By Brian Olszewski
More than a foundational text for the Batman mythos, 1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke continues to inspire peer-reviewed responses as well as blogs and articles of the more popular variety. Representations of madness and insanity in the narrative are a recurring subject of academic analysis,1 while essays about Barbara Gordon’s “fridging,” which stress her role as a mere plotting device to establish The Joker’s sadism in The Killing Joke, finds frequent coverage in online articles.2 Additionally, Grant Morrison sparked re-consideration of the narrative’s ending in 2013, proclaiming that Batman kills The Joker (Smith 3:51-3:54), a thesis that has proved tenuous at best. With recent attention given to the trauma informing The Joker’s warped psychology in The Killing Joke,3 another critical inroad into the text opens up to readers. Despite these nodal points of inquiry, the jokes of The Killing Joke continue to be overlooked. 4
Although it has been noted that The Killing Joke is structured like a joke,5 the apt claim does not go far enough, limited as it is by a brief synopsis of the narrative’s beginning and ending. As a corrective to this inattention, what follows considers manifestations of textual “joking,” broadly conceived, pausing over the implications of the narrative’s opening and closing as well as moments that arise between them. The subsequent schema mobilizes elements of the narrative’s form and content to establish the degree to which The Killing Joke, well, jokes. Much more than funny or playful ha-ha expressions, this set of joking-instances subtends the narrative’s emergent storyworld and The Joker’s discourse, essentializing the role of joking as a recurring formalizing agent in the story at large and The Joker’s personal life. If the former seams the narrative itself, the later continues to mark The Joker’s pained history. But unlike The Joker, whose references to life and the world as a joke symptomatize a trauma that leaves him unwhole, the narrative’s joking is a primary means by which it realizes its wholeness from beginning to end to stabilize the cyclical form that it assumes.
The story opens with a panel of raindrops splashing into a puddle, a recurring and suggestive image in the plot that Geoff Klock associates with superhero narratives in general as well as The Joker’s fractured identity.6
A reflection of the Batmobile’s headlights vertically streak across it.Jim Gordon and another officer wait for Batman outside the main doors of Arkham Asylum. All is silent as Batman walks through the facility on his way to The Joker’s cell, passing others along the way, including Harvey Dent’s. As Batman enters the room, The Joker plays a solitary card game at a table. Batman begins to pull up a chair to sit across from Joker, and the first words of the story appear freely without a caption box or attribution: “There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum . . .”
This passage, the first words of the narrative after two pages of silence, arriving without attribution, begins the joke The Joker tells Batman at the narrative’s end. Here is the joke in its entirety since it will be referenced many times before it is discussed within the context of its full expression:
“‘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!’” (Moore)
We are unsure who speaks what we later learn to be the opening words of a joke in this early panel, not to mention that the story’s ending, in part, is here at its beginning. The words cannot be attributed specifically to Batman or The) Joker, or rather the imposter Joker, since The Joker already has escaped prior to Batman’s arrival. There is no indication that either speaks. Perhaps it is a narrator that subsequently vanishes from the story because one never (re)appears. Or, puzzlingly, maybe it is an echo of the joke-to-come, which is spoken by The Joker during the final moments of the story. What we can be sure of is that the passage’s free-floating status refuses separation from the scene, blending into it without a space-demarcating narrative box or word bubble.
Literally in the dark, inhabiting black space in the upper left corner, the short passage figuratively situates readers in the dark about its origins and conceals that it prefigures the joke-to-come, while serving as a point of entry into the panel. Western readers are accustomed to begin reading text from left to right, starting at the top and working to the bottom. The abbreviated passage encourages a reader’s eye to continue moving rightward across the panel to a top-centered bulb streaming a cone of light downward that cuts through the darkness in the cell. The light illuminates The (imposter) Joker playing cards at the table. Batman approaches his nemesis from the right side of the panel, chair in hand. In this way, the passage apparently introduces plot details by referring to Batman and The Joker—the “two guys”—without any accompanying information about who is responsible for this expression. At the same time, the story of this seemingly innocuous joke-phrase sources what becomes the narrative-joke storyworld combination.
Although the concept of storyworlds can become quite nuanced in narratological circles, Marie-Laurie Ryan offers a succinct appraisal: “a storyworld is an imagined totality that evolves according to the events told in the story. To follow a story means to simulate mentally the changes that take place in the storyworld, using the cues provided by the text” (33). She further distinguishes cognitive and ontological approaches to storyworlds. The former concerns the way in which our minds activate and realize storyworlds, complementing the story-material with our own associations and connections that a storyworld evokes. In contrast, an ontological program focuses on the state of being of the storyworld, its rules of worlding, so to speak. A single storyworld can span a number of texts, novels, comics, films, games and more. For instance, the animated film The Killing Joke (2016) expands upon the graphic novel’s storyworld. It includes a relationship between Batman and Batgirl, Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon, which complicates The Joker’s maiming of her and reorients our understanding of the original story. But the graphic novel affords readers the opportunity to integrate the world of its story and the world of its joke in a similar way, allowing readers to understand the former through latter and vice versa. To appreciate The Killing Joke’s storyworld that emerges between the story of the narrative and story of the joke necessitates utilizing both cognitive and ontological rubrics outlined by Ryan, a reading that will be incomplete without focused attention on the graphic novel’s first words.
This joke lead-in is an aposiopesis, a figure of speech that instantiates a premature ending, as the ellipsis leaves readers with a sense of incompleteness. It hints or suggests at a future not spoken, additional words not shared, a reminder that it is part of a larger whole. Within the panel, the ellipsis stands in immediate relation with what follows it, the proximate panel image, The Joker and Batman in the Arkham cell. Moreover, the ellipsis prefigures the joke, which lies in waiting in a panel-to-come and about which first-time readers remain unaware. Until they arrive at the joke’s full articulation, readers will not know that they have already encountered it in the narrative’s first words. As such, appreciating the storyworlding impact of the aposiopesis requires that readers return to it and re-read it as the joke lead-in.
