One of the difficulties in writing for a company with a huge stake in the well-being of their established characters is that you can’t effect permanent changes. And you certainly can’t kill them! Oh sure, Gerry Conway was able to knock off Spider-Man’s girlfriend but that was at the tail end of the early days (some see it as the end of the Silver Age) before merchandising and media tie-ins became so important. You can’t even kill Aunt May these days and have it stick much less a major-league super-hero. This is why, I think, so many writers killed off so many major characters when they wrote stories for “What If?” It’s not that they’re doing it to shock or to pull out all the stops but because they can finally get away with it. In this case, Kurt Busiek, author of the sublime Marvels and Astro City and early Thunderbolts, goes all out, not only killing Daredevil (as revealed in the title) but several other major characters including a certain web-spinner.
This story deviates from Daredevil #183, June 1982 in which the Punisher shoots Daredevil right in the gut, if we can believe the cover. He uses a tranquilizer dart but, in this “What If” world, DD topples off the roof they are on and falls to his death. So, this story isn’t about Daredevil’s death (which happens on page 3) but about the aftereffects of it.
In the morgue, the authorities unmask the body and discover that DD was Matt Murdock. Word gets around fast…to the Kingpin…and to the Nelson and Murdock Law Offices. There, Spidey stops in and, once he learns it is all true, vows that Matt’s “death won’t go unavenged.” As he leaves, Spidey has some revealing thoughts that are probably part of the character’s relationship with the Punisher in the regular Marvel Universe but have never been spelled out. “The Punisher is my responsibility. I fought him when he first showed up, and I should have closed him down then. But deep down - - I guess I thought he was necessary. He did what the police couldn’t do - - what I didn’t dare do.”
As Spidey tracks down the Punisher (and loses him), Foggy Nelson meets with reporter Ben Urich and hands him some documents that “link several city councilmen with organized crime.” He refuses to say where he got the info but tells Ben that “when a man’s partner is killed” he’s supposed to do something about it and since he “can’t stop the Punisher…maybe [he] can do something about the crime.” Ben doesn’t waste any time and the next edition of the Daily Bugle has the headline “City Pols Working For Mob” with a sub-heading of “’Daredevil Files’ say city gov’t turned blind eye to soaring crime rate.”
[After I posted this review, Andrew Miller of the Spiderfan staff pointed out to me that "the reference to when a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it' is a reference to Hammett's classic novel The Maltese Falcon...In (I think) the second chapter, detective Sam Spade's partner Miles Archer is killed. Despite the fact that Spade had little use for Archer, and a number of distractions, Spade eventually tracks down the perpetrator and brings them to justice. The novel suggests that doing so might even be against Spade's better judgment, but he insists - perhaps as much to himself as to others - that 'when a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it'." Thanks, Andrew!]
As the Punisher beats the snot out of a hood named Weed, Spidey shows up and lays into him. “That’s one more criminal you’ve let go free, Spider-Man,” says Punisher, “or don’t you fight crime anymore?” Pressed to it, the Punisher shoots Spidey in the shoulder. Panicked, the web-slinger tries to get help but his exertions bleed him out enough so he collapses on the sidewalk.
At the Bugle, Ben is ready with his follow-up article but it has to be pushed aside. A stunned J. Jonah Jameson has just learned that Peter Parker is Spider-Man because Spidey is in critical condition at City Hospital. This front-page news causes the death of Aunt May as Silvermane’s gang blows up her Forest Hills home (with her in it) as revenge against Spidey. Soon after, the mayor of New York (who appears to be based on Ed Koch), brandishing a Presidential request, gets the FF and Avengers (in the persons of Captain America, the Human Torch, and Hawkeye) to agree “to stay out of this, to let the police handle it.” “Koch” asks Cap to tell other super-heroes about this request but there are some he can’t contact, such as Cloak and Dagger, who track down the Punisher and battle him. As with Spidey’s interventions, the Punisher is on the verge of dispensing his justice and, again, the criminals escape. “Nobody wants to fight crime anymore. They just want to sit around and complain about the rules of the game,” he thinks.
The battle takes place along the waterfront and, when Dagger strikes the Punisher with one of her light-daggers, he falls into the water and does not come up. Thinking they have killed him, Dagger wonders if they’ve done the right thing. “He fought against the same predators we do,” she says. But Cloak disagrees. “He had gone insane, Dagger - - turned on his own kind like a mad dog, it matters not how he was stopped - - only that he was.”
The Punisher is not dead, however. He doesn’t come up because he always has backup plans. In this case, he has a scuba tank tied to a piling of a dock. As he swims away, he wonders who has managed to blow this out of proportion, who benefits from this situation.
Meanwhile, the city corruption is ripped wide open as several government officials resign and the public demands the mayor follow suit. Manhattan Borough President Theodore Mason claims victory and declares, “Good government is winning, my friends. Good government will win!” Off-panel, both Ben Urich and Foggy Nelson are murdered, which causes the mayor to resign.
Following his rule that “if you want to know what’s going on with corrupt politicians - - ask the man who owns one,” the Punisher breaks in to confront Caesar Cicero, “acting head of the Silvermane family.” He finds Cicero packing up because “the Maggia is abandoning New York.” It turns out that all of the exposed politicians are Maggia men. “There’s been a gang war going on under your nose,” he tells the Punisher, “and you don’t even know it! My men have been decimated! All this fuss with the super heroes and those articles in the Bugle - - it’s all a light show, blinding the city to the truth!” And suddenly the Punisher realizes who is behind it all.
So, who becomes the new mayor of New York? Theodore Mason. As he gives his victory speech, Peter Parker, fresh from the hospital, tracks down the Punisher, who he now also blames for his Aunt’s death. In the fight, the Punisher breaks several ribs, puncturing his lung. Peter takes the Punisher to a rooftop and prepares to throw him off but hesitates when the Punisher yells, “Parker! Listen to me! It’s about your Aunt! Listen to me!” Taking advantage of the hesitation, the Punisher shoots Peter, killing him. “I tell myself again, I had no choice. It was me or him. It doesn’t change anything. He’s still dead and I wish he wasn’t. I started this with a mistake. I’m going to finish it on purpose.”
It’s not much of a surprise that Theodore Mason reports to the Kingpin after his speech. But the Punisher shows up too. (“It all worked, Kingpin. You used me as a stalking horse - - gave everyone something to focus on while you eliminated your rivals and bought yourself a mayor.”) He is badly injured and has lost his gun. All he has is a knife but the Kingpin easily disarms him. As the Kingpin grabs him by the throat, the Punisher laments his injuries. “If only Parker hadn’t found me,” he says. The gloating Kingpin tells him, “And who do you think told him where you were? Who do you think let him know his Aunt was dead? Who do you think fed Nelson his information? Pressured the mayor to keep the super heroes out of it? Orchestrated the crime wave that kept you stumbling around in the dark?” And with that, the Kingpin crushes the Punisher’s throat. But the Punisher always has a backup plan. In this case, it’s a bomb on the fire escape outside the Kingpin’s window. It is in a package with a note on it that says, “Kingpin – if you’re reading this, I didn’t make it back to disarm it. Good luck.”
With that, the bomb explodes. The Daily Bugle headline reads, “Punisher Kill Spree Comes to Tragic End” with a caption reading, “His last victims: Mayor Theodore Mason and spice importer Wilson Fisk.” The Watcher wraps it up, telling us, “He died in the way he lived. Violently and without explanation. And in dying, he won his greatest battle. Freed a city entangled in the tentacles of crime and cut off the monster’s head. He had much to answer for in life. But he died a hero. And no one knows. No one on Earth.”
So, Kurt amasses quite a body count. Daredevil, Spider-Man, Aunt May, Ben Urich, Foggy Nelson, Theodore Mason, the Kingpin, and the Punisher. That’s seven major probably-unbumpable characters (not counting Mason who, I think, was invented here) bumped off in one story! Well done, Kurt! On top of that, it’s a rousing tale of the Kingpin orchestrating everything behind the scenes, propelling the events along in a way that is, I think, a surprise to the reader. Propelling all the events except for the one that starts it all; Daredevil’s death. In truth, the Kingpin doesn’t have to do anything to get Spidey to go off half-cocked. This characterization doesn’t put the web-slinger in the greatest light but it is certainly an aspect of him that we have seen before. His impetuosity, his excess emotion is exactly what is not needed in this situation. To me, this is the most important part of this story. Daredevil’s death brings about a spate of single-minded people intent on revenge. Spidey becomes murderous in the same way that the Punisher is murderous. He is not going to stop until he kills or is killed. Foggy Nelson feeds information to Ben Urich that he would ordinarily vet except that he, too, is seeking revenge because “when a man’s partner is killed…” The Maggia seeks revenge on Spidey by killing Aunt May. Cloak and Dagger think they kill the Punisher and accept it as justified, convincing themselves that the Punisher had gone insane to justify their own vigilantism. It’s like a four-fold super-hero version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. And, like Aeschylus, I think Kurt is telling us that vigilante revenge is a thing best left alone, that justice should be left to the law. Otherwise you find yourself on that slippery slope that Spidey does with the Punisher because “deep down - - I guess I thought he was necessary. He did what the police couldn’t do.” That is a recipe for tragedy. Except, what then to make of the pressuring of “the mayor to keep the super-heroes out of it” being a part of the Kingpin’s plan? What then, to make of the Watcher’s comment that the Punisher “died a hero” by killing people with a bomb? Is there good vigilantism and bad vigilantism? Is there good murder and bad murder? Who decides? The knot becomes too snarled to disentangle here but Kurt certainly gives us a lot to think over.
Artist Luke McDonnell drew four issues of Spectacular Spider-Man as well as ASM #219, August 1981
but is probably best remembered for his run on Iron Man where his work showed a crisp line and airy spacing. Here, though, he channels his inner Frank Miller to quite nice effect though his inking gets a bit too muddy at times, particularly in his rendition of Johnny Storm.
A well-constructed Busiek story, some nice moody McDonnell art, plenty of mayhem, and a vigilante sting in its tail. Busiek and McDonnell reteam for What If? (Vol. 2) #44, December 1992 with “What If Venom Had Possessed the Punisher?” According to Mike Podgorski’s review (go ahead and read it!), they do not do as well there as they did here. I’m giving them five webs.
Oh, and the Punisher kills Spidey again in What If? (Vol. 2) #58, February 1994.