19 August 2013

Is Analyzing The Killing Joke Like Dissecting a Frog?

Retiring Batman scribe Grant Morrison went back on Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast this month and proclaimed his interpretation of The Killing Joke, a landmark graphic novel from 1989. As Robot 6 and Comics Beat reported, Morrison declared:
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—he finished it. . . . the laughter stops, it abruptly stops, it’s quite obvious. . . .

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!
This wasn’t a new theory. One can find traces of such speculation or interpretation on the internet for years. Artist Brian Bolland joked about the perceived ambiguity in his afterword to a recolored edition without resolving the questions. But letterer Richard Starkings recalls Bolland saying that he didn’t try to show Batman killing the Joker.

Prof. Scott Eric Kaufman rejected Morrison’s interpretation wholly, in part in a skilled interpretation of art and words and in part because it came from Morrison.

In fact, fans who think Batman kills the Joker don’t even agree on the method. Does he, as Morrison said, wring or snap the man’s neck (and, if so, where is the sound effect)? Or does Batman jab the Joker with one of his own poisoned needles (and does Joker venom even work on the Joker)?

The folks at Bleeding Cool did the important journalistic work of digging up Alan Moore’s script for that final page—which it say the site lifted material from the feed of transcriber Mr. Phil Jackson.

Moore didn’t write that Batman kills the Joker. He didn’t ask Bolland to depict the scene with any ambiguity, and he was quite explicit about motivation, symbolism, and multiple meanings elsewhere. (As I noted before, Moore opened this script by writing paragraphs about the endpapers of the book—that’s detailed.) Bolland’s drawings for the final page closely follow Moore’s very detailed descriptions.

But the sound-effects lettering is significantly different from what’s in the script. As Moore wrote the scene, the laughter ended in panel 5, the center of the nine-panel grid. Police sirens appeared in panels 5 through 7, in 8 “we can no longer hear the sirens” [I can’t bring myself to capitalize like Moore], and in 9 the sirens resume—presumably as the police take the Joker away.
Ultimately the book followed a different timing. The laughter continues for through panel 6 and off the right side of the grid. The sirens don’t recur for the last panel—which is a major improvement over having a bunch of EEEs breaking into what Moore sought for that image: “more an abstract design than anything else.”

Who made those changes and when? The evidence currently available doesn’t say. They probably occurred in the editing process as Moore, Bolland, and their editors discussed the book. So whatever Moore might have meant originally could have changed by the final product. But Bolland would still have needed to know what to draw.

Furthermore, Morrison’s interpretation puts a lot of weight on how “the laughter stops,” a phrase he repeated. But in the final book, the laughter doesn’t stop in panel 5 when Batman touches the Joker. Nor does it stop in panel 6—it continues off the right side.

So what have we learned or relearned from this worldwide discussion?
  • Grant Morrison likes people to think he has secret knowledge. (And to be fair, sometimes he really does.)
  • Superhero comics are a collaborative art form. The storytelling is the product of the writers, artists, letterer, and editors, with only the final product containing all their contributions.
  • A lot of fans really wish Batman could kill the Joker.


Richard Bensam said...

What bothers me about Morrison's interpretation is that it approaches The Killing Joke as if it were a Grant Morrison script rather than an Alan Moore script. Their names have been linked since the days of Warrior but they have different preoccupations and different thematic concerns and different storytelling quirks. The way Grant reads this ending is what those pages would have meant if they'd been the ending of one of his stories. For example, he's very fond of concealing the twist ending earlier in a story so that you only realize when you've finished that you passed right by the crucial moment without realizing it. Grant is also inclined to have critical moments take place off camera. (Moore by contrast usually calls attention to his storytelling devices: "I did it thirty-five minutes ago" being the most famous example.)

I doubt that Moore at that time, the person he was then, would have done a "Batman finally has to kill the Joker" story in the first place...but if he did do it, he would have done it Alan Moore style, not suddenly switching to Grant Morrison techniques.

J. L. Bell said...

Good point. Morrison praised Moore highly in his podcast comments, as he usually does when speaking of specific other comics creators. (He's lasted too long in the business to be in the habit of bad-mouthing.) But your observation suggests that Morrison was praising Moore for being more like Morrison.

I didn't come to or become convinced by the "Batman kills the Joker" reading because the "sharing a joke" reading was transgressive enough, especially in the first years of the post-Crisis continuity.