Initially, nothing in the panel indicates the aposiopesis brings the subsequent joke into this early scene or opens the narrative’s storyworld to the joke’s storyworld. With the aposiopesis relegated to the upper left corner, the panel focuses on Batman and The (imposter) Joker occupying opposite sides of the cell to stress their ongoing conflict. But the lack of a definitive stop to the aposiopesis or a text box to envelop it allows the three dots of the ellipsis to drift across the panel. This is an important detail that encourages readers to connect the content of the aposiopesis to the panel image. It is as if the purpose of the aposiopesis is to introduce a setting of the narrative’s burgeoning plot and its main characters, the “two guys” in an Arkham cell, Batman and The (imposter) Joker.7 But returning to the aposiopesis after the entire joke has been read fractures this orientation because Batman and The (imposter) Joker also can assume the identities of the “two guys” in the joke.
In this instance, rather than acting as the narrative referents that specify the aposiopesis’ “two guys” in an asylum, Batman and The (imposter) Joker refer to the “two guys” in the joke, thereby shifting the referential axis. The former dynamic remains solely fidelitous to the narrative’s storyworld because of the limited understanding first-time readers have of the joke. But a seasoned reader of the story can activate the latter relation after they come to the aposiopesis knowing that the phrase is the beginning of a joke after reading it in full. Forging this connection imports Batman and The Joker and their ongoing story into the joke, specifying with greater emphasis a relation the joke and the narrative’s final act makes regarding the antagonists’ state of affairs, which will be discussed further below.
It must be stressed that this story-joke permutation results from a reader’s cognitive labor, from the act of re-reading and repositioning the aposiopesis in relation to the joke in full. Shrewd readers must work with the characterizations of the aposiopesis and the panel scene in light of the joke-in-full and come to a new understanding of this relation by processing the aestheticization of this material.8 This is more akin to interpreting a clue rather than responding to an overt narrative cue, since the narrative-joke pairing is only a suggestion, a scattered possibility that emerges in panels at the beginning and ending of the story.
Such a cognitive burden may not cast the graphic novel as an example of ergodic literature.9 But one might say that this panel opens as a one-off ergodic moment as a result of the interactive opportunity it offers readers to express variably the narrative’s storyworld. An ergodic text organizes a reader’s interactive participation with explicit rules of engagement that cannot be avoided: plot dispersal (choice-directed), multiple genre inclusion (poem, drama, image), footnotes, endnotes, etc. As such, nonlinearity coalesces around structural schemes to produce heightened readerly interaction in ergodic texts. Such programs are hardwired into a narrative as formal devices or as content slotted into them as the means for a more participatory end. They are the bones to an ergodic story’s chameleon skin, providing stability in its subversion of linearity as the condition of possibility for variability. The aposiopesis in conjunction with the panel scene, on the other hand, relies on suggestion to spur close reading, activating a reader’s recent experiential attentiveness that exceeds the act of attending narrative direction or making necessary choices when prompted by the story. Moreover, this choice does not impact the structure of the story-content’s presentation or plot.
Batman pursues The Joker in all iterations of the graphic novel The Killing Joke. Readers do not or cannot change this plot. Formally speaking, it is traditionally static. Rather than navigating a nonlinear or branching narrative by making choices that determines and creates the story that is read, here readers nontrivially branch storyworlding possibilities in a plot that remains stable. This bifurcation happens only by the will and readerly skill of the reader, since this ergodic opening is implied as a matter of artistically rendered content and not imposed upon readers as a structured-in choice that they must make to assemble the story they are reading as in the choose-your-own-adventure genre.
As The Killing Joke demonstrates, an aesthetic fashioning of hard-wired content—aposiopesis in relation to Batman and The Joker in the cell post reading of the entire joke–spawns a variable understanding of a burgeoning storyworld without relying on the elaborate narrative circuitry favored in ergodic texts. In this instance, the nuanced styling of panel content opens itself to two storyworlds without interrupting the narrative’s forward progress, messaging readers on sly that Batman and The Joker are in the joke, which lets readers in on the joke, too. All the while, the panel also re-aligns the story’s narrative discourse, which further coheres the worlds of the joke and narrative.
When readers emplot Batman and The Joker into the joke, consequent panels complicate the relation between the story’s diegetic and mimetic registers. The panel’s text-image sequence, moving from aposiopesis to the Batman-Joker scene, can also be framed as the move from diegesis to mimesis and, when read in the opposite direction, from scene to aposiopesis or mimesis to diegesis. As a set of content, then, the aposiopesis and the panel scene remain in referential flux because a second-time reader can reposition Batman and The Joker as the actors in the joke and into the diegesis with as little obstruction as the free-floating aposiopesis bleeds into the panel scene. As such, the move from aposiopesis to the action in the scene and vice versa coheres into a variably signifying text-image—aposiopesis refers to scene in the storyworld—and image-text—actors in the scene refer to the jokeworld of the aposiopesis—sequence. This dual orientation blurs the story-constructing function of the panel scene when it is repositioned as referencing the joke, when Batman and The Joker enter the storyworld of the joke. The result: the scene “speaks” the joke as it shows readers the unfolding story of Batman’s pursuit of The Joker by virtue of importing the characters into the diegesis and aposiopesis. Since showing the plot is the same as telling the joke, subsequent panels continue “speaking” in place of the withheld words the aposiopesis signifies until the joke is stated fully by The Joker. In other words, the progression of the narrative and the building of its storyworld, the second time around, can be the progression and building of the same storyworld as a joke-world at the same time.
Each ensuing panel, then, adopts a dual orientation, depicting what happens to Batman and The Joker–the “two guys” in the Arkham cell and the joke’s “two guys in the asylum.” It is as if the characters concurrently occupy two roles in two separate worlds that yet emerge from the plot of their singular story, as if each—hero and villain—is two guys, one inhabiting the story and one inhabiting the joke. The sham Joker figures this strange duality, standing in for the real Joker, who already escaped from Arkham prior to Batman’s arrival. This imposter presences The Joker in the cell despite his actual absence from it, which, temporarily at least, situates him in two places at once. Considering the discourse of jokes and joking that informs the failed comic who traumatically transforms into The Joker will be pivotal for appreciating the pressure this dual storyworld imparts on a reading of the narrative.
Before visiting a selection of The Joker’s most crucial utterances in this regard, it is worth emphasizing that the dual storyworld does not upend the integrity of either narrative or joke, even when privileging one or the other when storyworlding. When a reader collides the world of the joke with the world of the story, an expansion of the narrative’s storyworld ensues without erasing that the joke remains a plot point in the story. But from the moment that collision occurs—at the re-reader’s discretion of course—The Killing Joke moves forward as the joke and story, the joke as the story, a joke-story, if you will.
