Shiny Shelf

The Punisher #18

By Jim Smith on 19 November 2002

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The idea of an issue of ‘The Punisher’ set in, and dealing with issues relating to, Northern Ireland is an odd one. It’s especially so given that Garth Ennis run on the book has largely been overtly comedic, a series of slickly violent, blackly hilarious episodes dealing with midget crime lords and suchlike. Never mind that Ennis is himself Irish, never mind that in some of his other work he’s proven himself capable of dealing with issues related to armed conflict as well as writing violent comedies. It just seems a little weird, you know? At best it has the potential to be crass nonsense, surely? At worst an insulting trivialisation of a difficult situation.

Well that’s nonsense, actually. Ennis and Steve Dillon’s ‘The Punisher’ #18, ‘Downtown’ is something of a triumph. Ennis abandons elements of his normal approach to the book to provide something which is probably a better examination of the issues involved than a recent episode of ‘The West Wing’ with similar aims. Using the central conceit that Frank Castle, like most Americans, has not the slightest idea of the realities and complexities of Northern Ireland, Ennis allows a series of people more intimately involved in Ireland to explain, slowly, painfully and with some rough humour, the situation as he sees it.

All the angles are covered, and romanticised notions of ‘the struggle’ are calmly blown apart. Elements of both sides within the province are given equal condemnation as variously deluded fanatics, bully-boys and simple criminals looking for a ’cause’ to use as a cover for their drug-dealing, pimping and arms-running rackets. Ennis explains much of the geography and some of the social logic of Northern Ireland, and asks both Frank and the audience to look seriously at cruelty, stupidity and self-perpetuating horror. ‘All you want to do is hate each other. You love every minute of it. And this place pays the price,’ concludes Frank. A great insight from Frank Castle, who’d have thought it? No, it’s a great insight from Garth Ennis, a much more likely thing. I should have trusted him.

It’s an effective book this, because it’s both balanced and informed, as well as fired by resignation, disgust and no small amount of righteous anger. Many comic books these days are great, few are actually important. This one is. Buy it.

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