Kyle Bailey, The World of Batman: Justice, Natural Law, and the Power of Stories

Kyle Bailey

The World of Batman: Justice, Natural Law, and the Power of Stories


The fictional character of Batman was created in 1939 by Bob Kaine and Bill Finger and first appeared in Detective Comics #27. In the nearly 80 years since his first appearance, Batman has become one of the most popular fictional characters of all time. Given his routine interactions with law enforcement, and the nature of Batman as a vigilante, it is important to ask the question: what does Batman tell us about the law? The short answer to this question would almost certainly be that man-made law does not enjoy a monopoly in determining what is right and what is wrong.

In answering this question in more depth, I look to a concept that predates American law. Batman, and the world he inhabits, illustrates the notion of natural law—a law which is above the laws of man (human law)—and how its appeal remains strong in a society we might recognize as our own because man-made law (according to a natural lawyer) does not always produce results that we might consider to be just or correct. This is seen through examining the character of Bruce Wayne, the Batman, and the characters with whom he often interacts who have played active roles in the justice system: Harvey Dent (also known as the villain Two-Face) and Police Commissioner James (Jim) Gordon. Where Batman may be seen as an agent of natural law, Dent and Gordon are both characters grappling with the inability of human law to fully live up to the higher ideals of natural law. Dent, seeing the failures of the justice system as a district attorney, loses faith in any conception of justice, embracing the character of “Two-Face.” Gordon, on the other hand, acts as a representative of human law who must somehow find a way for human law to operate hand-in-hand with notions of natural law. Additionally, the nature of the comic book with its numerous different continuities, reboots, and “elseworlds” further illustrates the permanence of natural law, both as a concept that has endured throughout centuries, and (as a natural lawyer might argue) as evidence of the permanency of natural law and its source.

It should be noted what this article is discussing when using the terms “comic book” or “graphic novel,” especially since this article uses the terms interchangeably. In defining the term “graphic novel,” Lenora Ledwon writes:

“Graphic novel” is an umbrella term that can cover a variety of comic-like forms, including trade paperback collections of comics, original graphic novels (that have not been published as comics), Japanese manga, and the like. Most local bookstores have a graphic novels section, where the shelves are filled with what appear to be book-length comic books. In fact, that is not a bad working definition: graphic novels are book-length comics. Comics typically tell stories through a combination of pictures and words, with the pictures meant to be read in sequence.[1]

Therefore, this paper will be treating comic books and graphic novels as being effectively the same thing, especially when compared with other forms of media such as novels, films, or television.

What makes the comic book different from other media, such as movies, is the sense that stories told in this medium never really end. For example, in the realm of comic books Batman is a character whose story never really ends, as evidenced by the fact that Batman comic books have now been regularly released for 80 years (with Detective Comics publishing its 1000th issue in 2019). This differs from a medium like films, in which (to use Christopher Nolan’s 3 films on Batman as an example) the story of this character can be told from beginning (the death of the Waynes in Batman Begins) to end (Bruce Wayne’s retirement at the conclusion of The Dark Knight Rises). The relative lack of finality in most comics, even in stories purporting to be a “final story” (as shall be examined later) further adds to the notion that characters in comics, and the ideals that they represent, are more permanent and unending; this makes the medium and its characters useful in discussing a topic like natural law.

Additionally, comics serve as a useful medium for examining our own society and how it views law and justice. Authors Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl explain this point, writing:

Although comic books are far from manuals for how to run the criminal justice system, we can learn much about American society by interrogating the ways in which cultural meanings about crime and justice are negotiated and contested within them. In this context, comic books offer expressions of contemporary life that tap into our hopes, fears, personal insecurities, and uncertainties about the future, as do popular media in general.[2]

Therefore, examining how law and justice is treated by a fixture of popular culture such as Batman also tells us something about how society at large views the law.

