Ask Chris (About Batman) #54: Why Doesn’t Batman Kill?
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That's every week, Senior Writer Chris Sims puts his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: Batman's no kill policy: when did it start in the comics and what do you see as the limits of it? (Killing vs. "Not Saving") -- @ELB_Brian
A: All right, guys, look. I know that these last few weeks of Ask Chris have been even more Batman-centric than usual, and I fully intended to focus on something else this week to give everyone a break. But then this one came along, and I just can't resist.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, there actually are other things that I like and know stuff about, and I'll get to them. Just not this week, because the the history of whether or not Batman should kill people and why is one that I have some very strong feelings on.Batman's policy against killing -- and specifically the use of a gun -- is one that crops up from time to time in discussions of the character, and it always really bugs me when someone brings up the idea that "the original Batman" carried guns and killed people, which is technically true, but doesn't quite reflect what was going on in those comics. I know, you're all shocked that I'm bothered when people are wrong on the Internet about Batman -- the single worst sin a man can commit -- but the whole idea of "the Original Batman" is a false construct that's completely dispelled if you go back and look at the timeline of how the character developed, and it had a lot less to do with Batman himself than the influences his creators were inspired by.
First, the facts: In the stories immediately after his first appearance in 1939, Batman did carry a gun and had a much more casual attitude towards the death of his opponents that saw him occasionally killing people. In fact, in his Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes, Michael Fleisher describes the first year of Golden Age Batman stories as having a "grim brutality" in which "easily a score of criminals die by his hand."
The most common example of this aspect of the early Batman stories -- probably because of how much it's been reprinted over the years -- is his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, in which Batman slugs a ne'er-do-well so hard that he falls into a vat of acid...
...and responds with a brusque "a fitting end for his kind." There's just no way around it: the Batman who appears in "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate" is a stone cold killer, and the following issues, where he packs an automatic and occasionally stomps a dude to death seem to back that up:
But I think there's a misconception among a lot of readers that this was the original intent of the creators, and that the murderous, gun-toting Batman persisted until Dr. Wertham or the Comics Code or even the 1966 TV show arrived and forced a change that toned him down. But by going back and reading through those first couple years of Batman stories, it's easy to see that this wasn't the case at all. The fact of the matter is that this "original" version of Batman lasted about two years.
By 1940's Batman #4, in a story by co-creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane -- which is about as definitive as you can get -- Batman reminds Robin that "we never kill with weapons of any kind."
As crazy as it might sound, the Batman who killed in those early stories wasn't really Batman -- or at least, not Batman as he'd become, and certainly not Batman as we think of him today. Keep in mind that when these stories were told, Batman wasn't just a new character, he was a new character in an entirely new medium. The Golden Age is full of comics by people that were driven as much by the desire to create stories as they were by the sudden and extremely lucrative popularity that medium was enjoying after Superman became such a massive success. These were guys who were literally just making it up as they went along, and as a result, the stories and their internal continuity took a few years to settle down and become a coherent whole.
To give you an idea of just how mutable these stories were, consider this: The single most important thing about Batman as a character, the fact that his parents were murdered and his decision to become a vigilante to avenge their deaths, did not exist until six months after he was created. The murder, the vow, the bat crashing through the window, everything that we think of as the core of his character didn't appear until Detective Comics #33, and that's only the start of the idea of "Batman" becoming a cohesive, unique entity. Before that, he's definitely recognizable as a prototype, but he's not Batman just yet.
Of course, if the guy running around in a Batman costume fighting crime in those early stories isn't Batman, that raises the question of who he actually is, and that's an easy one to answer. He's The Shadow.
I've mentioned before that Batman was influenced by a variety of sources including the brand-new super-hero and Sherlock Holmes, but there was nothing Finger and Kane drew from in those early issues more than the Shadow. The millionaire playboy alter-ego, the spooky presence, even the fact that he flies around in an autogyro and battles against mad scientists and Yellow Peril caricatures, those were all things lifted from the Shadow -- and so were the guns and the killing.
It was only later that Batman was fully realized as his own character rather than just a knockoff, and that's something even the creators seemed to realize. I don't think it's a coincidence that Bill Finger revisited the end of "The Case of the Criminal Syndicate" for the beginning of another story where Batman knocked a crook into a chemical plant's vat of acid, only to have him survive and return as the Joker.
Of course, that sudden shift in 1940 wasn't the last time Batman would be shown as a killer. In the '80s, presumably spurred by a desire for comics in general and Batman specifically to be more "mature" in the wake of books like The Dark Knight Returns -- in which, it should be noted, the Batman doesn't kill -- there was a sudden rush of comics that showed him to be, at the very least, pretty unconcerned about the matter of people dying around him.
Specifically, two creators that had Batman crossing the line are Jim Starlin and Mike W. Barr, who are actually two of my all-time favorite Batman writers. Starlin wrote the very first Batman comic I ever read, but even that features Batman baiting two crooks into blowing each other away with uzis while he casually leaps out of a crossfire, and Ten Nights of the Beast -- a story that I am way more fond of than anyone actually should -- ends with Batman locking the KGBeast in a sewer and leaving him there to starve to death. Marv Wolfman would later retcon it so that Batman eventually tipped off the authorities -- making the whole thing into one gigantic Time Out for a guy who killed a hundred Gothamites in 4 issues -- but the original intent is clear.
