On Interpreting The Killing Joke’s Ending (and Authorial Intent)

For his podcast Fatman on Batman, Kevin Smith interviewed Grant Morrison, and Grant talked about how Batman kills the Joker at the end of Batman: The Killing Joke. Grant makes a good argument, citing textual evidence. A video version of the relevant portion of the podcast went up on YouTube, and on Friday, 16 August, the comics blogosphere went wild. Both Bleeding Cool and The Beat covered the ensuing controversy.

Almost immediately, Cody Walker (Sequart’s webmaster) contacted me, because he knew I’d written about the idea in my book on The Killing Joke, titled And the Universe So Big, which Sequart published about ten months ago, in November 2012.

An the Universe So Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing JokeIn fact, the draft for And the Universe So Big had been sitting on my hard drive for years. It was part of a much larger, unfinished book, which I had no schedule for completion. But I’d always liked the Killing Joke chapter, so we decided to get it out there on its own, rather than keep waiting for my schedule to clear. (I polished it a bit, and Cody was one of the people who kindly proofread the book.)

But the theory I’d advanced wasn’t simply that Batman had killed the Joker. I’d seen what Grant had seen (and articulated so well), but I wasn’t convinced it was the result of a snapped neck. The Joker’s body doesn’t fall, and I’m not sure the panels depict a snapped neck. (Which I also think feels too abrupt, too graceless, for the work.)

There’s weird and hard-to-read physical contact between Batman and the Joker on that last page. It could be Batman slapping the Joker, like a friend, on the back, as they chuckle over the Joker’s bleak joke about how he can’t change. But it doesn’t quite read that way. It could be some kind of punch or neck snap, but it doesn’t quite read the way either. It doesn’t really look like a blow, nor does the Joker die instantly, as he would if his neck were snapped (in that panel, at least). Also, the Joker’s body doesn’t fall, once he’s stopped laughing. And there’s a weird panel in-between, in which the Joker responds to the Batman’s ambiguous physical contact by stretching out his hand, palm upright — traditionally a sign of surrender. Put simply, something‘s going on there, but it’s hard to read.

My own theory, carefully elaborated in the book, is that Batman used the Joker’s own needle. Looking back on the whole story, there’s an abundance of hand imagery, and the needle is unaccounted for after Batman kicks it out of the Joker’s hand. There’s also another strange page — almost as odd as the final page — in which Batman, during a fight, stares at his hand.

True, the Joker had dislodged Batman’s cowl. He might be adjusting it here. But he uses both hands, and his cowl doesn’t look like it’s still askew. Then he keeps staring at his hand, even as he resumes the fight. It’s just odd.

Others have suggested that he’s looking at a piece of broken glass, or some kind of hand mirror, which is how he sees the Joker approaching from behind. But there’s no textual evidence for this, nor any history of Batman having a mirror on his hand. And the fact that people would even think this suggests how much it looks like Batman’s staring at something on his hand there.

My contention, in the book, was that he found the Joker’s discarded needle and is staring at it. Perhaps it’s lodged in his glove. Presumably, it hasn’t penetrated his hand, or he’d already be dying by the end of the story. I imagine it dangling there, and what Batman’s staring at is how close he came to death — a random, meaningless death, caused by happening to tumble into this madman’s needle.

That this needle is the method of the Joker’s death on the final page would explain the Joker’s straightening hand and still posture; the toxin paralyzes, as the story’s already shown us. And there’s poetry in the idea of the Joker dying from his own device, which expresses how Batman’s been provoked by the Joker’s actions, including his assault on Barbara Gordon.

There’s more, of course. For example, the whole story’s filled with close-ups on hands. Thematically, this foreshadows how Batman reaches out, perhaps one final time, to the Joker at the end. It’s an offer of help the Joker cannot take, as his final joke perfectly expresses. But all these hands also evoke sleight of hand. It’s almost as if The Killing Joke is telling us to watch these hands, because something tricky and interesting is at work.

In my book, I don’t pretend this is a “definitive” answer to the ambiguity of the ending. It’s certainly ambiguous, meaning it can be read multiple ways.

But here’s the thing: even if you think nothing really happens on that final page, you’ve made a choice, and it’s no less an interpretation than any other. No matter what you think happened, you’re participating in the creation of a single narrative. And saying “they just laugh together” is no less an active act of interpretation than my own theory. It bends the evidence, including that odd panel, to fit its conclusions, in order to create a single narrative possibility.

Now, Grant, besides being a brilliant writer, is also really famous. So it makes sense that his theory would get coverage. And that’s awesome, because it gets people talking about comics interpretation. It’s an amazing thing, to be having such passionate discussions about a comic that’s 25 years old.

It would be a little silly for me to expect everyone to know what I’d written on the subject, especially compared to the number of people who are interested in what Grant has to say! But I’m not above wanting credit. I’ve spent a good portion of my talents writing about comics, after all. I’ve done so because I care about comics and take them seriously. And the comics blogosphere talking about the ambiguous ending of The Killing Joke, which I’d happened to have thought a lot about? How awesome is that?

(Incidentally, a lot of people have complained that Grant Morrison is somehow bashing Alan Moore here. He’s certainly not. Kevin Smith brought up The Killing Joke first, and Morrison leaped in with praise for both Moore and The Killing Joke. Morrison’s theory doesn’t demean Moore’s text in any way. Like all good comics criticism, it adds to our appreciation of the text, no matter what you think about his theory specifically. And it’s gotten us all talking about this particular Batman story, which is pretty damn cool — and, if anything, flatters and honors Moore.)

