The Punisher: …and those for whom there are no words

August 12th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

In the end, Garth Ennis’s Punisher was about both the best and the worst of humanity. The worst, in that he represents just how thoroughly a human being can be broken by the unthinking and inhuman actions of others. The best, in that he looks at the terrible things that the best of us tolerate and says, “No more.”

Ennis’s Punisher isn’t a hero. He may do heroic things, and he may save lives, but he’s no hero. He is, at best, a murderer whose goals happen to coincide with those of many members of society. Punisher MAX really works for two reasons. Ennis treats the series as a war comic, making sure to show the effects of the violence on society and the characters. He writes Frank Castle not as the Punisher, a costumed mental case with a mad-on for criminals, but as a soldier using the things he learned in Vietnam to put the screws to the people he hates.

Frank Castle is no one to look up to, but he exists as the ultimate “If I could…” character. A social worker partway through the series, in the phenomenal The Slavers arc, gives Castle information on his targets, against her better judgment, because she wanted them to pay for what they’d done. She knew the law would never be able to touch them and that they would skate through life, and she hated them for it. They were trash, less than human, and the only person who could do what needed to be done was a man wiling to be inhuman to them right back.

And he does so, if not admirably, then with a certain amount of skill. He makes a child of a hard man with ease, before he finds the woman who helped mastermind the entire scheme. When she begs for her life, explaining that they just wanted to be in America and do business, he coldly tells her, “All that counts is you can’t stop me. I’m stronger than you, so I can do anything I want.” There’s a beat, as time passes and the panel switches, and he asks her, “Isn’t that the way it works?”

And it’s wrong, he’s beating this woman to death, and it’s terrible… but she’s the one who came up with the “rape them to break them” plan. She was willing to use other people as cattle to make sure that she lived a life of luxury. You’re appalled, and it’s ugly, but deep down, you understand that she’s getting exactly what she deserves. Getting to be a monster with no repercussions is unthinkable. It makes for some uneasy feelings. So, you don’t cheer, exactly, but there’s a quiet understanding, the feeling you get when you squash a bug that might have, or did, sting you. It is ugly, but it needed to be done. It is not a good thing that it was done, exactly, but it was necessary.

Frank Castle is a monster, but he’s also a representative of our gut instinct when confronted with some fresh horror. He does what a lot of wish we could, or, failing that, wish would happen, but make no mistake: he is only better than those he kills by comparison. He is a monster, and when confronted with this fact, he agrees. He cannot bring anyone into his life, because at some point, no matter how happy his life is, he is going to turn on the news and see someone that must be punished. He’s damned, he knows it, and he accepts that it is what it is.

The thing about Frank Castle, the thing that keeps him from becoming a generic and bloodthirsty action hero, is that he takes no joy in what he does. One-liners are rare, and stand out when they do occur. It is clear to both the reader and to Frank Castle himself that he takes no pleasure in what he does. The closest he comes is satisfaction, and even that is a vague inference. He does it because it must be done, and he does it because no one else will.

When confronted with the death of a broken and sad woman, all he thinks is, “If I could, I’d kill every single one of them. I’d wipe them out. And you’d never have had to exist at all.” It isn’t an honorable sentiment, but it is a sad one. Whenever Frank Castle meets a normal person, someone not in his line of work, he’s met with shock, scorn, and horror. They understand his appeal, and a couple characters even take him up on it, but his way is not the way life should go. There is no honor, no glory in being Frank Castle.

Garth Ennis took a derivative character, a Dirty Harry for superheroes, a character used to reiterate the ridiculous idea that heroes should never kill, and used him as a mirror for us. Our fears and our insecurities were put on display and put down over the course of the past five years.

Frank Castle didn’t die at the end of Ennis’s run on the Punisher, but I’ve read all the Punisher stories I need. I can’t read the one that fights supervillains, gets up by superheroes because he’s a loose cannon, and never seems to accomplish anything. I can’t take him seriously. It’s like going from photorealism back to stick figures, from the modern age back to the Silver Age, or aging backwards. I’ve read a Frank Castle that brought feelings and thoughts that I’d left unexamined right to the forefront of my mind. I watched him murder people, people who absolutely deserved it, and felt that that was the only way their story could have, and should have, ended. I’ve had to examine my reactions to his actions, and figure out what that means about me as a human being. And, honestly, I’m better for it.

After The Slavers, Punisher vs Kingpin is hollow. I’ve seen real villains in these pages, and that comic book nonsense is just that. The Punisher shouldn’t be a character that makes you pump your fist and go “YEAH!” At this point, that’s a take on the character I want nothing to do with. It’s boring and retrograde.