A Random and Joking World
A sequence of flashbacks reveals The Joker’s personal history and tragedy upon arriving at the amusement park after escaping Arkham. In these historical glimpses, readers learn his origin story, namely the death of his pregnant wife and his transformation into The Joker that occurs during a botched heist as The Red Hood that Batman helps diffuse. The flashbacks span a set of three short episodes; the first two are each two pages in length and the third is a four-page sequence that charts The Joker’s emergence from the pond of chemical waste into which Batman chases the Red Hood. Sepia-dominant panels in the 2008 deluxe edition indicate the shift to the past, which distinguishes the past from the story’s present, much of which transpires at an amusement park. Only the color red remains vibrant in the otherwise sickly shaded scenes comprising The Joker’s origins.
The first flashback depicts the comedian-wannabe who becomes The Joker struggling with self-doubt. He tells his pregnant wife Jeannie that he messed up the punchline of a joke at an audition. He is irritable and snaps at her for saying “Oh,” in response to his failure, berating her for assuming that he does not know that their lives are at stake, that they need money for rent and that he needs to provide for the baby, that he thinks their troubles are “a big joke.” The comment seems innocent enough as it suggests his irritation at his situation and, perhaps, at himself for landing his family in such dire conditions. He collapses into his wife’s lap and apologizes profusely, expressing his desire to make more money in order move his family into a safer neighborhood.
This moment establishes that the aspiring comic who becomes The Joker has a serious investment in jokes prior to becoming The Clown Prince of Crime. Comedy is his vocation, one that fails him and his obligations to his family due to his inability to support his wife with it. Because of his failures, he risks becoming a joke of a comic, an unsuccessful comedian, unable to earn a living by making people laugh. Desperation clearly begins to set in if it already has not. That the man’s next move is to work with the mob suggests the degree to which he does not think that his life and struggles are “a big joke.” He values his family enough to put his life and future at risk in order to provide for them by donning the Red Hood costume as an accomplice in a criminal enterprise.
These flashbacks depict a man down on his luck and out of options. But they humanize the tragic beginnings of The Joker too, allowing readers possibly to sympathize with his plight. The snapshots, however, also reinforce identity traits that become distorted in The Joker: joking and criminality, what becomes a sadistic combination. It is as if the sludge of chemicals into which the comedian leaps harnesses these failed antecedents from The Joker’s previous life—the comedian and the Red Hood criminal—rebirthing the man into a most successful mastermind of cruelty. From an ineffective loser succumbing to life’s hardships emerges a prime mover of brutality in Batman’s orbit, a twisted mockery of his former self that yet siphons power from what had once been weaknesses. The Joker doles out pain to others; he is no longer subject to the world’s cruelty. He is its harbinger.
Such is the backdrop for an inquiry into The Joker’s origins and the trauma that plagues him. But without taking into account The Joker’s joke references, such investigations will remain incomplete. Each time The Joker refers to the world as a joke, every such utterance is haunted by the life that he once had but which no longer exists, except as a source of trauma, which continues to torture his mind and life experience. Formerly, the life of struggle had not been a “big joke,” its consequences all too real. But for The Joker life is now nothing but a joke. As Batman navigates the traps The Joker has set at the amusement park in The Killing Joke’s present, the latter exclaims over an intercom, “It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for . . . It’s all a monstrous, demented gag!” A joke. A gag. Such is the way in which The Joker comprehends life. It is said in earnest, a railing against the “black, awful joke the world was,” which made him “crazy.”
This last passage indicates The Joker’s awareness that a blackened and joke-of-a-world drove him “crazy,” even if this claim lacks specific details. Such vagueness may reflect avoidance or inability to recall a traumatic event that has yet to be integrated into The Joker’s subjectivity. But at the same time, the world-as-joke utterance makes readers aware that “joke” has a history too, a referential chain that links The Joker with the man that he no longer is, an identity that hauntingly speaks as and with The Joker. In short, every mention of the world-as-joke by The Joker is doubly accented and in dialogic relation to the “big joke” reference in his pre-Joker life. Every account of the world-as-joke that he shares with Batman is as much about the past as it is the present, an admission of a life no longer accessible. And further, each world-as-joke reference functions as a rejoinder to that history, as if to say this is why I am who I am and the way that I am because of all that has been taken from me, my wife, my unborn child, and my identity.
Not unrelatedly, The Joker prefaces his meditation on the world-as-joke by wondering aloud what tragedy from Batman’s past might have been the source for The Dark Knight’s origin: “Girlfriend killed by the mob, maybe? Brother carved up by some mugger?” Then he muses, “Something like that happened to me, you know. I . . . I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way. Sometimes another.” Remembering one way or another reflects the multiple choices that his history becomes while circling around the core of his own trauma, projecting it into Batman’s theoretical beginning. The Joker’s wife, not girlfriend, died. The cause of death was an accident, while the man who becomes The Joker worked a job for the mob that Batman interrupts. These details reflect The Joker’s history, but it is disordered and wrongly imagined as Batman’s. Although The Joker’s questions suggest that he is vaguely referencing Jeannie’s death by asking Batman about the fate of someone close to him, the indefinite “something” also refers to himself: his gruesome “birth” in the chemical runoff that is precipitated by the “death” of the man he once had been and can never be again.
Though The Joker does not say this directly, here he alludes to a traumatic death, of a loss so dear that it drives himself crazy and, perhaps, spurs a person to don a bat costume. It is the death that is the painful beginning of an origin story of extraordinary proportions, the birth of The Joker—chemical-waste trauma—and the birth of The Batman—traumatic death of parents—that the former cannot disassociate from a killing, one that traumatically reorients the self, distorting it and its relation to the world. By preceding his rant against the world-as-joke probing for Batman’s origins in scenes of bloodshed, The Joker imports originary violence into the world-as-joke, what makes it so. Thus the world-as-joke is a killing joke too, taking Jeannie’s life without reason, killing the man whose death becomes The Joker’s vessel of emergence, who knows intuitively that Batman doesn’t exist without a traumatic death of his own.