Barr, though, is even more bloodthirsty. Again, he's one of my favorites -- "Fear For Sale" is one of the best Batman stories ever, and I recently listed "The Doomsday Book" from Detective #572 as an underrated classic. Unfortunately, not only does Batman use a thug as a human shield in that story...
...he also wrote a story called "Messiah of the Crimson Sun" where Batman just straight up kills Ra's al-Ghul, and then when Robin points this out, he responds with "Did I, Robin? Did I?" Yes, Batman. Yes, you did. You used a remote control to override his spaceship controls and flew him into a giant laser beam, then opened the hatch so that his ashes were blown out into the vacuum of space.
Ra's came back of course -- that's what Ra's does -- but Batman has no reason to believe that he will after one of the most thorough murders in comics history. He threw his ashes into space.
For me, though, both of those things fall squarely into the category of Plot Points I Completely Ignore, because as far as I'm concerned, "Batman Does Not Kill" is one constant, immutable traits of the character, as much an inherent and necessary part of him as anything else. There are plenty of metatextual reasons for it -- ranging from the nature of the super-hero as something that appeals to children to the fact that if Batman actually killed the Joker, then we wouldn't get any more Joker stories and that would suck -- but there are also equally valid in-story reasons for it.
And again, they're often misconstrued, both by readers and by the creators. There's a scene in Judd Winick's run where Jason Todd confronts Batman and flat-out asks him why he doesn't just kill the Joker -- which, all things considered, is a pretty fair question -- and Batman answers by telling him that it would be too easy and that it's a slippery slope that, much like Pringles, once he popped, he would not be able to stop.
Batman's a guy who trained himself to be the world's best martial artist and a guy who could solve crossword puzzles in his head while cross-referencing crime locations with Italian clown operas. He came back from a broken back through sheer force of will and beat an addiction to Venom in a weekend by locking himself in his basement and growing a beard. I'm pretty sure that if he set his mind to killing the Joker and then not committing any more murders, he could probably make that happen.
I actually like the scene up to that point and its portrayal of Jason Todd's pretty legitimate beef with Batman's policy, but it's the halfhearted, wishy-washy "oh but I want to!" exploration of why Batman doesn't kill completely tanks it for me. The only reason that Batman should give as to why he doesn't kill is that the Batman doesn't kill. That's all there is to it.
But there is an underlying reason for it, and it's one that the scene above doesn't touch. And it all hinges on the idea that Batman is a crimefighter. That's a very specific word that's applied to Batman for a very specific reason, and it encapsulates the very specific aspect that separates him from other characters. At its core, the idea of Batman is one that's extremely oppositional, and it's set not just against evil in general, but the very concept of capital-C Crime.
It seems contradictory given that in many ways, Batman is a criminal himself, a vigilante who operates outside the law with methods and that are certainly illegal. Fleisher's encyclopedia even includes a list of Batman's "particularly flagrant violations of civil liberties and due process" that sprawls out over two pages. And that's only the notable ones, in a book that was published 30 years ago.
But if we're going to accept Batman as a hero -- and I think it's pretty clear at this point that I have -- then there needs to be a clear demarcation of what separates the idea of Batman from the idea of Crime. And that's the easiest thing in the world to figure out.
Batman's entire idea of Crime, his entire perception of what it means to break the rules set down by society, descends from exactly one moment: his parents' murder. That one act, the taking of a life, is the defining moment of his life, and it defines what he swears to battle against. The very act of killing another person is what he has devoted his whole life to working against, and it's complete and utter anathema to him.
It's also why he doesn't use guns. In his mind, a gun is quite literally the weapon of a criminal -- the only criminal that matters, the one that represents Crime as an overarching enemy, a force that Batman has to reckon with. In his world, there's a symbolism to a gun that's just as powerful as the symbol that is Batman: as much as he terrifies the superstitious, cowardly lot that make up Crime, the gun is what terrifies a populace that's been made afraid of criminals.
It's these layers of symbolism and concepts literalized into characters that make Batman so compelling as a character and, and what defines his existence on a metaphorical level. For Batman, Crime is killing, and the opposite of Crime is Batman.
As to the limits of this rule, that's a little bit more of a gray area. There's a common interpretation of Batman as someone who just doesn't want anyone to die, ever, and while that's certainly a valid interpretation up to a point, I think it centers far more on the act of murder as a criminal transgression. For me, it comes down to two simple concepts that are etched in stone: Batman doesn't kill, and Batman will not allow one person to kill another. These two rules apply to everyone, from Commissioner Gordon on down to the Joker, and as long as they're in place, I think of the portrayal of Batman as valid. Anything beyond those is just set dressing.
The idea of "killing" versus "not saving," is a much more metaphysical one that really comes down to whether your personal philosophy equates inaction with an evil act. The infamous "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you" scene is my least favorite part of Batman Begins, but at the same time, stories where Batman does more than the bare minimum and goes out of his way to save the Joker at great personal risk always ring really false for me.
All things being equal, I'd probably prefer Batman to rescue everyone if it comes down to it because it feels more traditionally heroic, but I'd prefer it if that situation never happened again. At this point, that Batman stops the Joker from slipping on a banana peel and falling into an open volcano or whatever, he starts to look less like a hero and more like an idiot who should probably just let that one take its course.
That's all we have for this week, but if you've got a question you'd like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just put it on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!
And next week: No Batman questions!