Man & superman

Without thinking about what I was doing, I ‘liked’ a friend’s propagating-profile-change Facebook post last week, consenting thereby to replace my usual image with one of a comic book character of his choosing. The character he assigned me was the Punisher. Well, I’ve been much preoccupied with work &c., and was under the weather besides, and I never got around to the switch. I did find occasion to break (yet) a(nother) long drawing fast the other night with a little 3 x 5 card Frank Castle before bed, though.

Frank is at ease here (for the artist’s sake), sans gear, a bit deadpan — letting his chest insignia do the communicating, it seems, if any needs doing. Interesting to note that he bears a slight resemblance to the actor who’ll be appearing as him on Netflix’s Daredevil in the 2016 season. I didn’t know the character was coming to the show until after I did this; it was the sketch that led me to some googling and the discovery.

I don’t have much to say about the Punisher. I am going to take opportunity to recall the thesis I’ve played with in a few Hellboy posts, however: that Mignola’s star character is a sort of final ‘answer to Superman.’ If the first great superhero conceived to tap the market that Siegel & Shuster’s illustrated-pulps novelty opened up in the ’30s and ’40s was Batman, the Punisher is squarely in the vein established by Batman as type. He has no ‘powers;’ he does have a good deal of special training (though in various writers’ hands, admittedly, that comes nearly to the same thing) and lots of gadgets, weaponry, and logistical resources. He also has, sooner or later, a set of moral and psychological burdens to deal with that seem to follow from being a man on a never-ending and much-too-difficult mission rather than (like Superman and those in his vein) a god-like, or at any rate definitely more than human, figure strangely eager to serve humankind. Being so burdened, the symbols and narrative atmospherics of the hero in the Batman vein can get pretty dark — depending somewhat, of course, on writers’ inclinations and the mood of the decade.

In this way of looking at the superhero, then, there are two contrasting basic types, the Superman type and the Batman type, and a lot of interesting blending of them to be described in the characters and titles that have come along in the 75 years or so of the thing’s development till now. Spiderman makes a nice study on these lines, I think. It’s said that he’s a breakthrough character, and if you compare him to Marvel’s Thor — clearly a straight-up Superman figure — created around the same time in the ’60s, and Punisher, who first appears as a foil to Spiderman in the ’70s and becomes popular enough to warrant his own books in the ’80s, and whose grim trajectory in the period, as I gather, parallels Batman’s, the innovation Spiderman represents from the character’s inception comes into stark relief, if only in that he’s so hard to place between the two types. Maybe Spiderman is really the emergence of a third type, strictly speaking.

And what about Hellboy? I think Hellboy is very strikingly a Superman rather than a Batman figure. But it isn’t at all clear that that’s what Mignola had in mind in creating him. Perhaps (as I’ve suggested before) Mignola only sorts out which sort of hero story he’s telling well after he’s under way with the books. It’s notable that he outfits the character from the first with a gadget belt — for which Batman’s is the unmistakable original — with a great big gun, and drapes him with a trench coat — drapery various writers & artists have preferred to wrap Punisher in, too. Just as notable about Hellboy’s gadget belt and gun as the type they call up, however, is that they hardly ever see service. It isn’t long, actually, before the gun’s part in the titles begins to be evidently a characteristic comedic device, since it never really hits anything when it does get drawn & fired. Hellboy is a parody of the Batman-type gear-and-tactics specialist, if anything. Here it’s significant that the appeal that the supremely-trained and -equipped hero type must really have for Mignola is on display in two other title characters in his story universe, the Lobster and Baltimore, much more straightforwardly than it ever is in Hellboy’s case. For me, those characters serve to emphasize that Hellboy’s Batman-ish accessories are — finally, anyway — for something besides providing simple cues to place Hellboy in his genre by.

That leaves a lot to be said — a lot, certainly, about how H.B. might be understood instead as a Superman figure. I’ll have to come back to it another time, though.

6 Replies to “Man & superman”

  1. The Punisher is a weird anomaly, to my eyes. The Steven Grant/Mike Zeck miniseries was published during the height of my comics obsession (’86). It struck me as a morbidly unappealing storyline — Grant didn’t understand women, for one thing, and Zeck had no interest in drawing them. I wrote it all off as a nihilistic gag. But then on and on (and on) it went. What’s the deeper appeal?

    Not sure I could ever name it (for starters I’d have to read more, a prospect with zero appeal at this point). HOWEVER, in hindsight that initial miniseries now strikes me as overtly homo-erotic — an aesthetic realisation that likely would not have occurred to the fan-boys consuming it at the time (it didn’t to me). Google “Mike Zeck Woman” or “Mike Zeck Girl” and 98% of the results will still be Zeck’s peculiar Howling Tom of Finland stuff, with the remaining 2% offering a strangely(?) inert female figure, grudgingly thrown into the mix.

  2. Further on “morbidly unappealing storyline” — the Grant/Zeck series was published during the height of the Bronson “Death Wish” sequels, and Chuck Norris’s cinematic rise as super-avenger. The Punisher, as I read him, didn’t have any additional insight into this particular archetype. But that might well have changed over the years. I still have that Valerie D’Orazio one-off (“Butterfly”) from some years back. Clearly the character struck a chord for her. Anyway, I’ve veered wildly from what you offer here — thanks for indulging me.

  3. Some crucial differences between HB & Soop occur to me. They’re both fish-out-of-water characters, but HB has no alter ego. There’s no real hiding his identity; he’s more like Howard the Duck — “Trapped in a world he never made.”

  4. Veer where you will, please. I can only do this material in pretty broad strokes, since I never had that systematic or intensive experience with comics, naturally attuned though I might’ve been. Your reading history is always of interest here.

    The Punisher one-off I have (somewhere, in a box of stuff), you’ll be amused to know, is the Archie crossover. I can’t recall now where I bought it or why. In my twenties I went into comics stores only rarely. (Lately, here in NY, I’m actually in one maybe once a month — a big uptick. Not buying much, still.)

  5. I checked out some of the Zeck work. Your take seems very accurate, based on what I see there. I gather that Zeck’s trademark was a more pneumatic, top-heavy, slicked-down version of the Neal-Adams-style figure. No enormous Finland genitalia, of course, but one assumes that’s where the gleaming large-caliber hardware comes in. I note this and a recurrence, and have to think that Tom’s lusty Li’l Abners, if they wouldn’t quite approve, would certainly understand.

  6. Re. Bronson et al., I expect there’s a good deal to be said about comic-book heroes and assorted one-man-army & vigilante heroes of film, especially post-Dirty Harry. I’ve had scattered thoughts. Very germane.

    Re. Hellboy’s unlikenesses to Supe … yes. We’ll see if there’s anything coherent left after a few more rounds. I’m hopeful!

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