This is a western written by Garth Ennis that he did through Avatar a few years back. As you’d expect from his previous collaborations with the publisher it is quite violent, gruesomely so in some parts, and also hits upon some of his favorite subjects. In this case, the necessity of hard, uncompromising men to the well-being of this country and the unscrupulous men in power who benefit from their hard work. While longtime readers of Ennis’ work will find much familiar here, this still represents the first “pure” western he’s written without the need to accommodate a superhero (see the Punisher in “Streets of Laredo”), a supernatural influence (see the “Saint of Killers” mini-series from “Preacher”), or science fiction (see “Just a Pilgrim”). Freed of these requirements, the writing feels more invigorated and it still remains an entertaining story in spite of this familiarity.
Now that I’ve said that, let’s talk about race.
The main character in this story, Col. Joe Dunn, has fought many battles as well as seen (and likely perpetrated) enough violence to last several lifetimes. However, there was no threat more notorious or vicious than Red Crow, a half-breed Apache renegade. A psychotic killer, prone to cutting off bits of his victims, stuffing them in open orifices, and then sewing those orifices shut, who has clashed with Dunn many times over years and is now back for one final go-round. This doesn’t comprise the entirety of the story, but about half of it focuses on the efforts of one good former member of the American military facing off against the savagery of the Red Man. Yeah, let that sink in a bit.
It’s clear from Ennis’ writing that he has very little time for political correctness and after all of the great work he’s done over the years I’m not going to suggest that he shouldn’t have written the story in this way. After all, though Red Crow’s portrayal might come off as insensitive it’s not unthinkable that someone like him could’ve existed during this time. What’s disturbing is that he’s put in the story specifically as the embodiment of “everything that white folks get scared of.” It’s hinted at that there’s more to his character, but for the most part he’s effectively a one-dimensional killing machine meant to scare the living bejeezus out of everyone in the town Dunn has arrived at. When the character’s essence has been boiled down to that, it’s hard for everyone not to feel uncomfortable when he starts going to town on the expendable members of the hunting party sent after him with the widest grin possible on his face.
Now it’s not impossible for a character this far into stereotype to be used in a way that if not counters, at least blunts cries of “Racism!” In fact, Ennis has done this before as his work with Barracuda from his run on “Punisher MAX” can attest to. Barracuda made his debut in the arc of the same name as the biggest, scariest African American psychopath you could imagine who really loved his work too. The main focus of the arc the character appeared in was a corporation clearly modeled after Enron and his presence there came off as an amusing parallel between the similarly ruthless methods employed by the company and Barracuda himself. Even so, he exited the arc as nothing more than the “big scary black man” who fought the Punisher and died at the end.
At least, that’s what we were led to believe. This being comics and all, it turns out that getting shot in the chest and left to drown off the coast of Florida was a minor inconvenience for the character. Now in the market for revenge, he then took the first steps for that in his solo-mini-series where he sets about a plan to take over a South American island nation in order to acquire the funds to do so. As a result, the man winds up not only double-crossing the mob, but also every major U.S. intelligence and military agency in a story that winds up being a thoroughly funny satire of the end results of this country’s empire-building ways. An extreme caricature such as Barracuda was made for this kind of story as a match cut that equates his slaughter of a good portion of the country’s government with “Electioneerin’.” Even if he may be the least unprincipled character in this story, it ends with the reminder that the man is still very much a monster.
So after two arcs establishing his larger-than-life credentials as a major antagonist for the Punisher, we come back to his second major go-round with the character in “Long Cold Dark.” It’s worth noting that for someone who started off as such a stereotype, he’s still a brutally effective villain and a cunning planner. Not only did he kick Frank Castle’s ass in their first encounter, but he does it a second time here before he drops a bombshell -- he has the daughter Castle didn’t know he had and is all set to kill her right in front of the man’s eyes for his revenge. This... doesn’t quite go as Barracuda expects and we get to see a more vulnerable side to the character as he deals with failure and find out how he wound up the way he is.
Barracuda’s conception may have been rooted very much in racial caricature, but Ennis found a way to move beyond that in subsequent stories. I’d even argue that, as the Punisher has a very limited rogues’ gallery by the nature of his character, he’s one of the most memorable and effective antagonists that Castle has faced off against. Not only did he kick the character’s ass twice, but he even found a way to get under the man’s skin and infuriate him to a degree that no other villain has managed. By the time of his death, Barracuda could be described as a ruthlessly effective strategist with a wicked sense of humor... in addition to the fact that he was a “big scary black man.”
Red Crow doesn’t get that kind of treatment and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see any more of him. He’ll always be the one-dimensional “Indian savage” who is eventually brought to justice by the courageous and morally upright Col. Dunn. If that disturbs you, then you’re encouraged to vote with your wallet and leave this book on the shelf if you find it for sale. Still, given Ennis’ love of westerns and his ability to instill proper characterization into someone like Barracuda I can’t help but think that he could deliver a worthwhile story showing how Red Crow became the psychopath he was portrayed as here. I’d certainly buy that.