Thou Shalt not Kill

Suuuuure it is, Bats.One of the oldest traditions in superhero comics is that the good guys don’t kill. There are exceptions out there, such as Wolverine, who is currently leading a child-killing death-squad in X-Force (okay, they only killed one child so far, and the repercussions are being handled pretty well) or the Punisher, whose body count is somewhere in the thousands. But in general, superheroes haven’t killed since the Silver Age or even before. But the question is, why? Certainly some villains (*cough*Joker*cough*) deserve their necks snapped. Why is it that these guys who dress up in pajamas and pursue vigilante justice don’t do what sometimes needs to be done?

In an attempt to answer that question, or at least look at how the code against killing developed, here’s a look at some of the more iconic superheroes and why they don’t kill.

Lesson learned: don't gloat in front of the man of steel.

Lesson learned: don't gloat in front of the man of steel.

Superman:
From the Golden Age on, Superman had a code against taking life. He did have a few moments where logic dictates that he did kill someone, such as tossing a criminal over the horizon, but the cartoony nature of comics made it so that, unless it was specifically stated, no life was lost. It was generally accepted that the strong moral code instilled in him by the Kents kept Superman from using his powers to take a life. Even when he accidentally did kill someone, such as in the Alan Moore story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” he wound up punishing himself by using gold kryptonite to strip himself of his powers permanently.

In modern continuity, Superman’s code against killing comes from somewhere else: he tried it and didn’t like it. John Byrne, not content with the idea that Superman’s moral upbringing instilled a code against killing, wrote a story in which Superman faced off against three Kryptonians from a parallel world, each stronger than he was. He winds up using gold kryptonite to deprive them of his powers (Superman was immune, since kryptonite only affects Kryptonians from the same universe). In this universe, the Kryptonians have killed off the entire human race, and their immediate reaction to being bested by Superman is to gloat that they will find a way to regain their powers and terrorize the universe again. Thus Superman brings out another weapon: green kryptonite from that universe, which he uses to kill the Kryptonians. The actual experience of killing would wear on Superman for quite a while, and he would never do it again.

I have mixed reactions to this story. On the one hand, it’s a pretty good tale, and future writers explored its consequences further. (Especially when Batman, fresh off the death of Jason Todd, would get talked out of killing the Joker by Superman, only to find out that Supes had already taken not one but three lives.) On the other hand, I don’t buy Byrne’s reasoning that Superman’s code against killing needed some sort of origin to begin with. Most people haven’t killed anybody, but also know that killing people is wrong in most situations. Do we need an issue of Superman having sex with a reindeer to teach him that bestiality isn’t right?

All told, though, I’m just nitpicking. Even if Byrne’s premise is flawed, the story itself is pretty decent.

Batman is so intent on gunning people down that he's about to crash the Batwing in the process.

Batman is so intent on gunning people down that he's about to crash the Batwing in the process.

Batman:
Batman began as just another in a long line of non-powered costumed vigilantes. Like the Shadow and others who came before him, he didn’t mind gunning down a criminal or tossing them off a roof when necessary. A lot of people credit the Silver Age and the Comics Code Authority as softening Batman, but it really happened earlier than that. Once Batman got his legs underneath him, his stories got a bit more light-hearted, particularly after the introduction of Robin. In particular, once Batman’s origin story was told, him using guns and killing people made less and less sense – he was traumatized as a child by a man wielding a gun who took the lives of his parents. While Batman still killed on occasion afterward, he would eventually drop that habit as his backstory became more developed and his comics became more kid-friendly. By the post-Crisis reboot of Batman, it was established that Bruce Wayne didn’t kill and didn’t use guns, so powerful was his experience that fateful night that his parents died.

Nowhere was Batman’s resolve against killing further tested than when the Joker killed Jason Todd, the second Robin. Superman, having had the experience of taking a life, had to talk Batman out of it. Even afterward, Batman has come extremely close to killing the Joker, once nearly doing it with his bare hands only to be talked down by Jim Gordon of all people, whose daughter the Joker had paralyzed and whose wife the clown had murdered. Eventually, when Jason Todd came back to life, Batman would get to explain why he didn’t kill the Joker:

It’d be too damned easy. All I’ve ever wanted to do is kill him. A day doesn’t go by I don’t think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he’s dealt out to others and them end him. But if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place, I’ll never come back.

(The quote is actually from the animated movie Under the Red Hood, but it’s pretty close to what he actually says in the comics.)

