A few months ago, Grant Morrison was on a podcast called Fatman on Batman. It’s a podcast hosted by Kevin Smith. It was a pretty good interview. In the interview, Morrison put out a theory saying that Batman killed the Joker at the end of Alan Moore’s seminal work: The Killing Joke.
It’s an interesting theory Morrison put forward: Batman killed the Joker. I want to try to set this up to explain what Morrison meant by this. In the comic, Joker did quite a few fairly horrible things. He shot Barbara Gordon (paralyzing her), took pictures of her nude, kidnapped Commissioner Gordon, and psychologically tortured him. Batman took him down, as always. And before Batman ‘killed’ the Joker, Joker told a joke that reminded him of the situation they were in:
After the joke was told, Batman and Joker shared a laugh. Morrison claims that Batman killed the Joker, which is why the laughter stopped so abruptly. If you look at the middle panel, it looks like Batman is getting ready to do something to the Joker. It was a very odd position for him.
No. No he wasn’t.
He’d only be right only if someone ignores the rest of the damn comic. Alan Moore is a genius, bar none. He’s my all-time favorite comic book writer for a good reason. He can weave a story seemingly effortlessly. And his writing is deep and iconic. People wouldn’t get the ending only if they didn’t bother reading the story to begin with. The story had several simultaneous plots that came crashing together at the end.
The most important plot point in Moore’s work is the Joker’s origin story. Batman’s origin is easily the most well known in comics. The Joker’s? Not so much. Tim Burton’s Batman used The Killing Joke for inspiration.
Awesome side note? Joker revealed he tends to remember his past differently every time. So there’s no guarantee this origin is the actual one.
We never learned the Joker’s true name. Rather, we learn he was a failing comedian and a married man. His wife was pregnant and he really needed money. So he agreed to help a couple of criminals rob a factory he used to work at. They had a gimmick where they dress up whoever is helping them in a red hood (hence the criminal is called the Red Hood). Before the robbery took place, the Joker’s wife died in an accident. The criminals forced the Joker to do the robbery. Batman showed up and the Joker jumped into a vat of acid to get away.
The Joker was a man who was pushed too far. He snapped under the pressure, unable to deal with it all. Senseless tragedy showed him that nothing was permanent. Even worse, there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory explanation for why tragedy happens. The only logical response, for him, was to submit to the senselessness of it. It’s nihilistic.
Here are eight panels from the comic that, I think, will help illustrate what I summarized:
Batman does not want to kill the Joker. I want to make this clear right now. He doesn’t. He doesn’t even want to hurt the Joker. The comic began with Batman going to Arkham Asylum to talk with the Joker, to try to reason with him. Even at the end, he tries to reason with him. He was doing this because he was positive they would eventually kill each other. He wanted to avoid it.
Batman, unlike the Joker, faced the unfairness of life and was able to deal with the unfairness of it all. He wanted to help the Joker deal with it as well.
Commissioner Gordon wanted Batman to capture the Joker by the book. Gordon was tortured by the Joker. You see, Joker wanted to prove that anyone could snap and become like him.
Consider this. Gordon was tortured. He was driven to the breaking point. In a lot of ways, his torture resembled what happened to the Joker. Rather than snap, he wanted Batman to bring Joker in. He wanted to help Joker, not kill him.
Grant Morrison Was Wrong
Consider the joke that the Joker told:
See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape!
So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn’t dare make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says “Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!” B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says “Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!
Morrison claimed it was called the killing joke because Batman killed the Joker. Nothing could be further from the truth. The joke is about how Batman freed himself and sincerely wanted to save Joker. The problem is, Batman can’t save him (hence, the flashlight rather than something useful). The ironic part of it, the Joker doesn’t want to be saved.
So why was it called The Killing Joke?
Easy. That’s how Joker saw life… as joke that will eventually kill you.