Batman doesn’t kill, but in the early Golden Age, he carried a gun. However, a visionary editor helped change the Dark Knight’s murderous tendencies.
Batman’s war on crime in Gotham has sent him to some pretty hardcore places. The Dark Knight has no problem being as violent as possible, but there are certain rules that he follows. The biggest one is that Batman doesn’t kill. Now, this rule is mostly just in the comics, and even then it depends on the universe or the time in the Caped Crusader’s life. However, the mainline Batman does everything he can to avoid killing and has been known to go after heroes who violate his rules.
This is vastly different from Batman back in the old days. The original Golden Age Batman actually did kill in his early stories, and fans have been sharing the rather memorable images this period generated on the internet for years. This actually didn’t last very long in the character’s history, however, and the reasons behind why he lost his will to kill are extremely interesting.
Batman’s Golden Age Morals
The Golden Age of comics was a very different time for comics. Superhero comics were successful, but they were still new. They had their origins in pulp heroes like Doc Savage, the Shadow, and the Phantom. With the exception of Doc Savage, these heroes had no problem with killing, often using gunning down their opponents. Batman was very much a pulp superhero. Batman’s origin mirrored hardboiled pulp heroes, but it was also the beginning of the end of his career as a killer.
However, before that reveal in Detective Comics #33 in 1939, Batman resolved his stories by killing his villains. This was the way of the Golden Age. Heroes were more brutal, but the violence wasn’t rendered with the same intensity it is today. For example, Batman swung across and kicked Doctor Death’s thug in the neck, killing him, in Detective Comics #30. In fact, his battle against Doctor Death sees him killing several people. There’s Batman #1, where Batman hangs a monstrous, giant man out of the Bat-Plane until he dies. Early Batman had no problem with killing, but that became its own problem as the character got more and more popular, especially when Robin, the first member of the Bat-Family, appeared. Suddenly, kids were Batman’s target audience and it was time for things to change.
Batman Wasn’t The Only Killer
Batman killing makes sense in a lot of ways. He’s cleaning up crime in Gotham and killing has always been the dark side of crimefighting, both in fiction and in real life. However, it’s more surprising that Superman also killed his enemies with relish. The Golden Age Man of Steel wasn’t the squeaky-clean hero he developed into in the late Golden Age. The pulp-inspired version of Superman also had no problem killing his enemies and his unstoppable strength and power meant that it was easy for him to kill criminals. This was before Superman had a lot of villains who needed to come back so he could fight them again. In his battles against corruption and crime, he ended the enemies of the people with extreme prejudice.
It’s one of the ironies of the way DC treats its Golden Age originals. They hold their Golden Age heroes to a higher moral standard — except, strangely enough, Wonder Woman, but that’s a whole other can of worms. Even the current iterations of the Justice Society originals are usually treated as perfect heroes who never really killed anyone despite plenty of printed evidence otherwise. However, as Superman and Batman became more popular with the kids, things had to change. Comics’ two biggest stars wanted to attract younger readers as well as adults and that meant they couldn’t be killing all the time.
Enter Whitney Ellsworth
Whitney Ellsworth was a writer/artist/editor for National Publications, the company that would become DC Comics. Ellsworth wrote the Superman newspaper strip, as well as the Batman and Robin strips, and was a writer and producer for the Superman radio serials. Ellsworth was a shrewd customer and he understood an upcoming problem that would bite comics again in the 1950s. Parents weren’t going to tolerate their kids reading about wanton killers. Batman could have goofy adventures, but him mowing bad guys down with his trusty automatic pistol wasn’t going to fly. Superman could take a full drum from a Tommy gun, but he couldn’t throw the shooter head-first into a brick wall.
In his brief time as National’s editor-in-chief, Ellsworth instituted the no-kill rule for all their heroes. His reasoning was that Batman and Superman were becoming icons and children were looking up to them. Having them both solve their problems by killing people was bound to upset parents and could end superheroes’ pop culture stardom early. It wasn’t a story decision, but one rooted in practicality and capitalism. If National Publications wanted to make a boatload of money off these characters, they needed to modify them in a way that kept all the stuff the kids loved, while excising the killing.
