The End Does Not Justify the Means
In the earliest days of Action Comics and Detective Comics, it was no rare occurrence for the titles’ heroes – Superman and Batman, respectively – to not only defeat their nemesis, but to put them down permanently. In both characters’ first appearances, they killed at least one adversary, intentionally or otherwise, with no regret or remorse. As these publications wore on, editorial concerns – namely, making comics “suitable” for young readers – began changing the “just desserts” approach that superheroes were taking. Superheroes adopted strict “no killing” moralities which were both considerably more palatable for parents of young comic book readers but also assisted in the longevity of comic book publications, whose villains could now recur ad infinitum thanks to the fact that no hero would kill them and take them out of the equation permanently. In fact, the DC Universe’s worst villains, including the Joker, owe their long legacies of violence and murder and mayhem to the editorial decision not to kill them off.
Now, while the machinations of editors and writers are working in the background, what this shift meant in-universe was that the mythology of DC adopted a very clear moral stance; that is, that heroes do not kill. This is hardly a concrete rule, as many heroes have killed since then, including the Green Arrow, the Question, Red Hood, Wonder Woman, and even the Flash. And yet, no matter how seemingly “justified” a hero may be in killing an adversary, the mythology suggests that these actions are inherently counter-heroic. The more often a hero transgresses, the less truly heroic they become.
For Superman and Batman, however, the “no killing” code has been a steadfast rule since the Golden Age. And though they approach crimefighting from very different perspectives (inspiring hope vs. inspiring fear), their refusal to kill is what sets them apart – and indeed above – most other heroes of the DCU. The mythology goes so far as to suggest that were they to cross that line, they would lose the faith of the people, as was explored during Infinite Crisis when Wonder Woman was forced to kill Maxwell Lord and her actions were broadcast worldwide. The public turned on her and she lost the trust of the other members of the Justice League.
This morality may have held true in-universe, but in the real world readers were beginning to question how, after all this time, Superman and Batman could allow their dangerous nemeses to continue to live; with every inevitable escape from prison countless more innocent people are hurt or killed. The mythology’s response to this tension was Manchester Black.
First appearing in Action Comics #775, Manchester Black is an extraordinarily powerful telepath and telekinetic, as well as the leader of a team of anti-heroes called The Elite. Black, along with his teammates (Coldcast, Menagerie, and the Hat), announced themselves to the world as superheroes, but their methods were considerably more brutal than those of the Justice League. They would execute their adversaries and their battles often left high civilian casualties. In spite of this, they were well-received by the public, who began to take great joy in the deaths of dangerous criminals. After attempting to stop the team, Superman was forced to fight them, but was defeated by both Manchester Black and Coldcast, before he seemingly killed the team and lobotomized Black, removing his powers. With this caught on camera, Black proclaimed that Superman was no better than them, only for the Man of Steel to reveal that he had not killed The Elite and that Manchester Black’s brain had not been damaged.
The incident marked the beginning of a short but pitched rivalry between Manchester Black and Superman, with the former swearing to prove to the latter that the world is not so clean and tidy. He attempted to do this by telepathically revealing Superman’s secret identity and controlling his enemies in a pitched battle against the Man of Steel. He psychically convinced Superman that he had killed Lois Lane, but when Superman refused to kill him in revenge the illusion faded and Black retreated, shocked that Superman was “the real deal”.
While Manchester Black is certainly not the only character to challenge the “no killing” code of a superhero, he is one of the best and clearest examples of an “ends justify the means” philosophy.
First and foremost, this is evident in his tactics as a hero. As the leader of The Elite, he set the tone for his teammates in their endeavour to become superheroes, and ultimately condoned their collective course of action. He willingly and intentionally kills criminals, often endangering others in the process, and shows no remorse or regret whatsoever for his actions. This is not something to be taken lightly; Manchester Black alone is one of the most gifted and powerful metahumans on the planet. His telepathy is strong enough to shut out and deceive the Martian Manhunter, and his telekinetic ability is precise enough to give Superman a stroke by squeezing blood vessels in his brain. For a being with that amount of power to place so little value on a human life – even that of a criminal – should be at least a little bit disturbing.
But more interestingly than his crimefighting is how Manchester Black embodies this “ends justify the means” attitude in his relationship with Superman. Black is a self-proclaimed hero, and no matter how violent his actions he believes that what he is doing (ridding the world of criminals) will vindicate his methods. Ironically, in order to convince Superman that the real world needs a hero like Black, he turned himself into as ruthless and dangerous a threat as the worst supervillains. He endangered thousands of lives by pitting all of Superman’s enemies against him, and even in faking Lois’ death he showed that there is no limit to how low he will stoop to break the Man of Steel’s spirit. The meta-narrative of this action is incredible: in order to prove that a safer world vindicates killing criminals, he sacrifices his own brand of heroism to become a villain that could only be stopped by his brand of justice.
It’s convoluted, yes, but it is “the ends justify the means” through and through.
Superman’s refusal to cross that line and kill, therefore, shatters Manchester Black’s entire raison d’être. For all of his terrible means, he was unable to achieve the end that would have vindicated him. By not killing Black, Superman denies him that very key part of Black’s mythology – without the end, the means cannot be justified. In what is a beautiful symbolic capstone to Manchester Black’s story, his realization that he has become an irredeemable, unjustifiable villain leads him to take his own life.
Manchester Black was a perfect response to a growing tension between DC’s narrative and its readership. The mythology of the DC Universe has long grappled with the issue of heroes who kill, but rather than break its foundational paradigmatic morality, it has a long history of forcing those heroes who do cross the line to answer for their actions: Green Arrow was apprehended by the Justice League, Barry Allen was tormented by killing Professor Zoom, and Wonder Woman was vilified for the murder of Maxwell Lord. Though it may appear otherwise, Manchester Black is not a condemnation of heroes who kill, but rather the justification of those killings. His mythology represents an overarching principle of the DC Universe: killing comes with a heavy price, and the end does not justify the means.