The ambiguous ending of Alan Moore and Brain Bolland’s Killing Joke, in which the Batman and Joker famously share a laugh and some hearty back-slapping, has always been a talking point for fans, the subject of speculation as to what exactly occurs in those final few panels, where the rain ceases to fall on that small patch of grass, and the light beaming from the police-car is blocked, and silence falls.
The interlude in the rain obviously suggests physical contact of some kind between the 2 men; my personal take over the years has been that the Batman and Joker shook hands in a mutual moment of understanding about the untenability of both their situations, an acknowledgement of one another and a comprehension that no matter how seemingly similar their paths, they would remain divergent, and for an instant- for the few seconds that handshakes lasts they are both okay, even agreeable. with those thoughts, and with one another.
It is one of my favourite moments in comics, from one of my favourite books and I admit to romanticising it a little. I’ve never bought into the notion that the Batman is closer in treading the lines of insanity to the Joker, that they’re 2 equally crazy sides of a coin, a reading repeatedly expounded in books like Arkham Asylum, Secrets, etc. While the ending of The Killing Joke could be interpreted as another meditation on the similarity of the men’s pathologies, the story itself reiterates the ultimate difference that sets them apart: Bruce Wayne had one bad day and turned it into an arguably(!) healthy outlet for justice, a tribute to his parents lives, which develops into a greater fight for the betterment of a city and its people (depending on what you regard as continuity), and the Joker’s alleged one bad day turned him into a psychotic killer. Deep down, both are aware of their similarities and ultimately, the larger differences that separate them, but the implied gesture of that handshake, that momentary, context specific solidarity is something I really like.
There have been online discussions which have theorised that perhaps the final encounter ended in violence of some kind, a reading which most recently, Grant Morrison, has advocated. Talking on Kevin Smith’s podacst, Fatman on the Batman, he explains why he thinks The Killing Joke is the ultimate Batman/Joker story and why it could only have ended with the Batman killing the Joker (full audio of relevant clip below):
‘That’s what I love about it- Batman kills the Joker…that’s why it’s called The Killing Joke…The Joker tells the ‘killing joke’ at the end and Batman reaches out and breaks his neck… and that’s why the laughter stops…the light goes out because that was the last chance of crossing that bridge.
Alan wrote the ultimate Batman Joker story… because he finished it… the laughter stops, it abruptly stops, it’s quite obvious.’
It’s a more fatalistic reading, one which I’d never given much thought and certainly very different to what I’d previously considered, but I quite like it: superheroes killing people, even villains is still curiously -and let’s be honest, incredibly irrationally- a big no-no- ‘what makes him different to you?!’ and ‘you’re letting him win!’ being familiar, cliched refrains. It would be nice, perhaps then, to think that the Batman took what would in reality be the affirmative action of swiftly ending the life of the man who had taken, and was sure to take, the lives of hundred of others, albeit off panel. When considered, death is the only outcome of the Batman/Joker dance, the realisation of which Batman alludes to in the opening pages: in fact, if you take the 2 panels with ‘We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?’ and ‘I just wanted to know that I’d made a genuine attempt to avert that outcome… just once’, it’s difficult not to see it as a pretty heavy bit of foreshadowing right there.
The genius of those open-ended final panels means you can pick the ending you think fits best, a sort of choose-your-own adventure depending on your mood! I guess we’ll just chalk it down to another mysterious secret only Alan Moore knows the answer to….