Did the Dark Knight Secretly Kill His Archenemy 20 Years Ago?

Outgoing "Batman" comic writer Grant Morrison suggests that the Joker was murdered by Batman in 1988 without anyone actually realizing at the time.
DC Comics
Outgoing "Batman" comic writer Grant Morrison suggests that the Joker was murdered by Batman in 1988 without anyone actually realizing at the time.

It turns out that Batman killed the Joker way back in the '80s, and no one really noticed.

At least, that's the argument put forward by comic writer Grant Morrison, who this month finished a seven-year stint writing the Caped Crusader in such series as Batman, Batman and Robin and Batman, Incorporated. Talking to Kevin Smith on the Fatman on Batman podcast, Morrison offered the idea that Alan Moore hid the final confrontation between the two characters in his 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, illustrated by Brian Bolland.

"That's what I love about [the book]," Morrison said. "No one's noticed -- however much, 30 years on, almost -- 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. He finished it … but he did it in such a way that it’s ambiguous, so people will never have to be sure, which means it doesn’t have to be the last Batman/Joker story. It’s brilliant!"

The last page of the story certainly leaves matters ambiguous; the Joker, having been captured by Batman at the end of a particularly extreme caper that has left Barbara Gordon crippled, tells the Dark Knight a joke and then starts to laugh. Batman, too, starts to laugh and leans toward the villain -- but, because the two are in silhouette, the reader can't see if he's merely using the Joker for support because he's laughing so hard, or potentially strangling him. As the focus of each successive panel moves away from the characters toward raindrops hitting a puddle, the laughter stops abruptly, but the sound effect of a nearby police siren continues.

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Does the sudden end to the laughter signify the sudden end of the Joker? On the one hand, obviously not -- the character continued to appear in storylines following The Killing Joke for years afterward, including multiple stories that explicitly referenced The Killing Joke, ensuring that no "imaginary story" or alternate world explanation could explain away the possible discrepancy. But did Moore intend for the story to end with the Joker's death?

We'll likely never know. Certainly, while Morrison and Smith clearly adore the book, Moore's opinion is significantly less flattering. In an interview back in 2000, he said that he didn't "think it's a very good book," in part because it wasn't actually about anything.

"At the end of the day," he said, "Watchmen was something to do with power. V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy. [But] The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker -- and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world; they're just two comic book characters."

Ultimately, whether or not there was a hidden murder at the end of the story is a moot point. Not only because death in superhero comics is something akin to a meaningless concept, considering the amount of resurrections we've seen, but also due to DC's continuity reboot in 2011. But for all those who complain that Batman could easily end the menace of the Joker once and for all by simply ending the Joker himself? Well, at least there's now the comfort that, just once, he might have done exactly what you wanted.