The notion of the sidekick has been a popular one in story-telling since time out of mind, yet it has most likely been brought to its highest prominence in superhero comics. The majority of these sidekicks, like Batman’s Robin, have been cheeky teenagers, created in order to act not only as foil for the hero, but also for the ostensibly young male readers to have a regular character to whom they could better relate.
And then there is the type of sidekick that acts as a mentor to the hero, a voice of reason, as it were. Again using Batman as an example, Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler and friend, serves this purpose. The mentor-ally acts as a humanizing element to the hero, but unlike the teen sidekick, he will often rather appeal to the hero’s sense of reason than to emotion. Where Robin may serve to remind Batman of the innocence lost in his own youth, the butler Alfred acts as a father-figure.
Although Batman and The Punisher are very alike in character and motivation, the latter’s writers and editors have yet to see fit to saddle him with a spunky teen in a garishly colored costume. However, only a few issues into the Punisher’s original monthly series in the late 1980s, long-time Punisher scribe Mike Baron and artist Klaus Janson, well-known for his work on his and Frank Miller’s ground-breaking Daredevil run, created Linus “Microchip” Lieberman, the Punisher’s assistant and (oftentimes) conscience.
For this era, a character like Micro was fairly necessary. Although the Punisher was far more ruthless and bloodthirsty than any vigilante character before him, his comics were being published in an era that was still under the omniscient eye of the Comics Code Authority, the self-governed censorship arm of the comic book industry. Therefore, Micro could function well in reining the Punisher’s homicidal tendencies enough to pass muster. Also perhaps, since gizmos and gadgets were still very much the rage, Micro’s technological know-how would help attract readers with these sorts of bells-and-whistles.
By the time the original Punisher series was cancelled in the mid-1990s, however, Micro had become as irrelevant as the rest of the book, and he was unceremoniously killed off after a falling out between the two. But of course, almost any character in a superhero book is ripe for resurrection. And also of course, Garth Ennis takes all of these above concepts and sets them deftly on their ear.
In his first Punisher MAX arc, entitled “In the Beginning,” Ennis sets the reader back in a familiar setting of Frank Castle’s: his on-going war with the New York mafia. In the midst of this, though, the CIA is also looking to recruit Castle to help them in the newly-minted war on terror (“In the Beginning” was originally published not long after 9/11). Frank Castle is widely known in this world as being a lone gunman, a complete sociopath who takes no orders. So the CIA enlists the closest thing Castle has had to a confidant: Micro.
The majority of the scenes between Micro and Castle take place in a darkened room, just the two former allies. Castle has been chained fast to his chair and is the very picture of the beast he has become: scarred, silent, deadly. Micro does the bulk of the talking because in these scenes, he is very clearly meant to represent Castle’s conscience, the last shaft of light in the darkened room that Castle’s life has become.
Micro’s first volley is to show Castle pictures of his dead wife and children, to attempt to touch the last possible vestige of humanity in the man. He fails. He attempts to explain to Castle why he left, how the hip-deep wading through the crime and brutality of the world had finally taken its toll on Micro and also, as he explains to Frank, “Because you know all that and yet you do what you do anyway.” That raises not a reaction from Castle. Micro attempts to appeal to his sense of duty, explaining that fighting terrorists, hunting down men like Osama bin Laden, is a far more useful application of Castle’s pitch-perfect skills as a killing machine. And nothing.
The morality (or lack of it, if you must) at play here is very telling of Ennis’ work. Eventually, Castle relates an anecdote to Micro. Not long after Frank’s family was killed, a neighbor, Bob Garrett, comes by to console Frank. As they share a beer, Garrett tells Frank how he himself just left his wife for a younger woman. Frank tells the man to run. Confused, Garrett just sits there, and then Frank beats the holy hell out of him. As Frank explains, “In his heart, he knew it was wrong. But it was what he wanted. So he went ahead and did it, and hoped that everything would work out all right. That’s why he deserved to be punished.”
The world that Frank Castle knew, the one that you and I and most others know, revealed itself to him to be sick, to be completely upside down and wrong. Castle then divorced himself completely from it, in his words, his actions, his feelings. Castle does not kill criminals because it is the right thing to do. Castle has no use for what passes as morality and has as such divested himself of it. He does not fight for country or for the innocent, not even for himself or his dead loved ones. He fights and he kills because that is what he does. A force of nature, as amoral as any hurricane or earthquake.
Micro as Castle’s conscience cannot overcome that. And soon, as the Mafia descends on the hotel where the CIA is holding Castle, the attendant bloodbath affords Micro and Castle a chance for escape. Castle gives Micro the same advice he gave Bob Garrett: “Run.” But as Castle’s conscience, Micro cannot do that either. He sticks with Castle and fights until the bitter end at his side, just like the old days.
As Micro lies dying in the final pages of the arc, he tells Castle his own interpretation of the Bob Garrett story. Frank’s admonition to his old neighbor, as the one to his old friend, was not just a warning rattle, the growl of the attack-primed wolf. It was the tiny, nearly smothered spark of Frank’s humanity. Despite the horrors Frank saw in Vietnam, and despite the drying blood of his own family on Frank’s hands, there was still something left of the man inside: “Is that what the story means, Frank? Was there a time you weren’t so certain of yourself, that your life wasn’t a foregone conclusion?”
Again, the mentor-ally has struck character-gold. Frank Castle knew what he had become and what the path he had before him held. And yes, once upon a time, the morality of the workaday world, of the civilians in Castle’s war, still had faint tracings for Castle, a dew on his newly darkened soul. But that had been a long time ago. And although Castle had given Micro the same warning he had given Bob Garrett all those years ago, it was now the Punisher whom Micro was addressing. Not a man of morals, not a man of rights or wrongs.
So Castle shoots Micro in the face.
When he and Steve Dillon resurrected this character for Marvel in the late ‘90s with Welcome Back, Frank, Garth Ennis had sought to dissociate the Punisher from the more playful, pajamas-wearing superheroes within the Marvel Universe. In this first arc of the MAX series, the Marvel imprint that allows for more mature themes and language, Ennis brings the hatchet down on the last notion of traditional heroism in this until-now traditional dark vigilante character.
In the beginning, there was a man, a solider who fought for his country, a husband and father who loved his family. But that man was the first casualty in Frank Castle’s war. And though that man’s conscience may have lingered for many years after most would have said it was gone, eventually that conscience, Linus Lieberman, became yet another casualty.
And still the war rages on.