(NOTE: This is Friday night’s final draft, written after the horror in Colorado, which followed the death of a friend Thursday in California. It was an emotional process, so I wanted to post it here for posterity. My streamlined Bat philosophy appears on Wired.)
Anyone who knows anything about Batman knows that his parents were gunned down outside of a theater. This is why he has rarely used guns in over 70 years of comics history. And why he has rarely killed anyone at all, even when the urge to do so has reached critical, maddening mass.
The times Batman has crossed that line are few, having occurred mostly before 1940 when he was a shadow of The Shadow, an early influence on his creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Those occurring thereafter includes his murder of Joker in Frank Miller’s epochal The Dark Knight Returns, using his bare hands. Miller’s influential graphic novel opened the field to Tim Burton’s films, and the rest is pop history.
Through it all, Batman has doggedly retained his distaste for guns, for wise reasons The Dark Knight Returns explained at left. Miller pulled Batman back to darker shores, but even he didn’t cross the line. From DC Comics’ 1940 Bat-edict on gun control to his declaration to Catwoman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises that there should be “No guns, no killing,” the hero’s surprising pacifism in regard to firearms and capital punishment remains sacrosanct.
Then comes Friday’s horror of 70 wounded, 12 fatally, by a neuroscience dropout named James Eagan Holmes, armed not only with a Glock, assault rifle and a shotgun, but also body armor, a gas mask and incendiary devices. All legally obtained, inside a theater premiering Nolan’s trilogy, annihilating lives.
(Image courtesy DC Comics)
It should be noted that this happened in a state where, days before, someone avoided jail by pleading to conspiring to sell over 30 machine guns, five pounds of C4 explosives, grenades and 14 semi-automatic pistols. Smuggled here from Iraq of all places, by a former Navy SEAL. These disturbing convergences only strengthen Batman’s philosophy.
But he’s not real, and we are. What would Batman do?
(Image courtesy Legendary Comics).
Comics scholars should point out that Miller’s opinion on Batman and gun control changed over time.
After 9/11, Miller tried to use Batman as a vehicle of violent retribution, and we’re better off after DC Comics said no. The project eventually morphed into last year’s Holy Terror, sparing much Bat indignity.
“My thoughts and prayers go out to all the victims and their families,” Miller said in a Friday statement. “This tragedy grieves me terribly.”
The existential horror of losing his loving parents, Gotham City‘s politically powerful and socially conscious anchors, in a hail of bullets is no accident. That humanity has made him more earthly than an extraterrestial ideal like Superman, and as more honorable than a space cop with a green power ring. He has dominated the art and commerce of comics because he’s driven like few archetypes to rebuild his personal and political soul.
And you can’t get much soul-building done when terrorists are mowing your loved ones down at the malls.
Not that Batman hasn’t wanted to cross that line. In the powerful Batman: Under the Red Hood (below) — adapted for animation from Jim Starlin’s Batman: A Death in the Family and Judd Winick’s Batman: Under the Hood — the distraught Dark Knight’s philosophy of “too easy” murder is challenged after losing a prodigal son. He wavers again in Geoff Johns’ Infinite Crisis, but does not yield. Because unlike most of us, he remembers with renewable pain what it is like when loved ones and bullets collide.
He’d shake his head at us for making it this easy for Holmes to acquire that weaponry to violently warp reality to his conscienceless ends. What did we expect would happen?
That Batman can’t stop tragedy from happening is also no accident. As Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has proven with masterful precision, the freak show always reboots and replicates. Especially if we don’t get serious about changing its harrowing ways.
As a portal between what’s real and what’s insane, terrorism understands that massacres like Aurora have shattering impact. But if we allow them to destroy Batman’s enduring social contract, and our own, then we devolve into power tools for whoever wields our nightmare fuel.
Do we really want to simply lock, load and mercilessly unload our weaponized souls upon each other, over her and over there? Because we’re already firing, and it’s literally destroying us.
That the issue, beyond the data.
If we place no reasonable boundary on the easy acquisition of weaponry that continues to senselessly steal our respective loved ones, humans lucky to be alive on a rock spinning through unreachable space, then we’ll be forever buried in violence with Batman.
But in real-time, where our loved ones go away and never return.
I felt this essay I wrote in 2009 for the 10th anniversary of Brad Bird’s cruelly underappreciated The Iron Giant, which existentially pondered whether guns can have souls, seemed appropriate here.
A Decade Later, The Iron Giant‘s Weaponized Soul Still Stirs
“Can a gun have a soul?” That’s the question asked by criminally underrated animated film The Iron Giant, which opened 10 years ago to mostly empty theaters and sporadic press coverage.
Combining a relatively infant CGI style with traditional hand-drawn animation, director Brad Bird’s award-winning but critically ignored feature animation debut pondered how a paranoid, post-war America might react to an overwhelmingly powerful interstellar invader. A decade on, the cult classic stands as arguably the most intellectually and emotionally moving science-fiction tale in recent history.
From lampooning McCarthyite government spooks and terrible sci-fi B movies to lionizing comic book heroes like Superman, The Iron Giant touched so many pop culture bases that it made for dizzying cinema. Now, in a so-called post-9/11 era of empty-headed shooters like Terminator Salvation, the movie’s pacifist spirit is needed more than ever….