Image: DC Comics

Though they’re all part of one event, the various pieces of DC’s Dark Nights: Metal have been uneven in their execution. But as schizophrenic as Metal has felt at times, The Batman Who Laughs, written by James Tynion IV and illustrated by Riley Rossmo, gets at the heart of what makes the event truly compelling.

Writer Scott Snyder is the chief architect responsible for putting Metal’s many moving pieces together. At this year’s New York Comic Con, he actually described The Batman Who Laughs’ plot in lengthy detail. Even still, knowing what happens and how the comic ends didn’t prepare me for the experience of properly reading it and letting its macabre visuals etch themselves into my mind.

Like each of DC’s other “Dark Knights” one-shots, The Batman Who Laughs tells the origin story of an alternate-universe Batman. The alt-Batfolk (one’s actually a woman) all succumb to one of their darkest fears before murdering someone close to them, stealing their powers, and becoming a warped, horrifying version of the person they used to be. Unlike the other Dark Knights who’ve all been based on other members of the Justice League, though, the Batman Who Laughs is borne from a universe in which Batman finally kills the Joker.

The Batman Who Laughs opens on a night in Earth-22's Gotham with the entire city engulfed in flames, as the Joker explains to a bound and drugged Batman how he’s prepared a special surprise for him. After all their years of endlessly fighting one another, the Joker’s decided that the time has finally come for his and Batman’s relationship to evolve. But because their dynamic has been so defined by their relationships to Gotham itself, the Joker reasons that the city must die in order for the two of them to become something more.

The Joker knows that killing is the one line that Batman would never cross but, on some level, he also understands that forcing Batman across that line is the only way to get what he truly wants. The Joker doesn’t want to hurt Batman so much as he wants to break Bruce Wayne in the most profound of ways. It isn’t explained how the Joker came to learn Batman’s true identity, but he wields that knowledge like a weapon by forcing Bruce to relive his parents’ deaths over and over. Dozens of Gotham families consisting of two adults and one child stand in line at gunpoint as they’re ushered into the alley where Batman is tied up. The child in each trio is infected with Joker toxin before the Joker shoots both of the adults in the head, an experience meant to imbue the child with “the best” parts of the Joker and Batman.

The perverse insanity of the ritual executions pushes Bruce over the edge and he flies into a rage that breaks him free of his bonds. He wraps his arms around the Joker’s neck—but the Joker laughs as he’s being choked to death, which reflects the essence of their connection to each other. It’s never going to stop being that way. They are never going to stop being that way. The intensity of the situation proves to be too much for Batman and he chooses to prove the Joker wrong by snapping his neck and killing him.

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As gaseous Joker toxin begins to pour out of the dead clown’s mouth, Batman clings to his dead body and continues to tell him to stop. The panel is gut-wrenching and charged with rage and pain, but there’s also a twisted sort of intimacy to it that makes you wonder whether this was the Joker’s plan all along.

In the days after the Joker’s death, Gotham’s fires are extinguished, the children permanently transformed by the Joker toxin have all been rounded up, and Batman is left to wonder where to go next. During a conversation with Superman, Batman insists that he’s still resolute in his rule of no-killing and Superman takes him at his word. The task at hand now, Batman points out, is trying to figure out how to save the Joker-fied children, something he’s not entirely sure is possible. Superman is confident that the kids will be fine and says that he’ll be taking over their treatment personally, following an incident in which one of them attempted to kill a psychologist.

It’s brief, but Batman’s reaction to Superman’s story horrifically foreshadows where The Batman Who Laughs is going.

Bruce knows that he’s has been infected with the Joker toxin and begins making arrangements for the worst possible outcome. He calls the Bat-family to the Batcave for an extensive round of training and Batgirl notices the robot opponents have been put on an unusually high difficulty setting. They all know that Batman is trying to prepare them for something and when pressed, Bruce readily reveals his diagnosis to them.

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The toxin, Batman says, is systematically rewiring his brain to lower his impulse control and bring out Joker-esque personality traits... like inappropriate laughter. Eventually, he’ll succumb to the transformation fully and become the sort of threat that none of them could ever be fully prepared to face, but each of member of Bruce’s chosen family believes that he’s wrong. Not about the toxin transforming him, but rather about them being ready to help Bruce in any way that he needs. They’re confident that they can save Bruce because he’s prepared them all for the unimaginable.

With a frown on his face that’s both grim and forlorn, Batman turns from them all and says that they don’t understand. He knows they’re all prepared to handle what’s happening to him, it’s just that he doesn’t want them to spoil the joke he’s setting up.

So, he presents them an unexpected surprise.

The idea that Batman doesn’t kill has lost much of its resonance particularly as he’s appeared in more recent films, where the collateral damage he’s caused has led to the deaths of many people. But there’s a very distinct kind of horror in seeing Batman gun down his own family with a grin on his face. When I spoke to Snyder about The Batman Who Laughs, he said that the story is essentially an exploration of Bruce’s fear of who he might turn into if he began killing. I’d argue that it’s also a story about family and profound loneliness.

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The story jumps a week into the future where Batman’s cape is now lined with green and he’s slaughtered nearly every single member of his universe’s Justice League. As he and a battered Superman face off in the League’s watchtower, Batman admits that he genuinely enjoys the freedom that being a mass murderer affords him. Cut loose from the responsibilities that come from having a family, Bruce is able pursue his darkest desires and turn the entire world into his playground of death. For some reason, Lois and Jon are also there in the Watchtower, looking on as Superman tries to reason with the man that he once considered a brother.

Try as Superman might to appeal to Bruce’s now non-existent humanity, there’s no getting through to him, and Bruce lashes out at the Kent family with yet another sick “joke.” He tosses a hunk of black Kryptonite into Lois’ hands and gleefully watches on as Clark and Jon, driven insane by the mineral, begin tearing Lois’ body limb from limb. It’s not shown on the page, but it’s subtly implied that they’re devouring her.

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The Batman Who Laughs is a story about how Bruce Wayne murders an entire world, but it’s also about Bruce fully giving into a deep loneliness that’s always been part of his dual identities. In all Batman stories, the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents provide his first taste of true loneliness. We’re used to seeing him grapple with that loneliness—at first by dedicating his life to protecting Gotham, and eventually building a new family of his own that joins him in the fight against evil.

The Batman Who Laughs uses the act of killing to emphasize the importance of pushing back against the kind of toxic loneliness that all human beings can recognize. This single issue manages to do an incredibly complex kind of emotional character analysis that’s been largely missing from the rest of Metal. It’s raw and ugly—and honestly, it may end up being the best part of the entire event.