There are countless stories and graphic novels to look to in the writing about Batman and the characters in his world. In examining these characters (Batman, Dent, and Gordon), their relationships with each other, and their relation to concepts of justice and natural law, I will look to five works from the nearly 80 year history of the Batman character. These works are: Batman: Year One by Frank Miller (with art by David Mazzucchelli)[3], Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb (with art by Tim Sale)[4], Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller (with art by Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley),[5] Batman: No Man’s Land by Greg Rucka (with various artists),[6] and Batman: Whatever Happened to The Caped Crusader? by Neil Gaiman (with art by Andy Kubert).[7]

The first part of this article will generally address the subject of natural law. Part two of this article will focus on the issue of continuity as it relates to the perceived permanence of natural law. After that, I will examine three characters in the Batman mythos and their relation to both man-made law and natural law (Batman, Dent, and Gordon). In examining characters, I will start with an examination of Batman himself and his origin, and will then move on to Harvey Dent, and finally Commissioner Gordon.


The concept of the existence of a  “natural law” – some sort of right way of behaving that is different/independent from man-made law – has been around since the time of Plato and Aristotle, and has been articulated by a wide variety of philosophers and thinkers. On the more religious end of the spectrum are thinkers like Saint Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas structured law into three main tiers. First, and highest, was eternal law, which was essentially the law of God.[8] Just below eternal law was natural law, which Aquinas described by writing:

[I]t is evident that all things participate in the eternal law in a certain way because it is imprinted upon them through their respective inclinations to their proper actions and ends. Rational creatures are under divine providence in a more excellent way than the others since by providing for themselves and others they share in the action of providence themselves. They participate in eternal reason in that they have a natural inclination to their proper actions and ends. Such participation in the eternal law by rational creatures is called the natural law.[9]

An important element in many varieties of natural law is the extent to which man-made laws are considered to be just only to the extent to which they accord with principles established by natural law. To the extent that man-made law violates (or fails to follow) principles of natural law, it might not even be properly considered to be law at all. In explaining this concept, Aquinas writes:

Saint Augustine says “A law that is unjust is considered to be no law at all.” Thus its quality as a law depends on the extent to which it is just. A thing is said to be just in human affairs when it is right because it follows the rule of reason. Now as we have said, the first rule of reason is the law of nature. Hence every human law that is adopted has the quality of law to the extent that it is derived from natural law. But if it disagrees in some respect from the natural law, it is no longer a law, but a corruption of law.[10]

While natural law is often associated with notions of God and the divine, this is not always that case. Legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart, in discussing natural law, observed that “Natural Law has […] not always been associated with belief in a Divine Governor or Lawgiver of the universe, and even where it has been, its characteristic tenets have not been logically dependent on that belief.”[11] An example of natural law that is not inherently tied to a higher spiritual power can be found in writings from the European Enlightenment. The English political philosopher John Locke described natural law by writing: “The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.”[12]

While varieties (or theories) of natural law differ in regards to their relationship with a deity (as well as what specific type of conduct is required in order to be in accord with natural law), a common characteristic with natural law theories is that they prioritize what is seen as right and wrong at some sort of gut level over what a written statute (or the bodies charged with implementing said statute) may say on the subject. To put it another way, acknowledgement of natural law as a valid legal concept includes a tacit admission that man-made law and the way in which it operates will not always be just, and will sometimes result in outcomes that we might view as wrong. As such, it becomes important to have something that operates above man-made law in determining what is truly just and unjust. Given that superheroes—such as Batman—routinely place their own sense of right and wrong above that of the state, it is fair to say that they serve as representatives of natural law.


The notion that superheroes like Batman serve as representatives of natural law is further made clear when examining the issue of continuity, or lack thereof in the world of comic books. Given that Batman is a character who has appeared in stories published since 1939, it is foolish to attempt to piece together a single overarching eighty-year narrative for the character. As with all fictional characters who exist in the world of comic books and graphic novels, it is important here to discuss the idea of ongoing continuity, both with the character and the universe they inhabit.

Ongoing continuity is a concept with which many comic book readers are familiar, even though they may not know the specific term itself. Simply put, it is the larger story or biography of a character (Batman, for example) and the world they live in (Gotham City, or the larger universe portrayed in DC Comics), of which the specific story being read is only a part. Individual comics and stories serve the role of building a “history” for the character and world, which can then inform stories yet to be written. For example, in 1988, DC comics published a four-issue story called Batman: A Death in the Family, written by Jim Starlin and appearing in issues 426 through 429 of the ongoing Batman series. In this story, the Joker murders Jason Todd, who at the time is Robin (having replaced Dick Grayson, who became the character of Nightwing). Since the publication of this story, the death of Jason Todd has become a central part of the Batman story in DC Comics (even being referenced on film in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Over time other media sources outside of comic books have also served to inform the larger continuity and history of Batman’s world. For example, the now incredibly popular characters of Batgirl and Harley Quinn both originated in television shows (the 1960’s Batman TV series and the 1990’s Batman the Animated Series, respectively) before appearing in the comics. As a result, determining and deciding what stories, characters and events are part of a character’s “official” ongoing story becomes difficult, if not impossible. This task is further complicated by the fact that, as a publishing line, DC Comics has sought to essentially “start over” this ongoing story multiple times.

As a whole, DC Comics (the publisher of Batman titles) has twice “rebooted” its universe following a miniseries “event” in an effort to make its ongoing narrative more accessible to new readers. The first of these events was Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman and George Perez[13], published through 1985 and 1986, which represented a complete rebooting of the DC universe (in the story, a creature known as the Anti-Monitor sought to destroy the multiverse, and following his defeat by the characters of DC, a new single “DC Universe” is created). It was after this that the book which is considered the “definitive” Batman origin, Batman: Year One, was published as the official “new” origin story for the character. DC rebooted its universe again in 2011 following a 5-issue miniseries called Flashpoint by Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert[14] (where, as a result of Barry Allen (the Flash) travelling back in time to attempt to save his mother from being murdered when he was a child, the entire universe is changed and rebooted to a point where superheroes have only been around for roughly 5 years). All of this further serves to make it difficult to tell a “definitive history” of a character like Batman.

The issue of continuity, both within the world of comic books and outside of it (given how often Batman has appeared in other forms of media) is central in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to The Caped Crusader? The story was published just prior to the DC reboot in Flashpoint and was meant to be seen as a “final” Batman story, which is something DC Comics did with Superman prior to the reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths in a story written by Alan Moore called Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow?[15]

The story is that Batman and an unidentified woman are observing Batman’s funeral, but all the speakers talk about different versions of Batman and the scene of the funeral itself changes frequently to reflect different eras in comic books. As these stories reach their conclusion, Batman recognizes the woman who has been watching the funeral with him as his mother, Martha Wayne. She asks Batman (her son, Bruce Wayne), what he has learned from seeing his funeral, and his answer touches on the issue of differing continuities, and also provides a clear illustration of what Batman stands for in terms of jurisprudence, which can be described as prioritizing the protection of innocents above all else. He says:

I’ve learned…that it doesn’t matter what the story is, some things never change. Because even when they aren’t talking about me, they are. Because they are talking about Batman. The Batman doesn’t compromise. I keep this city safe…even if it’s safer by just one person…and I do not ever give in or give up.

Sometimes I fall in battle. Sometimes I die hugely, bravely, saving the city from something that would destroy it. Sometime it’s a small, ironic, unnoticed death—I die rescuing a child from a fire, or tackling a frightened pickpocket.

Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Every friend betrays me, sooner or later, and every enemy becomes a lover, but that’s the one thing that doesn’t change: I don’t ever give up. I can’t give up. I’m the Batman. I protect the city. I rescue people. I investigate crimes. I guard the innocent. I correct the guilty. And I get it. I mean, I really get it. The end of the story of Batman is, he’s dead. Because, in the end, the Batman dies. What else am I going to do? Retire and play golf? It doesn’t work that way. It can’t. I fight until I drop. And one day, I will drop. But until then, I fight.[16]

