Thursday, March 11, 2010

Punisher MAX: Butterfly, by Valerie D'Orazio, art by Laurence Campbell

John Updike, grousing about Don DeLillo, famously said, “The trouble with a tale where anything can happen is that somehow nothing happens.” Nowhere is this observation truer than in the field of comic books — surely a medium in which nearly anything could happen. It is disappointingly rare for a reader to encounter a genuinely playful intelligence at work; rarer still in the über-dreary Punisher franchise. What an astonishment, then, to encounter Butterfly, a one-shot written by Valerie D'Orazio, a short narrative so layered, twisted and personally invested it blows apart genre conventions and reassembles them in a way that opens the field to manifest possibilities.

“Butterfly” presents herself to a potential publisher as a “mob hit-woman” keen to expose all in her memoirs. On the face of it, she and her story bear more than a passing resemblance to The Punisher. But as the truths behind the story she's peddling unfold, then fold in again in increasingly complex patterns, his presence becomes increasingly ominous.

D'Orazio and her artist co-conspirator Laurence Campbell take on a number of modern comic tropes, including, particularly, Frank Miller's noir fabulism. But they don't just tweak and play off the genre's abundant ironies, they exploit them to spectacular effect. To choose just one non-spoiler example, after decades of establishing a “Movie Of The Month” approach to controversial subject matter, Butterfly marks the first time that the emotional effects of child abuse are trenchantly disclosed, in a way that is absolutely integral to the narrative engine of the book.

Nuff said — buy the book and discover its many pleasures for yourself. And here's hoping Butterfly ignites a much-needed revolution in a genre where so little seems to truly happen.


Joel said...

Although I regularly follow her blog, I've not checked out her new comic. I guess in the back of my mind I was figuring that since she had struggled in the field for so long without success, it was an indicator of a lack of talent. (Well, she obviously has blogging talent, but lack of story telling talent.)

But, after reading your review, I'm interested to check it out now.

Also liked that John Updike quote.

Whisky Prajer said...

Clever blogger that she is, it's been more or less an open question whether she has the goods as a storyteller. This is quite the book, I have to say. She reignited the same sort of excitement I had when I first read Miller, in the mid-80s. If I had any sense that this is where comics are headed, I would rejoin the regulars at the aforementioned shop.

paul bowman said...

You got me to find & go into a comics shop. It's been some years. No video games in this tidy little place, and I was the only customer at 4 or so in the afternoon. (Possibly because the nearby university is in spring break.) The fellow knew the Punisher issue by name and had a couple on the shelf, and I took it. Part of me wanted to linger & browse — and then, too, a big part of me didn't. Disappointment sets in quicker now, maybe.

Butterfly bears some resemblance to a one-off story from DC's Vertigo, cheerily titled Hell Eternal — at 64 pages, a novel, I guess. I picked this up (in a Borders, chances are) when it was in print, so it must be 10 years or more. Bleak & finally bloody as the story is, it's been a return read a number of times in the years I've had it. (In a very small 'graphic' collection, mind.) Seems to me one of the tightest, most thoughtfully put-together things I've seen from a major comics publisher. — Why the dark, usually sexually charged subject brings out the best in these artists, verbal & graphic both, is a knot that I eye with interest, but don't really want to pry at very much. Some inspiration is evident here, anyhow.

I would love to hear your take on it sometime, if you thought it worth hunting up a used copy. Looks like it can be had at decent prices.

Whisky Prajer said...

I'll definitely look into that. Thanks, Paul -- more anon.