joke… it even says it in the title.
SMITH: I’ve never seen that! I’ve been reading that book for years, I never saw that!
MORRISON: If you look at it again, it’s the most obvious thing in the world. And then the light switches [off], he just killed him. There’s no chance of him crossing that bridge any more.
SMITH: Oh, that redefines it in such a major way.
MORRISON: And that’s why it’s so great.
SMITH: And it’s so strange, because then… Well, that would make it an Elseworlds book, because he kills the Joker.
MORRISON: Yeah, because he didn’t want to. He’s not… He likes to do this. He’s done it all. He’s giving you the end of the conflict, but at the same time, it’s ambiguous enough that any future story will just be another echo of this.
SMITH: I wonder how many fucking people see that…
MORRISON: Nobody! I’ve never seen people talk about it, and yet it’s so fucking obvious. The only person who’s ever mentioned it is Brian Bolland, who hints it and then leaves it trailing…
SMITH: And he would know.
MORRISON: He would! The Joker reaches out… He wants it! He goes for his neck, and he breaks his neck, and the laughter stops.
SMITH: I wonder if he’s ever said that on a panel.
MORRISON: No. No one’s ever said, because it has to be ambiguous, that’s what makes it great. And it’s what makes it the ultimate Batman/Joker story.
SMITH: Dude, you’ve third-eyed me and fucking shattered my world. That changes the framework from which I’ve viewed that story forever.
MORRISON: And it makes the whole book so much better. It’s the finale, it’s the end.
SMITH: Alan Moore secretly wrote the last Batman story.
MORRISON: Of course he did. But it did it in such a way that only if you notice, and it’s beautiful.
Why It Makes No Sense: Oooh boy… where to begin? Okay, let’s point out something obvious to start:
1) Grant Morrison had absolutely nothing to do with The Killing Joke.
It was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland, lettered by Richard Starkings, colored by John Higgins, and edited by Denny O’Neil (although the story started under the editorial tenure of Len Wein, who infamously said, “Cripple the bitch,” when Moore asked permission to have the Joker shoot Barbara Gordon through the spine). The Killing Joke was published on March 29, 1988, with a May cover date. Animal Man #1, Grant Morrison’s first work for DC, carried a September 1988 cover date. And being in Scotland, I think it’s safe to say that Morrison wasn’t hanging around DC’s New York City offices when Brian Bolland’s pages were coming in.
So even though he was already working in comics over in the UK in the late 80s, Grant Morrison read The Killing Joke the same way that most everyone else did: As a fan. And remember, Alan Moore pretty much hates Grant Morrison, so there’s no way Moore would ever confide the “secret meaning” behind his ending to him. Grant Morrison is in the exact same position as any other fan here. He has no special insight into what Moore and Bolland intended. His opinion on the story has no more validity than anyone else’s.
In other words, fanwank from Grant Morrison is still fanwank.
2) It Makes No Sense Literally.
Let’s review what Batman has been through by the end of The Killing Joke. He’s seen his friend Barbara Gordon get crippled for life, and her father Commissioner Gordon kidnapped, tortured, and traumatized. He’s been hit with acid, he’s narrowly escaped being impaled by spikes, he’s crashed through a funhouse mirror, and he’s been hit in the head with a two-by-four (which breaks). To put it mildly, it’s been a night. And although Batman’s able to overpower the Joker, he’s still so out of it that he’s nearly shot at point blank range. He’s only saved by the fact that the Joker’s out of ammo.And after that… Batman and the Joker calm down and talk. The Joker even asks him, “Why don’t you kick the hell out of me and get a standing ovation from the public gallery?” The Batman quietly replies, “Because I’m doing this one by the book… and because I don’t want to.” He tries to reason with the Joker, and talk him out of the insane path that they’re both on. Maybe I can help, he says. Maybe we could work together. Maybe I could rehabilitate you. The Joker hesitates for a moment, genuinely considering the offer. He tells Batman why it’s hopeless the only way he can–with a joke. And Batman understands. And so the two foes share an odd moment of bonding, recognizing their one bit of common ground.This is consistent with the heroic, compassionate Batman Moore has written elsewhere. Remember, Moore didn’t grow up on the Psycho Terrorist Frank Miller Batman we’ve been getting a steady diet of for over 30 years now. Moore was a Silver Age baby, and you can see it all over his Batman work. It’s why Batman calls Robin “chum” and dreams of getting married to Kathy Kane in Superman Annual #11: It’s why The Killing Joke‘s Batcave contains the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the giant penny, a Whirly-Bat, and Sheldon Moldoff’s portrait of the Bat-Family circa 1962:
It’s why Professor Night, the Batman expy in Moore’s Supreme, is drawn in a Dick Sprang style: And it’s why, when he realizes the depths of their insanity, Moore’s Batman offers compassion to both the Joker in The Killing Joke and Clayface in Batman Annual #11 instead of just beating the hell out of them:
The plot of The Killing Joke doesn’t make any sense if Batman snaps and breaks the Joker’s neck at the end. Why, after everything he’s been through and everything he’s seen his friends go through, would Batman choose to kill the Joker right in front of a bunch of cops, especially after he says, “I’m doing this one by the book”? How is that consistent? How is that intelligent? How is that compassionate? How does that make any sense at all?
3) It Makes No Sense Thematically.
The Joker of The Killing Joke shoots Barbara Gordon and tortures her father Jim Gordon to prove a point. Namely, that the sanest person in the world is just one bad day away from going stark raving mad. After all, that’s what happened to him. Why should they be any more special?
