Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Comics Review: November 22

This week also saw the release of three new books I'll be reviewing at a later date: "All-Star Superman", "Books of Doom" and "X-Men: Deadly Genesis".

But now, onto the main attraction: David Lapham's "Daredevil vs. Punisher: Means and Ends".

Generally speaking, these two Marvel characters have clashed before, most memorably in the "Child's Play" arc of Frank Miller's "Daredevil". The reason they work so well together is because of their similarities - they're both street-level vigilantes largely motivated by personal loss, and defending the same territories against the same enemies. The only thing that separates them is Matt's belief in the law and Frank's use of lethal force. This is something Lapham picks up on... we'll get to that in a bit.

Overall, "Means and Ends" is an interesting story, wherein Daredevil and the Punisher are after the same target for very different reasons, while in the background another victim of crime prepares to follow in Frank Castle's footsteps. Lapham portrays both title characters very effectively, without going over the top and making Punisher an unsympathetic monstrosity a la Ennis. In fact, Lapham really manages to find middle ground in that neither character proves to be "superior" to the other. Usually when you have this kind of face-off, a writer will allow his favorite to come out on top while the opposing party is torn down. That's not what happens here. Oh, the Punisher acknowledges that Daredevil has an advantage because they both know Frank won't kill Matt... but that doesn't make the Punisher less than his opponent.

The problem with appealing to both fanbases, though, is that both characters come off as a bit flat here. Lapham can't really develop either character significantly - on the one hand, this is rarely a requirement in an extraneous miniseries, and as such, it doesn't really impact the quality of the story (ie: David Hine's excellent "Daredevil: Redemption"). However, it's a bit of a problem here because Lapham does try something here that doesn't play itself out.

Specifically, he makes a bold attempt at breaking down that one line between the two - Daredevil discovers one of the Punisher's victims, who he thought innocent, was in fact guilty as sin, causing him to question his perception of Castle as some raving lunatic who needs to be put down (because clearly, he does know what he's doing). Meanwhile, an altercation with Daredevil causes Punisher to momentarily lose control, and he shoots an innocent man. That goes right to the core of everything he believes in, and it shakes him. For a few moments, you can almost see these two characters move beyond their firmly-entrenched positions, to consider the other side.

Except, if that were ever to happen, Daredevil and Punisher really would become interchangable. So Lapham only manages to scratch the surface before moving onto another track altogether.

The larger issue is that it's not clear whose story this is, when all's said and done. It's not Daredevil's story or the Punisher's story, because they're only bit players in the overall plot - in fact, the whole issue of Hammerhead trying to take over the underworld (which kicks off the first issue) ends up being resolved off-panel. Rather, it seems this is Martin Bastelli's story (the boy who tries to emulate the Punisher), or rather it's Martin's and his sister Mary's (the girl who looks a lot like the Punisher's dead wife Maria).

I say this because these two actually provide a relevant thematic link. Like Castle and Murdock, the Bastelli siblings find themselves victims of mob violence. Martin picks up a gun and plays at being Punisher Junior, and it costs him his life. Because he's not the Punisher, and not everyone can be the Punisher. Martin pays the ultimate price for his choice, as the Punisher might someday.

Mary, on the other hand, is subjected to an even worse fate, and would have every reason to seek revenge... but she doesn't. She's not the Punisher, because not everyone wants to be the Punisher. It's always been the cliche of the vigilante characters (Batman, Spider-Man, etc.) that ordinary tragedy leads to extraordinary reactions - but is that really the way people behave? Not always, as Mary proves: there's a lot of grief in her final words, a lot of pain, but she doesn't fall into the Daredevil/Punisher, law/justice quandary. She sidesteps it, and moves on with her life - something neither Matt nor Frank will ever be able to do.

Good story, if a bit self-nullifying in its conclusion. Definitely worth reading.