Today, Drew and Shelby are discussing Punisher 1, originally released May 4th, 2016.
Drew: The intro copy of Punisher 1 reminds us that “Frank Castle died with his family. Now there is only… The Punisher.” It’s a classic premise for a comic series — one that has been used long before and long after the Punisher’s debut (The Spirit and Spawn spring immediately to mind) — but not one that makes for the most compelling central character. Writer Becky Cloonan embraces the vaccuum of Frank’s personality, treating him in this issue more as a rarely-seen force of nature than a human being with real emotions. The result is something closer to Jaws than Kill Bill, but distancing us from Castle forces us to see his actions as truly monstrous, creating a much more unstable lead than could be achieved with a more empathetic approach.
Taking cues from that characterization, the plot of this issue is relatively thin: Frank eavesdrops on a DEA investigation, beating the feds to unleash his brand of justice on a nascent drug cartel. Moreover, virtually every character gets more page space than Frank, who is relegated to the shadows for the first half of the book. That means we have a better sense of both Ortiz (the sharp-as-a-tac DEA Agent who is already on Frank’s trail) and Olaf (Frank’s former commanding officer turned unscrupulous mercenary) than we do Castle, but as I suggested earlier, that feels like the right move. We may not get quite enough time with Ortiz to care about her investigation getting blown up, or with the gangsters to care about them being brutally torn apart by Frank, but we sure as hell don’t get enough time with Frank to sympathize with his actions.
Maybe season 2 of Daredevil has exhausted my interest in the question of whether Frank’s methods ultimately make him a force of good or evil, but I’m grateful that this issue never so much as hints at that idea. Here, that would be like asking if a hurricane was a force of good or evil — completely irrelevant to the damage it causes (or anyone’s ability to stop it). Divorcing Frank’s actions from morality gives them an urgency that wouldn’t be served by philosophical hemming and hawing, elevating a standard (albeit brutal) fight scene into a chaotic war zone.
Unfortunately, the distance from Frank also leaves room for some less elegant details, including a villain named Face who collects human faces. It’s gross in a way that feels unmotivated — sure, it implies that he’s unstable, but doesn’t suggest that he could actually take down the Punisher. There’s a reason Frank Castle doesn’t have a rogues gallery, and it’s not because he’s never encountered crazy villains before.
My biggest reservations, though, are with the art. There’s a stiffness to many of the faces that I’m struggling to diagnose. Is it Steve Dillon’s linework, or Frank Martin’s colors that are to blame? Both have some standout moments throughout the issue, turning in some truly moody panels with remarkable depth and texture. I suspect the problem isn’t in the skills of either artist, but in their appropriateness for one another’s style. Martin’s highly rendered colors feel like a great fit for Dillon’s decidedly modern lines, but they clash just as often as they don’t, resulting in pages that are just a little off. Take, for example, the closing reveal of Face standing before his namesake trophy collection.
It looks fine enough, but closer inspection reveals that Martin’s colors seem to be at cross-purposes with Dillon’s inks. Everything in the inkwork implies a strong, directional lighting from the upper left side of the panel (check out the shadows on Face’s face, or the frames on the wall behind him), but Marin adds some kind of diffuse overhead light that reflects of of Face’s forehead and cheek. It’s a subtle, perhaps even subliminal inconsistency, but it might be the source of my sense that something is off with the art.
Or maybe I just really don’t like this Face character. Shelby, I’m curious to hear your reactions to the art (clearly, no nit is too technical to pick here), and to this issue as a whole. Do you appreciate Cloonan keeping Frank at an arm’s length, or would you prefer that we get to know him a bit better? Also, how are you digging his costuming? I tended to like the more tooled-up body armor featured in his recent volumes, but throwing caution to the wind and charging into a gunfight with just a t-shirt might just fit this characterization better. What are your thoughts?
Shelby: Drew, I think you’re comparison to a hurricane was apt; I’m also reminded of the episode of 30 Rock where the writers had to come up with potential disasters so Jack could pre-tape a disaster relief special. One of their ideas was “a tornado that hits a handgun factory,” which may be the most appropriate description of Frank Castle I’ve ever seen. The question is: if the main character is an emotionless, dialogueless, robotic killing machine, why do I want to read about him? Why should I care? The answer is “I don’t think I do.”
There wasn’t really anything in this issue to make me care about the title at all. We’ve got a cookie-cutter crime set-up, with a DEA agent who feels like she stepped out of one of any of the cop procedurals out there. We’ve got death machine Frank Castle taking the bust before she gets a chance. We’ve got an old-school merc whose old-school ways get him out alive to be old-school another day. We’ve got a villain who’s supposed to be horrifyingly monstrous, but feels merely gross for grossness’ sake instead. I know his trophy wall is supposed to be shocking, but come on; read a handful of issues of Preacher or Sandman, and you see that reveal coming a mile away. That, really, is the world this character belongs in: the dark and gritty 90s, where crime wasn’t crime if it didn’t involve some sort of monstrous, disgusting, truly inhuman violence.
Ultimately, that is what this book comes down to for me. In its treatment of Frank Castle as a heartless, mindless dealer of death, it feels like a dated throwback to the hyperviolent, hypermasculine books of the 90s. There are some who would argue that that is the only way to truly tell a Punisher story and that to do otherwise is not true to the character. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I am not interested in that sort of one-dimensional story-telling. I want conflict, I want character development, I want suspense and tension, and I don’t have any reason to believe this version of Frank Castle is going to give me any of that.
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