More often than not, knowing a bit about an author's personal history greatly enriches both the reader and the reading. Such is the case with Valerie D'Orazio and her recent PunisherMAX: Butterfly one-shot. For those who are unfamiliar, it's time you looked her up. She's a fascinating woman, and her perspective will make you think deeper about your relationship and dedication to comics. Knowing a bit about Miss D'Orazio's history in the comic books industry adds a deeper layer of significance to PunisherMAX Butterfly. After all, the first comic book material she ever wrote was a Punisher pitch she sent to Marvel at the age of about 13. So, yeah, Valerie D'Orazio writing a PunisherMax one-shot as her grand return to comics is a pretty big deal in and of itself.
But even without this real world context, Butterfly is a phenomenal read. The story of a dissociative hit woman and her attempt to connect with the world via a tell-all manuscript, Butterfly, like so many other good crime stories, focuses on the protagonist's professional and existential crises. Abused and molested at an early age, Butterfly's ability to live outside of her mind is severely handicapped. Throughout her adolescent and adult life, she makes a series of failed attempts to feel anything other than anger, disgust, or apathy. Even in her manuscript, Butterfly struggles to convey a relatable story.
Granted, she is a hired killer, but that's not the real issue. Her editor explains that the manuscript lacks plot and structure, before advising her to write using the same step-by-step process she uses when killing. On both points he's right, but for the wrong reasons. What he sees as her failure is actually a reflection of his own: he cannot understand because he cannot relate. This is where the Punisher comes in. Chapter 13 of Butterfly's manuscript, which she is told is the most important chapter, details the first and only time she saw Frank Castle in action. It's during this encounter that Butterfly, for maybe the first time, feels genuine fear. Confronted with another deeply dissociated, homicidal personality, Butterfly feels briefly human. Needless to say, this complicated psychology is the stuff of fantastic crime fiction and must-read Punisher tales, and D'Orazio's exploration of these troubling character types through a female foil is refreshingly profound.
Beyond the criminal goodness of Butterfly, there is an underlying theme about the dangers of honest expression. Rather than feeling shoehorned in, this secondary thread is expertly woven into the narrative. By the nature of her manuscript, Butterfly is exposing the world to it's own dangerous truths; and not only is she revealing the world for the nasty place it can be, but in writing her story she also exposes herself to the murderous wrath of her employers. The fact that Butterfly is a woman in a traditionally male role makes this an even more pointed power struggle. One has to wonder if some of the conversations in the book were tweaked from D'Orazio's own experiences in the industry, but we'll save that speculation for another time. Without exploiting the sexual undertones of this conflict, D'Orazio shows that the suppression of truth can lead to a dangerous alienation from reality.
Finally, it should be said that in keeping with our month-long series on women in comics, this review purposely focused on Valerie D'Orazio and the themes of PunisherMAX Butterfly, largely ignoring artist Lawrence Cambpell. For the record, Cambpell's art is every bit as good as D'Orazio's writing, and it adds yet another layer of quality to this already incredible comic.