Jim Starlin's Anti-Heroes, Renegades & Dark Prophecies (Part II)

Weathermen Symbol

This is the second installment of an analysis of a selection of comic work from artist Bernie Wrightson and writer, Jim Starlin. The first entry took a look at the 1988 DC miniseries, Batman: The Cult. A recent rereading of the old books prompted a fresh review in part due to the intriguing and strikingly relevant social commentary. Batman was kidnapped by an underground religious cult, headed up by a demigod who had a fetish for drinking human blood. Prior to capturing Batman, the cult was in the midst of a citywide abduction mission of murder and brainwashing. Drugging, and torture in combination with hypnotic mind control was heavily featured in the plotline, which produced some startlingly psychedelic artwork.

Other provocative and/or prophetic themes presented the declaration of martial law and religious martyrdom in a David Koresh vein (well before Waco). I suggest going back to the previous post to get a more complete breakdown. Moving on now to the next Starlin/Wrightson collaboration brings us to the Marvel universe in the year 1990.



Continuing to work outside of the constraints of the Comics Code Authority, Punisher P.O.V. pushes the boundaries of violence and dark adult themes even further than in their previous teaming. As pointed out in the first part of this review, The Cult and P.O.V. feel very much like thematic cousins. The dark political subtexts of the Batman story get even darker, probably due to the take no prisoners ethos of The Punisher character. Frank Castle’s backstory as a Vietnam veteran turned murderous vigilante in reaction to the brutal slaying of his family is well known to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the comic series history.

1980's New York


Exploding on the scene as a monthly in the Iran/Contra, crack-cocaine and gang war era of the mid-late 1980’s, the blood-thirsty Castle struck a nerve with young readers like myself who gleefully became immersed in his forbidden R-Rated reality. He took the law into his own hands and appeared nearly invincible against insurmountable odds. This was in a time period in which the media played up violence on the nightly news for shock ratings while Hollywood cleaned up at the box-office and on VHS with anti-heroes like Rambo and sequels to Dirty Harry and Deathwish. That anti-hero violence found a natural home in the storytelling world of comics
“In fact, many of the themes that attract millions of moviegoers today have their roots in the ground-breaking stories of the 1980s. Sales began to climb as the content became more sophisticated. These mature works drew in new fans while retaining the interest of older readers who, in the past, usually abandoned comics as they left their teens.” – Christopher Knowles, Our Gods Wear Spandex
By 1990, The Punisher was a comic superstar as popular as any at the time. As mentioned previously, Starlin had an absolute knack for tapping into the disturbed psyches of existential anti-heroes. In that regard, we find a perfect but short-lived creative pairing.

The four-part series begins with an introduction of the villainous characters, Deke and Zonkers. Just being released on parole from a federal prison after a long stint for a string of politically motivated bombings, responsible for the death of 16 victims. “Deke and Zonkers were political; liked to blow things up in order to put the brakes on the old Capitalist Imperial War Machine. ‘Bomb the populace into political awareness,’ was their motto.”
 
Punisher P.O.V.
The two hippie-terrorists became radicalized in the late 60’s early 70’s antiwar/drug movement and are in clear reference to the more extreme sects of that time period, most notably The Weathermen Underground. Began as a radical splinter faction of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen took an all-out militant position against the police and American government. Tactics included hand-to-hand combat training, rioting, armed robberies and even bombings.
“…the main struggle going on in the world today is between U.S. imperialism and the national liberation struggles against it… The goal is the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism” - You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows 
Counterculture public enemies
Molded in a parody of Weatherman ideals, Deke and Zonkers re-enter an American culture in which the “revolution” had most certainly died off. After a yuppie dominated, materialist 80’s, Deke and Zonkers are ready to start the 90’s out with a bang. Having lost no lust for explosives and greasing pigs, P.O.V. wastes no time in getting the 'people’s militants' busy with an attack on the Gotham Federal Bank.

The first bombing is used as leverage to extort large sums of cash from the bank’s president. After a total of four bombings that kill 27 people, The Punisher and his technical assistant Microchip, get onto the case. Soon after the reader is introduced to a strange supporting character in the series, a sanity challenged Chester Goudal from Queens. 

Chester is a middle-aged man that lives with his mom, that is before he ritualistically murders her with a stake to the heart. An extraordinarily paranoid delusional, Chester spent his days filling his fragile brain with daytime TV about teenage satanic cults and tabloids with lurid stories of monsters taking over the White House. With a cache of weapons to single-handedly take on the looming threats to humanity, he sets off on his killing spree by taking out his mom, whom he hallucinated was a beastly vampiric monster. The issue of blood-drinking will play a crucial role in the plotline.