In discussing his view on continuity with crafting a “final” Batman story, Gaiman said in a 2009 interview: “I wanted to play very, very fair with the reader. So what I was trying to say is it honestly doesn’t matter if it is in or out of continuity. And it doesn’t matter whichever Batman you love, whether that is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, or the Batman TV show or even the various, glorious animated series. This is the last Batman story.”[17] The fact that continuity almost does not matter in crafting a final Batman story illustrates that Batman, as a concept, now exists independently of any single story or line of continuity. Such a reality indicates that Batman, and the rules he operates under, are more properly connected to an eternal source of law and therefore represent an illustration of natural law. This is in keeping with the history of natural law theory as a notion that has endured no matter the “source” it is connected to. H.L.A. Hart writes, “Indeed, the continued reassertion of some form of Natural Law doctrine is due in part to the fact that its appeal is independent of both divine and human authority, and to the fact that despite a terminology, and much metaphysics, which few could not accept, it contains certain elementary truths of importance for the understanding of both morality and law.”[18]

A connection to an eternal, natural law is further illustrated by the end of Gaiman’s story. When Bruce is told of what his ultimate “reward” is for a life of being Batman, we are told that Batman is something that lasts forever. Gaiman writes this exchange between Bruce and Martha Wayne:

“Are you ready to let it go now? To move on?”

“To go to my final reward? I told you, Mom, I don’t believe in—”

“You don’t get Heaven or Hell. Do you know the only reward you get for being Batman? You get to be Batman. And—when you’re a child—you get a handful of years of real happiness, with your Father, with me. It’s more than some people get. You’re done, now, Bruce, this time. You can stop fighting now…just for a few more years…it’s over.”[19]

In the end, Batman never ends. When he dies, as he must, he is born again to once more be Batman. Batman ultimately is eternal.

It is this connection to eternity that illustrates, within the context of the Batman narrative, his connection to a more primordial sense of justice, namely natural law. At a metatextual level, the persistence and constancy of Batman is like natural law in that, no matter when, how, or by whom it is being described, we can always recognize it. As such, in being eternal where man-made law is changeable, natural law (and Batman as an agent thereof) operates above man-made law in determining what is and is not justice. For Batman, man-made laws can come and go and be right or wrong depending on the circumstances, but the need to keep the people of Gotham safe at all costs (Batman’s natural law) is forever what should come first and the standard against which man-made law should be judged against.


If Batman is an agent of natural law, it is important to look at how he came to be, which requires an examination of Bruce Wayne and his motivations. In many ways, Bruce’s story is as simple as it is tragic. When Bruce was a boy, his parents were  shot and murdered in front of him by a criminal in  a Gotham alley. This event shatters Bruce’s view of the world, and with it how justice works. In Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Batman/Bruce explains the impact of his parents’ death while fighting Superman, saying: “My parents . . . taught me a different lesson . . . lying on this street—shaking in deep shock—dying for no reason at all—they showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to… [.]”[20] To put this another way, positive man-made law is not sufficient to ensure justice. Instead, ensuring justice requires going against man-made law at times in order to “force” the world to make sense. Scott Vollum and Cary D. Adkinson describe Batman’s relation to the law by writing:

Batman . . . works outside the boundaries of the law and considers himself an arbiter of justice. Distrustful of law enforcement, Batman takes it upon himself to uphold justice and fight crime. While he often cooperates with law enforcement, he refuses to accept their boundaries as defining what is and is not just.[21]

This is the essence of natural law. That Batman’s philosophy and world view is one of natural law is made more clear when looking at Bruce Wayne’s decision to not only fight crime, but to do so under the assumed identity of the Batman while seeking to appeal to a primal urge in criminals: fear.

Batman’s “definitive” origin story comes in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, originally published over the first half of 1987. The story spans the first calendar year in which Bruce Wayne, and Jim Gordon, arrive and work to fight crime in Gotham. Early in the year, before he has adopted the identity of the Batman, Bruce goes out dressed in a manner so that he will not be recognized as Bruce Wayne to a crime-ridden section of the city to begin his “mission.” Things do not go well. Bruce is stabbed and barely makes it back home to Wayne Manor alive. As he sits in his study, bleeding to death, Bruce speaks to the ghost of his father and, in doing so, alludes to the night of their murder and finds his new identity. Speaking as a narrator, Bruce says:

Father…I’m afraid I may have to die tonight. I’ve tried to be patient. I’ve tried to wait. But I have to know. How father? How do I do it? What do I do…to make them afraid? If I ring this bell, Alfred will come. He can stop the bleeding in time. Another of your gifts to me, father. I have the wealth. The family manor rests above a huge cave that will be the perfect headquarters…even a butler with training in combat medicine…yes, father. I have everything but patience. I’d rather die than wait…another hour. I have waited…eighteen years…

Eighteen years…since…since Zorro. The Mark of Zorro. Since the walk. That night. And the man with frightened, hollow eyes and a voice like glass being crushed…since all sense left my life.

Without warning, it comes…crashing through the window of your study…and mine…I have seen it before…somewhere…it frightened me…as a boy…frightened me…yes. Father. I shall become a bat.[22]

It is a bat crashing through the window of the mansion that ultimately brings Bruce to assume the identity of the Batman. That a bat, a wild creature of nature, should be what forms this new identity further illustrates that Batman is an agent of natural law.

The murder of his parents fundamentally changed Bruce Wayne’s perception of the world, and the laws that govern it. Clearly he has reached the conclusion that man-made law is simply inadequate to ensure justice and make sense of the world. As such, he ultimately relies on a more fundamental concept of right and wrong that does not necessarily coincide with man-made law. Doing so under the guise of a creature from the natural world, a bat, only serves to further make clear that this is in keeping with a view of justice based in natural law. Thomas Giddens describes this role of Batman as an agent of natural law, writing:

Working outside the state system, Batman can be understood as a symbol for an idealized justice that cuts through the limitations and bureaucracy of the practical legal process. His symbolic presence in the streets of Gotham signifies the objective source of ‘true’ justice that law must aspire to and be measured against.[23]

Criminals may be able to get around the formal laws of Gotham City, but they cannot escape the judgment of a primal figure who operates above that law. This is almost the very definition of natural law, and now it becomes important to understand how agents of human law respond to a world where this is a reality.


Natural law theory almost necessarily rests on an assumption that man-made law is not always right or just. This can be a difficult thing to accept for someone who is meant to act as an enforcer of man-made law, particularly a district attorney. Such is the position occupied by Harvey Dent, the character who most readers would know as the villain Two-Face. Unable to deal with the failures of the justice system, along with being horrifically injured in an acid attack, Dent ultimately abandons the legal system, positive law, and the concept of justice. He becomes a murderous super villain.

Dent’s fall is best portrayed in writer Jeph Loeb’s Batman: The Long Halloween. In this story, Dent, Gotham City’s district attorney, is working to take down a mob boss named Carmine “The Roman” Falcone. At the same time, there is a serial killer lose in Gotham that Batman, Gordon, and Dent are trying to find and capture. At one point, Dent becomes convinced that Bruce Wayne (Dent does not know that this is Batman’s secret identity) is working for the Falcone crime family, and might in fact be the serial killer that they are hunting. Bruce Wayne is then arrested and put on trial. However, Wayne is acquitted. An agent of man-made law (Dent) got it wrong. In grappling with this after the trial, unable to accept the verdict, Dent says:

I was so sure that Bruce Wayne was doing favors for the Falcone Family. But a ‘Jury of My Peers’ didn’t agree with me. It’s like they flipped a coin. Heads he wins; tails I lose. And Bruce Wayne. With all his money. His good family name. Goes back to high society. Leaving the rest of us to take care of what needs to be done . . .[24]

Dent’s faith in man-made law is eventually shattered altogether by the inability of Gotham’s legal system to deal with organized crime. Later in the story, at the trial of a high profile mafia figure in Gotham, Dent is attacked in open court when a witness throws a container of acid at his face. The scarring that results from this leads Dent to adopt the new identity of Two-Face. After assuming this new persona, Two-Face encounters Jim Gordon while he (Two-Face) is holding Carmine Falcone at gunpoint. Their dialogue reveals the extent to which Dent has lost faith in any legitimacy or justice in man-made law, and is as follows (starting with Dent):

“Again. And again. The courts will send them back to prison or Arkham. They will escape. And we have the same problem. Again. And again.”


“Harvey is gone. Two-Face is more like it, don’t you think?”

“If you pull that trigger, how are you different from the Roman?”

“That’s Jim Gordon talking. You know the system doesn’t work. That justice can be decided like the flip of a coin.”[25]

What seems to cause Dent to fall so far, from district attorney to super villain, is not simply that his belief in man-made law has been shattered. Rather, it is that he seems to have no alternative concepts of justice (like natural law) to fill the void left by man-made law’s failings. As such, when man-made law fails, Dent reaches the conclusion that justice itself is a lie. This point is made clear when Dent, as Two-Face, encounters one of his former clerks (Vernon) and appears to mock the very concept of the justice system. Dent says: “You believe in the justice system, don’t you, Vernon? You didn’t spend all those years in law school for nothing, right? Then you know justice has two sides. Innocent or guilty. Like this coin. One side clean. The other side scarred.”[26]

Seeing the failure of the positive, man-made justice system to produce “correct” results causes Harvey Dent to lose all faith in man-made law. However, having no other conception of law (like natural law) to replace it, Dent decides that this is all a fraud, and therefore “justice” might as well be determined by the flip of a coin, because that is how he sees it as operating currently.

Dent serves as a warning of what can happen when man-made law fails in a world that lacks a meaningful concept of natural law and justice. Therefore, it is important for agents of man-made law to understand natural law, as that can help them achieve justice in the inevitable times where strictly adhering to man-made law will fail in producing an outcome we might see as just.


Like Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon is a representative of positive man-made law. As a member of the Gotham City Police Department (serving as commissioner in most Batman stories), he is a character that one might expect to support positive law and be hostile towards claims of natural law. However, that is not necessarily the role that Gordon holds, particularly as relates to Batman. In fact, he often serves as one of Batman’s greatest defenders, and is something of a partner to him.

Why would someone who is a figure of man-made law (a police officer no less) tolerate a vigilante working as an agent of natural law, and what does such toleration tell us about the law? In answering this question, the first thing made clear to the reader is that the real world (or at least the world of Gotham City) is not a world of black and white, but rather is a world of gray. The same is true for the law and how it should be applied. In Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One (which takes place before Gordon is made police commissioner), there is a scene in which Batman is cornered by a S.W.A.T. team that seeks to capture him as a public menace (no matter the collateral damage) after he rescues an old woman. Batman manages to escape the S.W.A.T. team and, in doing so, saves a cat and steals a suit to blend in with the crowd. However, he does leave behind enough money to pay for the suit he has “stolen.” Afterwards, Jim Gordon is at home sitting up in his bed and holding his gun. Thinking about his hunt for Batman and his own job as a police officer, Gordon says to himself:

He’s a criminal. I’m a cop. It’s that simple. But—but I’m a cop in a city where the mayor and the commissioner of police use cops as hired killers—he saved that old woman. He saved that cat. He even paid for that suit. The hunk of metal in my hands is heavier that ever . . . [27]

Clearly, in the mind of Jim Gordon, right and wrong is not necessarily as simple as what is stated in man-made law and the policy of those officially tasked with upholding it. Simply put, there is a role to be played by natural law.

However, this does not mean that Gordon is a character who views natural law as holding a place above man-made law. Gordon as a character is aware of the contradiction that comes from being a figure of man-made law partnering up with a vigilante who views themselves as being above or apart from man-made law. This tension is well laid out in a conversation between Gordon and Batman that takes place in a storyline called Batman: No Man’s Land. In this story (which lasted over the course of a year in DC’s main continuity) Gotham City has been sealed off from the rest of the country and declared a No Man’s Land by the United States government following a devastating earthquake and terrible disease outbreak. Gordon along with much of the GCPD remain in Gotham and seek to restore law and order in the city after various super villains carve up the city into their own respective “territories,” and Gordon and his colleagues seek to do this without the aid of Batman and his associates in Gotham. After a month of this, Batman comes to Gordon’s house to seek to repair their relationship. In this conversation, Gordon reveals the price he has had to pay for his work with Batman. He does this by talking about his brief effort to leave Gotham just before the No Man’s Land was declared. Speaking with Batman, Gordon says:

