06 December 2009

Robin Never Kills

As a follow-up to my “Reason for Robin, #9,” the weekly Robin will spend a couple of weeks exploring how Dick Grayson’s youth changed the nature of Batman stories after he made his entrance in 1940.

In the first year of Batman adventures, the Dark Knight sometimes carried a gun. He wore a pistol in a holster in some panels of Detective, #33 (though not in other panels on the same page). Detective, #35, opens with an image of him holding a smoking gun, and in #36 he fires into the air to summon the police.

Batman shot at his foes only twice, and both times they were no longer human: vampires in Detective, #32, and “man-monsters” in Batman, #1, as shown here. Of course, in those early stories he left a lot of villains dead in other ways.

Robin arrived in Detective, #38. Putting a kid at Batman’s side meant the adventures had to become more gentle, right? Well, not right away. These panels are from Robin’s first fight. I doubt that gunman has a happy landing. The end of this tale turns on another death: a mob boss knocks another henchman off that same unfinished building. The Dynamic Duo is more interested in capturing photographic evidence of that murder than in stopping it.

According to the Grand Comics Database, Whitney Ellsworth took over as editor of Detective Comics with that issue #38. And he brought new ideas for how Batman should behave. Writer Bill Finger later recalled in an interview:

I had Batman use a gun to shoot a villain, and I was called on the carpet by Whit Ellsworth. He said, “Never let us have Batman carry a gun again.” He was right.
I don’t believe Finger started working directly for Ellsworth at DC (then National) Comics until late 1940, so that conversation was probably prompted by a script he’d turned in, not by a published comic.

Bob Kane’s autobiography, Batman and Me, says that Ellsworth’s objection arose from that “man-monsters” tale in Batman, #1. I suspect that book’s coauthor, Tom Andrae, was trying to make Kane’s self-aggrandizing anecdotes match up to the historic record. The “man-monsters” story was originally supposed to run in Detective, #38, but got bumped, so it had probably originated under the previous editor, Vincent Sullivan. Ellsworth applied his new rule going forward.

Kane’s book also claimed that the same Batman story “resulted in DC preparing its own comics code which every artist and writer had to follow.” But that code wasn’t instituted until the summer of 1941, over a year after Robin had arrived and Batman had stopped carrying a gun.

Of course, guns and killing didn’t disappear from the Batman comics, even after the more stringent Comics Code of 1954. Only the magazines’ heroes refrained from using guns or any other sort of deadly force. Villains still tried to kill, and that’s how we knew they were villains. (World War 2 allowed for some exceptions, like the cover of Batman, #15, from 1943.)

Those rules stayed in effect even after superhero comics became grim, gritty, and aimed at a smaller audience of adults. In Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon (2000), Will Brooker quotes from the “Bat-Bible” in use under editor Dennis O’Neil:
Wayne/Batman is not insane...and he never kills. Let’s repeat that for the folks in the balcony: Batman never kills.
The editorial edict against Batman killing actually turned out to be a blessing for the writers. It offers an easy explanation of why the Joker and other unrepentant villains stay around for future stories. It provides an additional source of pressure on Batman and the young men he’s trained: not only do they have to subdue the bad guys, but they have to do it without compromising their values by using lethal force.

Writers now present Bruce Wayne’s insistence on never using guns as rooted in seeing his parents murdered with one, drawing psychological depth from an editorial edict.

In superhero comics’ never-ending debates about the nature of heroism, the bat-family’s values are a topic of explicit discussion. Tim Drake protests and even cries when he thinks Bruce Wayne has broken his no-killing vow. Dick Grayson spends months feeling guilty about not doing enough to stop his girlfriend from killing his arch-enemy. The second Jason Todd, the second Huntress, and even Wonder Woman argue with Batman about the ethics of killing criminals.

In the past two years, writer Grant Morrison has tested Batman’s no-killing rule in two ways:
  • In Final Crisis the most powerful bad guy in the DC Universe pushes Bruce Wayne to the limit, and he responds by using some sort of cosmic gun. Morrison told Wizard magazine, “the root of the Batman mythos is the gun and the bullet that created Batman. So, Batman himself is finally standing there to complete that big mythical circle and to have the image of Batman up against the actual personification of evil, and now he's got the gun and he's got the bullet.”
  • In Batman and Robin Dick Grayson, having taken on the Batman role, is trying to instill his mentor’s values in the new Robin, who was reared by the League of Assassins. Can a boy who’s already killed be Robin?
All those conflicts and stories arise because in 1940 Whitney Ellsworth thought it was inappropriate to show guns and killing in a comic book featuring a kid. After all, that would just look wrong.


Anonymous said...

To be fair in those last shots, it was expanded on in Jason 2.0's training that Batman saw no reason that his own gun phobia should prevent his Robins from learning how to shoot a gun to save their lives, even if it usually one loaded with tranquiliser darts. We found out that Dick was already an ace marksman from his Police Academy training reports, and Tim was taught how to use unloaded handguns as makeshift throwing weapons.

J. L. Bell said...

Indeed, though I think that the panels of the second Jason shooting a gun were created precisely for their shock value—because they look wrong. But by then the Batman team was well along the path to treating that Jason as an anti-Robin.

I’ve got panels of Tim throwing guns to subdue clownish baddies in this post. The panels of Dick recalling his gun training in the cave are too big to reproduce in the Oz and Ends format with their word balloons legible, alas.