Batman killed in his first issue (and that's okay!)
Batman (or “Bat-Man” as he was known in Detective Comics #27) is one of the most recognizable characters in the world today. Beyond his countless comic books, the character has appeared in over 65 feature length films, 13 animated series and of course the beloved 1966 TV series starting Mayor Adam West.
Among the many tropes Batman owns is his personal manifesto to “never kill” or at the least to “never use a gun”. This of course is spawned from his tragic origin story watching his own parents gunned down by an unnamed thug (later ret-conned as “Joe Chill”) forever scaring young Bruce and driving him to a life of vigilantism.
Yet for a character with a personal code-of-conduct to refrain from using lethal force, Bruce has gone to the extreme over-and-over again in many different forms of of media. Whether offing a thug with dynamite down the pants in Tim Burton’s live action films, or downright strangling the Joker with his bare hands in the Killing Joke graphic novel, Batman is no stranger to using extreme measures.
There have been plenty of articles and YouTube videos covering the many moments when Batman has broken his cardinal “no death” rule.
Beyond keeping up with his ever-growing body count, currently we want to look into Batman’s very first “kill” and not just the “what happened”, but rather why this moment is not as “character defining” as modern fans might interpret.
To provide a basic overview, in Detective Comics #27, Batman throws the main villain Stryker into a vat of acid. Sound familiar? Yes, this was indeed ret-conned into the Joker’s origin, but that is a story for another time. What is important to reference when reading this issue (or for that mater any historical comic and or even historical writing) is to view it within the time frame and context it was written.
As an example to illustrate this concept; it wasn’t until the early 20th century that women in America could vote. Flash-forward to today and we have major female candidates in public office. Times have clearly changed and evolved for the better. The concept that “women could not vote” seems very foreign today, however if you were to go back and read material from the 19th century or earlier condemning the thought of women voting, one might immediately jump to the conclusion that these people are sexist, and/or prejudice.
By modern standards this perspective may be true, however as an academic, it is important to read all material within a historical context. What was the current state of society? Why did a society have certain practices or ideas? This tactic allows a scholar to comprehend not only the event, but the cause and effect of said historical event. It is only through this academic lens that we can then go on to apply modern beliefs and standards. Overlaying current evolved perspectives over historical events will often skew or mislead our understanding.
Now back to Batman.
We live in an era when Batman rarely kills and if he does so it is usually in a very Machiavellian “ends justify the means” moment such as the double page spread of Batman shooting Darkseid with a bullet. This is a classic “What The What?” moment designed to grab reader’s attention by contrasting a stark visual with reader expectations. It plays up our expectation that Batman will not kill (let alone use a gun) in order to create a surprise in the visual storytelling. We are entering this particular story with decades of knowledge about Batman’s behavior and what his “rules” are. That is why the action registers as shocking to the reader..
Flash back to May 1939 and Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27.
This story was not the next chapter in Batman’s sage. It was the only one. At the time, Batman was not the worldwide phenomena he is today. Within the context of the issue, Batman was a one-and-done character. Detective Comics #27 could very well have been his one and only appearance like so many other Golden Age characters.
Having the lead character kill off the villain was commonplace in early Golden Age comics. At the time of Batman’s first appearance (complete with purple gloves), his code of “do not kill” or at least “do not use a gun” was as yet developed. We cannot judge his actions against 80 years of storylines, but rather must do so against the events in this one single issue and other contemporary comics.
Detective Comics #27 was not written and drawn to launch the career of new intellectual property or sell action figures. It was a single story meant to sell a single issue and generate a paycheck for the Bill ‘Finger and Bob Kane. Overlaying 80 years of Bat-history and expectations over this one story is similar to a judging any historical event through a modern lens.
History deserves to be remembered, and so does Bat-History. However to do it justice, it is important to review historical comic books as we do historical events. A complete understanding of the context and perspective when a story was published/event took place provides a more balanced critic. This is not to say we can’t also review a comic book within modern perspectives and with decades of other stories behind it. But to give Detective Comics Bat-justice, we should first analysis it within the context and time it was written, and in this case it was a single one-and-done issue, not the inspiration for where we get all of our wonderful toys.