Punisher 1

Alternating Currents: Punisher 1, Drew and Spencer

Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing Punisher 1, originally released February 5th, 2014. 

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Drew: What defines a character? This is a question at the crux of many narratives, but takes on an added importance in comics, where characters may be written by different writers, and the grind of publishing stories into perpetuity may squeeze characters into ever stranger situations. Is Superman still Superman if he doesn’t wink at the end of his stories? What if he doesn’t wear a cape? What about Batman? Is it still a Batman story if it takes place in Iowa? How many of these details can change before the character is no longer recognizable as the character? Editor Jake Thomas acknowledges this phenomenon directly in the letters page of Punisher 1, where he suggests that Punisher is remarkably capable of being put in different scenarios while staying true to his character. Unfortunately, I see that flexibility as emblematic of Punisher’s lack of distinguishing characteristics, and this issue does little to convince me otherwise.

The story here is largely procedural, as Frank follows the the flow of drugs into LA, leading him to a large cartel drug packing facility. He kills basically everyone in his path, and ultimately blows up the facility, making this story as boilerplate as hardboiled vigilante stories get. The only distinguishing feature is the introduction of the Howling Commandoes, an elite squad of covert operatives on a mission to take the Punisher blah blah blah.

Sorry, I want to give this series a fair shot, but I know there’s a problem when I can’t decide which article from TV Tropes and Idioms to link to. I mean, Frank’s cop friend even suggests giving Punisher an award, and Frank himself pulls two “I lied” moments in this issue alone.

Danny Trejo?

This reads more like a list of tired antihero standbys than an actual story, and utterly fails to distinguish Frank Castle as a unique character. Indeed, I would counter Thomas’s assertion that Frank’s “simplicity” allows him to maintain his character in different scenarios by suggesting that he doesn’t really have any character to lose — he can be both Dirty Harry and Batman because all he is is the abstract idea of vigilantism.

In that light, this story is actually remarkable in that it fails to distinguish itself in any way. There’s almost no specificity here at all. Punisher tracks some kind of drugs to some kind of cartel, and is able to take them down with some kind of weapon he gets from some kind of military hookup. Hope you don’t want any more information about any of those pieces of information, because you won’t get it. Why is Franks Armory Officer friend willing to put his neck on the line to get him insanely dangerous weapons? Was his family also murdered by criminals, so he also wants all criminals to die? Or is he just selling to the highest bidder? Why do we focus on Frank’s morality here, but not this guy’s?

Even the L.A. setting doesn’t play into the story at all — change the backgrounds, and this could just as easily be set in New York. In fact, all the desert setting and southwest drug cartel action does is call to mind Breaking Bad, creating a whole different set of confusing tropes for this issue to draw on. The cartel guy Frank first assaults is blatantly modeled after Danny Trejo, and Frank even goes to his illicit weapons deal in the desert in an RV.

Wait, is he killing the cartel because they're criminals, or because they're competition?

The only redeeming quality of this issue for me is Mitch Gerads’ art, which is a perfect match for a noirish crime story set in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the script isn’t really up to that task, settling for a totally anonymous hash of scenes and ideas we’ve all seen before.

Spencer, am I being too hard on this issue? I think it works fine as a piece of utterly disposable vigilante frivolity (I might read future issues instead of watching a rerun of Burn Notice, for example), but it failed to make any impression beyond that. Were you able to get more out of this issue than I was?

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Spencer: I think I was, Drew, at least a little bit, but at the same time, your calling this issue “utterly disposable vigilante frivolity” is unfortunately accurate, and I’m not sure why. In theory writer Nathan Edmondson does everything right in this issue; he introduces an ongoing conflict, a supporting cast, and gives us a taste of both the Punisher’s abilities and a peek into his psyche, all essential for any successful first issue. In fact, I was impressed by how Edmondson managed to accurately and succinctly sum up the Punisher as a character in a single page:

stole this idea from Trillium haha

Ever since the death of his family Frank Castle has been a man drowning in pain, and all he can do is swim in the right direction, which, for Frank, usually involves copious amounts of gunplay and dead gangsters. Frank can barely function as a human being; his mission — his purpose — is all consuming, comparable to a dying man fighting to stay alive. Like I said, this is a very revealing look into who the Punisher really is, but maybe that’s the problem; maybe Drew is right, and the reason this book feels so run-of-the-mill is because the Punisher is just a very simple, robotic character.

This probably isn’t fair, but I can’t help but to compare this issue to the recent first issue of Edmondson’s other new title, Black Widow (and no, it’s not just because — SPOILER ALERT — both titles feature the protagonist feeding someone to an alligator, though that is an impressive display of synergy). Both titles hit the same prerequisite first issue beats, and Widow’s mission in that first issue is just as simple and flawlessly executed as Punisher’s, but somehow there’s more depth with her. Both characters’ internal monologues spend a lot of time explaining their methods, but Natasha’s also hints at dark secrets and hidden pain, while Punisher tells you everything you could ever really know about him on that one page I posted. Likewise, Frank’s plan is remarkably straight-forward and goes off without a hitch; so does Natasha’s, but at least Edmondson throws a few curveballs into what her mission actually is, while Frank’s never evolves beyond blowing up some faceless drug pushers.

I guess what I’m trying to say, in an extremely long-winded way, is that the Punisher is a remarkably straight-forward character. What you see is what you get, and that can be refreshing, but it can also be limiting; so many Punisher stories devolve into Frank blowing through mobsters like the force of nature he so often is, and that’s fine on occasion, but if it’s all the character is, it gets old fast. More than a lot of other characters, I feel like Punisher needs a strong supporting cast and villains to interact with (It’s part of why the character works so well over in Thunderbolts, for example). In that sense, I’m happy that Edmondson is working on creating a supporting cast for Frank, even if, at the moment, they feel like stock characters more than actual people.

Fortunately, I see a lot more potential in our villains. The Howling Commandos have a long history in the Marvel Universe, which automatically makes them an unusual and intimidating threat for the Punisher to face, but in case you aren’t a Marvel trivia wizard, Edmondson goes out of his way to show how competent the Commandos are. In fact, with their flashy flash grenades compared to Frank’s smoke grenades, they may even outmatch him; how exciting!

That’s not sarcasm, by the way; Punisher’s enemies are rarely a physical match for him, so I’m pretty psyched to see what will happen when these guys finally clash. Beyond that, though, I just like the Commandos so far; they show more personality in three panels than pretty much anybody else does in the entire book:

Well I could definitely go for some I Love Lucy right about now...

Overall, I didn’t hate or even dislike this issue — in fact, I thought it was rather enjoyable — but I dunno, it’s nothing that’s going to stick with me; the Punisher is the same old Punisher he’s always been, and that’s that. If you’re already a fan of the character, than you’ll probably rave about this issue, and you’ll have every right to; if you already dislike the Punisher, though, or even if you’re just ambivalent towards him, than I kind of doubt this issue will do anything to win you over. Still, I feel like there’s potential for this book to become much more; I’ll be keeping an eye open.

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14 comments on “Punisher 1

  1. Drew’s passing reference to Burn Notice actually had me wishing that this series would take on some of that show’s more charming traits. Michael’s voice over spends an awful lot of time explaining how he’s doing what he’s doing – right down to the minutae of building a bomb with homemade stuff, or hitting a dude in the neck with a pipe OR WHATEVER. It shows that Michael’s kind of a procedure-wonk, and actually loves digging in to HOW stuff works. Like, if Frank could be more interested in the guns he’s buying or even how the drug network works, it would be more interesting to see him slaughter his way to the top. As it stands, he just has the persistent “drowning” metaphor to drive him. I feel like he should be a craftsman, but he seems to be dragging himself reluctantly from target to target – that ain’t fun.

        • Hahaha. I didn’t mean to rag on Burn Notice, it’s just one of those shows I’ll watch because it’s on, not because I want to (Law and Order is another example). That’s how I feel about this issue: I’ll read it if I have nothing better to read (and won’t totally hate the experience), but it’s just not something I think I’ll seek out in any way.

  2. So hey, what’s up with Frank’s costume? I’m not feeling the ammo-belt inner tube he’s wearing. It’s covering up his skull! And is the skull on his t-shirt like usual, or some part of his weaponry held on by the straps going over his shoulders? It looks like both at different parts in the issue. For the most part I liked the art in this one but his costume was really bugging me.

    Also, again, what’s up with all the alligators this week? Edmondson must have a thing for them

  3. I have always felt that the Punisher was a comic version of Don Pendleton’s “The Executioner”, Mack Bolan. A friend gave me a few back in the ’80s to read. I don’t remember the stories exactly except it was a mercenary dressed in black that was better at killing bad guys than the bad guys were at killing him.

    I don’t know if they ever made a comic about him. I remember the titles were always a city name and then an action word. San Antonio Slaughter. Austin Ambush. Washington Death Trap. (I made those up, but they’d have worked).

    Anyway, thanks for reading this so I didn’t have to. I’ll stick with the Marvel Essentials Punisher, which gives me the best Spider-Man and Daredevil stories with the Punisher in it, plus some of his early stuff.

  4. I can’t help but compare Punisher to Deathstroke in the hands of Higgins. They’re both dudes who are just really, really good at murdering people, and Deathstroke doesn’t even have the added depth of a noble motive. And yet, issue one of Deathstroke had me excited for more, whereas this issue’s big takeaway was, “Sure did a lot of killing, there.” It was almost kind of boring, it was so procedural.

  5. Spencer, I’m glad you brought up Black Widow, since I think that series works for the same reasons this one doesn’t. Like, they both want to kill bad guys, but Natasha has a lot more to relate to: a home, some semblance of morality, even some personality. Her missions are all about the specifics — who is her target? Why is this person deserving of her wrath? — whereas Frank’s missions are generic by definition: these are criminals, so they deserve to die. Punisher effectively bucks any kind of emotional (or even moral) investment in what he’s doing, which keeps me at a cold distance from anything that happens here.

  6. Hey guys! As promised i’m here to comment your review…
    Well personally i think you guys are hitting pretty hard this first issues specially Drew.

    This issue is like seeing a Pilot of a new TV show, do you expect that all the cast in a show be introduced in one issue? For example the “arms dealer”? I bet Edmondson will explore every supporting character in the upcoming issues. He wanted to give priority for the main character ( which he did good,imo) and explore a bit of “the mission” Frank will face and how he relates to people.
    Don’t know if you have followed past Punisher runs Rucka or Ennis. Or even the early series with Mike Baron, Carl Potts or Chuck Dixon.

    This book is a sum of all parts and for this issue we see some sort of “social” Frank (early series of the 90’s) and he is precise and brutal (Rucka and Ennis).
    We haven’t seen a social Frank almost since the 90’s and Edmondson did it right.. This will give a bit of more “depth” than the monosyllabic Frank introduced by Ennis and Rucka.

    This “arms dealer” is probably a long “friend” of Frank and i bet Edmondson will introduce him to us shortly. We don’t see anywhere if he sell that weapons to Frank or see Frank with money to exchange for the weapons.

    We have to seat back and see what Edmondson will tell us in this story, i believe we will have some surprises along the way and further developments on the supporting cast.

    Thank you for notify us with your post!

    • I can see how this issue might be more fun for longtime Punisher fans — I would probably be totally satisfied with an issue of Batman that just found him doing Batman things — but unfortunately, I’m not a longtime Punisher fan. That’s not to say that I dislike the character, just that I haven’t been reading comics for very long. I read the conclusion of Rucka’s run (which I liked quite a bit), and the recent crossovers with Daredevil (which I also enjoyed), but otherwise, I have no real experience with the character.

      If this issue simply wasn’t meant for someone with my experience, I can understand that, though I think it would be a shame. I tend to think comics should be accessible to new readers — especially first issues. I’d hate to be turned off from a good comic simply because I don’t have the time (or money) to go digging through the last five years of his publishing history.

      Then again, I think you raise a really good point about pilots kind of inherently being an overview, and I would go so far as to say that pilots tend to lean on tropes to get the moods and ideas across. I didn’t have any problem with those moods and ideas, and I bet you’re right that those tropes will be complicated as the series matures. I think it’s only fair to give it a second shot.

      Still, I think Edmonson was more successful in exploring his characters in Black Widow 1, and I can’t help but wish that this issue was a bit more like that one, in terms of emotional investment. For whatever reason, that issue felt less like a pilot than this one did.

      Anyway, thanks so much for reading/commenting! Punisher Central is an awesome resource for Punisher fans (old and new), and I truly value your perspective on this issue.

  7. Wow yah I thought this was a fun issue. It had a nice full story that is a perfect fit for the Punisher as well as some humor sprinkled throughout it. It didn’t make me love the Punisher who when I was a kid was one of the coolest to me. Though if you do enjoy the character or have an interesting in old Frank I think this is a good start to a series.

    My two favorite Punisher stories in recent history have been Space Punisher and Frankencastle.

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