Thomas takes a retrospective look at Batman: The Killing Joke
Batman: The Killing Joke is surely one of the most famous and most controversial Batman comics because of how it treated Barbara Gordon and how the story ended. The story left fans wondering what happens after the last panel — does The Joker die or does he live? We all have our opinions on it, but maybe it’s not that important to know what happens. Instead, maybe what is important is what the end tells us.
Back when I was in college at the Paris Sorbonne University, I wrote an essay for a class about the ambiguous ending of ‘The Killing Joke.’ So I’m very happy to share it with you now all these years later.
The Joke: A Reflection Of Batman And His Nemesis
At the end of the comic, the Joker tells Batman a joke that may just seem like more nonsensical craziness. However, it’s much more than just words; it has a much deeper meaning. The joke starts with the phrase from the beginning:
“There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum”
You realize that these two guys are the Joker and Batman and the joke reflects their story. The asylum the two guys are living in represents the world Batman and the Joker live in — a world where they keep fighting each other. The opening of the story — when Batman comes to see the Joker in Arkham Asylum — echoes the moment when the two guys from the joke decide to escape the asylum.
Batman wants to end this fight, suggesting a different solution than their deaths. He wants to escape the inevitable in the same way he wants to escape the asylum. The problem is that they can’t escape (as the joke’s punchline explains).
It can’t work, because the Joker doesn’t want it to.
First, let’s take the interpretation of Batman as the first guy. He represents Batman wanting to help the Joker, wanting to help him rehabilitate into society. However, the Joker said it’s far too late for him. The first guy proposing to use the flashlight is full of good intentions, but if the other guy can’t jump, he can’t escape. If he walks on the light, he falls and dies, so this solution is as irrational as Batman proposing to help the Joker: It can’t work, because the Joker doesn’t want it to. So, the Joker remains stuck in this asylum. The jump is just an illusion of going back to sanity. Indeed, the first guy is just as insane. It shows that the two characters are insane in their own ways.
This sends us back to that opening where Batman is not presented very much like a hero because he is also broken. At the beginning of these comics, we see him as a moving shadow. He remains in the dark, the light is on the table (not on him); that’s not how you present a hero.
Then you have the second interpretation where the first guy is the Joker. The jump represents the last step towards madness. For the Joker, one bad day is all that separates the sane from the psychotic, and this jump is that one bad day. The Joker had his one bad day, so he jumps into the psychosis. The first guy proposing to use the flashlight is the Joker trying to convince others to join in his madness. The second guy is Batman, who refuses to become psychotic. He wants to arrest the Joker; he wants to do it by the book. Killing him would make Batman’s one bad day. However, by staying there, Batman remains stuck in the asylum — stuck in this world where he will keep fighting the Joker again and again because there is no way of stopping him.
The Endless Violence
Then you have the last panels showing Batman and the Joker laughing. Batman reaches out to the Joker, laughing until it all stops and we can only see the rain. The ending is just as cinematic as the beginning and feels like there is a camera filming this scene.
The insanity of this fight is what really matters at the end.
The first and last panels of this graphic novel are the same: an image of the ground in the rain. There is something poetic there despite how dark the story is. Having the same panel for the beginning and the end makes it feel like it’s a loop and the story goes on and on — Batman and the Joker continue to fight. It supports the point of the first interpretation of the ending — that Batman doesn’t kill the Joker and does it by the book like Gordon asked him.
The other interpretation of the ending is that Batman kills the Joker, snapping his neck. Batman gave the Joker’s one last chance but he refused, leaving Batman with no choice but to kill him. This lead Batman into his own madness. It’s an interesting interpretation but considering the repeated panels we have at the beginning and the end, a loop makes more sense rather than just ending it with the Joker’s death, especially since Batman wants to do it by the book.
The laughing at the end represents a break in this constant fight between the two characters and a realization of their insanity. The insanity of this fight is what really matters at the end. The Joker and Batman don’t even know why they’re fighting each other; they just do, over and over again in a cycle of endless and meaningless violence.
In a way, the Joker/Batman dynamic is a reflection of the meaningless violence happening in the world. What happens to the Joker is not as important as what we make of this violence.
What do you think of the ending of The Killing Joke?
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Thomas Storai is the Collectables Editor for The Future of the Force. He is passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and a wide variety of movies. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasStorai where he uses the force frequently!