McGinnis: When death means (almost) nothingWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Batman has been the quintessential superhero for more than seven decades. Though the character has seen myriad changes throughout the years in the pages of the comics that gave him life, there have always been a few defining characteristics that help make the Dark Knight what he is. The death of his parents. The deep-seated need for justice. The use of intimidation and fear to combat crime.
One of the most important facets of the character is one of the most basic — Batman refuses to kill anyone. The character’s reasons lie within the senseless murder of his family and his belief that doing so would make him no better than the criminals he attempts to apprehend. Though certain versions of Gotham’s savior have found ways to tinker with much of Bat-lore, by and large, this pillar of his being has remained intact.
That doesn’t mean that writers have found the subject off limits, to be sure. There have been plenty of storylines over the Caped Crusader’s history that have tested his resolve on the subject of murder. The most recent occurred in the much-discussed “Death of the Family” storyline, featuring the return of Batman’s longtime nemesis The Joker. (Spoiler Alert.)
Upon his arrival in Batman No. 13, the Joker set in motion a series of events designed to turn Batman’s world upside down — but his attacks were far more psychological than physical. It became apparent that the villain’s focus was the extended “Bat-family” — the allies in costume that the Dark Knight loves and relies on. The end result, without giving much away, was a storyline that didn’t actually kill any member of Batman’s inner circle, but rather served as an attempt to plant seeds of mistrust and sever his connections to that circle forever.
One of Joker’s central arguments to Robin, Nightwing and the rest of Batman’s allies was the simple fact that, by virtue of his still being alive, it was clear that Batman cared more about Joker than any of them. After all, if he truly loved them, wouldn’t he kill Joker and spare them from any future pain he might cause? But he’ll simply catch him and lock him up, and you know he’ll just escape again. So why not end the cycle?
Batman isn’t the only hero to have such a moral quandary tossed his way in recent weeks. As the new Superior Spider-Man begins to try and find its direction, the subject of Spidey’s refusal to kill any of his foes has also come into focus. As Doctor Octopus begins to find his own path as a hero while wearing Spider-Man’s body, he has openly criticized his predecessor’s policy of letting certain villains live and vowed to not make the same mistake.
Testing the limits of what a hero is and isn’t willing to do is all part of good drama. And one of the things fiction can do is bring real-life values into focus by exploring their implications in a fantasy world. What the characters in these stories are doing, in some way, is exploring the idea of the death penalty, and asking what the implications of it are when a hero refuses to take a life.
There is a problem, though, and it lies in the nature of the universe these particular stories take place in. The fact is, we as readers already know that no death in comics is permanent.”
Hell, as of right now, Doc Ock’s days as Spidey are clearly numbered, as the supposedly “dead” Peter Parker is now haunting him as a specter, “Always”-style. It’s the nature of comics, or of any serial storytelling, that whatever “permanent” solution occurs today may be completely undone tomorrow.
So when a character like Joker taunts Batman with the idea of “Why don’t you just kill me and stop any pain I may cause in the future,” the real answer is, “Because you’re the Joker and no Batman creator in their right mind would try and kill you off — and even if they did, the next one would just resurrect you anyway.” So the question of why don’t these heroes kill is built on a bit of a logical fallacy, one that undermines the gravity of the questions it addresses.
I’m not saying that a media like comic books can never comment on social issues — like all the best fiction, comics can act as a mirror of the real world and make us think about the universe we live in.
But they need to pick and choose their battles. The real world is not at the whim of a storytelling format that demands a new adventure, a new crisis, every month.
And when it’s been shown time and again that death in comics is at best a temporary setback, how much gravity can the question of “Why doesn’t Batman kill” really have?