Guns And The Batman: Why The Dark Knight Doesn’t Use Firearms
Batman doesn’t use guns. It’s kind of his deal, one of the defining aspects of his character that’s been in place for over 70 years, despite the book’s ties to the trigger-happy worlds of pulp vigilantes and noir detective stories. So why not? Well, the simple answer, and the one that seems to be supported by the majority of the comics he’s in, would be that he really just prefers the satisfying crunch that you can only get by punching a crook right in the face.
If you dig a little deeper, though, it’s slightly more complex than that. But only slightly.The fact that Batman originally did use guns and kill his enemies is one of the best known pieces of comic book trivia. It’s the superhero equivalent of knowing that “Video Killed The Radio Star” was the first video MTV ever played, and much like that little gem, it’s often pulled out by people who are convinced that this is a fact that’s eluded everyone else. Occasionally, you’ll see it brought up as an argument by someone claiming that Batman should be a more violent, brutal character who kills his enemies, more in keeping with the “original” version that showed up back in 1939.
It’s a flawed argument for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that there’s nothing original about that “original” Batman. I’ve written about this before here at ComicsAlliance, but when writer Bill Finger and artist/noted con-man Bob Kane cooked up that first story that ran in Detective Comics #27, they weren’t so much creating a character as putting a fresh coat of paint on the Shadow, the gun-toting clouder-of-men’s minds that had made Street & Smith a whole cartload of money with pulp novels and radio shows. I’ve mentioned this before, but those 1939 Batman stories are downright shameless in ripping off the Shadow, to the point where the guns are the least of it.
The secret identity as a wealthy socialite, the Yellow Peril villains, even Batman’s autogyro — which, if there was any justice in this world, would’ve stuck around instead of the Batmobile — were lifted wholesale from the Shadow’s adventures. It wasn’t until a few months in, starting with the reveal of Batman’s origin in Detective Comics #33 that he started to become his own character, and a lot of that had to do with moving past the guns.
A huge part of it was just a matter of simple practicality. Batman was one of the first characters to develop actual supervillains with recurring roles — the Joker and Catwoman both showed up in Batman #1 in 1940 — and when you want to do more than one story about a bad guy, a gun-toting hero is a pretty big obstacle.
The primary purpose of a gun, at least in an adventure story, is to kill someone. You can do stories of trick shots and crack marksmen who disarm and disable their enemies with well-placed bullets — Gunsmith Cats is particularly good about this, with Rally Vincent’s signature trick being shooting off an enemy’s trigger finger in the middle of a gunfight — but even that almost has to build to a climax where someone takes a fatal hit. Guns are deadly weapons, and when you introduce them to a story, you’re changing the stakes to something that has to end with someone dead in order to fulfill the drama. It’s easy enough to write your way around a death in comics — for an example, please see every superhero comic ever — and the Joker himself was frequently presumed dead at the end of most of those early stories, but when you do it every single time you want to bring back a villain, it stretches the suspension of disbelief way past the breaking point.
So the focus shifts. The guns give way to stories about wanting to capture and imprison the crooks, which have the added bonus (and challenge) of giving readers entertaining stories of prison breakouts, and leading to the creation of Arkham Asylum in 1974. That’s probably the single most notable piece of the Batman mythos that you can trace directly to his policy against guns and kiling, that we got that great setting, which itself led to an increased emphasis on depicting Batman’s villains as criminally insane characters with a psychological depth that you don’t find in other characters. They were always a little… off, but after Arkham became an institution in the comics — pun only slightly intended — the shift from colorful bank robbers to homicidal psychopaths was set in stone.
But those are all reasons that exist outside the comics. Batman lives in a world where guns exist and are easy to come by, so if his decision to completely forsake them is going to hold weight, it has to be based on something that exists in the comics themselves. And it is.
I mentioned above that it took Finger and Kane six months to get around to Batman’s origin in Detective Comics #33, and for my money, that’s the first true Batman story, and not just one where the Shadow is wearing pointy ears instead of a wide-brimmed hat. The origin is the single most important thing about Batman, because it colors every single thing he does, and gives him a plausible (for comics, at least) reason to dress up like Dracula and punch clowns every night. And one of the most important things about that origin, if not the single most important thing, is the gun.
Quick sidenote: We can all agree that there should be more comics with titles like “The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible Of Doom,” right? Right.