I wanted to run away. Find a job somewhere else. Abandon the sinking ship. Everywhere I applied for work I got turned down. I wasn’t asking for much—not like I wanted to be Commissioner in Keystone City . . . I’d have taken a detective job if I could’ve landed it. No one would give me work. They didn’t want a cop who needed an “Urban Legend” to do his policing for him. They laughed at me. Some of them behind my back. Some to my face. And I started to wonder . . . . Maybe you were laughing at me too.[28]

Not only does Gordon feel that his partnership with Batman has cost him respect from his fellow police officers, but he also worries that it has cost him respect in the eyes of Batman himself. A telling portion of this conversation reveals this, as Batman seeks to convince Gordon that they are in fact partners. The conversation is as follows:

“You have your secrets. I have never pressed you for them. Maybe I should have. Instead of letting you turn me into your . . . your . . . whatever it is you see me as!”

“You’re my partner.”

“Don’t blow smoke at me.”

“It’s true—”

“It’s what you’d like to think—that doesn’t make it true. Partners are equals, Batman! When have you ever treated me like your equal? Partners, for example, tell you their plans! They keep you informed! And they sure as hell don’t walk out on you in the middle of a sentence!”[29]

Clearly Gordon has a more complicated relationship with Batman than simply being a “partner.” However, it is undeniable that Gordon, throughout his career, has been more than willing to work with Batman. Such a willingness on the part of an agent on man-made law to work with agent of natural law shows how the two concepts of law are interrelated, and dependent on each other. Even if, as was stated in Year One, Batman is a criminal and Gordon is a cop, it is not that simple.

So then what are we to make of Gordon’s relationship with Batman? In seeking an answer to this question, it is helpful to look into the possible future of the character. Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns takes place in an alternate future where an aging Batman comes out of retirement in a world that is far less trusting in the notion of superheroes. In one of the earlier scenes in the story, an aging Commissioner Gordon is visited by the woman set to take over for him as Gotham City police commissioner, Ellen Yindel. Yindel tells Gordon that she has greatly admired his career, but simply cannot understand how he can condone the actions of a vigilante such as Batman. After she says this, the following exchange takes place:

“I’m sure you’ve heard old fossils like me talk about Pearl Harbor, Yindel. KOFF. Excuse me. Fact is, we mostly lie about it. Make it sound like we all leaped to our feet and went after the Axis on the spot. Hell, we were scared. Rumors were flying. We thought the Japanese had taken California. We didn’t even have an army. So there we were, lying in bed pulling the sheets over our heads—and there was Roosevelt. On the radio, strong and sure, taking fear and turning it into a fighting spirit. Almost overnight we had our army. We won the war. Since then, Presidents have come and gone, each one seeming smaller, weaker…the best of them faint echoes of Roosevelt…Jesus, I’m talking too much.”

“Go on…”

“A few years back, I was reading a news magazine—a lot of people with a lot of evidence said that Roosevelt knew Pearl was going to be attacked—and that he let it happen. Wasn’t proven. Things like that never are. I couldn’t stop thinking how horrible that would be…and how Pearl was what got us off our duffs in time to stop the Axis. But a lot of innocent men died. But we won the War. It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big. He was too big…”

“I don’t see what this has to do with a vigilante.”

“Maybe you will.”[30]

Gordon here makes it clear that he views Batman as simply too large and too important a figure to be judged by him. This viewpoint is in keeping with how natural law can be viewed by an agent of man-made law. Natural law exists outside of man-made law, serves to inform man-made law, and ultimately serves as a higher law than man-made law. That it is not Jim Gordon’s place to judge natural law is in keeping with philosophical notions advanced by thinkers like Aquinas, namely that law is only valid (and figures of man-made law are only able to justly execute their duties) to the extent that it works in harmony with natural law, and that therefore man-made law is not suited to judge the validity of natural law. In this regard, Gordon serves as a just agent of man-made law, because he recognizes the need for positive law to work in harmony with natural law, and its agent in Gotham.