Killing in Perpetuity
In its April 6, 2008 edition, The New York Post published the favorite punchlines from a number of comics, such as Bill Maher and Roseanne Barr, under the headline of “Killer Jokes.” In this instance, “Killer” means “can’t miss” or a “guaranteed laugh,” something the aspiring comedian who becomes The Joker lacks in his arsenal of material. A closer look at the title “The Killing Joke,” however, leaves us with the sense that we cannot quite hit the mark that this title signifies. The title does more than simply reflect a violent and malevolent world as filtered through The Joker’s skewed perspective; it reproduces the logic of multiplicity that is The Joker’s preferred relationship to the past. The gerund, a provisional designation for “killing,” establishes the present tense of the word. It is active and ongoing, signifying that an activity continues to occur. At the same time, however, this present-tense opens the phrase to competing readings: a joke is killing and the act of killing is a joke.
The distinction is one of nuance, but the latter opens up the question of who or what acts the killer, in short. A joke can kill. The notion, if not the phrase, is part of the comedian’s discourse as noted earlier. In this instance, comic utters the joke-that-kills. But the idea that killing is a joke is a different matter. In this understanding of the word-pair, “killing” is a verb or gerund and takes “joke” as its object whereas in the first connotation “killing” is an adjective or present participle in which “joke” is the subject that kills. A subject is missing, however, when “joke” operates as an object to the verb of “killing.” But The Joker’s waxing poetic on the world’s bleakness fills in the gap. In light of his musings, the world is the implied active subject in this rendering. It kills. It is a joke. The world is a killing joke. Conversely, with the addition of “world” to the dyad, a parenthetical crystallizes in the competing reading: the joke (of a world) is killing.10
This title embodies the ethos of The Joker as well as the the storyworld of the joke that he tells, which becomes inseparable from the narrative’s storyworld. Because he lacked jokes that killed in his previous life as a comedian, the man who becomes The Joker, fails. But as the perverse living incarnation of a clown, The Joker is a killer extraordinaire. He becomes what his jokes in his previous life never could be: killer. Moreover, the joke that he tells Batman effectively “kills” the narrative’s storyworld that first-time readers begin to mobilize before reading the joke in full, if only temporarily. A second reading of the story or returning to the aposiopesis upon concluding the joke opens up the possibility for readers to establish that the narrative and joke storyworlds are one in the same. The previous understanding of the graphic novel’s storyworld, in this case, desists only to subsist immediately once again but in union as and with the jokeworld. This “death” reorganizes the storyworld, reassembling it into something new, a deterritorialization and reterritorialization of its boundaries by the world of the joke. If the failed comic is reborn as The Joker, the graphic novel’s storyworld is reborn as the narrative-as-joke storyworld, a simultaneous storyworld and jokeworld that results from a death that at once is a rebirth.
In both transformations, the change originates from within. The Joker’s twisted personality traits, as noted above, can be traced back to the man he used to be as a failed comedian. Similarly, the joke—dispersed as it is—originates from within the narrative’s storyworld as part of its content. But it ceases being only so once a reader emplots Batman and The Joker into the joke’s storyworld. Once this happens, the joke becomes more than narrative content without losing this designation as it redefines the graphic novel’s story and expands its storyworlding potential.
The story-building and storyworlding reach of such joking encounters little resistance. But within the story’s plot, Commissioner Gordon seeks not only to apprehend The Joker to contain his mayhem. He also expresses that Batman needs to restrain himself from violating the law when pursuing The Joker. Gordon’s plea sets up the indeterminate ending to the confrontation between the longtime adversaries, who share a laugh at the joke’s punchline, when readers may have expected to find a definitive punch to end this round of their seemingly endless fight.
Batman’s search for The Joker leads him to the humiliated and traumatized but still lucid Commissioner Gordon at the amusement park. He implores Batman to bring in The Joker “by the book,” which he repeats twice, stressing that he wants to show The Joker “that our way works!” His assumption that Batman is on the side that “works” reflects The Dark Knight functioning as a police ally, an extension of the police force in a non-official capacity.11
Batman is a vigilante, after all, one that operates on the side of law but uses what would be termed police brutality to apprehend villains, super or otherwise. As the world’s greatest detective, Batman, it seems, needs reminding to toe the legal line. Gordon does as much when Batman threatens the imposter Joker early in the narrative.12 His message to Batman is clear: do not treat the law like a joke.
So when Gordon pleads with Batman to bring in The Joker “by the book,” it is with the understanding that Batman may not always do so. Implicit in the commissioner’s pleas is the demand that Batman demonstrates self-control and act ethically when apprehending The Joker. In other words, Batman must police himself while supplementing the Gotham City Police when capturing The Joker. To put it another way, Gordon is not sure who or what will be arrested, The Joker? Batman’s moral code? Both?
This intertwining legal and moral matrix drives readerly anticipation to the inevitable Batman-Joker confrontation that closes the narrative, which is underlined by the question “Will Batman finally lose control and kill The Joker?” By not answering this question definitively, however, the narrative suspends it and the legal-moral concern motivating Batman’s character, leaving the question hanging ad infinitum. As such, Batman is arrested; he is prevented from clearly establishing what law—legal or personal moral code—defines his interaction with The Joker, as their encounter ends with them both laughing at The Joker’s joke. In this way, the joke is a killing joke, pausing Batman’s pursuit by undercutting the expectations set up earlier by the plot. The result is the narrative delays, too, slowing down when it should intensify in a crescendo before resolving.
A Punchless Punchline
There is a fight, of course, before the joke. And, of course, Batman eventually subdues The Joker, at which point The Joker pulls out a gun that projects the onomatopoiea “Click Click Click” on a cloth after he pulls the trigger. It is a joke gun, and the seemingly defeated Joker invites Batman to pummel him to earn a “standing ovation from the public gallery,” broaching genre concerns of superhero comics—“Beat me up, Batman”—and audience expectations—“the public gallery” or reading audience—siphoning narrative momentum in the process.
Batman offers to “rehabilitate” The Joker and to remove them both from their “suicide course,” in part by “working together.” He tries to convince The Joker to accept help because he doesn’t have to be alone at “the edge,” even acknowledging that his adversary’s life was “bent out of shape.” Batman adds, “Who knows? Maybe I’ve been there, too. Maybe I can help.” The fact that maybe Batman has “been there, too” is closer to the mark than he knows, since readers—with their surplus historical knowledge—understand that he was there at the originary scene of trauma and incited the leap into the toxic sludge that birthed The Joker. We shouldn’t be surprised by The Joker’s response: this situation reminds him of a joke.
“See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum. . .,” The Joker begins, perhaps again if we can attribute the aposiopesis to him. The two inmates escape from their cells, he explains.
