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.


  1. Don't pee in the (Dead)poolSeptember 16, 2010 at 7:58 AM

    As always, nice work, David.
    I haven't read the actual issue you've focused on in your piece but I'm tempted to track it down and give it a look now.

  2. Let me know what you think if you do, 'pool.

    And thanks for stopping by!