Because Grant’s comments had taken off on YouTube, I thought it appropriate to make my own video response, explaining my own theory as concisely as possible.

To my immense gratitude, Rich Johnston covered my theory on Bleeding Cool. (Yeah, that was pretty great to see. I tried to return the favor by encouraging my followers on social media to read it.)

Later that day, Rich updated the evolving story, with a post on Moore’s script, the entirety of which has been placed online.

The three posts ended up being Bleeding Cool’s top three comics posts for Saturday.

One issue that Moore’s script brings up (and which has been a major subject in the comments) is the idea of authorial intent. In academia, authorial intent is regarded as a critical fallacy.

History is filled with authors who claimed things about their own work that was simply not true. Sometimes, this was for political reasons, such as hiding subversive content. Often, this was part of an author positioning or fashioning himself or herself — such as an author dismissing a work he or she no longer likes, especially if he or she wishes critics paid more attention to other, more “serious” work that is comparatively languishing in obscurity. Other times, authors are just forgetful and don’t have the details of their own work pristine and accessible in their thoughts, the way a reader or a critic might. Also, authors are often unaware of themes and strains in their own work; as authors age, they routinely see how their older work reflects what they were going through at the time of writing but weren’t yet conscious of, and their analysis of their own work changes, exactly as ours can.

People lie, they change, and they’re forgetful. They’re wrong for all kinds of reasons. A work’s author is just a human being, and no human being’s word is gospel. That’s not how criticism works. Like a science or any other inquiry concerned with facts, literary criticism is subject to the evidence, and in the case of literary criticism, the evidence is the text.

Imagine if we found an original note, written by Shakespeare, in which he dismissed Hamlet as trash with nothing to say about humanity, and which he produced only for money. This wouldn’t change the fact that Hamlet objectively does say a lot about humanity, such as mortality, duty, and hesitation versus action. Whether Shakespeare wrote that note in a bad mood, or whether he really believed it, is irrelevant. His own analysis might be indicative, in that it might point critics in new directions, and authors often see aspects to their works that critics rarely notice. But any statement about a work is subject to the evidence, and the author’s statements aren’t right simply because they’re the author’s.

If we take the idea of authorial intent to its reductively absurd extreme, someone could create a comic with panels that are entirely black or entirely white, then talk at length about how they depict one character murdering another. Is he or she right, simply because he or she is the author?

If a script says to draw X, but an artist draws Y, whether due to a misinterpretation of the script or due to deliberate modification of the writer’s intentions, it’s Y that’s on the page. This actually happens all the time. Maybe a writer didn’t picture a character as enraged, but the artist really emphasized that. It’s interesting to know the writer’s intentions, but they don’t change what’s on the page.

So while I’m eager to see what Moore and the always terrific Brian Bolland (two of my favorite creators; after all, I wrote a book about one of their collaborations!) have to say about this matter, it doesn’t change what’s on the page.

And what’s on the page in The Killing Joke is ambiguous in a way that requires interpretation, or reading what’s going on between the panels. If you think Batman’s just adjusting his cowl and heartily patting the Joker on the back, that’s fine. But it’s no more only “what’s on the page” than what Grant, or I, have said.

The last thing I’ll say on this point is that we rarely have these discussions of authorial intent in other media. When people talk about their theories of Star Wars, such as whether innocents were killed on the Death Star, it’s pretty rare for people to cite Lucas’s intentions. It really doesn’t matter that director Francis Ford Coppola routinely says he put things into his movies just because he liked them; critics have found tons of symbolism in his films, and these theories hold up or don’t. The same is true of great works of literature, about which we’re constantly discovering new things — and proving them over time and through examination of the evidence, exactly as science does. It’s religion that tends to revere single figures’ opinions as the revealed truth. But curiously, in other media, even fans rarely see their beloved creators as the solitary authorities, and pop culture websites often delight in new interpretations.

It’s nothing less than awesome that we’re talking about how to interpret a Batman classic. It’s an honor to have any role in this discussion. But I also hope that this discussion can serve to elevate comics as an art form by helping to create the kind of critical community that’s part and parcel of any form of art being respected. That’s very much been part of Sequart’s mission, these many years, and it may just be the next step in comics’ growing acceptance.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

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2 Comments

  1. Before this, I always thought the ending with both of them laughing seemed too… clumsy. I don’t know, it just felt like a poetic convenience and grossly out of character.
    This theory makes that last scene work for me in a way it didn’t before.

    Lots of ways to read that final scene. I also like to think that Batman is slowly being killed by the toxin at the end too. His careful examination of his hand is him realising he’s about to die (though he has a little time, since he’s in peak physical condition)… so he impulsively rids the world of the Joker in the same instance. Then tries to make amends before they both die…

    Or maybe the laughter stops because they’re making out.

    We should always be open to new interpretations. As Moore’s Joker himself puts it, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice”

  2. rick gratton says:

    Julian your book is brilliant & you’ve opened my eyes & spirit to a classic…wanted to know your thoughts on the Joker being immune to his own toxins/poisons…would love you to comment…please everyone check out his book it’s fab :)

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