Less than a year after Batman debuted, DC Comics made it a general rule that he would not use lethal force or guns. Despite this, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder has repeatedly criticized fans who generally prefer that superheroes don’t kill, and recently said those who think lethal force is against the core of Batman are living in a “dream world.”
Now, I don’t dispute that originally Bruce Wayne was allowed to kill, or that DC Entertainment has the right to sign off on stories where he does so again. And I don’t dispute that there are entertaining Batman stories where he does kill. But let’s talk about why the no killing rule was created — and how it was done with the enthusiastic support of one of Batman’s co-creators, Bill Finger, without whom Batman as we know him would never have existed in the first place.
In the world of comics and television, many characters aren’t fully cooked in their debut story. They are the evolving product of revisions and expansions made by many creators over the course of years. This was even truer during the American comics’ Golden Age, when publishers were not often concerned about a story’s long-term implications or internal logic.
Superman’s distinguishing power of flight was actually invented for his radio and cartoon adaptations, and didn’t make it into the comics until three years after his debut. Likewise, Batman was not a fully evolved character when introduced by co-creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger. And when I say “co-creators,” what I really mean is “Bob Kane had an idea for a character who wore a domino mask and a red bodysuit decorated with bat-like wings, and then his ghostwriter and partner, Bill Finger, wrote the stories, fleshed out the character’s personality, named him Bruce Wayne, designed a better costume for him, scripted his origin story, named Gotham City, and created or co-created many of greatest enemies, equipment, and allies while not getting public credit until after he himself died.”
Bob Kane thought of Batman as a guy like the Shadow; a pulp magazine and radio show vigilante who saw it as his mission to gun down criminals. The very first Batman story in Detective Comics #27 (cover dated May, 1939) was even a direct rip-off of a previously published Shadow story.
Finger’s Bruce Wayne was a fighter who was well-versed in science and crime detection, and less bloodthirsty than the Shadow. He wouldn’t mourn or go out of his way to prevent the death of a criminal, and he killed sometimes to protect his own life or prevent a terrorist from escaping scot free, but he wouldn’t charge in with guns blazing either.
“Wait,” you say, “I thought the original Batman regularly shot down criminals and gangsters like the Punisher.” That’s an exaggeration. From May 1939 to May 1940, the Dark Knight was depicted with a gun in only five of his sixteen stories, and only one of those stories featured him shooting people.
The first time Batman used a gun, it was to destroy a pair of vampires with silver bullets in Detective Comics #32. After that, he used his gun to set off a bomb or summon police, but put it away when he fought criminals. The only time the Golden Age Bruce used firearms against people was in Batman #1, cover dated March 1940. In the story “The Giants of Hugo Strange,” the titular terrorist-scientist permanently transforms mental patients into giant, super strong, near-mindless “Monster Men.” Strange then has his human henchmen transport the Monster Men to populated areas in trucks. Desperate to stop them before they reach and kill innocent people, Batman fires on the drivers from his plane above while lamenting, “Much as I hate to take human life, I’m afraid this time it’s necessary!”
The new moral code
Immediately following Batman #1, DC Editor Whitney Ellsworth spoke to Bob Kane and Bill Finger. From now on, Batman would be against killing, a rule Superman’s creators had already applied to their own creation. Ellsworth added, “Never let us have Batman carry a gun again.”
Ellsworth wanted Batman to rise above his pulp vigilante roots and become a genuine superhero, someone who seemed at home in a world also inhabited by Superman and the rising number of similarly colorful champions. By this time, Finger and Kane had introduced young Dick Grayson as Batman’s new apprentice, a cheerful, acrobatic detective who provided some tonal contrast. Ellsworth liked Robin, and he thought it bad form to paint Batman as a role model to the boy and young readers if he resorted to killing when convenient rather than using his great mind, incredible technology, and formidable training to find better solutions.
Less than a year after his debut, and only five months after he first started using a gun at all, Batman now had a rule against lethal force. The proto-Batman was fully crystalizing into the kind of character Finger felt Bruce Wayne was meant to be. In Batman #4, the Dark Knight openly acknowledges this rule to Robin. “Remember, we never kill with weapons of any kind!”
Kane has given different opinions on Batman’s no killing policy over the years. In his autobiography Batman and Me, he complained, “[Batman] wasn’t the Dark Knight anymore with all the censorship.”
But in other interviews, Kane remarked that Batman was successful because he adapted to new ideas while the Shadow and other pulp vigilantes largely fell out of the spotlight. He even sometimes argued that Batman should never be only dark and serious, as he and many Golden Age superheroes were created to be slightly campy, all-ages characters, with stories that adults and children could simultaneously enjoy for different reasons.
