Ben Reilly Happens While You're Busy Making Other Plans

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"What If Billy Pulled the Trigger...and His Name Was Martin?"

A few weeks ago I blogged about my second favorite Punisher story, Daredevil 183-84. It boasts one of the greatest moments in Marvel history, when the Punisher offers Daredevil a truce...and ol' Hornhead pops a cap in his ass. Well, his shoulder, actually, but you get the point.

It was shocking, sensational, and surprisingly in character.

But there's another plot thread in DD 183-84 worth discussing, one that works its way into David Lapham's Daredevil vs. the Punisher: Means and Ends miniseries. Actually, Lapham utilizes nearly every idea from the Miller story...and improves on it. So while there's no single moment that stands out like Daredevil shooting the Punisher, Lapham brings the concepts that Miller threw out there to their logical conclusion.

Miller's story featured a young boy named Billy, who was determined to bring some local pushers to justice when his sister died on an acid trip. Billy stole his father's gun and attempted to kill a drug dealer named Flapper. Then he lost his nerve and shot over his head instead. Problem is, someone else got to Flapper that same moment...and Billy took the fall. Matt Murdock naturally defended Billy from the charges, and this led to the arrest of Flapper's partner, "Hogman."

When Hogman attests to his innocence during his arraignment, Matt assumed he was innocent because his heart rate was steady. So Matt took Hogman's case and proved his innocence, only to have Hogman confess his guilt to Murdock after the trial was over. As it turned out, Hogman's heartrate didn't fluctuate because his pacemaker regulated it. It was a really cool Primal Fear style twist, made all the more impressive because that movie wouldn't come out for nearly another decade.

Daredevil and the Punisher eventually fought over Hogman's fate in a school playground. When Punisher agrees to a truce and Daredevil shoots him, it leaves Billy open to grab Punisher's gun and finish the job on Hogman. Ultimately, Daredevil talks him out of throwing his life away for revenge. The next day Matt gives Billy a pep talk on the merits of the legal system. What Billy ultimately makes of that speech is left to the reader, as he walks away while Matt "looks" on.

Billy is a fairly one-dimensional in Miller's story, but you really can't fault him for that. Not every character needs to be fleshed out. Billy pops in and out as needed (sometimes in very convenient fashion), putting Matt's faith in the system to the test. He is used very effectively. Still, I get the impression that Miller pulls some punches with Billy at the end. It makes me wonder how Miller would have handled the story differently if Billy had pulled the trigger. We'll never know for sure, but I imagine Lapham gets us pretty close in the form of Martin Bastelli.

Major Spoilers

Daredevil vs. the Punisher revolves around DD's attempts to keep the Punisher from turning Hell's Kitchen into a warzone in his fight with Hammerhead and the Professor. The Professor is, interestingly enough, a clone of the Jackal. That in itself makes for an explosive situation. The Punisher sees the Jackal as the emodiment of losing control, since he almost manipulated him into killing an innocent (Spider-Man) when he was angry, stupid, and unfocused.

This fear of innocent casualties is the driving force behind Dardevil and the Punisher's conflict. Both men feel the other's involvement makes Hell's Kitchen more dangerous. But the real emotional hook is Frank Castle's involvement with the Bastelli family. When Frank stops by the Bastelli's family diner for a quick meal, he finds the spitting image of his murdered wife in the young girl Mary. The Bastellis come to represent the "decent" people Frank has lost faith in. So when Mary's younger brother, Martin, tells Frank his family is being shaken down by local mobsters, he takes aggressive action.

All this happens in the first issue, and the implications of Frank's actions are the emotional catalyst of the series. Unlike Miller's Billy, Martin doesn't interact with Daredevil. That leaves him with two distorted male role models: his father, who lets the thugs run over him and his family, or the Punisher, whose solution is murder. Martin is the kind of character that tragedy thrives on, a sweet, sincere kid who is doomed from the beginning. He can't take abuse like his father, or dish it out like the Punisher. So naturally when he buys a gun he has no idea in hell how to handle, things spiral from there.

Eventually Martin becomes an unlikely hero when he saves a young woman from her abuser at a nightclub. Martin's celebrity scores him the girl, and really, that's all he cares about. But another visit from local thugs pushes him too far. Unlike Miller's Billy, Lapham's Martin doesn't have a counselor in his hour of need. He just has the gun.

Soon Martin has blood on his head and a target on his back. Martin's father sends him away for safekeeping, but refuses to deal with the police. He doesn't believe there's anything that can't be handled with a payoff. He pays for that choice with his life, taking his wife into the next world with him and leaving Mary in critical condition. That brings Martin back into play. It all comes down to a brutal showdown between the police, the mafia, Daredevil and the Punisher. When the smoke clears, the Punisher is under arrest and Martin is dead.