Batman is one of the few heroes where the rational of, “If you kill him, you’ll be just like him” actually makes sense. Underneath all his masks, Bruce Wayne is basically a tightly-wound psycho. His obsession over his parents’ death has driven him insane. He is the greatest martial artist on the planet, and it takes all the effort he can muster not to kill the criminals he fights. But once he actually crosses the line, he likely won’t stop because he will have finally lost it. Moreover, the Gotham cops won’t work with him anymore, because the only reason people tolerate the Batman is because he does have that line. If the psycho vigilante starts killing criminals in a city where just about everybody is a criminal of one sort or another, then he becomes a danger to everyone.

Personally, I’d like Batman to be a little more human and less of a psychopath who obsesses about his parents’ murder, but that’s apparently who he is these days – although Grant Morrison has done a good job of at least humanizing him a little bit and showing him relaxing as Bruce Wayne now and again. But even the modern, slightly more well-balanced Batman has his code. Even when he actually used a gun in Final Crisis against Darkseid, he aimed for the shoulder rather than going for a shot that would be an instant kill.

Wonder Woman:
Wonder Woman’s code against killing comes from-

Did she just incinerate all those dudes with her magic lasso?

Did...did she just incinerate all those dudes with her magic lasso?

Comes from…

That can't be what it looks like, can it?

That can't be what it looks like, can it?

Um…

Jeez! This lady doesn't screw around!

Jeez! This lady doesn't screw around!

Okay, Wonder Woman doesn’t have a code against killing. She’s an Amazonian warrior raised in a society that is socially very much like ancient Greece. Folks are lucky (or unlucky, depending on your viewpoint) that she even wears clothing into battle. Oddly enough, though, she’s actually the most compassionate and caring superheroine in the DC Universe. She always prefers to avoid fighting and especially killing, but she is still a warrior and will do so when necessary.

It is worth noting that Wonder Woman isn’t your typical crime-fighter. She doesn’t go on patrol looking for muggers to beat up on a typical day – as a character who is empowered by a number of Greek goddesses, her adventures usually take a larger scope. The three scans above have her dealing with, respectively, a bunch of risen dead in the Blackest Night event, a mind-controlling psycho who had taken control of Superman and wouldn’t let up unless he was killed, and the mythical Medousa who had already turned a child to stone and was planning to turn her gaze upon thousands of remote viewers across the globe as a sacrifice to her god. Given the choice, Wonder Woman does not kill. But those who think she has as rigid a code against it as Superman or Batman do are in for an unpleasant surprise.

"Hal, did you kill a Green Lantern?" "No." "Did you kill 3,600 Green Lanterns?" "Yes. Very yes."

"Hal, did you kill a Green Lantern?" "No." "Did you kill 3,600 Green Lanterns?" "Yes. Very yes."

Green Lantern:
With the exception of the time that Hal Jordan went crazy and killed the entire Green Lantern Corps, then destroyed the entire universe, the Green Lanterns have usually avoided killing. (Why does everyone keep bringing up that one those 3,600 lapses of judgment at parties?) In modern continuity, the Green Lanterns didn’t kill because they couldn’t – their rings were not authorized for lethal force by the Guardians of the Universe.

That changed in The Sinestro Corps War, when the fallen Green Lantern Sinestro formed his own corps devoted to spreading fear throughout the universe. As the title of the event suggests, it was an all-out war, and as such the Guardians authorized the Green Lanterns to use lethal force. This actually turned out to be a well-plotted plan by Sinestro, who was beaten but still won in the end. The Green Lanterns devote their lives to fighting fear in the universe. Now that the corps is capable of actually killing, they are spreading fear. Once upon a time, the Lanterns were beacons of light and hope, capable of amazing abilities but always avoiding killing their enemies. Now, if you tick off a Green Lantern, he can just create a giant green drill to bore a hole in your brain. Sinestro out-thought the Guardians, and as a result the universe is a more frightening place now that there are 7,200 beings wielding all-powerful rings that can kill someone through the user just thinking about it.

This is how every Hulk/Wolverine fight should go.

This is how every Hulk/Wolverine fight should go.