Finger agreed with Ellsworth from the beginning, concluding that if Batman fought villains such as the Joker, Dr. Death, and Hugo Strange, then he needed a clear moral high ground. If the villains often claimed they only killed for the sake of a greater goal, Batman couldn’t use the same excuse. He wasn’t just the protagonist; he needed to be the hero.
In a talk with artist Jack Burnley, Finger said he should have argued more with Kane about lethal force even in the earliest stories, gun or no gun, saying “Batman shouldn’t have ever had to kill people.”
He openly regretted Batman killing in “The Giants of Hugo Strange.” The truck drivers could’ve been stopped by other means and, unlike the vampires, the Monster Men were arguably human victims. Finger told comic book creator and historian Jim Steranko, “I goofed. I had Batman use a gun to shoot a villain…”
In the origin story he crafted for young Bruce Wayne, Finger showed the character traumatized by the murder of his parents by an armed mugger. The writer offered, “That sudden murder taught Bruce to cherish and respect life as much as it taught him to hate criminals.” Many creators who have followed in Finger’s footsteps certainly agree.
Finger underlined Batman’s moral code further in “The Origin of Batman” in Batman #47 (1948). The hero comes across the gangster Joe Chill, recognizing him as the killer of Martha and Thomas Wayne. Rather than kill the man, Batman wants him arrested, and, desperately hoping to prompt a confession, Bruce reveals his identity to Chill. In a panic, the killer flees and begs his henchmen for help, explaining he accidentally inspired Batman’s creation. In a rage, they shoot him down. Batman takes no pleasure in this death. He brings Chill’s killers to justice, something he couldn’t do for his own parents, and simply deems the Wayne murder case finally closed.
Bending the rules
It’s still a fact that Batman killed in early stories. It is a fact that, since 1940, there have been stories where he uses guns for non-lethal purposes, and stories where he seems to break or bend his rule against killing. He’s tricked the terrorist Ra’s al Ghul into a death trap, left the villain KGBeast in a different death trap, and (in retaliation for the murder of Jason Todd, the second Robin) left the Joker wounded on a helicopter plunging towards Manhattan’s East River. Each time, Batman immediately or later (via another writer) implied that he was sure each villain was too skilled and experienced at escaping such situations to die. He turned out to be correct.
There have also been a number of out-of-canon stories exploring versions of Bruce who kill, sometimes to illustrate a fall from grace. Perhaps the most influential non-canon Batman story is The Dark Knight Returns, presented by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson in 1986. In it, an older Bruce spends years repressing all his anger, pain and aggression. When he returns to the cowl, he’s now a self-loathing, brutal Batman who critically injures criminals. But he still doesn’t kill. When the police list his crimes, murder is not included. Throughout the story, he employs aggressive but non-lethal methods, openly criticizes lethal firearms, and still can’t bring himself to kill the Joker.
It’s fine to prefer a Batman who kills or only kills in certain circumstances. I prefer he doesn’t, but still enjoy stories like Batman (1989), where he’s a lethal counter-terrorist who also targets mobsters. It’s fine for DC to allow lethal Batman stories and say these are meant for a different audience. But arguing that only the “original” 1940 incarnation of Batman is the “true” one also means throwing out armored cars with gadgets, the Bat Signal, the Batcave, Alfred, Arkham Asylum, Harley Quinn, Batwoman, and any adventures with other superheroes — because they all came later than his no killing rule. If you prefer lethal versions, cool, but don’t say people are dumb if they prefer when Bruce doesn’t kill. One of those people was Bill Finger.
If you think it’s simply “more realistic” that Bruce Wayne would kill most criminals and not just certain extreme cases, consider what demanding that particular realism means for a superhero, even one without powers. Grounding characters in emotional realism is good, but what do you gain by forcing the most basic kinds of tangible or cynical “realism” into a world where women can control plants, men can become clay, and people in capes often dance across rooftops? The signal is gone, since no real police force calls a lethal vigilante for help. Villains don’t get second stories or evolution. That cape and cowl are out. Is he even Batman, then, or just a generic vigilante?
Batman’s code isn’t “realistic.” It’s not always pragmatic and it sometimes leads to trouble. To put it another way, it’s a great source of drama. It’s also fine for readers to disagree with some of a hero’s ideas. Bruce himself knows his beliefs aren’t perfect, he struggles with his morality and the example his parents set, and he fears to cross certain lines.
Maybe a Batman who doesn’t kill does belong in a “dream world.” But that’s where superheroes live.
Alan Kistler is a sci-fi/comic book historian and transmedia personality who moonlights as a consulting nerd, script doctor, and narrative writer. He is a contributor to Wonder Woman Psychology and author of the New York Times Best Seller Doctor Who: A History. Like Batman, his favorite tea is lapsang souchong.