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