Anyway, the simple version of this is that Batman doesn’t use a gun because his parents were killed with a gun, but that’s very much the surface of what’s going on. Batman has always been rooted in violent crime, but in the countless retellings and revisions over the years, you never see the mugger using a switchblade or anything. It’s always a gun, and this original depiction has remained mostly unchanged since it first appeared. The biggest change I can think of is Frank Miller adding the close-up shot of Martha Wayne’s necklace being pulled apart in the version that he used for Batman: Year One, but other than that, this is how it always goes. That in itself is important, because the presence of the gun allows for so much.
Again, there’s the purely dramatic aspects of it. Guns are loud and flashy — even without a sound effect, you can hear the “BLAM!” that’s supposed to accompany those two shots. It’s lurid and shocking, even with Kane’s slightly dubious ideas of how smoke clouds work.
But more importantly, there are symbolic aspects to it. The gun is seen here not just as the tool of a criminal, but a tool of murder, something that gives this scrawny, weasely mugger the ability to kill Thomas Wayne with no more effort than squeezing his trigger finger. A knife is deadly, yes, but it’s the strength and skill of the person holding it that makes it so. A gun requires less effort; anyone holding it becomes capable of ending someone’s life with a minimum of effort. As Thomas Wayne proves, there’s no rushing someone with a pistol — there’s only one guy who’s faster than a speeding bullet, and he’s appearing in a different magazine.
The reason this is so important is that it shows us what Batman is up against. If the gun is the tool of Crime, then every criminal has this power over life and death. When the origin continues and we see Batman training himself, we see exactly what he’s training himself to overcome. He needs to be better than the man with the gun.
Of course, it’s worth noting that ‘Tec #33 is still in that period where Batman’s packing himself, but it’s the start of things shaking out. In less than a year — a full decade before the Comics Code that some casual readers blame for “sanitizing” Batman — he’ll have completely given up on firearms and gone full-time with those crazy boomerangs of his.
And that in itself shows us Batman’s superiority over his enemies. Those comics are full of scenes where a batarang goes up against a pistol, and the batarang wins every time. Because we’re familiar with guns, because they’re a tie to our real world where we know that boomerangs aren’t exactly the ultimate weapon, they serve as an example of just how good Batman is at his job. That’s why they show up fifty years later in the opening of Batman: The Animated Series as one of the most iconic images of Batman:
It’s interesting that when that show came out, part of the Broadcast Standards and Practices guidelines that most shows followed prohibited guns from appearing in cartoons for kids, but Batman: The Animated Series employed them so frequently to give an edge of danger and symbolism to the character.
So yeah, Batman doesn’t use guns.
Except when he does.
Batman’s code against firearms is such an ingrained part of his character that it’s almost impossible for creators to resist playing with it for dramatic effect. The image above is from one of the most notable, a four-part story by Mike W. Barr, Alan Davis and Todd McFarlane called Year Two (a follow-up to Year One, naturally) in which Batman not only uses a gun, but the actual gun that killed his parents, which he kept in a drawer for 20 years waiting for the day he’d get the chance to use it on his parents’ murderer and thus get his revenge.
It was a pretty ill-advised story in most respects.
More recently, there was this scene from Grant Morrison and JG Jones’s Final Crisis:
A lot of readers complained about Final Crisis being difficult to understand, but
those people are dumb I thought it was a pretty straightforward book that played around with the metaphors that made up its central cast. The scene above is one of the most memorable moments of the book, and even though I’m someone who is (very obviously) fully invested in the idea of Batman not using a gun, it worked for me. The act of a god using a gun — a god-gun, but a gun nonetheless — to murder another god makes it a very powerful act in the context of the story. It’s treating it as something bigger, something primal, which is exactly what it is in the DC Universe. A murder with a gun, the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, is one of the foundations of that universe, up there with Krypton exploding and William Moulton Marston’s bondage fantasies. Using it here gives everything a layer of symbolism, almost to the point of parable.
Batman’s big trick is turning criminals’ tactics against them, using fear and brute force and the cover of night for good rather than evil, so to me, it makes perfect sense that his battle with the God of Evil would involve him using that primal tool, the same tool that made him, against him — as long as it’s only that time, in that situation. And true to form, Batman doesn’t kill with the gun. He aims for the shoulder.
As for how far this prohibition against guns goes, that’s a lot more mutable. Movies are especially fond of giving Batman cars with machine guns or flying machines with cannons, and his grappling hook usually looks an awful lot like a pistol, too. Me, I prefer a version of Batman who doesn’t even come close, which is one of the reasons I like the Animated Series version of his grappling hook so much, even though there’s no possible way to actually hold onto it. Why? Because Batman doesn’t use guns.
Unless something’s gone terribly wrong.