The Goudal character provided a means for Starlin to inject some nice social commentary of the day that reflected on the media-hyped Satanic Panic around Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) that caught fire in the 80’s and lived on into the 90’s. Triggered by the 1980 book, Michelle Remembers and flamed by TV hosts like Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jesse Raphael, the fear of devil worship and child sacrifice was spread like wildfire. The SRA meme intensified around the McMartin preschool sexual abuse scandal in Manhatten Beach, California beginning in 1983, with a criminal trial running from ’84-’90. The abuse was said to involve a Satanic underground cult.
 
Punisher P.O.V.


The sensational media of the moment in both TV and print provided Starlin a familiar motivating element to unhinge the mentally unstable Goudal. The rest of the first issue sets up the drama that will bring The Punisher, Deke, Zonkers and Goudal crashing together later on. Zonkers is actually killed off mid-issue but carries on in a very grotesque manner that I won’t spoil. His premature death is a consequence of an accidental explosives mishap in the two enterprising criminals pad. The massive explosion kills Zonkers and leaves Deke extremely disfigured.





This brings us to another major character in the plot, Daemian Waincroft, owner of Waincroft Chemical and father of Deke. Waincroft orders the flushing of toxic chemicals down into the sewer system, where his decrepit son was coincidentally hiding out in after the explosion. Not able to catch a break, Deke takes the toxic sludge head-on. Deke is discovered by daddy Waincroft’s recon team that was sent down looking for test specimens to fish out for further study.

The affects of the chemicals include gene mutation, environmental grafting and a monstrous thirst for human blood. I don’t know if there’s any deep significance but it’s worth pointing out the use of underground sewer systems and the drinking of human blood as two plot points familiar from the previous study of Batman: The Cult.
 
Punisher P.O.V.

Taking advantage of his newfound superhuman strength, Deke escapes the hospital and commences his killing spree, combining his thirst for blood with his war on capitalism. Once the news starts reporting the spree of vampire killings, Goudal gets the signal that it’s time for his rescue mission to get serious. With Punisher, Deke and Goudal all active on the streets, the body count ensues. Or carries on, I should say.

It’s now necessary to return to papa Waincroft to unpack his nefarious connections. Through his chemical business Waincroft struck it rich on military contracts developing chemical weapons and genetic research. Waincroft was also connected to the criminal underworld run primarily by Punisher arch-nemesis, Kingpin. Waincroft does to his old associate to take out a contract with Kingpin’s henchmen to recapture Deke. Kingpin, relishing the opportunity for future blackmailing opportunities that involve government contacts, takes on the job for a relatively small fee. With Kingpin’s mob entering the fold, the body count ratchets up even further.
 
Punisher P.O.V.


Of the many real clandestine experiments carried out by the United States military using chemical agents, it’s worth calling attention to the horrific WWII human trails of mustard gas. In 1991 it was finally revealed that at least 60,000 enlisted men, mostly African-Americans, Japanese-Americans and Puerto Ricans, were subjected to chemical exposures. The idea was that perhaps darker skin complexions were resistant to chemical weapons and that would be a battlefield advantage to be exploited. 
"According to declassified records and reports published soon after, three types of experiments were done: Patch tests, where liquid mustard gas was applied directly onto test subjects' skin; field tests, where subjects were exposed to gas outdoors in simulated combat settings; and chamber tests,where men were locked inside gas chambers while mustard gas was piped inside.” - NPR
It’s probable that Starlin was unaware of that piece of dark history as it was yet to be disclosed whilehe was writing. I’m going to venture a guess that as a Vietnam veteran himself, Starlin knew all too well about the use of the Monsanto developed chemical defoliant, Agent Orange. Under Operation Ranch Hand, 4.5 million acres of Vietnamese land was pummeled with 19 million gallons of herbicides between 1961 and 1972. 

The environmental and humanitarian fallout was generational and catastrophic. None exposed to the chemicals was sparred the trauma. From American G.I.’s to unborn Vietnamese babies and civilians - the damage was severe.   
“Questions regarding Agent Orange arose in the United Statesafter an increasing number of returning Vietnam veterans and their families began to report a range of afflictions, including rashes and other skin irritations, miscarriages, psychological symptoms, Type-2 diabetes, birth defects in children and cancers such as Hodgkin’s disease, prostate cancer and leukemia. In 1979, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 2.4 million veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during their service inVietnam. Five years later, in an out-of-court-settlement, seven large chemical companies that manufactured the herbicide agreed to pay $180 million in compensation to the veterans or their next of kin. 
Various challenges to the settlement followed, including lawsuits filed by some 300 veterans, before the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed it in 1988. By that time, the settlement had risen to some $240 million including interest. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Agent Orange Act, which mandated that some diseases associated with defoliants (including non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, soft tissue sarcomas and chloracne) be treated as the result of wartime service and helped codify the VA’s response to veterans with conditions related to their exposure to Agent Orange.” - History.com Staff
Courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory
Howard R. Wilson/Courtesy of Gregory A. Wilson

It’s no surprise that despite the historical record of horrors, chemical weapons have never stopped being developed and used in theatres of war. With the rampant conflicts in today’s Middle-East, the topic of chemical warfare couldn’t be more relevant. With these politically tantalizing elements in play, the first issue ends with the cliffhanger of Punisher’s first confrontation with the genetically enhanced vampire, Deke.

