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.