Alan Moore's The Killing Joke is a seminal moment in mainstream comics. It's one of those stories that set the industry on a path that was dark and ugly, featuring a scene where the Joker shoots Commissioner Gordon's daughter Barbara (aka Batgirl) through the spine, as well as possibly raping her*. All of this is intermixed with what is largely considered the definitive origin story for the Joker. The Joker's plan in The Killing Joke is to break Gordon, to prove that anyone can go mad after 'one bad day,' but Gordon stands tall and refuses to get revenge and kill The Joker.
The story (intended as a Batman annual, released as a standalone graphic novel) ends with Batman catching The Joker. The Joker tells Batman a joke:
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!
The Joker begins laughing, and slowly Batman joins him. He puts his hands on The Joker's... shoulders? neck? and the camera zooms in on their feet and raindrops falling in puddles. Laughter and the sound of sirens fill the panels, until the laughter stops and then the sirens stop.
This, comic writer Grant Morrison says, is where Batman kills The Joker.
I have to admit I never saw it that way, and I bought the book when it came out in 1988. I've read this story a zillion times and I never thought that what Alan Moore had done was write essentially the last Batman story - the story where The Joker beats Batman by forcing him into murder. Basically it's Seven, but years before Seven. And now I can't see that last page as anything but Batman killing The Joker. Which is problematic on a certain level, as the events of The Killing Joke are considered canon and Barbara Gordon, post-paralysis, became the information broker Oracle.
But still! That reading of the ending makes more sense, and it actually reduces some of the complaints about the story's misogyny. As always in comics the female character is broken, killed or depowered while the heroes walk out unscathed... unless you read the ending as Batman killing The Joker, which means Batman is just as broken, but in a different way. The character is, essentially, destroyed. I mean, the story's still pretty misogynistic, but this takes the edge off.
Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland have both downplayed the importance of The Killing Joke; it seems as if neither of them like it that much. In an interview Moore seemed downright regretful for crippling Barbara:
"I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon - who was Batgirl at the time - and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project...[He] said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.' It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t."
What do you think? Is Batman strangling the life out of The Joker at the end? Here's the entire page to help you decide:
* This is up for debate. He definitely takes nude photos of her and shows them to Gordon.