Sunday, February 04, 2007

Death Walks With Him

One of the nicest things about American superhero comics is that, in general, they are on the side of life.

After a dodgy start, Superman ended up with an inflexible moral code of no killing that is stronger than his fists. He has been driven mental several times purely by the emotional anguish of causing the death of somebody, even when it comes to mortal foes. This makes him a Good Guy, and the influence of the character has seen his example kept up by the large majority of his peers.

There are, as always, some big fucking exceptions: The American horror and war comics are piled high with corpses, but most of them are bad people or Nazis, so that’s okay. The mainstream superhero comics have had an extraordinary body count ever since Phoenix was killed in the Uncanny X-Men. This body count has only been matched by its profitability, although frequency and nullifcation of earlier deaths ends up in the current state of mainstream comics. Off in the last comic of the 20th century, The Authority always end up saving the day, but millions die along the way.

But in general, life wins. Superman stops the planes that fall from the sky over Metropolis with alarming frequency. Batman saves who he can, depending on who sits in the editor’s chair, while the same back-seat writing also sees Wonder Woman turn into Wonder Warrior every now and again. Spider-Man is surrounded by death and he is sad about it for a while, but gets on with things the best he can, and that’s what life is all about. The Fantastic Four are off meeting new life forms and showing them how to drive fast, while the regular Captain America pounds the fuck out of the Nazis, but doesn’t kill them, leaving them with broken bones and a pitiful feeling of defeat.

However, if all comics were like this, it would get boring pretty fucking quickly. The precarious balance between light fluff and the sheer nastiness of death for the sake of it is maintained by another type of character, another archetype breaking the surface.

They are not always male, but they mostly are. They’re not always big, a huge physical presence often a bonus, but not needed. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with all sorts of personalities and quirks. They do, however, have one thing in common.

If you fuck with them, they will kill you.

Sometimes there are second chances, more often there isn’t. You can beat these people down, but they’ll just keep getting back up and then they will kill you. If you insult them bad enough, they will kill you. There is honour, but if you fuck with them, they will fucking kill you.

It’s a character not confined to comics. They show up everywhere, in novels, movies and television shows. Clint’s Man With No Names pre-ordering the coffins, Bond’s cold assassinations, Jack Bauer coming back from the fucking dead to kill those dirty terrorists.

In the comic world, this character managed to stay out of the superhero section for the most part. After the superheroes had helped win WW2, the non-killing phase lasted for decades. However, by the seventies, the desperate attempts to create new superheroes that would match the Marvel explosion of the sixties and their DC counterparts 25 years earlier saw experiments that had all sorts of personalities grafted onto fairly traditional heroes. The tough guy in the team becomes the stone-cold killer, real guns with real bullets replacing the fist.

Frank Miller, the Toughest Man in Comics, has given the world some fine examples, and has adjusted the template slightly each time, often by making a female version, Elektra or deadly little Miho more than able to kill without a seconds hesitation or regret.

In the slightly more corporate world of mainstream superheros, two of the most successful, in financial terms more than artistic, appeared from the same company under different circumstances. The Punisher starting out teamed up with one of Spider-Man’s greatest villains - an old insane professor dressed in green latex - before gaining in popularity and even occasionally picking up a bit of depth along the way. Under the hands of Wein and Claremont, Wolverine started out as a shortarse Canadian with a crabby temper and morphed into a cold-hearted killer with an exceptionally strong sense of honour. In the PG Marvel Universe, he slaughters hundreds, with the full effect of those adamantinum claws on human flesh only examined relatively recently.

Both these characters sparked a horde of imitators, especially in Image comics, where superhero names were replaced with basic nouns and personalities ripped off wholesale, that Samauri code occasionally making a brief appearance, only to be overshadowed by some increasingly preposterous firearm. Even the Big Two jumped on the bandwagon, every second book at one time guest-starring Wolverine or the Punisher, the man who carries death in his pocket facing the expected diminishing returns as new writers take a crack, often fundamentally misunderstanding how the character works.

Granted, in the last 20 years, there have been some fine stories by self-proclaimed manly-men like Beau Smith and Chuck Dixon that fit this pattern, often using these Marvel characters or ones with a similar template. However, the finest to emerge in the last decade is a generally agreeable Irishman with a strong pacifistic streak.

Garth Ennis’ first stories in comics were a fairly restrained look at the Irish troubles and a far bloodier story about one teenager’s slight disillusionment with God that ends with him shooting his PE teacher in the face. But while still in his early 20s, Ennis got his hands on Judge Dredd, the most violent man in British comics, a man who has killed billions of people in the name of the law.

Ennis can now dismiss his early 2000ad work as clumsy and a little embarrassing, but his work does have validity, if only for his black sense of humour. His Dredd is a hard, hard man, and Ennis, with the help of Carlos Ezquerra, even managed to team him up with Johnny Alpha, the second most violent man in British comics. This led to the high point of Ennis’ early career, showing the two together, beaten but not broken on the very last page of the Judgement Day epic. Who the hell was going to mess with them?

When he inevitably made the leap across the Atlantic into the American market, Ennis took what he learned in the six-page narrative and applied it to a larger canvas. Many of his stories since have featured the stone-cold killer, from the hapless Kev, who managed to wipe out the Authority in three seconds while still being fairly unlikeable in every other respect, to Tommy Monaghan, who will destroy vampires because they just weren’t very nice, but let a deadly dinosaur go home because it wasn’t its fault some dickhead brought it to the 20th century.

Preacher may have taken 60+ issues to say that even a cowboy can cry and that you shouldn’t bloody hit women, but it also featured the Saint of Killers, the avenging soul elevated to godhood through sheer will and meanness. He spits on an attempt to wipe him off the face of the world with a nuclear weapon and ultimately rests upon the throne of God. While Ennis appeared to have reached the zenith of the archetype with this, he went further. There was more death, much more, to come in various series, until Marvel, in a rare display of sheer fucking brilliance, gave him The Punisher.

Sticking with the black humour for the first attempts of the character, Ennis has in recent years, turned Frank Castle into something else entirely. In the MAX series, and most notably in the Born mini-series and the Tyger, Cell and End one-shots, Ennis shows a man who has plunged so far into the world of dealing death that he becomes Death, walking the world and dealing it out as he sees fit. Luckily, Ennis also has a talent for creating truly reprehensible bad guys, people who deserve their fate because nothing else will stop them.

Often put down, this type of story, of somebody killing everybody who has done him wrong, is artistically valid. Often dismissed for genre trappings or excessive violence, it shares the artistic ghetto with Italian zombie films and pulp novels from the dawn of the 20th Century . But while the genre issue is only a problem if you want it to be, the amount of blood and gore and cruelty in these tales are necessary, racking up the intensity level while showing the seriousness of the situation, showing that things have gone too far.

Enjoying stories that see one person cut a swathe of destruction across the face of the universe is not a bad thing. It may be difficult to show that the inherent themes and subtexts of such tales are just as worthy as anything James Joyce shat out, but there is nothing to be embarrassed about here.

Unless you’re reading an early Image bloodfest. There really is no excuse for that.