WTFAW: The Killing Joke

It’s time to dive into some controversial territory.

A couple of weeks ago, we saw the release of the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Boland.

The original comic, released in 1988, is perhaps one of the most well known batman stories ever written, and is widely considered one of the best.

However, the adaptation of the comic into animation didn’t meet with the same adoration and approval.

Some of the criticisms, I agree with, and some of them I don’t. But we’re not here to discuss the flaws of the movie or debate whether or not it’s good. I liked it, and I don’t regret watching it, and I’ll leave it at that.

No, we’re here because there’s a fan theory about this story that I’d like to take the time to discuss.

Obviously, this article will include spoilers, but if you are unfamiliar with this comic and don’t want it spoiled, you should frankly know better than to keep reading.

So, what is the theory?

Dave: In this story, Batman might have killed the Joker!

This theory has been around since the comic was released, and it’s one of the reasons the adaptation didn’t go down well.

Dave: Because it removed the ambiguity!

Well, you say that… but let’s get this started.

So, what are the arguments?

Dave: Well, just read the comic! Batman and the Joker talk, and the Joker makes it clear that at this point, he is too far beyond the help batman offers. He then muses on the situation, and how it reminds him of a joke. After he tells it, he starts laughing. And then Batman joins in, and is seen reaching out to the joker. Then the laugh dies out, strongly implying that he strangled the Joker!

Like I said, this is a very old and very popular theory.

But the thing is, the theory makes no sense!

(surprising, I know…)

Not only that, but you only have to think for a moment to realize in how many ways it doesn’t make sense.

First of all, there’s the simple fact that The Killing Joke is considered canon! This story saw the crippling of Barbara Gordon, forcing her to spend her life in a wheelchair, which lead to her giving up the role as Batgirl, and instead becoming Oracle, the expert computer hacker and information broker. You can debate about whether or not this was a good or bad move, since she didn’t HAVE to be crippled to become Oracle. But the point is, her being crippled was part of canon for DECADES afterwards! And all because she was crippled in this comic.

Dave: Yeah, nice. What does this have to do with anything?

Well, since you need me to spell it out, you know who have also featured in canonical comics since this comic was released?

THE JOKER!

How the fuck can the Joker be alive in any story post-1988, if he died in The Killing Joke?

Dave: Well, The Killing Joke was a one-shot comic. So maybe it was a “what-if” scenario?

Sorry, but that doesn’t work! Again, the events of the comic are considered canon. You can’t have one thing be canon, and another thing, in the same comic, be a “what if”. They are mutually exlusive.

Also, the thing with a one-shot comic is that it’s one issue, rather than part of an ongoing arc or mini-series. But that does NOT mean it’s then disconnected from canon! A one-shot and a What-If story are NOT THE SAME THING!

Secondly, answer me this, Dave. Why would Batman kill the Joker?

Dave: The Joker flat out says that there is no hope for him. Batman had to kill him to prevent anyone else dying because of the Joker.

Aha. And you see no problem with this?

Dave: No. Why should I?

Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps because of what a slap in the face that would be to Comissioner Gordon?

Dave: Wait, what?

The entire plot of the comic is that the Joker wants to prove that all it takes to turn an average man insane is one bad day.

So he shoots Barbara Gordon in front of her father, drags him away, tortures him, traumatizes him and forces him to watch pictures of his naked, crippled, crying, bleeding daughter for what is implied to be hours.

And then, when Batman arrives and finds Gordon, is he insane?

No, he’s not. He tells Batman, in no uncertain terms, that he wants the Joker brought in BY THE BOOK.

Dave: Uhm…

Having suffered through all that, James Gordon still DEMANDED Batman bring in the Joker by the book. As Batman puts it himself, Gordon is “as sane as he ever was”.

If Batman has even the slightest iota of respect for Gordon, there is no way in hell he is going to kill the Joker after that.

Dave: Yes, doing so would be crazy, right?

Exactly.

Dave: So what if that’s what happened?

What?

Dave: Maybe Batman killed the Joker… because he went crazy? The Joker claimed all it takes is one bad day to drive a man mad. Couldn’t this have been Batmans “One Bad Day?”

