Featured image from Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee.

***Spoilers for the latest story arc in Detective Comics.***

I’ve written here before about James Tynion’s run on Detective Comics, which for my money has turned out to be one of the best superhero books on the racks. It has plenty of action for those who just want good stories about superheroes beating up supervillains, it explores the minds and hearts of the main characters with sensitivity and depth, and it’s also filled with enough philosophical ideas about ideology, identity, and other topics to keep idea nerds satisfied. The combination of action with philosophical, moral, and spiritual questions has been dazzling.

Detective is superhero comics at their best, in other words.

Over the last few story arcs, Tynion has been managing several different trains of thought having to do with the problem of ideology and with the morality of vigilantism, and in the latest story arc about Clayface, those trains of thought come crashing together in what turns out to be a complete disaster for the “Belfry era” of Batman.The Belfry is a project created by Tim Drake that was meant to usher the Bat Family into the future and to guarantee the legacy of Batman: a single headquarters (inside the city, unlike the Batcave) from which the Gotham Knights can work together to protect Gotham. It combines the talents of a diversity of people and coordinates them in order to protect the city from all possible threats. Batman, Batwoman, Red Robin, Azrael, Clayface, Batwing, Robin, Spoiler, Orphan, and Spoiler––each of the heroes and former villains brings virtues and unique abilities to the team . . . but each brings unique problems as well. This is especially true for Basil Karlo, the former supervillain called Clayface.

In issue 973, Karlo loses his mind and begins to wreak havoc on Gotham as Clayface. He’s been working with Dr. Victoria October to overcome the mental problems that come with his Clayface persona, but October’s “cure” for Karlo ultimately fails, and the Victim Syndicate manipulates events in order to ensure that Clayface causes enough damage to Gotham that the people turn against Batman and the Gotham Knights.

Meanwhile, Batwoman’s father, who runs a secret (and somewhat S.H.I.E.L.D.-like) organization called the Colony, has been trying to convince his daughter to join his organization. He gives her a specialized gun that is designed specifically to kill Clayface. It fires a bullet that degrades the bonds that hold his clay body together.

When Karlo has destroyed a large portion of the city and it looks like nothing is going to stop him, Batwoman makes the shot and kills him, breaking Batman’s most important ethical rule. Batman suspends her from the Knights, and most of her colleagues turn against her. Red Robin says that what makes the Knights different from everyone else is that they always find a “better way” than killing, even when the situation looks dire:


Azrael and Batwing, however, support Batwoman’s decision, arguing that it is better to do what is necessary to save lives than to stubbornly obey rigid ethical rules:


This is a problem that has followed Batman around for most of his career. As admirable as he is for refusing to kill, his rule against killing presents practical problems––but more importantly, it presents moral ones, as well. A utilitarian (someone who believes that the morality of an action is determined by the amount of good that comes out of it) would almost certainly say that sometimes Batman ought to kill. If he had killed the Joker years ago, many people would be alive now. But even people who follow other systems of morality––say, virtue ethics, Kantian deontology, or religious morality––might still say that Batman’s refusal to kill is a problem. How good is Batman’s One Rule if it prevents him from taking a course of action that might save untold lives? After all, saving lives is the very reason that he became a hero in the first place.

IMG_0945At times, Batman himself recognizes that his refusal to kill leads to the misery of others. For example, in Hush, he nearly kills the Joker because he doesn’t want to allow the the Clown Prince to ruin any more lives. But Jim Gordon stops him, arguing that if Batman kills the Joker, he will have crossed a line, that once he starts down that road, there is no coming back. And that is the logic behind the rule: if ever Batman were to start killing, even in rare circumstances, he would then start to become the very thing that he has been fighting.

But is this reasonable? Is it true that killing the Joker will send Batman down the path to super-villainy? His rule against killing is certainly admirable and even wise––but can it be set up as an absolute? In a way, Batwoman’s position seems more reasonable and realistic than Batman’s. Even after she kills Basil, she says that she still agrees with Batman that “nine times out of ten” there is a “better way” than killing, but “then there’s the tenth time.

To be continued in a later post . . .

(Also, if you’re really interested in the ethics of Batman, you might check out this book edited by my friend Mark D. White. Mark has an essay in that book that explores Batman’s rule against killing from several ethical perspectives. And while you’re at it, check out Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of A Polarized World).