WARNING: The following article contains nudity and major spoilers Batman: Damned #2 by Brian Azzarello, Lee Bermejo and Jared K. Fletcher, on sale now!
In the world of Batman: Damned, the Joker is dead. But that doesn't mean the twisted legacy he left behind doesn't continue to plague Gotham City. The mark left by the deceased Clown Prince of Crime not only resonates with some of the more prominent residents of Gotham, it also has infected this particular comic on a metanarrative level in the form of a rather overt callback to one of the most iconic Batman stories ever told, Batman: The Killing Joke -- specifically its ambiguous final page.
Back in the spring of 1988, Alan Moore, Brian Bolland and John Higgins unleashed a graphic novel that would change Batman comics forever, for better and worse. Batman: The Killing Joke is often heralded as one of the greatest Batman stories ever told. It is also often chastised in equal measure for its implications of sexual violence, boundary-pushing depravity and for giving a historically ambiguous villain like the Joker an origin story, which arguably dulls the mystique of the character. Regardless of personal opinion on the matter (even Moore himself has derided the work), there is no denying its impact 30 years after publication. Beyond the obviously controversial elements of the comic, the ending to The Killing Joke has been just as disputatious.
RELATED: PREVIEW: Batman: Damned #2
In the last pages of the graphic novel, Joker tells Batman a joke. The two start laughing and embrace one another. As the camera pulls away from the scene, their laughter eventually stops as the panels progress. To some (including writer Grant Morrison), the fading laughter heavily implies Batman kills his greatest enemy. This would mean a solid win for Joker, who was desperately trying to create a monster out of Jim Gordon by giving him "just one bad day." In an ironic twist, though, the villain's plan seemingly forces Batman to break his one rule. Now, the creators of The Killing Joke have vaguely dismissed this idea, and comic fans 30 years later mostly consider the events of the book canonical.
Where Batman: Damned #2 comes into play is just how unambiguous it is when recreating the final scene of The Killing Joke. Brian Azzarello, who writes Batman: Damned and also scripted the animated adaption of The Killing Joke (including the weird Batman and Batgirl sex scene that came out of left field, but we digress), is clearly subverting the Batman mythos with the three-issue Black Label series. After all, we saw more of the Dark Knight than we ever thought was possible (or allowed) in the series' first issue. But leave it to Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo (the same team behind the unpleasant, yet horrifically captivating graphic novel Joker) to push the limits of lurid content portrayed in a Batman comic.
In a confrontation with Joker's main squeeze, Harley Quinn, Batman finds himself backed into a corner. Harley doses the Dark Knight with some sort of serum and then proceeds to threaten an unwanted sexual advance toward the Caped Crusader. The rooftop fight hearkens back to the bizarre love scene between Batman and Batgirl from The Killing Joke film, but where the real parallel lies is with what happens next. Once Bruce gets his barrings back, he retaliates in a rather brutal fashion, even for Batman. With his hands clasped over Harley's throat, he lifts her up against the Bat Signal... and doesn't let go.
The camera pans down to the villain's dangling feet as the narration continues, until the final page reveals Batman killing the iconic character (at least, from what we can tell). The framing of drop-pocked rain puddles and the confusion regarding what's really happening on the page is almost beat for beat the same as the final page of The Killing Joke.
The end result, however, is far less ambiguous. The whole ordeal reads like that iconic last page from a different perspective, one that is far more sinister. It's a moment that continues to keep an iconic work alive and present in the cultural zeitgeist.