No

Dave: See, if you- what?

I said no, Batman did not go insane here.

Dave: No? And why not?

Because this? This is fucking NOTHING. Think of all the insane shit Batman has been through over the years, fighting Bat-human hybrids, an ancient warlord kept alive by magic ooze and the COLLAPSE OF THE MULTIVERSE.

And yet, this is what finally broke him? This is the “one bad day” that made him flip his lid? 

Dave: Yeah! 

But that idea requires you to ignore something crucial: It’s not Batman who’s having a bad day! He didn’t watch Barbara being crippled! He wasn’t tortured and forced to see a slideshow of his daughter being exploited. Batman visited an amusement park and chased the Joker through a hall of mirrors! That’s not “a bad day”. That’s fucking TUESDAY!

You mean to tell me that the joker has been trying shit like this for decades, doing all kinds of insane, cruel and horrible things to everyone around him.

And it turns out, he only had to TELL A FUCKING JOKE and Batman would snap?!

My point is that this idea doesn’t work at all from a basic storytelling perspective! Either he’s insane, in which case he should have snapped long ago, or he’s sane, in which case he may as well spit Gordon in the face, for all the respect it’d show him.

See, you know why this theory exists?

Dave: Because it makes sense.

No. It’s because Alan Moore wrote the story.

And I don’t mean that as an attack on Alan Moore. What I mean is, look at his other works. His two other most well known works are V for Vendetta and Watchmen.

You know what both of those had in common?

Dave: People in masks?

Moral grey areas. With Watchmen, it’s up to the reader whether or not Ozymandias was right or wrong. Is it right to kill millions, to wipe out one city, if it means saving the human race from an all out nuclear war?

And the comic ends, with us not knowing whether or not his plan will be revealed despite it all.

With V for Vendetta, leaving aside my personal issues with it, it’s fundamentally extremist anarchy versus extremist fascism.

By the end of the story, the fascist government has been toppled, there are no more surveillance cameras or microphones monitoring the people and no more propaganda.

On the other hand, this means there’s also no law and order anymore, and again, it’s up to the reader if the ends justify the means. While the fascist government is oppressive and unforgiving, the people were spared the destruction and starvation the rest of the world is facing. And while V fights for absolute freedom, he is equally merciless to his enemies, and doesn’t seem to care about who may suffer in the aftermath.

Because they are both extremes, there is no definite right or wrong answer.

So what does this have to do The Killing Joke? Well, when people read Alan Moore’s name on the cover, they just assumed that the ending was ambiguous, regardless of if it fit or made any sense, simply because the writer is known for making stories with ambiguous endings. This despite the fact that here, unlike those other two stories, there’s a clear good and bad side to the conflict.

Dave: Uh…

In other words: The ending was never ambiguous! The idea seems to be “was the joker right or not?”. But Batman says that Gordon didn’t go mad! That in itself is proof enough that the Joker was wrong!

And not only that, but according to the original script, it’s clear that Batman didn’t kill the Joker! Instead, they “collapse forward onto each other”.

The whole point of that final scene is that it’s the first and only time the two just… talk. There’s no interrogation, no preparing for a fight, no hidden trap doors or flowers squirting acid.

It’s just a conversation. Batman gets his chance to reach out to the Joker just once, to offer him help. And while the Joker declines, he shows his appreciation… by telling a joke.

Not a dark, vicious joke at someone else’s expense. No mutated smiling fish or exploding clattering teeth. Just a simple, normal joke.

And faced with the knowledge that they are locked on this course, and there is nothing either can do to stop it, in this one, fleeting moment…

They laugh together, for the first and last time.

Dave: Oh…

So you see, out of all the criticisms you can raise about the animated adaptation, (and there are a few, I will admit), them “messing up the ending” by removing the ambiguity is not one of them, simply because there is no ambiguity to remove! To claim otherwise just shows you haven’t paid attention.

