Mar 17, 2016

Daredevil vs. The Punisher: A Time-Honored Tradition

Daredevil vs. The Punisher: A Time-Honored Tradition
Opposites Attract
Ben Smith

As you may have heard, Marvel and Netflix have partnered up to create original television programs starring some of their popular street-level characters. The first (and obvious) choice to launch this venture was the crime-busting attorney Daredevil. The first season of Daredevil was a critical (and apparently commercial) smash hit, and so a second season was quickly fast-tracked. Now, I’m not one to brag, but I pretty much nailed what the follow-up season should be (I may have been off by a season or two, but I had the basics down). Season 2 is set to launch (or has already launched depending on when you read this) featuring the debut of Elektra, which was a surprise to no one, and the Punisher, which was a bit of a pleasant surprise to fans when it was first announced. Now, I only say it was a surprise because no one really expected them to introduce the character this soon. But for anyone that’s read a lot of comics, the Punisher and Daredevil have a long comic book history, and it was only natural that they meet on-screen in a format ready-made for their violent clashes.

The Punisher spent his early appearances as an annoyance to Spider-Man, occasionally guest-starring in that series. While he benefitted from a fantastic character design, and an intriguing concept, it doesn’t seem like the character really took off until the ‘80s, when superhero comics made another leap in the level of their storytelling sophistication. (Translation, they got darker and more violent.) One of the primary figures of this superhero movement was Frank Miller, who was producing a character defining run as artist and writer on the Daredevil comic. Miller never hesitated to borrow any characters from the Spider-Man franchise that fit his superhero/crime-noir style on Daredevil, so it was pretty much a no-brainer for him to use the Punisher. Both are street level crime-fighters, but are diametrically opposed to each other in both philosophy and approach. Sparks, as they say, could only fly.

Let’s take a journey, back to the year 1982.

Daredevil #183
Writers: Roger McKenzie, Frank Miller; Artists: Frank Miller, Klaus Janson; Editor: Denny O’Neil

A girl named Mary Elizabeth O’Koren is hopped up on angel dust, and decides to take a header out of the school window, coincidentally enough during a visit by attorney Matt Murdock.

Murdock disappears into the stock room closet, and Daredevil emerges (normally this would be cause for in-world suspicion, but with Murdock being blind, he’s one of the few superheroes that always has plausible deniability) but not in time to save the girl, who dies in the hospital.

Her brother Billy arrives in time to get the bad news, as broken to him by Daredevil. (Obviously the policy of this hospital is that all bad news must be delivered by the nearest masked vigilante. Also, why are they always named Billy? Does nobody like a good common name like Mark or Michael or Jose in fiction?)

Billy’s on the warpath, and when he’s finished, there’s going to be a bloodbath, of cops, dying in L.A. (Sorry, I got trapped in an Ice Cube lyric and couldn’t stop.) Actually, he’s on the lookout for the dealer to blame, and he goes by the street name Hogman. Daredevil decides that he needs to find Hogman first.

Hogman’s partner, Flapper, is doing some business on the side, selling angel dust to a few kids. Wouldn’t you know it, the drugged out teenagers cross paths with Daredevil. Ain’t life a grand tapestry?

Daredevil’s doing his best not to hurt the attacking youngsters, but they’re starting to overwhelm him. Unfortunately for them, the Punisher arrives, and dispatches the misguided youth with brutal efficiency. (Thus marks the momentous first meeting of Daredevil and the Punisher. Feel free to simulate the tooting of horns in your own head, in the comfort of your own home.)

Daredevil stops him before he can finish murdering the juvenile offenders, but they’re both distracted when a nearby Flapper receives a high-powered bullet straight through his chest.

Daredevil quickly climbs up to the rooftop, where he finds Billy with a smoking gun in his hand. But, the young man swears he changed his mind and fired into the air.

Daredevil looks ridiculous with clothes on top of his costume.

Murdock believes him, of course, and the next day takes the boy’s case as his legal representation in court. That night, he begins his own investigation, as Daredevil. He quickly discovers that the shot couldn’t have been fired from Billy’s location, and finds the spent round to confirm it. His investigation is interrupted when he happens upon the Punisher roughing up a junkie for information.

The two fight, their opening salvos resulting in a stalemate. The Punisher tries to convince Daredevil to join him, and that together they could eliminate the enemy they both share.

Daredevil refuses, and gets a tranquilizer dart to the belly for his troubles (disappointing many a young reader excited to see the premise of the cover come to fruition). As Daredevil tries to fight off the pain, the Punisher nearly beats the junkie to death with his bare hands.

Daredevil is able to successfully save the man from a heart attack, and gets a little tip for his efforts. Hogman had more than enough motive to eliminate his partner Flapper for moving in on his business. Daredevil confronts the dealer personally.

A few weeks later, in court, the junkie testifies to witnessing Billy fire his gun into the air, while the shot that killed Flapper came from higher above, from someone he couldn’t see in the dark. Hogman is charged with the crime, yet as he declares his innocence, Murdock’s lie-detecting abilities can tell that he’s telling the truth. He really is innocent.

The Punisher works out in his secret hideout, as he gets the news over the radio about Hogman being charged for the crime, and Murdock taking his case.

He gears up to dispense his own form of justice.

Okay, I get that Murdock’s sense of justice won’t let Hogman pay for a crime he didn’t commit, but this is still a drug dealer that peddles to kids. Is it really so awful if he goes to jail for the wrong crime? Surely there’s some happy medium between representing every criminal charged with the wrong crime, and knifing some kids in the back because they experimented with drugs. Oh comics, there’s no happy mediums with you.

Daredevil #184
Story and Art: Frank Miller; Finished Art and Color: Klaus Janson; Editor: Denny O’Neil

I’d like to take a quick moment to praise the contribution of Janson. Usually Miller gets all of the credit as the writer and artist on Daredevil, but Janson often was working from sparse layouts and doing a lot of the heavy lifting on the art side. At the very least, they were an excellent team, and should be acknowledged as such more often.

The Punisher has Hogman in his sights, but Daredevil arrives just in time to prevent him from killing the drug pusher.

After the Punisher flees, Daredevil silently expresses at least some remorse over representing a client that absolutely doesn’t deserve to be saved. (Well, there you go.)

Later, in court, Murdock doesn’t really have any actual evidence to prove that Hogman is innocent, but fronts like he does on the off chance someone might believe him and slip up. (As far as I can tell, the prosecution doesn’t really have any evidence either. Nothing other than motive, which is not evidence.)

It works, and a nervous Coach Donahue calls up Murdock to arrange a meeting. (Donahue works at the school where Billy’s sister dove into the pavement, and was present during the incident.)

Turns out, Donahue was Hogman’s connection and dealer at the school, but when Murdock arrives to confront him, the coach is out of his mind on drugs. (Has there ever been a positive portrayal of a gym teacher in fiction? I think not. Possibly for good reason.) Donahue is stronger, and out of his mind on drugs, but Murdock subdues him, reasoning that the coach was drugged and set up by the real killer.

Elsewhere, Hogman puts the squeeze on the prosecution’s eyewitness (well there you go, evidence) offering him some drugs to forget about what he saw. Drugs he quickly overdoses on. (I’m not sure an overdose happens that fast, but I wouldn’t know.)

Without a witness, the case is dropped against Hogman in court. Stupidly, Hogman takes a moment to brag to Murdock that he totally was the one that killed Flapper.

Daredevil pays Hogman a visit later that night, but Hogman knows what’s up. He knows Daredevil won’t hurt him, especially since he has a weak heart requiring a pacemaker (which is also how he beat Murdock’s lie-detecting abilities).

Later, Hogman gets a call from Billy, threatening to go to the police saying he saw Hogman shoot Flapper. They agree to meet up with the little guy. Billy has Hogman at gunpoint, but Hogman’s associates have him dead to rights as well. The Punisher joins them to help even the score, and incapacitates Hogman with some well-aimed shots.

Daredevil arrives there just in time to prevent the Punisher from finishing the job.

Once again, the two vigilantes are at a stalemate. Daredevil knows the Punisher never hurts an innocent, and lets him know as much.

The Punisher calls a truce, and begins to leave, but Daredevil is determined to arrest him for his crimes as well. But the Punisher isn’t going to go easily, and Daredevil is forced to shoot him in the shoulder with one of the dead gangster’s guns.

Billy seizes the opportunity, by grabbing the Punisher’s gun and pointing it right at Hogman’s head.

Daredevil pleads with Billy not to pull the trigger, promising that Hogman will pay for his crimes. Days later, Hogman is indicted for his crimes based on evidence provided by Daredevil, and the testimony of Billy. Billy asks Matt if he can promise that Hogman will go to jail and stay there. He can’t, but assures him that all they can do is trust in the law.

This would not be the last time that Daredevil and the Punisher crossed paths. They make for great polar opposites, as far as superheroes go. The time honored convention of superheroes refusing to murder may sometimes become a bit unbelievable, but Daredevil is one of the few heroes where that philosophy fits. Yes, he may be a vigilante, but he’s also an attorney that believes in the justice system and the law, so it only makes sense he would draw the line at killing. (Sense being relative in comic book context, that is.) However, the Punisher has never hesitated in dispensing final judgement on anyone he deems a criminal. These two would naturally be at odds with each other. This opposition has provided lots of fertile ground for many comic book writers to cover in the years following this story.

I’ve never been a big fan of the Punisher as a solo character, but he’s great when juxtaposed against another hero like Daredevil or Spider-Man. If the Punisher’s subpar movie history suggests anything, it’s that he works best as a supporting character or co-star in filmed entertainment as well. Netflix is unquestionably the perfect platform for a more faithful and appropriate representation of the character, and this time, he doesn’t have to carry the entire load. He’s got Daredevil, the star of the best superhero television show ever made, to carry him to the promised land.

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