But the story makes it clear that the Joker’s plan is an utter failure. When Barbara Gordon regains consciousness, her first thought is of her father’s safety. When Batman finds Commissioner Gordon, the man’s seen his daughter shot before his eyes, been tortured for hours, and forced to look at images of his daughter being tortured, but he still has the moral fortitude to tell Batman to bring the Joker in by the book. Clearly, the Gordons are made of sterner stuff than the unnamed comedian who became the Joker.Batman recognizes this and even taunts the Joker with it, saying, “Incidentally, I spoke to Commissioner Gordon before I came in here. He’s fine. Despite all your sick, vicious little games, he’s as sane as he ever was. So maybe ordinary people don’t always crack. Maybe there isn’t any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimy things when trouble hits… Maybe it was just you, all the time.” And remember, Batman knows what he’s talking about here. Bruce Wayne experienced his worst day imaginable at age eight when his parents were killed before his eyes, and he used that trauma to become an even better person.Look, The Killing Joke is certainly darker and more violent than most any superhero story that came before it, but it’s still, at its heart, a superhero story. And superhero stories typically contain the villain pulling off one or two big crimes before the hero stops him once and for all. That’s what happens here. The Joker succeeds in crippling Barbara Gordon and torturing her father, but he doesn’t come close to breaking their spirits. The same applies to Batman. If Batman snaps and kills the Joker, even on impulse, that means that Batman broke under pressure. That means that Batman went insane, and that the Joker was right. Why would you ever assume the Joker’s P.O.V. is the one we’re supposed to find correct? Can you honestly imagine DC ever publishing a story where the Joker is right and Batman is wrong?
4) There is Absolutely Nothing In Alan Moore’s Script About It.
This, for me, is the deal breaker. Moore’s entire script for The Killing Joke is freely available online, and Moore doesn’t ever describe Batman killing the Joker in it. Here’s a link to the last page of the script. Pay particular attention to Moore’s description for Panel 3:
“Now just a half figure or head and shoulders shot of the Batman from the front. The absurdity of the situation comes homes to him, and one corner of his mouth twitches upwards. He and The Joker are going to kill each other one day. It’s preordained. They may as well enjoy this one rare moment of contact while it lasts.”
One day. Not today. And Batman is going to do his damnedest to make sure that day never comes.
Here’s the description for Panel 5, where the art shows Batman reaching towards the Joker’s shoulder (not his neck):
“Now we see them full figure. There is a large puddle at their feet. They are now both helpless with laughter and have collapsed forward onto each other, both ragged and bloody, each holding the other up as they stand there clinging together in the rain. The white and blue lights that approach them from the rainy darkness beyond are bigger now, and there is a small thin line of red sound effect lettering widening right across the panel from left to right as their sirens become audible.”
Moore describes Batman and the Joker as being ragged and bloody, and so exhausted that they’re holding each other up, yet Batman somehow has the strength to break the Joker’s neck? I don’t buy it.
And before you say something like, “Oh, but Moore just did that to keep it secret!” or “He was was just trying to fool DC!” you need to remember two things:
1) Alan Moore is notorious for his massively detailed scripts. His script for the 46-page The Killing Joke runs 128 pages. If there’s something that he wanted in the story, something that the entire ending turns upon, even something that was meant to be ambiguous to the reader, you can be damn sure that he would’ve have written it in there.
2) Comic book scripts are not meant for the general public. They’re meant for the people working on the comic. The artist, the letterer, the colorist, and the editor. They’re the blueprint for the entire team to follow. There’s no point in hiding plot points that your colleagues need to know to do their jobs. A script will say something like: “By the way, Steve, make sure to draw that anvil paperweight on the desk on Page 9, because we’re going to reveal that that’s the murder weapon on Page 21.” If you’re oblique in your script, you run the risk of being misunderstood by your artist and having them draw something incorrectly. Do you really think that someone as detail-conscious as Alan Moore would take that chance? Ever?
5) Brian Bolland Was Joking.
As Morrison said above, the only person who hinted at the “Batman kills the Joker” ending was the book’s artist, Brian Bolland. In his afterword to the 2008 Deluxe Edition of The Killing Joke, Bolland wrote:
“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…..”
Well, gee, that sure reads like there was something more going on in that last page. Maybe Morrison was right after all?
But hang on. Let’s look back at how Bolland began his afterword:
“I’ve been asked to write the ‘afterword’ to this book — or should that be the ‘in between’? I’m told by my editor Bob Harras that there’s room for up to 800 words. If I go on longer we have to start dropping pages of art and we wouldn’t want that, would we? So, reader, if I should stop in mid-sentence it’s because I’ve run out of space.”
Bolland was setting up a joke, people. He teases that he’s going to run out of space, gears up to reveal something MAJOR at the end, and then whoops, sorry, out of space. Too bad. And if you have any doubts that he’s simply having a laugh at our expense, Bolland writes in another tease halfway through, just to be sure we get it:
“People seemed to find the last page of the story ambiguous, so before I conclude this text, remind me to reveal what actually happened.”
Bolland started out by promising to tell us what was really going on, and then he cut his afterword short, leaving us all even less sure than when we started. You realize what he did, don’t you?
Bolland turned his light off when we were halfway across.For me, the real ambiguity of the ending isn’t in the question of Batman murdering the Joker, it’s that we see the Joker reaching his hand out to Batman. He doesn’t seem to have the needle that he used to kill the owner of the carnival at the beginning of the book. Does he want to shake Batman’s hand as a peace offering? Does he want to try to accept Batman’s help to get better? Does Batman offer his own hand in return or does he just slap a pair of handcuffs on him? Who knows?
But there’s one thing I’m certain of: Grant Morrison is wrong. Batman doesn’t kill the Joker at the end of The Killing Joke.
Next Week: Why the “James Bond is just a codename” theory is bullshit.