Those five hardcovers on my shelf, though? Those are five of the finest, and most thoughtful, books Marvel ever put out. It’s a poorer comics world without them. All five volumes are on Amazon. Five, Four, Three, Two, One. The hardcovers collect two stories a piece, and are by far the best way to read the series. These are comics to get angry to and comics to care about. These are comics to think about.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


Dear Billy, Is This All I Get?

June 23rd, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Due to reviewing the Lone Wolf & Cub books once a week, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of months thinking about justice and revenge. The reasoning behind revenge, the stresses it puts on someone, the sacrifices necessary to pursue revenge, and even, occasionally, my own personal feelings about it. It’s a little draining, to be honest, but fascinating at the same time.

Garth Ennis and Peter Snejberg’s Battlefields: Dear Billy, published by Dynamite Entertainment, takes the idea of justice and revenge head-on, but not exactly in the way I expected. Most creators, when writing a story about revenge, tends to take the obvious route. Something horrible happens, usually in graphic detail, someone makes a promise, and then a whole lot of people die. You’ve seen it with Ultimate Hawkeye, whose entire family was murdered. Ogami Itto is stacking the bodies up like cordwood. Daredevil’s gone on multiple revenge quests. Omar from The Wire spent the bulk of the fifth season of the show killing men who wronged him.

Ennis and Snejberg present an entirely different scenario. During World War II, on the way to Java, Carrie Sutton, and several other British women, were captured, raped, machineguned, and left for the dead by Japanese soldiers. Carrie was the only survivor.

After her convalescence, Carrie is discharged and becomes a nurse for the British in the Eastern Theater. She meets a man, the Billy of the title, and they fall in love. Their romance allows both of them to escape from the war, both mentally and physically, as they were both brutalized by the Japanese. Billy had been caught after landing his plane, and was bayonetted, though Carrie pretends not to know that. She keeps Billy in the dark about her past, as well. Billy likes the idea of portraying the war as no big deal to his little lady, and she enjoys indulging him in that fantasy. However, it isn’t enough. When a Japanese prisoner of war is brought into Carrie’s hospital, she smothers him with a pillow.

Carrie and Billy’s relationship disintegrates when he says the wrong thing to her. After a night out drinking with friends, they get into an argument about what’s going to happen after the war. Carrie asks, “If the Japs are to be groomed as allies, what the hell are we supposed to do about them?” Billy replies, “Now we learn to love them, Carrie.” And Carrie cannot take that, and so their relationship, and the book, ends.

Carrie went through a harrowing experience and had no outlet for those emotions. There was no way she could actually have justice or closure for her suffering. There would be no trial, no execution, no recompense. So, she killed men. It didn’t make her feel better, but it did do something to make her feel less bad, if only for a moment. The thought of learning to love the people that had traumatized her was too much.

I think the fundamental question at the heart of this book is “What is forgivable?” Being raped and near-murdered left a hole in her heart, and it was an injury that she never truly recovered from, despite finding solace in Billy’s arms. The only thing she wants out of the Japanese, the only thing that makes sense to her, is revenge. After they’ve surrendered, she feels that the British and American should twist the knife and “make them pay.”

Obviously, Carrie murdering the defenseless men is a crime. It’s an act of evil. At the same time, I feel like I understand where she’s coming from. After being hurt, the only thing you want, the only thing you dream of, is hurting someone back. That’s where messy break-ups, painful divorces, alienations, and falling outs come from. It’s the “get-back.”

So while reading, I condemned Carrie with the rational side of my brain and empathized with the other side. It forced me to look at myself and try to figure out how I would react if put into a situation where revenge was easy. And I found that I don’t have an answer. Carrie’s actions are inexcusable, but she was hit very hard by the war. Where Billy could be content with victory, she could not. No act could ever salve her wounds. I’m not saying it’s right, but I understand.

Ennis throws the idea of suffering in silence, British valor, and stiff upper lips directly under the bus. Carrie never gets to discuss her ordeal with anyone, choosing instead to keep it in herself, and it festers and rots inside her. Billy can talk about his injuries with other military men and gain some semblance of comfort, because that’s what men get to do. This may be the key difference between Carrie and Billy’s approach to the war. Carrie is forced to keep it inside, while Billy gets at least a moment to air it out.

Dear Billy is one of my favorite Ennis works, in part because of the ambiguity it spawned in my thoughts. There are no easy answers to be found here. No comforting condemnation of any act. Ennis leaves it up to the reader to decide the morality of Carrie’s actions, and how that applies to us as human beings. This is definitely one of the most melancholy things that he’s written.

Battlefields: Dear Billy is part of a three part cycle. Night Witches and The Tankies round out the trilogy, which will be collected into a Battlefields hardcover later this year for thirty bucks. I’m not sure why Amazon lists Dear Billy as not released, as my own copy and Dynamite’s site suggests otherwise. It’s cheap, just thirteen bucks, and worth your time.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon