Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Back to the War… For a Limited Time

Good night, sweet prince.

The Marvel Comics “hero” known as the Punisher is often characterized as a man at war with organized crime. Frank Castle was in fact a Marine who served in Vietnam before his family was murdered and he became a vigilante. His military training and service have been a constant part of his backstory, but often serve as a pat explanation of his considerable combat skills rather than an insight into his tactics and psyche.

The idea that Castle became the Punisher completely, as opposed to a secret identity duality (a la Spider-Man) has been repeated throughout the character’s existence, at least as far back as 1988’s The Punisher: War Journal #2: “There is no more Frank Castle. Only a punisher.” It represents his loss of humanity, and is an easy explanation for his rootless lifestyle and lethal methods. But writers have utilized this detail to greatly varying degrees. Mike Baron, the most frequent Punisher scribe during the late 80s/early 90s boom, particularly didn’t care for it. His Punisher spent his days killing criminals and then unwound with road trips, boxing, jazz and politics. Oh, and he hated rap music.

In the current iteration of The Punisher (vol. 8 following the 1995 reset, for anyone else who’s counting), writer Greg Rucka and primary artist Marco Checchetto have brought the character’s military background and his complete transformation into the Punisher to the forefront. Rucka and Checchetto have emphasized two of the character’s most distinct qualities, and in doing so have created an essential stretch of Punisher comics. One that has lasted just over a year and is sadly winding down.

The consistency in the creative team over that time has been reflected in the storytelling. The first issue sets the Punisher on a collision course with The Exchange. This month’s #14 sees the Punisher finally set his endgame for The Exchange in motion. Over a year tangling with a single foe makes for an epic storyline, but it also sells the idea that the Punisher is in a war. The more time spent trying to destroy The Exchange, the more important they seem to the Punisher’s overall strategy. And for once, he actually seems to have a plan grander than simply shooting any violent offender he comes across.

The Punisher’s dedication to the big picture is best displayed in last month’s issue #13. The Punisher attempts a mission of “intel gathering” and “asset acquisition” that puts him within striking distance of The Exchange’s leader. But this isn’t an assassination attempt. He actually stops an ally from going after the crime boss with an admonishment to “stay on mission.”

In the Punisher’s eyes, compromising the mission is unacceptable, no matter the size of the fish that gets fried. A strategic approach to his war against crime isn’t new for the Punisher, but seeing him display this level of commitment to strategy over bloodshed is.

This slow burn approach to The Exchange story has allowed Rucka and Checchetto to gradually introduce the audience to their version of the Punisher. He has no dialogue in that first issue. His only expression other than violence is a terse text message (I hope that’s a burner, Frank). In fact, he doesn’t actually talk until the 4th issue.

In #12, the first issue in which the Punisher has more than a handful of lines, he explains to his ally that the “luxuries of the living” have nothing to offer them, because they’re dead. He’s finally verbalizing what readers already know. This Punisher is a ghost. Many writers have tried to humanize the Punisher. Rucka dehumanizes him.

As far as I know, every writer to tackle the Punisher has used thought bubbles (or at least the War Journal device which in practice typically amounts to the same thing). They’re a convenient way to get inside the head of a loner like Frank Castle. But there are no thought bubbles in Rucka’s version. To restrict his dialogue so severely and then have him blathering on to himself would be pointless. Rucka keeps the audience at the same distance that Castle keeps the other characters. The Punisher has never been so withholding, and he’s all the more imposing for it.

This inhuman portrayal can’t be mistaken for a lack of personality. The Punisher’s silences and facial expressions are a language unto themselves. And when he does speak, his carefully chosen words loom large. Additionally, any glimpses of levity (like a brief bit of banter with Spider-Man in #10) or swagger (a memorable Schwarzenegger-esque one-liner in #13) are all the more delightful because of their scarcity and the dry tone established by most of his communication.

This approach goes against much of the conventional wisdom when it comes to making the Punisher a viable central character. It might not work, except that Rucka and Checchetto give Frank substantial support. Vol. 8’s cast includes a pair of cops on the Punisher’s tail, a Daily Bugle reporter, the lone survivor of an Exchange sanctioned bloodbath, and The Exchange members themselves. Each of them has their own storylines and Rucka isn’t afraid to let them take the spotlight.

Issue #7 (drawn by Michael Lark, his only credit on the series) takes place almost entirely in an unmarked police car as the two detectives drive upstate to investigate a crime scene. The Punisher appears only in a flashback to a story that originally appeared 24 years ago. The dialogue-heavy scenes, the clash of personalities, the confinement to a cop car; they all create a scene so vivid it feels like a movie rather than a comic book. In fact, the way that Rucka will slow things down, focus on “ordinary” people and experiment with different dynamics among his cast often reminded me of television. This is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a good Punisher TV show.

Marvel is pulling Rucka and Checchetto off The Punisher because of poor sales. They plan to spin the character off in a new direction, reportedly as part of a team (a questionable but nonetheless interesting idea). That’s right, the Punisher book where the Punisher would disappear for stretches of time, rarely talked and once went 3 whole issues without killing a single (non-zombie) criminal isn’t selling all that well. It’s unfortunate, but hardly surprising. There are 2 issues left in the regular run, and then a 5-part run-in with the Avengers titled War Zone. That sounds like a well-deserved explosive ending for a relatively sedate tenure.

The Punisher Vol. 8 has been a unique, highly entertaining, expertly paced and consistently excellent experience. I’m excited to see it come to a close, and sad to see it go. Hopefully it finds a larger audience in its afterlife.

 

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