The escapees are on the asylum roof, continues The Joker, and “just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight . . . stretching away to freedom.” As he narrates the joke, The Joker faces a cityscape in the distance on the other side of a bay. A beam of moonlight on the water “stretching away to freedom” connects the amusement park and the distant skyline, as if it, too, offers a route to freedom. The Joker stands at the amusement-park edge, with his arms spread wide and his back to Batman as if to reveal to him that the joke is their reality, that they are like the two men escaping the asylum, if not actually them, as a result of his speaking it into existence. This seemingly performative speech act that manifests the storyworld of the joke into that of The Killing Joke’s, then, intensifies for readers the already conjoined status of the two storyworlds.
The aposiopesis establishing the dual status of Batman and The Joker as the actors of both storyworlds may be dependent upon a second reading, but this panel is not beholden to a similar stricture as its setting depicts features mentioned in the joke. The moonlight reflecting on the bay – almost spanning the distance between the city and the edge of the amusement park where The Joker stands – evokes the bridging possibility of the flashlight in the joke’s storyworld. More important, Batman and The Joker looking out into the bay with their backs to readers shifts focus away from their physical confrontation at the amusement park to what they both see in the distant skyline, which is what the asylum escapees see: “the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight . . . stretching away to freedom.” This detour is not simply a deviation from their agonism; it is a re-routing of attention to the joke’s storyworld that is literalized in the panel.
The characterization of the scene once again provides the impetus for readers to conjoin the storyworlds of the joke and narrative. Attentiveness to the joke’s words and the setting’s reproducing of its crucial details emerge as conditions that encourage readers to overlap storyworlds and see Batman and The Joker literally inhabit the joke. J. Hillis Miller’s meditation on intersubjective relationships in narrative provides a model to understand the joke’s intricacy in this regard.
As part of his longer exploration of the ways in which figurative language interposes upon stories, or story lines, Miller repurposes the concept of anastomosis. While Miller exposes the contradictions inherent in anastomosis, the most central here is that it can form a channel that connects closed systems or vessels or a channel that connects other channels. The distinction is important for Miller, who transposes the concept from biological and geographical settings to literature to map intersubjective lines or relationships that emerge between and among various characters. In a closed system, an anastomosis links one vessel, such as a lake via river or organ via arteries with another lake or organ. But rethinking character relationships through the second and more open iteration of anastomosis allows Miller to posit a fictional self as a channel that flows into others fictional selves, for instance, as a carrier of genealogical lines in which a self becomes part of the flow of selves that passes into one’s progeny. Here, the self is more penetrative, merging with the other selves channeling through it, becoming one with them. Anastomosis in this expression figures the filiations of interdependency in which a self is determined by other selves “as the image of the line between one self and another as a figure for the way the self becomes itself, maintains itself, or grounds itself in the other” (157). In short, no self without another self or selves. The same might be said of The Killing Joke’s storyworld.
Its two storyworlds flow into one another; the one becomes itself through the other, containing the other within itself upon a reader’s discretion. Deftly sequenced and characterized panels of the Arkham cell and amusement park referencing the joke nudge a reader to establish a concurrency between the worlds of the joke and that of the narrative. The joke as manifest content that is also referenced aesthetically—figured in and through other content, as if in stealth mode in the Arkham cell and the amusement park waiting for discovery—assumes a defining story-building duality. The joke exists contemporaneously in different modalities as what a reader “communicates” between each world when suturing the narrative-joke composite. The excessive presencing of the joke, in other words, is the condition that makes accessing the storyworlding potential of the graphic novel possible. The concluding scene of the story, moreover, returns to the beginning, engineering its cyclicity that clues readers to the importance of revisiting where the story already has been. But first, a question lingers: what is so funny about the joke?
From the asylum rooftop, The Joker says, one of the men leaps across to a nearby building. The other man hesitates, thinking he will fall to his death. This man’s accomplice offers to shine the flashlight across the gap separating the buildings, so his friend can walk across the beam of light. The response: “Do you think I am crazy? You’d turn it off when I was halfway across.” The Joker bursts into laughter, and after a few sniggers, so does Batman, who grabs The Joker at the shoulders.
There is much to unpack in this moment as a moment unto itself as well as in relation to the larger story. For starters, what do the adversaries find so funny? This is not so clear, which means that readers must infer an answer from the joke and the remaining panels in the story. Certainly some sort of an amalgam of futility, desperation, and frustration, to say the least, animates this laughter. Emotional-psychological profile aside, there is the punchline of the joke, which suggests the fleeing inmates lack intelligence to navigate their escape and survive outside the asylum: the one escapee will not cross the beam of light because he fears the other will turn it off in transit, overlooking the intangibility of the light that can never support his weight. Uproariously hilarious? Maybe.
The excessive laughter seems out of place, which suggests that the joke does release pent-up emotions as a substitute for the violence that readers might expect at this point. However, observant readers will not forget that the story of Batman and The Joker is one and the same with the joke, courtesy of the aposiopesis and the subsequent panels that continue speaking for the rest of the joke it withholds. The narrative has suggested enough for readers to consider the possibility that Batman and The Joker see their situation as analogous to that of the inmates, unable to escape a prison, this one of their own making. In this reading, they are laughing at themselves and the joke-of-a-world that they have created and maintained over the years and are incapable of ending, like the inmates who are incapable of proceeding with their escape. Alan Moore’s response to a question about this penultimate moment during a Q&A online session on Goodreads.com is worth nothing: “My intention at the end of that book was to have the two characters simply experiencing a brief moment of lucidity in their ongoing very weird and probably fatal relationship with each other, reaching a moment where they both perceive the hell that they are in, and can only laugh at their preposterous situation.”
Moore’s observation is instructive. But strangely, he does not mention the joke, which is what incites the laughter and causes the brief moment of lucidity. His account befits the astute reader, who reaches clarity of this moment’s collision of jokeworld and storyworld. But Batman and The Joker, in seeing themselves in the joke in a moment of lucidity, recognize that the joke is on them because they are in it, living a “preposterous” version of it in a jokeworld they cannot escape or conclude.
To this end, the joke and the resulting laughter it elicits from Batman and The Joker slows narrative momentum,13
coinciding with the unknown effects of Batman’s grabbing of The Joker.
