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Unraveling the Two Unsolved Mysteries of "Batman: The Killing Joke"

Jeremy explores many topics as he juggles his passion for writing with his career as a chemical analyst and campus manager.

Joker's emergence

Joker's emergence

Batman: The Killing Joke

Arguably the most celebrated comic (or graphic novel, if you prefer) of all time, Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke debuted back in 1988, but still entertains modern fans. It was popular enough to produce a 2016 movie, and offers a possible explanation to the long-standing mystery of the Joker's origins.

Ambiguous, twisted (this definitely isn't for kids), and concise (it's a one-off comic, not an entire series), The Killing Joke raises as many questions as it answers. What hints do we have for the answers to these mysteries? Let's explore the web of implications within Batman's most renowned comic!

Spoilers ahead, of course.

Plot Summary

First, a quick refresher of the comic's story. Batman visits an incarcerated Joker, wanting to make one last attempt at reconciling their differences before their rivalry proves fatal, only to discover Joker has escaped, leaving an impostor in his wake. Meanwhile, the real Joker invades secretly-Batgirl Barbara Gordon's home, shooting and paralyzing her while taking pictures of her in various states of undress. He also kidnaps Commissioner Jim Gordon, Barbara's father, with the intent of driving him crazy by showing him the pictures of what he did to Barbara.

Despite Joker's torture, Gordon maintains his sanity, and Batman soon arrives on-scene, rescues Gordon, and pursues Joker. He eventually defeats him, offers to try rehabilitating the madman, and (in a rare moment of sanity) Joker seems to consider the offer before refusing, saying it's too late. Joker tells Batman a joke that actually gets Batman to laugh, and Batman places his hands on the mad clown as the camera moves away, leaving Joker's fate up to the viewers.

We also witness flashbacks of Joker when he was a struggling comedian seeking to provide for his pregnant wife. Desperate for money, he agrees to help two crooks rob a factory. However, his wife is killed in a freak accident, and the robbery goes astray, leading the unnamed man to fall into a pool of chemicals, permanently tinting his skin, lips, and hair. Unable to cope with his recent traumas, the man utters an insane laugh: and thus, the Joker is born.

Barbara after being shot by Joker

Barbara after being shot by Joker

Mystery 1: Does Joker Rape Barbara?

Summary: Joker's assault on Barbara may not have ended with simply crippling her. He definitely undresses her, but whether he simply did so to take more-traumatic photographs, or whether he sexually assaulted her, isn't directly stated.

Verdict: I believe Joker did rape Barbara, or was at least originally intended to. Reprints of The Killing Joke somewhat censor the photographs he later shows Jim, removing some of her most revealing poses, but the original comic very clearly depicts her nakedness. DC Comics may have felt this was too dark even for Batman, and edited the scene to provide more ambiguity as to Joker's actions. Plus, we've seen Joker sexually assault women before, and he specifically mentions rape to Jim as one of life's despairs, meaning it's well within the realm of possibilities.

Some fans think Joker also raped Jim (considering Jim's nudity), though I find that far less likely.

The Killing Joke's ending

The Killing Joke's ending

Mystery 2: Does Batman Kill The Joker?

Summary: The comic ends with a mind-numbing cliffhanger: does Batman kill the Joker? After reaching out to him (figuratively) but being refused, does Batman reaching out to him (literally) indicate he's finally going to cross his line, knowing there's no hope for his psychotic nemesis? Let's examine both sides of the debate.

Evidence for Yes, Batman Kills Joker

  • First and foremost, the comic's name is literally "The Killing Joke," and its status as a one-off means it was perhaps intended as an alternate-universe "what if" where Batman finally kills, forcing police to bring him in.
  • Batman's earlier line of "I don't want your murder on my hands" could foreshadow his literal killing (by strangulation) of Joker with his bare hands. As he says this, he reaches out and grabs the impostor's arm, and some white makeup comes off. This tips Batman off, but it also could act as a symbol: his hands are (literally) stained by the Joker.
  • Batman himself acknowledges the possibility of him killing the clown (and vice versa), ominously stating they're both "running out of alternatives."
  • In the film, as the two laugh and the camera fades away, Joker's laugh ends while Batman's continues.
Batman reaches for Joker

Batman reaches for Joker

Evidence for No, Batman Does Not Kill Joker

  • Batman's hands are last shown not on Joker's throat, but near his shoulders, an odd location of the implied message was strangulation. Perhaps Batman was simply leaning on him as he laughs, or preparing to take him into custody.
  • The Joker's laugh tapering off (particularly evident in the film) may simply be some emotion—surprise, happiness, remembrance, etc.—that someone (Batman) finally laughed at a joke of his, something that never happened when he was a comedian.
  • Even after being tortured, Commissioner Gordon specifically asks Batman to take Joker in "by the books" to prove that "our way works." If even the victim wants Joker alive, would Batman really kill him?
  • After Batman disarms Joker, he asks why Batman isn't pummeling him. Batman responds, "Because I'm doing this one by the book... And because I don't want to."
  • The comic was later integrated into DC canon, with Joker still alive, although some fans may discard this point, citing its original non-canon status.
Joker's "joke"

Joker's "joke"

What Does Joker's Joke Indicate?

Before the titular ending, Joker tells Batman a joke about two inmates escaping an asylum through its rooftop. One leaps to the next building, but the other is afraid of falling. The first says he'll shine his flashlight across the gap, creating a pathway to walk over, while the later responds, "What do you think I am, crazy? You'd turn it off when I'm halfway across!"

Fans still debate the meaning of this joke, but we're confident the two inmates represent Batman and Joker. Some believe the first inmate, the one who escapes, is Batman, and his shining the beam of light (which of course wouldn't allow anyone to actually walk) represents him trying to help the Joker, but with means that aren't effective. Joker is also scared that he'd turn the light off halfway across, meaning he fears Batman leaving him halfway through rehabilitation. I agree with this interpretation.

Others believe it's the reverse, and the Joker is the first inmate who jumps, willing to escape the confines of society and accept his lunacy. Batman, barely clinging to sanity, is close behind, but narrowly refuses to follow and accept his madness.

Legacy

Regardless of your opinion on the ending, The Killing Joke is a brilliant tale layered with symbolism and double-meanings hidden in dialogue. From Batman's "I don't know what it was that bent your life out of shape, but who knows? Maybe I've been there too" (ironic considering he was literally at the scene) to great Joker quips such as "There is no sanity clause!", it employs stellar writing from beginning to end.

Throw in some brief Two-Face and Penguin cameos, plus outstanding artwork, and you have one of the best comics of all time. Cast your thoughts on the mysterious ending, and stay tuned as we await more information about further Batman mysteries (like the Mobius Chair's odd revelation of three Jokers)!

© 2018 Jeremy Gill