Daredevil vs the Punisher has the makings of an oppressively bleak story, but thankfully, it's not. Lapham pulls it back around with Mary. You'll recall she's Martin's sister and the spitting image of Frank's dead wife, Maria, which puts her in the perfect place to save Frank's soul. Mary writes Frank in prison, telling him she forgives him for Martin's death and knows he was only trying to help. It's a beautiful, human, divine gesture.

Now when all is said and done, it's not as though Frank gives up violence and becomes a monk. But Mary does find, if only for a moment, that piece of Frank's soul that he's been trying to shut out since he "failed" to save his family. And that's why this is my favorite Punisher story.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Billy's Got a Gun!

Due to the glory that is Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, I recently read Daredevil vs. the Punisher. If you don't subscribe to Marvel's digital service or you prefer TPB, you can buy it used here. It's recommended reading in any format. But before I tell you why it's now my favorite Punisher story, let's backtrack a bit to the story it knocked out of the top spot.

The Punisher was conceived by Gerry Conway as a Spider-Man antagonist, but he really found his footing in the Marvel Universe when he met Daredevil for the first time. With Frank Miller at the helm, Daredevil's world was the perfect breeding ground for the Punisher's kind of justice.

The story begins in DD 183, when Matt Murdock witnesses a girl on an angel dust trip jump through a window to her death. Her young brother, Billy O'Koren, steals his father's gun and vows to bring the dealers responsible to justice. This naturally pits Daredevil in a race against time to find them first. His search leads him to pusher Robert "Hogman" Grunter's right hand man, Flapper, where the Punisher comes onto the scene. As Daredevil fights to keep Punisher from killing Flapper, someone else takes him out from the shadows. Daredevil finds Billy O'Koren standing nearby with a gun, but he swears he fired over Flapper's head. Daredevil's senses and a quick investigation confirm Billy's story. Matt defends Billy in court while he chases down the real killer as Daredevil.

This is the story that sets the standard for what the Punisher's existence ought to mean to the Marvel Universe, and how these conflicts ought to play out. When Matt promises Billy the system always works, it rings hollow given the circumstances. It makes readers wonder whether Frank Castle's war on crime isn't more effective than Matt's faith in the judicial process. That's especially true when Matt defends "Hogman" from the same murder rap he saved Billy from. Because Hogman's pulse rate doesn't change when he denies killing Flapman, Matt assumes he's telling the truth. But in a Primal Fear style twist, Hogman confesses he's guilty to Matt after he's been acquitted. His pacemaker threw off Matt's natural lie detector.

If the argument seems slanted in the Punisher's direction, though, it's not quite that simple. The Punisher nearly kills a junkie he's pumping for info on Hogman. After Matt saves him, that junkie's testimony acquites Billy. Castle is so hellbent on punishing crime he nearly destroys Billy's life in the process. Of course, if the Punisher had killed Hogman before Billy's sister died maybe things would have been different. Then again, maybe someone else would have filled the vacuum and the Punisher's war on crime is ultimately meaningless. It's pretty clear the Punisher doesn't care.

It's these kinds of complications that make the Punisher/Daredevil conflict so compelling. There's really no question that the Punisher's existence is a miserable one, emptied of the faith, hope and love that keep Matt Murdock from sliding into the abyss. But the real question behind it all is how we make sense of the world. Billy doesn't shoot Flapper but he still ends up on trial. Matt tries to do the right thing by defending Hogman and it bites him in the ass. It's a world filled with seemingly stupid, tragic, arbitrary coincidences. It's a world where heroes fail and the best intentions can yield disastrous results. It's our world, and it's easy to see why the Punisher's black-and-white worldview is such a tempting alternative to Matt's faith in God and man.

Miller brings the conflict to a riveting conclusion in DD 184, where Daredevil and the Punisher fight over Hogman's fate on a school playground. Daredevil ruthlessly exploits the Punisher's unwillingness to shoot him, forcing him to propose a truce. And that's when Miller offers up one of the most shocking, satisfying, and yet surprisingly in character moments in Marvel history. As the Punisher walks away, Daredevil picks up a gun and shoots him in the shoulder. "No truce," he says before he pulls the trigger. "You're going to jail."

It's satisfying on several levels, but especially so after having so many unlikely truces crammed down our throats during the antihero craze of the 1990s.

True to the law of unintended consequences, Miller throws one last curve the readers' way. Billy O'Korman, who apparently didn't learn his lesson the first time around, picks up the Punisher's gun and aims it at Hogman. Daredevil ultimately talks Billy down, and Matt Murdock later assures him that even if the system fails the law is all we've got. It's a touching moment that nonetheless feels a bit out of place in this story. One wonders if Miller felt compelled to pull his punches here, and how this story might be different if Billy pulled the trigger.

Which brings me around to David Lapham's Daredevil vs. the Punisher, a series which hits many of the same beats as Miller's classic but improves on them. A story that perhaps answers what would have happened if Billy pulled the trigger...

To Be Continued.