Grant Morrison went on Kevin Smith’s radio show and, as he dedicates his life to doing, blew your mind with his wholly original interpretation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke:
No one gets the end, because 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 the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story [because] he finished it.
Putting aside the fact that Morrison is the perpetually whining junior party in a feud with Moore, the idea that Moore “finished” the story of Batman and the Joker in The Killing Joke requires you misunderstand not only the structure of the book itself, but of the entirety of Moore’s structurally obsessed early work. Consider, as proof, a single page from Watchmen in which Moore accomplishes in nine panels more than Morrison did in all the pages of his magical masturbatory experiment in narcissism combined. But we need not even go there, because The Killing Joke fundamentally refutes Morrison’s contrarianism: the point is not that the story is “finished” but that it never can be. Even the dialogue circles back on itself:
That’s not the Joker, but a substitute with a painted face; the dialogue, however, is the Joker’s. After twenty-three silent panels, we have words. Moore frames The Killing Joke by floating the premise without the punchline in the first non-standard panel in the book, but it’s actually uttered in the last non-standard panel in the book:
This is because the books folds in on itself. The conflict between the Batman and the Joker is circular: it begins and ends in a “lunatic asylum,” and the non-diegetic words in that first panel are actually spoken aloud by the Joker in the second. Also significant is that they’re about the place they’re not spoken in, which happens to be the place the Joker will
eternally recur inevitably be returned. But it’s not just the Joker whose words are eating their own tail:
As demonstrated in the post I linked to earlier, the central panels in Moore’s work at this time are inherently important, and this is the central panel of the fourth page of The Killing Joke. But it’s not just its placement in the structure of the page that’s significant — the structure of the panel itself is. The Batman and the Joker are presented here, center-page, as mirrors images of each other. Their faces are identically shadowed, their hands identically held. The slight perspectival asymmetry chops Batman’s fingers off at the knuckles and introduces a hint of uncertainty into an otherwise impassive panel. The only problem is that that’s not actually the Joker, but the Batman doesn’t know that yet, so he’s delivering an obviously prepared soliloquy in which all the dialogue is doubled: “Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you.” And it’s doubled in a way that makes literary critics swoon: in the service of overcoming a tired binary. The point of all those doublings is singular, because the Batman wants to avoid the inevitable “just once.”
Just once he would like what cannot happen to happen, so it’s not without a little irony that this dialogue reappears later:
Minus the “just once.” Just as the Joker’s words from the end of the book are superimposed on the beginning, the Batman’s speech — which the Joker’s never heard, because that wasn’t him in Arkham — so too are the Batman’s words from the beginning of the book superimposed on the end. The absence of “just once” is a self-undermining irony. That the caption bubble is a box indicates that they’re not the Batman’s thoughts. He’s not thinking about the speech he gave, Moore is re-presenting them as an echo. He’s reminding the reader that Batman’s trying to escape the cycle of violence, incarceration and escape in which the pair are locked. Only they can’t escape each other, because they’re damaged in the same way.
This should be a familiar argument to anyone who watched The Dark Knight, but Christopher Nolan castrated the pathos of Moore’s argument. In The Killing Joke, the Joker has a definitive origin that — go figure — mirrors the Batman’s: the accidental deaths of his wife and newborn child break him just as the murder of Wayne’s parents broke him. They both had what the Joker wants to impose on Gordon when he shoots his daughter Barbara: “one bad day” centered around the loss of family members. The whole book is a reflection upon the damage done by “one bad day,” and in the end it valorizes Gordon for not responding to his bad day by dressing like a flying rat or serially poisoning the water supply. But the point is that this book is about the relation of past to future, a chance …
I’m not going to harp on the language, visual and actual, of mirrors and reflections and doublings in the b —
— ot. It’s just asshole like tha —
— t. Like that. I mean, the final fight takes place in a fun house in front of mirrors that distort their respective reflections, which means that in that second panel above, they’re not only distorted reflections of each other, their reflections are distorted reflections of their distorted reflections of each other. (Moore clearly values structure over subtlety at this point in his career.) For one to kill the other would be a kind of suicide neither are willing to commit.
They’re both the damaged products of “one bad day,” endlessly reflected in the fun house mirrors they stand between. That each reflection further distorts the other into infinity is kind of the point of the book.
The man in the fetish bat costume isn’t any healthier than the clown in the purple suit, and the more they interact, the sicker they become. Each reflection is a further distortion. Their interlocking stories always begin and end the same way, but along the way they inflict a little more damage on each other. You’d think one of them would snap eventually, but the point of Moore’s exercise is that neither ever will. Both responded to their “one bad day” with an excessive commitment to the willed necessity of their new identities: they differ from ordinary men only in their strength of will.
Morrison’s brilliant and wholly original idea — which has been floating around so long it’s been addressed in the introduction of one reprint and the conclusion of another — is an ignorant misreading that cuts against all the other grains in the book. It only seems plausible if you ignore the abundant evidence of its wrongness, including the first three panels of the book:
Which combine in way that summarizes the story of the Batman and the Joker: on a dark night and rainy night, the Joker does something the police can’t handle. The Batman is required. His headlights in the book’s third panel announce his arrival. The Batman subdues the Joker, who can then be contained by the police again, hence the sirens announcing their arrival in the third-to-last panel of the book.
On a dark and rainy night.
Don’t make me mention that those panels are distorted mirrors of each other.