Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Cycle of Violence in Punisher: Widowmaker

I recently read volume 8 of Garth Ennis's run on the MAX Punisher series, which is subtitled Widowmaker, and it surprised me the hidden depth of theme in the book. Generally Marvel's MAX books have not been mature in the same sense as Vertigo's books have been; they have typically been more graphically violent than mature in subject matter. And the Punisher as a character is not one you usually expect depth from, because he is rather singularly driven. So I was not expecting this book to be very serious (in the sense of it having a message) and I suppose I was selling Ennis a bit short in that regard.

To explain: the plot of the book centers on a group of five women who have all been the victims of violence. Normally a Punisher plot would involve Frank Castle meeting these women and seeking vengeance on their behalf, but the twist in this story is that the source of their hatred is the Punisher himself. These five women were all members of mob families who have had their husbands (and for the ringleader of these five women -- a woman named Annabella -- her grandfather, father, brothers, and cousins as well, all in one fell swoop) killed by Frank Castle. So these widows band together to seek the Punisher out and avenge the death of their loved ones.

It makes for an interesting parallel then to the life of Frank Castle himself. Their families have been ripped from them, just as Frank's was all those years ago. Just as Frank believes his family to be innocent victims, so do these women. They fully acknowledge their loved ones were involved in criminal activities, but as one of the widows points out those crimes had nothing to do with Frank Castle's family getting killed. So what are they to him that he would seek out their deaths? No they see no justification in Frank's action, especially the level of violence with which he exacts his brand of justice.

This story then explores the idea of the collateral damage left in Frank's wake, the unseen consequences of his actions. One of the widows (I think it was Annabella but I forget) talks about the horror of the day Frank killed her family. She was present, inside the house while he was murdering her loved ones outside, and she speaks of hiding under a table, trying to keep her children from running outside into the barrage of bullets. The simple fact, from her point of view, is that he is creating victims just as much as those who killed his family, making widows (and orphans), shattering lives.

Thus Ennis subtly raises the question if these women are justified in their desire for vengeance against Frank for what he did. Do they deserve their revenge?

Generally a question like this is presented to readers in such a way that it really depends on where our sympathies lie. It's an issue I point out when I teach my students the Andre Dubus short story "Killings" in my classes. In that story, because it is told in the first person, we generally feel sympathy for the main character and narrator Matt Fowler. We hear his description of the pain he felt at the death of his son Frank at the hands of Richard Strout. So when Matt kills Richard in turn, we understand his motivations (even if we do not condone his actions), because we too can feel the loss of his son.

But, as I point out to my students, it is all a matter of point of view. Matt premeditates his murder of Richard, whereas Richard killing Frank was in a moment of passion. Thus, objectively, under the eyes of the law, Matt's crime is worse. Also, Richard acknowledges his guilt and gives himself up to police. He is only out on bail while he awaits trial, and he fully expects to go to prison for many years, has come to terms with paying for the consequences of his actions. Meanwhile, Matt covers up his crime (by hiding the body and making it appear as if Richard skipped out on bail and fled the country) in order to avoid punishment and get away with it. Finally, if we look at things from Richard's perspective, we can understand the anger he acted out of when he killed Frank, for Frank was sleeping with Richard's wife and keeping him from seeing his children.

My point in this digression is again that it is all a matter of perspective. In a revenge-driven series like this one, our point of view frequently coincides with that of the Punisher himself, so we do not have sympathy for those he kills and give little thought to their families. But Ennis deliberately turns that around in this story arc, makes us think about Frank's own "victims" for once.

So we come back to the question as to whether the widows deserve to get their revenge, and we realize that it really is a question of how much we feel for these women and what kind of people they are. Now the first part of that question, Ennis handles with aplomb. In the opening issue of the story the women gather to relate their stories to one another, and clearly Frank is portrayed as almost a force out of hell. He seems to relish in violence, death, and destruction, and he brings these raining down on all who cross his path in excessive amounts. The artwork depicts his killings as bloody and gory, and the dialogue displays the pain the women feel at their losses. (This is particularly true in Annabella's description, which is illustrated with images of bodies strewn about the ground with their heads half missing and Frank in the center of the blood, still firing two machine guns wildly, his sinister lust for destruction seemingly unquenchable.) So we definitely feel their pain, their fear, their loss.

But the second aspect of the question is what kind of people these women are. If they are "good" people it will be easier for readers to commiserate with them. But that question raises in itself another question of levels of guilt. Are these women just as guilty as their husbands by benefiting from their criminal lifestyle and turning a blind eye to it? Ennis plays with this idea a bit in the story by showing us that the women enjoy the spoils of the lifestyle their husbands provided for them through their lives of crime. So are they just as guilty as their husbands were for having that knowledge of their husbands' criminal activites and not repenting? Do they deserve their punishment? It is an interesting moral question that Ennis hints at.