Notice the plethora of “HAs” that erupt in panel 5, hovering above the contour of Batman’s upper back, as if their sheer weight shapes him into this posture. The capital letters and thick font suggest loudness as well as mass, a substantiality that heightens the presence of Batman and The Joker’s joint laughter beyond that of the sheer number of “HAs” crowded into the panel. While outlining the action in the panel, the laughter remains a story in its own right, vying for a reader’s attention, as it is more legible than the fracas it frames. Batman and The Joker are silhouettes, which prevents readers from seeing Batman’s grip and what his hand actually does, since it disappears into the shaded shoulder region of The Joker. The next panel moves the Batman-Joker fight outside its border, dropping its focus to the combatants’ feet, as both men toe an opposite side of the headlight reflecting in pooling water. Batman’s cape floods much of the panel, flowing below The Joker’s opened hand, an ambiguous image that leaves open the ending of the alteraction.
Moments that should offer clarity, if not finality, swerve into obfuscation, preventing the narrative from answering questions that it previously posed. Does Batman do it by the book? Does he kill The Joker? And more simply, what happens to them? The remaining panels further distance themselves from such questions and their answers because the joke and the response to it by Batman and The Joker effectively kills the story arc preceding it, a killing joke that ends The Killing Joke. Not only is the storyline of Batman’s moral dilemma arrested; the narrative arrests itself by revealing less and less of the antagonists and the outcome of their encounter,
Absent of Batman and The Joker, the last three panels close-in on the reflected beam of light and rain dropping into the growing pool of water, which overtakes the solid ground. As such, the concluding panels vacate Batman and The Joker when they should linger on them and their final interaction to convey the outcome of their face off. Uprooting Batman and The Joker from the story means that readers must infer what happens to them. The remaining images are inhospitable to that very endeavor, however. They fixate on the discontinuous beam of reflected light and its disappearance in apuddling raindrops, which commandeers the story at its ending.
This double movement—increasing the presence of the reflection of light and decreasing Batman and The Joker—imposes upon readers tightening shots that signify the light beam’s importance. The density and weight it connotes like paint streaking across the ground, its lack of translucence, suggests a persistence or longevity analogous to Batman and The Joker’s rivalry. Rife with historical vitality, then, it marks an ongoing story, perhaps literalizing a version of Miller’s storyline, demarcating a line that at once divides but unites the rivals.14
It is the line that neither Batman nor The Joker can cross, a lifeline that fuels their enmity as long as it is not traversed or interrupted by one or both of their deaths or by reaching a truce or peaceful accord. If one dies or if they make amends and improve their relationship to the point that their conflict dissolves, the storyworld would change irrevocably and, perhaps, even die. Batman can offer help in this storyworld, and The Joker can listen but never accept, which is what their toeing of the line of light suggests. Each can live and even thrive in opposition to the other who defines him in their animosity, always within reach of the other, but only able to connect meaningfully with violence that asymptotically gestures toward a resolution without ever getting there, just as the punchline to the story-as-joke never arrives to punctuate the end of the narrative.
And, of course, the headlight also recalls the beam of light from the joke, the path of freedom for the inmates. In this way, the joke extends its reach into their story again. But rather than a line of flight, the headlight figures the imprisonment of Batman and The Joker in the joke-world that they have created and maintained for themselves. It reinforces that their story is a joke in the existential hell that becomes synonymous with meaninglessness. All the violent agonism fueling their story is futile because it never ends and thus is preposterous. Peter Brooks reminds us that the middle of a narrative plot is where stakes and meaning-making intensifies but only in relation to an end: “The very possibility of meaning plotted through sequence and through time depends on the anticipated structuring force of the ending: the interminable would be the meaningless, and lack of ending would jeopardize the beginning” (93). But The Killing Joke presents an alternative to the interminable as meaningless, since an endless story cycle fuels its meaning-making.
In the Gutter with the Beginning at the Ending
It is not insignificant that the image of the reflected headlight resembles a gutter, the channels of white space that separate panels in the graphic novel. Scott McCloud describes the gutter as the locus of closure, the space that ignites readerly imaginative and interpretative schemes to unite separate panels into a meaningful whole. But at the conclusion of The Killing Joke, the headlight reflection works to disengage individual panels from the main plot arc, drawing attention to itself rather than directly impacting the outcome of Batman’s last interactions with The Joker. The dividing light that separates Batman and The Joker detaches the closing panels from the action preceding it. As such, the reflection of light invites readings of its own conspicuous status as a central image among the dwindling scraps of story material left for readers. But if this content-impoverished ending leaves readers mixed messages as to what happens to Batman and The Joker, there is little doubt that they exit the story together, laughing, then grappling, then toeing opposite sides of the line before rainwater and mud submerge it.
This de-emphasizing Batman and The Joker in favor of the headlight beam at their feet risks reducing the narrative into an abstract iconography of lines—rain—and circles—rain dropping into puddles—the skeleton of the story that has been stripped of its flesh. Shedding characters, their actions, and their world evacuates the story of a determinant ending and generates ambiguity that reaches a crescendo in the last panel: raindrops disturb pooling water that now completely covers the ground, washing away all traces of the story. The effect is that of a cleansing, as if the storyworld prepares for another beginning, which the last panel signals by repeating the very first, a pivot into its cycle of repetition.15 We end where we begin but with a singular difference. The rainwater is devoid of reflective light in the last panel, contra the narrative’s first in which two faint beams of light reflect in the water as Batman approaches Arkham Asylum in the Batmobile.
In this way Batman’s and The Joker’s story begins anew, a cycle of violence fated to repeat endlessly, always verging toward one or both their deaths without ever arriving there. From this meta-perspective, what happens to The Joker or Batman at the end of this particular iteration of their storyworld does not matter that much, if at all; Batman is destined to faceoff with The Joker, his arch nemesis, in perpetuity. A hero will always need his rival to live and escape in the seemingly timeless world of comics, where Batman repeatedly has pursued The Joker since the inaugural issue of Batman in 1940, which The Killing Joke acknowledges, referencing the building-block precedents to its storyworld.16
This narrative performance stages that evolution is revolution, returning to the past in order to reinvigorate long-term rivalries that cannot ever end with one of their deaths, since that conflict is the edifice upon which the storyworld is built.
Unlike Batman, however, The Killing Joke does not fret about the prospect of its own death, or lack thereof. Rather, the story revels in the status quo, detouring from an ending back into the middle of the Batman-Joker conflict to find its sustenance, always killing, always joking, always revisiting multiple pasts and origins—distant and recent—to source the life of its endlessness. Returning to the aposiopesis at this point is apropos. The joke’s incompleteness stages the incompleteness of The Killing Joke as it does every Batman story, canon or otherwise.