Rather than spoil the rest of the series with an issue-by-issue analysis, it will do well enough to touch on the remaining conspiratorial plot piece. It involves another heavy Marvel character, Nick Furry, head of the espionage and covert law enforcement agency, S.H.I.E.L.D. Making his first appearance in issue two, Furry jumps into the story on behalf of the government’s interest in Daemian Waincroft’s test experiment. The explicit motivation to capture Deke and the secrets held in his body laid in plans to develop a super space soldier.
 
Punisher P.O.V.

As confessed to the Punisher by Waincroft at the tail end of issue two, facing the increased likelihood of planetary colonization and future warfare, the US government was under pressure to develop a solider impervious to extreme conditions and even one with self-regenerating capabilities to “facedown whatever we encounter out there.”

It goes without saying that such a topic is more prophetic for 1990 than Starlin could have imagined. Or perhaps Starlin was aware of the 1980’s US Special Forces initiatives like Project Jedi, Project Stargate or the infamous 1982 military manual, First Earth Battalion. In the aforementioned cases, high-ranking members of military intelligence were laying the groundwork for an enhanced fighter capable of engaging the enemy on all new mental and physical frontiers.
“A schism emerged between factions in the military whose primary interest was high-tech machines and those who preferred developing the human side of the military. The authors of the First Earth Battalion plan envisioned a warrior-monk soldier who-- by mastering ESP, leaving his body at will, levitation, psychic healing and walking through walls -- would be a kind of super soldier. In 1981, Lt. Col. Jim Channon of the Army's High Tech Light Division at Ft. Lewis, Wash.,wrote in a handbook for the First Earth Battalion that ‘the current balance inR-and-D funding allocates 99 percent of the total R-and-D budget to machine systems and less than 1 percent to human system development. 
This formula, if projected to the year 2000, will give us a 20-circuit tank operated by a two-circuit soldier.’ Channon andother authors of the First Earth Battalion were part of the Delta Force, a loosely knit cadre of 300 officers who coined the Army's public relations motto: 'Be All You Can Be.' The Delta Force (unrelated to the antiterrorism unit with the same name) was formed and named by Gen. Donn Starry, then a four-star general in charge of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. Starry concluded that as the U.S. and the Soviet Union came closer to being equal in high-tech equipment, the difference -- or delta -- in the superpowers' armies would come down to the way soldiers performed.” - THE PENTAGON'S TWILIGHT ZONE, Sally Squires
It’s quite clear that the United States has invested deep thought and resource into a legitimate super solider program for decades. One can only imagine what programs are currently underway in this Global War on Terror era; with rumors of secret space programs and the looming eventuality of Mars colonization and beyond. Some of the research we know of, which probably only amounts to the absolute surface of the matter. These days, the super soldier mission is spearheaded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). With a look to biology, DARPA hasbeen investigating tweaks within the human body that could eliminate pain, stopbleeding, reverse age and create internal defenses against infection tobiological weapons. It’s not if an operational super solider can be brought to market, it’s merely a question of when.
 
Punisher P.O.V.


(For more in-depth detail on covert military programs, I highly recommend the article Trump, the JSOC and the Legacy of ARTICHOKE by the research blog, VISUP.)

At series end, after all the carnage and bullet flying comes to a conclusion, we are left with a remote island exchange between Furry and the elder Waincroft. Under direct orders from the Defense Department, Waincroft is placed under “protective custody” with the stipulation that he finishes his genetic super soldier studies. In fact, Waincroft will call the little island home, perhaps until death, at which time his extraordinarily valuable research effort would pass over to the next brilliant scientist capable of realizing the dream of an indestructible fighting machine. Just in time for a new age of interplanetary expansion and space war.
 
Punisher P.O.V.


To wrap up on this series, Starlin and Wrightson do a bang-up job of embedding really intriguing political subtext into what appears on the surface to be just a fanciful and very violent action comic. For Starlin in particular, it’s that gift for exciting storytelling wrapped up with challenging moral conundrums that make his work stand the test of time. In this case, almost 27 years after the fact. Dark, violent, shocking and multilayered. When I read these books as a kid I was mainly drawn to the visceral punch of the art and bloodshed. Revisiting the work as an adult, I was amazed to discover so much cultural and political relevance hidden in plain sight. This capability, I believe is one of the great powers of comic art.

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