Batman and his universe illustrate the concept of natural law and how it interacts with and at times sits above positive law. This becomes clear when examining natural law, its history, and how it is reflected in a world in which continuity can be fluid. Natural law theory necessarily rests on the notion that positive law is only just to the extent that it is keeping with more eternal notions of right and wrong. Therefore, it is important to see how characters in this world handle the failings of man-made law and the seeming existence of natural law. While Bruce Wayne becomes an agent of natural law (seeking to protect innocents from harm) in assuming the identity of Batman, Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon must decide what the potential failings of man-made law mean for justice. For Dent, this reality leads to him abandoning any notion of justice altogether, saying that the world is fundamentally determined by chance and chance alone. Gordon, on the other hand, takes the viewpoint that it is necessary for natural law and man-made law to work hand-in-hand with each other.

What do Batmen, Dent, and Gordon ultimately tell us about the law and justice? Perhaps it is that justice is not something determined by a specific statute or case. Instead, true justice is determined by forces that are eternal and primal. As eternal as the night, and as primal as a bat.


Kyle Bailey is a third year student at Marquette University Law School (Class of 2019).

Copyright © 2019 Kyle Bailey

[1] Lenora Ledwon, Understanding Visual Metaphors: What Graphic Novels Can Teach Lawyers About Visual Storytelling, 63 Drake L. Rev. 193, 212.

[2] Nickie D. Phillips & Staci Strobl, Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way 9 (2003).

[3] Reprinted in: Frank Miller, Batman: Year One (DC Comics, 2005 ed.).

[4] Reprinted in: Jeph Loeb, Batman: The Long Halloween (DC Comics, 2011 ed.).

[5] Reprinted in: Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (DC Comics, 2002 ed.).

[6] Sections referenced in this article reprinted in: Greg Rucka, Batman: No Man’s Land Volume Four (DC Comics, 2000 ed.).

[7] Reprinted in: Neil Gaiman, The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman starting at 145 (DC Comics, 2018).

[8] Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics 46 (Paul E. Sigmund, Norton Critical Ed. 1988).

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 53.

[11] H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law 187 (Clarendon Law Series 2nd Ed. 1997).

[12] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government 271 (Peter Laslett, Cambridge U Press Student Ed. 2009).

[13] Reprinted in: Marv Wolfman and George Perez, Crisis on Infinite Earths (DC Comics, 10th printing, 2014).

[14] Reprinted in: Geoff Johns, Andy Kubert, and Sandra Hope, Flashpoint (DC Comics, 7th printing, 2016).

[15] Alan Moore, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Superman 423 and Action Comics 583, reprinted in The DC Universe by Alan Moore starting at 204 (DC Comics, 2nd Printing, 2016).

[16] Neil Gaiman, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Part Two, Detective Comics 853, at 12-14, reprinted in The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman starting at 179 (DC Comics, 2018).

[17] Scott Thill, Neil Gaiman Writes A Final ‘Love Letter To Batman’, April 21, 2009 WIRED,

[18] Hart, supra note 11, at 188.

[19] Gaiman, supra note 16, at 19.

[20] Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, 192 (DC Comics, 2002 ed.).

[21] Scott Vollum & Cary D. Adkinson, The Portrayal of Crime and Justice in the Comic Book Superhero Mythos, 10(2) J. Crim. Justice Pop. Culture 96, 101.

[22] Frank Miller, Batman: Year One, 20-22 (DC Comics, 2005 ed.).

[23] Thomas Giddens, Natural Law and Vengeance: Jurisprudence on the Streets of Gotham, 28 (4) Int. J. Semiotics  L. 765, 767 (2015).

[24] Jeph Loeb, Batman: The Long Halloween, 235 (DC Comics, 2011 ed.).

[25] Id. at 344.

[26] Id. at 349.

[27] Miller, supra note 22, at 70.

[28] Greg Rucka, Batman: No Man’s Land Volume Four, 187-188 (DC Comics, 2000 ed.).

[29] Id. at 190.

[30] Miller, supra note 20, at 94.