Each Batman-Joker storyworld is but a single statement for a storyworld destined for incompletion. Origins will be amended and the dead will be resurrected along the way. The addition of sons and daughters will extend the familial lore in the ongoing cycle of endings that lead to new beginnings for Batman and The Joke with which generations of readers, new and old, must negotiate, integrate, and re-imagine.17
We might even risk positing that the aposiopesis stages this story’s autonomy in the sense that it almost tells itself at this point.
The aposiopesis’ lack of attribution performs in micro a self-sufficiency that the larger story shares. Like the joke fragment, the narrative does not need anyone to tell it because it is so familiar—to itself, too—and has been told and revisited so many times by different creators and readers over the years. Part of the joke, then, is that we, as readers, return to this evolving storyworld, knowing what it is, yet returning as if it might lead us somewhere else, perhaps to a death so traumatic that it will upend the story cycle. But ultimately, the story returns us to where we have already been, which is to say, the joke is on us if we expect anything contrary. Like Batman and The Joker, we can never really move beyond the established storyworld, never traverse that gossamer beam of light to take us elsewhere. Despite all the iterations, retcons and expansions we might encounter, we will always be reading what we have read before, even as the unresolved conflict continues to seed and grow its storyworld.
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.
“Ask the Author: Alan Moore.” Goodreads, Amazon, www.goodreads.com/author/3961.Alan_Moore/questions.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Harvard UP, 1984.
Doise, Eric. “Two Lunatics: Sanity and Insanity in The Killing Joke.” ImageTexT, vol. 8, no. 1, 2015.
Getlen, Larry. “Killer Jokes.” The New York Post. 6 April 2008, https://nypost.com/2008/04/06/killer-jokes.
Hudson, Rick. “The Derelict Fairground: A Bakhtinian Analysis of the Graphic Novel Medium.” CEA Critic, vol. 72, no. 3, 2010, pp. 35–49.
Hatch, Aaron. “Women in Refrigerators: Killing Females in Comics.” The Artifice, 11 Oct. 2015, https://the-artifice.com/women-in-refrigerators-killing-females-in-comics.
Klock, Geoff. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. Continuum, 2002.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994.
McMillan, Graeme. “The Complicated, Controversial History of ‘Batman: The Killing Joke.’” Los Angeles Times, 29 July 2016, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-thc-killing-joke-comics-20160728-snap-story.html.
Miller, D.A. The Novel and the Police. U of California P, 1988.
Miller, J. Hillis. Ariadne’s Thread: Story Lines. Yale UP, 1992.
Moran, Sarah. “How Batman: The Killing Joke‘s Animated Movie Fails Batgirl.” Screenrant, 29 July 2017, https://screenrant.com/batman-killing-joke-movie-batgirl.
Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “Connecting Links: Beginnings and Endings.” Narrative Beginnings: Theories and Practices, edited by Brian Richardson, U of Nebraska P, 2008, pp. 213-27.
Mosely, Daniel. “The Joker’s Comedy of Existence.” Supervillains and Philosophy: Sometimes, Evil is its Own Reward, edited by Ben Dyer, Open Court, 2009, pp. 127-36.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. “The Aesthetics of Proliferation.” World Building, edited by Marta Boni, Amsterdam UP, 2017, pp. 31–46.
—. “Texts, Worlds, Stories: Narrative Worlds as Cognitive and Ontological Concept.” Narrative Theory, Literature, and New Media: Narrative Minds and Virtual Worlds, edited by Mari Hatavera et al., Routledge, 2015, pp. 13-28.
Smith, Kevin. “Fat Man on Batman: Grant Morrison.” YouTube, uploaded by JFraser360, 2 Sept. 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcW_EaNJQSo.
Valereto, Deneb Kozikoski. “Philosophy in the Fairground: Thoughts on Madness and Madness in Thought in The Killing Joke.” Studies in Comics, vol. 2, no. 1, 2011, 69–80.
Weeks, Mark. “Beyond a Joke: Nietzsche and the Birth of ‘Super-Laughter.’” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, no. 27, 2004, pp. 1–17.
Zullo, Valentino L. “What’s Diagnosis Got to Do With It?: Psychiatry, Comics and Batman: The Killing Joke.” Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, vol. 2, no. 2, 2018, pp.194–214.
- For analyses of madness and insanity in The Killing Joke, see Doise and Valereto
- Hatch’s essay is a succinct and useful introduction to “fridging.” This subject was rekindled with regard to The Killing Joke in response to a cover variant to Batgirl 41 in 2015 that repositions her as a victim of The Joker. The conversation re-emerged in reviews of the 2017 animated adaptation of the graphic novel that re-imagines Barbara Gordon as a sexual partner of Bruce Wayne. See Moran, for instance.
- Zullo mobilizes psychiatric readings of comics and superheroes to reposition an understanding of The Joker within a schema of mental health, for instance, noting that The Joker, rather than working through his trauma, repeats it over and again (199 – 200).
- The Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime collects essays on The Joker, ranging from Marxist interpretations, gendered readings, and analyses of The Joker in videogames. This 2012 publication provides a glimpse at the diverse readings The Joker inspires while also demonstrating that little attention is given to The Joker in relation to joking, in The Killing Joke or otherwise. Mosley’s short essay in the collection “The Joker’s Comedy of Existence” references The Joker in the context of transforming the world into the stage for his violent spectacles but turns to philosophical notions of the absurd, for instance, to forward its thesis.
- In his Bakhtinian survey of graphic novels, Rick Hudson notes that The Killing Joke is structured like a joke, as evidenced by its lead-line (“There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum”) and a punchline that defrays expectations in the depiction of The Joker and Batman laughing together at the conclusion of their encounter. But the implications of this observation have yet to receive extended consideration from readers and scholars of narrative.
- Klock’s theory of the “revisionary superhero narrative” draws on Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence, arguing that the achievements of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, among others, inaugurate a new era of superhero storytelling in the 1980s that reaches the status of literature, in part, by wrangling with the conflicted traditions of long-running characters and their titles. In his reading of Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, Klock understands the drops of rain pooling in puddles that create differently sized waves as representative of “super-hero stories and their effect on the field of storytelling” (53). In addition to figuring relations among precedent superhero stories, the image becomes central in understanding The Joker’s insanity. Using Lacan’s mirror phase, Klock notes that The Joker identifies “with a fragmented background pelted by raindrops” rather than an “image of wholeness and unity” (55).