Also, I’m not an expert on choking, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re trying to strangle someone…

Joke
you kind of have to grab the throat!
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4 thoughts on “WTFAW: The Killing Joke

  1. I think there’s three reasons why this theory is so pervasive, ones that you didn’t really go into…

    1: Story’s called the Killing Joke. You’d… expect a bit more killing in it. I mean, sure, there’s some death in the backstory, the unnamed real estate agent at the beginning gets offed but otherwise? It’s one of the more non-lethal Joker stories out there.

    2: Look, we all know WHY the Joker is never going to be outright killed out of universe. And we also know why Batman won’t bring himself to do it. But still… with everything the Joker has done, when will enough be enough?

    The story goes into that at the start, Batman musing that, eventually, one of them is going to kill the other. He doesn’t want that to happen, but… he just can’t see any other way it can end. For whatever reason, Gotham and/or the United States refuses to kill the Joker through the Justice System and are unable to keep him safely locked up, so… when will enough finally be enough?

    The Joker’s actions in the Killing Joke… no, they probably aren’t the tipping point a sane mind would look for. Even accounting for the fact that people see tragedies that affect us those we know as far worse than those that affect strangers… no, it would be one of the Joker’s other schemes that did it, not a scheme that kills one stranger, cripples Batgirl and traumatizes Gordon.

    But there’s a qualifier there.

    3: The joke itself can be read as a metaphor for the Batman and Joker’s relationship. Batman’s the inmate that manages to make the leap to escape the asylum, and Joker’s the one that can’t bring himself to make the leap.

    You could interpret that as Batman has found a way to reach a sort of… functional insanity. The question of Batman’s sanity usually goes along the lines of “How crazy is he?”. As you said, Batman had his “One Bad Day” a long, long time ago. Meanwhile, the Joker? He’s still in the madhouse, unable to bring himself to escape.

    So, when Batman tries to reach Joker, trying to get him to stop being a homicidal lunatic, Joker tells the joke: Batman’s too crazy to realize how impossible that is, and the Joker… he’s so lost it he doesn’t even understand WHY that’s impossible.

    Would that be enough to drive Batman over the edge to murder? The notion that his efforts to do the right thing are… nothing but a joke?

    Probably not. At least, not for a sane mind.

    • All valid and good points. But I am adressing the arguments I have come across, trying to justify the theory. I can’t adress an argument I haven’t come across.
      And I do understand the metaphor of the joke. I’m just saying that the joke in itself is not enough to drive him to murder, especially with something solid rooting him in that functional insanity like Gordon asking him to take the joker in properly. Fundamentally, The idea that he kills the joker doesn’t work from a writing perspective, and it was never intended to be an ambiguous ending.

  2. A very prominent case in stories from Allan Moore is the Fact that he writes stories for COMICS Specifically. The story was not Ment to be cannon (Allan himself has admitted this later, as well as the fact that the book has quite a lot of problems.) But the basic of what the story Ended on was the important part, It wasn’t that it ended on the joke and a laugh. It ended the way the joke did, the joke ended with the reference to the joke (which was about “Turning of the light” as he said) and that is how the story ended, with an enigma. To explain: Allan Does not usually do sound effects in his comics, he leaves that to the reader. So we don’t “See” any sounds at the end of the story, but it ends with a light showing up And then Vanishing. The ending WAS intended as ambiguous. But when DC decided to Canonize it, they ruined the mystery (besides, with the “Three jokers” thing That adds another case to it. But That was stupid, and will hopefully Vanish quickly, So I will leave that out here) But since this is a comic book, we have to fill in the blanks ourselves a lot. That is why the ending looks like it does, He lets US decide what happened. There is no “Right” or “Wrong” in a lot of his stories, and it’s the same here. So The ending is Intended as a mystery. And making another version will ruin this idea since it is based to be PURELY a comic book. That is how he can do this. We might not like it, but like I said, there is not “Right” or “Wrong” way to read this ending, you judge for Yourself what happened. So did batman kill the joker? In the stories intended ending: “What do YOU think?”

    • Like I said in the article, it makes no sense that Batman would kill thr joker in this. The art in this comic is shock full of sound effects, including the final page, and finally, according to the script, Batman didn’t kill the joker.

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