The Incredible Hulk:
Marvel is usually credited as being more realistic than DC, and I think that philosophy holds true when it comes to the matter of superheroes killing. Very few Marvel heroes have undergone the kind of angsting and hand-wringing that DC heroes have on the issue. Spider-Man doesn’t kill because: A) he’s a kid (or, at the oldest, someone in his early 20s) who is reluctant to cross that line, and B) he’s got a massive sense of responsibility. The fact that many of his supervillains have reformed gives him more incentive to capture instead of kill. Most of the Marvel Universe is similar in that they are everyday men and women given superpowers, and thus have the same level of ethics that they did as normal human beings. The X-Men don’t kill because they’re trying to convince the world that mutants aren’t a danger, and killing would be counterproductive to that. (There are exceptions, such as X-Force, led by Wolverine, who do the dirty jobs the other mutants won’t do.) A lot of the Marvel Universe doesn’t have a specific pledge not to kill a la Superman or Batman, but rather tries to avoid killing if possible in the same way that a cop tries to avoid using his gun. Some heroes don’t bother with a code, such as the Punisher, whose entire existence is based on the notion that some bastards really need a bullet between the eyes. But if there’s one guy who definitely would have a high body count in the Marvel Universe, you’d think it would be the Incredible Hulk. And you’d be wrong.

In his darkest moments, the Hulk has come close to killing in cold blood, although something always kept him from carrying out the deed. From the mid-1960s on, it was pretty well established that he did not kill, instead picking up cars that were already parked and knocking over buildings that were abandoned. He did sometimes kill foes who attacked him, but never accidentally. The reason the Hulk was able to cause such massive property damage but avoid harming innocents was finally explored during World War Hulk, where it was revealed that even in the depths of his rage, Bruce Banner had some influence over the Hulk and could prevent the monster from destroying populated city blocks or crushing some poor soldier’s head. In fact, even though the Hulk is angrier than he ever has been during World War Hulk, he doesn’t actually kill anybody, even spending a lot of the storyline saving others from collateral damage that the heroes are causing in their fervor to stop the Hulk. So even though the Hulk is a monster, Bruce Banner is still the man pulling the strings, and he’s a good guy.

Maybe.

Despite the fact that Banner kept the Hulk from killing anybody, he himself has killed. When attacked by his abusive and insane father before the Hulk even existed, Banner kicked his father into a gravestone, which killed him via head injury. A seeming accident – except when you look at the fact that Banner’s intellect has prevented such accidents from happening a hundred times over later on. His own hypothesis is that maybe he became the Hulk to protect the world from Banner. After all, as Bruce Banner he was able to create the gamma bomb and other weapons of war that would have killed thousands.

Banner’s shady morality is further explored in a recent encounter he had with the Leader. Banner, unable to transform the Hulk, nonetheless used his scientific genius to keep up with the Leader and ultimately wound up with a gun pointed at the villain’s big green cranium. The Leader pointed out that not even the Hulk was willing to kill him (ignoring that fact that the Hulk once totally did kill him, but he got better), to which Banner responded, “I’m not the Hulk,” and pulled the trigger. The Leader managed to teleport away, but the point is that Bruce Banner is not really such a nice guy after all…which begs the question of, who is really pulling the Hulk’s strings to make sure he doesn’t kill anybody during his rampages?

Ultimately, the Marvel Universe is filled with folks like Bruce Banner – messed up guys who, while they don’t want to kill if they don’t have to, aren’t going to angst forever if they do wind up with some blood on their hands. A lot of Marvel’s heroes, such as the Punisher, Captain America, and Nick Fury, have military experience and don’t mind killing in an act of war. Others aren’t going to drop a mugger off a building, but they might use lethal force against someone trying to destroy the Earth.

And Then There Are the Idiots:
The general hero’s code against killing started to soften in the 1990s, when edgy, gun-wielding vigilantes became increasingly popular. In the modern era, it’s become an issue again because of a very basic misunderstanding that the writers seem to have about superheroes and that they voice through certain characters. For instance, here we have a recent issue of Spider-Man where J. Jonah Jameson tears into Spidey for capturing but not killing a villain:

Jonah is the mayor of New York City now, by the way.

Jonah is the mayor of New York City now, by the way.

And here we have Maria Hill blaming Iron Man for not killing the Hulk…not that Iron man or anyone else in the Marvel Universe could kill the Hulk if given the chance. The casualty numbers she quotes, by the way, turned out to be inaccurate:

Maria Hill encourages Tony Stark to ignroe the constitution because he's rich and has a lot of toys.

Maria Hill encourages Tony Stark to ignore the constitution because he's rich and has a lot of toys.