- An attentive reader, upon returning to the aposiopesis, may also note the absence of the complete joke’s first word, “see.” Its omission during an initial reading prevents an unnecessary imperative or redundancy of sorts because the panel obviously portrays two men in an asylum.
- Finalizing the narrative-joke storyworld of The Killing Joke contrasts with the inconsequential effort that initially is required to incorporate Barbara Gordon and Bruce Wayne’s filmic affair into a given knowledge set of this storyworld. No readerly or viewerly choice determines the inclusion of the relationship into the film and, by extension, the storyworld of The Killing Joke. But subsequently, or perhaps concurrently, viewers may position this material in relation to a pre-existing understanding of the storyworld, which already had expanded prior to the film’s release. For instance, Suicide Squad details the emergence of Barbara Gordon into Oracle, the wheelchair bound tech and data specialist during the late 1980s, as well as revisits the trauma of Barbara’s assault by The Joker in issues 48 and 49.
- Ergodic texts, for Aarseth, recruit more cognitive labor from readers, a demand that situates readers as explicit co-authors of the stories that they read or play. This additional effort can arise when making decisions to forward a plot, as in choose-your-own adventures tales, or when navigating a narrative such as Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. This poetic novel offers a “Table of Instructions,” including the option of skipping chapters or reading them out of sequence, creating a variable reading experience that troubles, for Aarseth, a less demanding and more trivial linear reading effort. Aarseth’s important work carved out a much needed critical space for considering the merits of electronic literature and videogames that literary theory of the early 2000s, particularly narrative studies, was insufficiently prepared to tackle fully. See Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
- The full title of the narrative, of course, is Batman: The Killing Joke, which complicates the post-colon, connotative word assemblages reconstructed above. On the one hand, the colon separates Batman from what follows it, creating an effect that sounds as if he is being alerted to the state of the world by an addressor. Batman, (listen!) the world is a killing joke, for instance, is the effect reading the full title elicits when unpacked accordingly, which replicates The Joker explaining this very fact to Batman in the subsequent pages of the graphic novel. Paratext and text, then, reproduce each other logistically and narratively at different instances, within and without the story proper in this reading of the title. On the other hand, the colon may work to define Batman, specifying what he is, in this case the killing joke, which opens itself to a host of readings, or that the proper name “Batman” simply designates the storyworld in which the narrative occurs, the preeminent figure of the whole of DC Universe’s Gotham in this synecdoche.
- This double policing duty by Batman invests in a logic of discipline and supplementary that is at the core of D.A. Miller’s Novel and the Police. But if Miller finds that 19th century British novels depict communities internalizing “micro” disciplinary regimes as a tacit social “policing power” that often supplements the work of police and detectives, Batman shifts the scene from Victorian domestic spaces and drawing rooms to the streets of Gotham that he patrols, explicitly wielding the power of the police force of which he is not an official member and more. He traffics in fear, a power that his costume and tactics mobilize in others. Consider this passage by Miller describing regimes of discipline: “A power that, like the police, theatrically displays its repressiveness becomes of interest here only in relation to an extralegal series of ‘micro-powers’ disseminating and dissembling their effects in the wings of that spectacle” (viii). Batman’s theatricality generates terror, as evidenced by the reaction of the Pre-Joker in the Red-Hood garb. His caped costume can mimic the wings of a bat, which adds to the spectacle that he becomes. But it is the notion of the “extralegal” that encapsulates the macro-powers of Batman, because he is at once within the law and beyond it, often relying on excessive force to apprehend the violent super-villains that the Gotham Police cannot, always obeying his one, self-imposed dictum: no killing, which is to say, killing is no joke for Batman.
- Fearing that Batman goes “berserk” while interrogating The Joker stand-in, Gordon rushes into the cell with a warning: “You know the laws regarding mistreatment of inmates as well as I do.” Batman maintains the visiting and interrogating privileges of the police at Arkham Asylum despite not being an official member of the force. With that privilege, Gordon reminds Batman, comes the responsibility of acting within the bounds of the law.
- In his analysis of the anxiety underpinning Nietzche’s approach to laughter as the means to probe the difficulty of accessing genuine laughter amid the proliferation of postmodern discourses of laughter and play, Mark Weeks writes that “there is a sense in which laughter functions in an antithetical relationship with narrative in general, given that narrative itself is a temporal, and temporizing, phenomenon” (4).
- This line appears early in the story as the leg of the table in The Joker’s cell that divides the space and demarcates an obvious division between Batman and the imposter Joker in panels on two different pages. A metal column in the cell-door window splits the scene in another panel in a shot that originates from outside the cell, depicting Batman and the imposter sitting at opposite sides of the table.
- The circular ending The Killing Joke launches in conjunction with its beginning incorporates features of what Armine Kotin Mortimer refers to as a structuring bundle, a “beginning and ending.” Considering beginnings and endings as a linked tandem working conjointly allows Mortimer to trace in a number of French novels the production of uncertainty and the structuring of cyclicity, which “begin where we are going to arrive” (220). The first and last panels of The Killing Joke establish the firm beginning-ending linkage that creates its circularity.
- In Batman 1 (1940), The Joker disguises himself as the Police Chief and plays cards with a judge in order to kill him. The Killing Joke re-imagines these themes and panel layout for its opening scene in The Joker’s cell. Later in Batman 1, The Joker empties his gun’s chamber while shooting at Batman until it “clicks” twice, which The Joker’s toy gun references with its volley of three “clicks” that emerge from its barrel. Moreover, Jim Gordon flips through a scrap book at Barbara’s apartment and looks at a newspaper story reporting the first Batman-Joker encounter. The picture accompanying the story is the cover to Detective Comics 27, Batman’s first appearance in comics. Thus The Killing Joke revisits Batman’s beginnings, to where he and his story already have been as the means to re-create The Joker’s history and to bolster this storyworld.
- Klock observes that the raindrops in pooling water reflect the authorial burden of writing about a character with such an extensive and impressive legacy of stories. The closing thoughts here, in contrast, re-align a discussion of the narrative’s open-ended concluding sequence with the reader in mind, localizing a reading of Batman: The Killing Joke to the storyworld(s) it opens to readers, rather than a consideration of the world of Batman stories imposing themselves upon authors such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore.