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Yesterday I had the pleasure of checking out the new film Tron Legacy, which inspired me to do a little video blogging over on my disused Somnopolis account. Feel free to give it a gander. I have no problem admitting that my enjoyment of the film  is mostly due to nostalgia. Tron was a large part of my childhood. Y’know what I did not like when I was a child? The Punisher.

He’s a psychopath. A gun-toting Vietnam veteran who has decided to deal with the trauma of his family’s deaths by slaughtering the criminal underworld of New York. He makes Dirty Harry look like an easy-going guy. He cannot be reasoned with, is almost robotic in his lack of humanity and despite wearing a costume of sorts, is nothing like a superhero.

In fact writer Garth Ennis seems to agree with me. In his introduction to this volume of his initial twelve issue run he writes: Defend the Punisher? Justify what Frank Castle does to people? Condone the actions of a mass-murderer, whose bodycount must run well into the tens of thousands by now? I think not.

And yet. What Ennis does with Frank is to admit all of the excessive violence and inhumanity of his actions, while also poking fun at them. These issues feature endless scenes of murder and death, but also highlights just how ridiculous Frank’s vigilantism is, courtesy of an increasingly cartoonish set of villains and set-pieces. As Ennis concludes “you don’t have to worry about a thing: you can enjoy the Punisher with a completely clear conscience.”

The plot of Welcome Back, Frank concerns a vendetta between Frank Castle and the Gnucci crime family in New York. He has been systematically killing off the members of the Mafia clan and when he kills the sons of Ma Gnucci, she sends out a call for every gangster and hoodlum with a gun to hunt him down.

Since returning to New York Frank has found himself a new apartment in a run-down section of the city. Much of the book concerns his relationships with fellow tenants and the risk his activities place them in. Ennis manages these character building moments with a great deal of pathos, which is not what you might expect amid the blood and thunder of a Punisher comic.

The third thread of the storyline is the influence of Frank’s vigilantism on others. We meet three self-declared defenders of the peace – although their ideas of what that means is contradictory. There’s The Holy, an axe-murdering priest; Elite, a Manhattannite with extreme views on neighbourhood watch; and finally Mr Payback, who targets the wealthy. All three look up to Frank as a source of inspiration, justifying their murderous actions by dedicating themselves to his example.

Despite the bloodletting and brutal imagery, this is a very funny book. Ennis is a master of poking fun at machismo, as seen in his hit series Preacher, a comparison reinforced by his frequent collaborator Steve Dillon’s art. Frank Castle ‘s face carries the same trademark grimace to familiar to Marvel fanboys, but his musculature is not as oversized as the in-house artists insist upon. Dillon has Frank appear as he should – just another anonymous New Yorker wearing a long coat on the streets of the city.

The absurd extremes of Ennis’ script is the source of much of the humour. The villainous hitman known as the Russian wipes out an entire special forces team in Kazakhstan, sending the surviving officer running crying for his mother. There’s a great little sight gag involving Ma Gnucci that references The Empire Strikes Back. And then there is the unfortunately named Buddy Plugg, whose behavioural assessment of the Punisher is rejected as pure psychobabble: “obviously less a man than a force of nature. Have left his own humanity behind long ago, he has become a symbol as stark as the one he wears on his uniform. A spectre of vengeance moving like a virus within the criminal psyche…” In one stroke Ennis satirises every complaint raised against the character. He is, as he insists, only trying to entertain. Any attempt to analyze the meaning of this ridiculous character is doomed to failure.

As such Ennis once again delivers a book that manages to be both funny and disturbing, in equal measures. If you enjoyed Preacher, you’re strongly advised to check out his spin on this Marvel icon.

The Judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

Blood Meridian is a story about violence and history – the savage underbelly of civilization. McCarthy repeatedly uses  ‘meridian’ to describe the divide between day and night, life and death. It is also the border between America and Mexico, the white man and all other races. This is a novel heavy with portentousness and symbolism, but also seeping with horrific images of death.

The Kid is born in Tennessee. At age fourteen he sets out to find his fortune. He finds work where he can and travels when he has some money to his name. He takes to drinking and fighting in bars. He has two fateful early encounters with men that will later become important in his life. The first is a fellow wanderer named Toadvine. The second is known to most as the Judge. The Kid witnesses him falsely accusing a preacher of sodomy and inciting a lynch mob.

Living by his wits only gets the Kid so far and eventually his aimless life leads him to join a company of soldiers on an ill-advised sortie across the Mexican border. Once across the border, the Kid is catapulted into a life of violence and death. Apache prowl the Mexican desert and wolves track men during the night. Then the Judge finds him once again. He has taken command of a group of hired killers and they have a contract for Indian scalps.

This is the first Cormac McCarthy book I have ever read. I have very little knowledge of him, apart from Owen Wilson’s mocking caricature in The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson was a bit on the nose there. This is compelling writing, with the Judge leading his men across the Mexican landscape like Captain Ahab. Is he really a man, or the devil himself? The book is written in a quasi-Biblical language, ripe with hellish imagery and Jacobean excess. The campaign of violence waged by the Americans is unrelenting, slaughtering peaceful villages and rampaging through unsuspecting townships. One scene in particular has a bar-room fight spill out into the street, encountering a funeral procession and resulting in a massacre. For long passages of the book the Kid himself drops out of sight and we are left in the company of the Judge and his right-hand man Glanton, or Toadvine the Kid’s sometime ally. There is also an ex-priest named Tobin, who does not shirk from killing.

However, the story promises a final confrontation between the Kid and the Judge, the two of them continually meeting  despite all odds. Here, McCarthy sets up a further contrast, another meridian, this time the divide between a man who thinks he is free and one who knows he is master. The Kid is quick to anger, surly and not given to speak much. The Judge on the other hand waxes lyrical constantly, can be charming and kind in action, capable of speaking many different languages. He is also given to lectures on religion and the law, which he uses to confound those who investigate the crimes committed by his men. Beneath all of his culture and wit beats the heart of a monster, unrelenting and cruel. McCarthy has created a truly diabolical villain, one who would destroy anything he cannot control and wipe away all trace of it.

I can see why Hollywood tries to adapt McCarthy to the screen so often. The imagery of Blood Meridian often feels intensely cinematic. I would argue though that this is more due to the author’s use of language, which flows and ebbs on the page, a quality that would be very difficult to replicate on screen. However, this is bloody and intense plotting, certainly not making for a nice evening’s entertainment. In terms of a masterclass though, as an opportunity to observe a writer in full command of his craft, I thoroughly recommend it.

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