Here’s what bugs me about both of these issues: superheroes are not the court system. I guess it makes some degree of sense that Maria Hill, an agent of SHIELD, would encourage the violation of the US Constitution, since it hasn’t been all that long since she authorized lethal force against Captain America because he said he wouldn’t enforce a law that wasn’t even on the books yet. Basically, Maria Hill is a dumb bitch. Jonah Jameson’s comments to Spider-Man make less sense. Here’s a guy who has spent years slamming superheroes in general as a danger to society and has cited folks like the Avengers and the X-Men as having too much authority. Now, in the scan above, he’s encouraging Spider-Man, the guy he hates the most, to completely discard the concept of due process and act as judge, jury, and executioner. In all fairness, the villain in question did kill one of Jameson’s loved ones, but it still does not compute.

Your basic superhero is a guy like Batman or Spider-Man who is effectively making a citizen’s arrest on the villains. They detain criminals so the police can show up and take them away. They are not a court system. Just as a police officer is not within his rights to shoot a suspect that is already subdued, a superhero does not get to curb stomp a villain because of what might happen down the line should the bad guy escape. Once a villain is in custody, it’s up to the prisons to detain them. Superheroes don’t get the blame because prison systems in comic books suck. Likewise, if someone like the Joker or the Green Goblin should be put to death (they should), it’s up for the court system to issue a death penalty. (I don’t believe that New York has a death penalty, but I’m pretty sure it’s established that whatever state Gotham City is in has one, which begs the question of why the Joker hasn’t been executed yet.) For the normal street-level crime shown in most comics, superheroes shouldn’t be killing unless it is absolutely necessary to do so in order to protect themselves or an innocent bystander. If they can take a person down without using lethal force, they are supposed to by law. Again, that’s why police officers don’t get to shoot a guy who is already in cuffs, even if the guy is a murderer or other criminal deserving of death.

Naturally, in the wacky world of comics, there are some threats that go beyond street-level crime. That’s why characters like Wonder Woman exist, whose entire purpose in comics is to battle mythical and magical beings. Even then, if they can avoid killing someone, they usually will. They are supposed to be heroes.

And as to Maria Hill’s little rant about Iron Man being responsible for the Hulk’s rampages, that issue requires us to ignore some key facts. First of all, the rampage in question is one where the Hulk was driven berserk by an external force and was thus more insane than normal. Additionally, Tony Stark has never been in a position to actually kill the Hulk. Ignoring the fact that it’s highly suggested that the Hulk can’t be killed (he has a healing factor that puts Wolverine to shame and can breathe in space), Iron Man certainly can’t do it himself. The one time he got a solid win on his own against the Hulk, it drained his suit of power to the point where he couldn’t even move. After Hill’s little speech, during World War Hulk, Iron Man actually does try to kill the Hulk…and winds up beaten down and broken. Basically, Maria Hill is talking out of her ass, and has been a pretty horrible character since the whole “let’s shoot Captain America for something that isn’t illegal” fiasco. (God, Civil War sucked.)

Oh yeah…and Tony’s ultimate solution? Shoot the Hulk into space. That set in motion the events of Planet Hulk, which led to World War Hulk, where the Hulk returned madder than ever and proceeded to beat the crap out of everyone in the Marvel Universe. This type of stuff did years of damage to Iron Man, and he’s only now getting to the point where fans can see him as something other than a fascist asshole.

My main point in all this? Some fans and writers are making an issue out of the no-killing policy mostly because they can’t apply logic to a situation. In the past, for the most part, superheroes not killing has actually been pretty well thought through. Now, for some reason, people are ignoring the fact that one person does not get to determine whether someone who has already been captured lives or dies. If you want a comic book character who acts as judge, jury, and executioner, I suggest checking out this guy:

I AM THE LAW!

I AM THE LAW!

Of course, Judge Dredd lives in a dystopian future where democracy is known as the Great Failed Experiment, and even then he imprisons people rather than killing them if he can. But until the DC and Marvel Universes become part of the 2000 AD line, please writers – do a little bit of thinking before you trot out more idiot speeches like the ones from Jonah Jameson and Maria Hill.

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4 Responses to “Thou Shalt not Kill”

  1. Yeah, Judge Dredd!!! 🙂

  2. Great article

  3. Jonathan Says:

    I started with the question of Does Hulk kill? Dude, u hit the nail on the coffin with this one. Great article and thank you for citing some referens. i never comment but damn, u actually know what you are talkin about. Us comic fans need more articles like this one.

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