Sadly, however, it is a question that the plot makes moot pretty quickly. First of all, all of these women are pretty despicable characters generally. Not one of them is likable, showing us from their first appearance how manipulative, ignorant, or racist they all are, so it is very hard for them to earn our sympathies. One woman is introduced when we see her giving oral sex to a cab driver in order to avoid paying a fare, a regular practice we're told, while another is eventually revealed to be unapologetically illiterate.

Also these women turn out to be even more guilty than they would be if they were simply turning a blind eye to some felonious acts. A plot development reveals that they all are in reality a bit too depraved to make the matter a worthwhile debate. Annabella and three of the other widows colluded to convince her sister Jenny to marry a man they all knew to be an abusive masochist and sexual deviant, because he was a valued member of the mob family. Then they all worked to keep her with him once she was married to him and bearing the brunt of his horrific behavior, his repeated abuse of her both sexually and physically, because keeping him happy was good for the family business.

(Later it ends up that Jenny's husband gets killed by the Punisher and she is happy to be set free. But she then expresses remorse to her sister about the life of luxury she has had which was built off of the pain and suffering of others, and she reveals that she's going to go to the police. So Annabella brings in the fifth widow Shauna to help them "take care of" Jenny.)

In the end then whether or not these women deserve their revenge too is a bit of a straw man argument, because these widows are equally as criminal as their husbands (or in Jenny's case are actually grateful at being "rescued" by Frank). It would have been interesting to have seen a real conflict here instead, for Ennis to have Frank come in contact with someone who is wholly innocent, a widow he made who is a good person but hates him for killing her family. Would she be justified in wanting to kill him? Would Frank fight back? Good questions worth exploring, I think. Instead, however, these women are all awful human beings, particularly Annabella who is willing to submit her own sister to rape and torture at the hands of her husband in order to keep the family business going.

But even without that, the idea of the cycle of violence, that violence begets more violence especially when revenge is involved, is brought to the surface very well in the story, not only in the overall story but in several smaller moments as well. Early in the story Frank is on the trail of some people who produce child pornography using their own children, and Frank kills them quietly and out of the eyes of their children in order to spare them the horror of witnessing their parents' deaths. He seems to know the cost of violence, the effect it can have, and actively seeks to shield them from it. Yet he also knows that one or two of those boys might grow up having felt the pain of their sexual abuse and become abusers themselves, and he wonders if he might be "punishing" them in another fifteen years time. It's a rare moment of introspection for Frank, and quite an insightful one, I felt.

There is also an entire subplot with a cop named Budiansky who has recently killed a perpetrator in the line of duty and who is harboring worries about what his lack of remorse says about him. He wonders if he might not be capable of the kind of violence the Punisher is. Later in the story, when violence hits home for him, he is pushed to his limits and tested a great deal, putting him on the verge of snapping much like Frank has and again illustrating the psychological damage violence can have on someone.

Finally there is the subtle implication Ennis makes that Frank knows his quest will never end, because revenge is by its very nature unjust and thus can never truly be satisfying. This theme is dramatized by Ennis in the persona of Jenny. After the widows tried to have her killed (and almost succeeded), she was left with her own revenge quest, wanting to hunt these five women down and destroy them. She meets Frank in the middle of that quest and while she does express gratitude to him for being her savior and releasing her from the life of suffering she had at the hands of her husband, she also sees him as a kindred spirit. He has suffered pain and loss when his family was murdered, just as she has at suffered at the hands of the widows.

At the end of her quest, however, after she has exacted her revenge upon those who had wronged her, she graphically kills herself in front of Frank. And it is implied that part of her reason for committing suicide is because that revenge she has sought has not been satisfying. She lived for revenge, and now what is left for her? She can only live with the pain of what was done to her and in return have to struggle with the demons that she has conjured up within herself to pay back that pain. Like Budiansky she fears she will end up like Frank, driven to continuously punish those who do wrong simply because her desire for revenge will never be sated, and having already taken steps down that path it is too late for her to turn back. The only way to end it is to end her own life.

As the story stands many of these questions really must be teased out of the plot, which in and of itself is very mediocre. It could even be said that I am perhaps reading a lot of subtext into what is actually a rather bland revenge story, and that's a fair point. But I think Ennis did have these questions about the effects of violence in mind as he put together the framework of his story, and these concepts make Widowmaker at the very least thought-provoking if not wholly satisfying.