The Joker Was The Perfect Reason Not To Kill
Batman didn’t exactly have a lot of named villains at first, so when he mowed through his enemies it wasn’t a problem. Batman’s co-creator Bob Kane definitely wanted to do something more pulp-inspired, just looking at his original designs for Batman shows that, but Bill Finger saw the potential of the character in a post-Superman world in a way that Kane didn’t. Finger was the true brains behind the early Batman comics. Kane got all the credit, but all the best ideas came from Finger, including the Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime provided the perfect reason for Batman not to waste his enemies.
The Joker’s first appearance was in 1940’s Batman #1, an issue where Batman got rather homicidal. Ellsworth’s no-kill rule took effect then and saved the Joker from Kane’s bloodthirsty sensibilities. The Joker returned in later stories because he (barely) survived his first encounter with Batman. Ellsworth’s no-kill rule first gave Batman his greatest nemesis and also helped the Dark Knight ditch his guns and transition to the bizarre gadgets that still define Batman’s war against crime.
Not Killing Made Batman — And Superman — Better
A big bone of contention between comic fans and fans of the old DCEU was the darkness those movies brought to the screen and the way Batman in particular was portrayed. Snyder’s Batman Vs Superman had several moments where Batman even used guns. Comic fans see this as anathema, and that comes from Ellsworth’s no-kill decree. Batman’s origin, where his parents died in a hail of gunfire, gave the writers and artists the perfect way to do away with killing and guns in Batman comics. Suddenly, Batman no longer could break necks and mow down gunsels. He had to outthink his more numerous, better-armed foes. Fans who enjoy seeing Batman create ultra-powerful new armor to deal with enemies all have Ellsworth to thank.
Superheroes not killing actually made Batman and Superman’s stories much better. A vigilante like Batman couldn’t just cut through the criminal community. He had to think, use better methods, and that led to better stories. Batman has never been perfect but the no-kill rule refined him. When he was a killer, he wasn’t much better than any of his enemies. That type of character has a ceiling on it and while gun-happy pulp heroes like The Spider faded into obscurity, Batman soared. There’s a reason that BvS was all about Batman realizing that killing wasn’t the answer; a murderous man in black isn’t exactly a hero people can look up to.
All of this goes double for Superman. Batman was always just basically a pulp hero. Bruce Wayne was a rich philanthropist by day, and a vigilante by night, practically emulating the life stories for The Shadow and The Spider. Batman was never really meant to be an object of veneration but Superman was. From the start, Siegel and Shuster were creating a character people could look up to, who fought for the common man. Being a killer made Superman no better than the criminals and the corrupt officials he fought against. The no-kill rule was a godsend for the hero, allowing him to transcend his foes’ misdeeds and truly start to change the world in idealistic ways.
Ellsworth Made Modern Superheroes Possible
Superheroes killing is still a hot-button issue, especially since superheroes became big business. People who don’t read comics and only get superhero media from movies and TV are used to some violent heroes killing their enemies. Superhero movies run through villains quickly and they feel cheap and disposable as a result. For fans brought up in that environment, murderous superheroes are the norm. However, without the no-kill rule, superheroes wouldn’t exist today.
Whitney Ellsworth understood superheroes had to adapt if they wanted to succeed in the long run. The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Phantom are still remembered today, but they aren’t nearly as popular because children didn’t get into them, and by the time they were changed to be more kid-friendly, no one really cared. Ellsworth realized that making comics more friendly for kids would keep the business going longer. Taking away the killing didn’t just keep comics in kids’ hands, it also forced creators to think harder and come up with more interesting ways of dealing with conflict than simple murder. It made the stories better and led to over eighty years of sometimes brilliant, sometimes devastating, stories.