Monday, July 23, 2007

F*** You Guys, I'm Going Home

I've been talking for a few days now about the ways in which Marvel systematically destroyed the Punisher franchise back in the mid 90s, but looking over what I've wrote I realize that I may have been a bit scant with details as to just what these stories entailed. Aside from a few mentions of the Demon Bounty Hunter Punisher (and really, can you possibly have enough mentions of the Demon Bounty Hunter Punisher?) the details themselves have not been forthcoming.

The reason for this is that, well, I barely remember these stories. Those that I read, I have mercifully blocked from my memory. Those that I did not read, well, thank God. The books were pretty dire for a number of reasons. I did, however, do some work to refresh my memory - if you are ever in need of any Marvel trivia, no matter how maddeningly inconsequential or painfully obscure, this is a great source. It's also really depressing, but that's another conversation.

Anyway: in 1994 the Powers That Be decided it was time to shake up the Punisher's status quo. So, they concocted a ten-part crossover that would run through all three Punisher titles (Punisher, Punisher War Journal and Punisher War Zone), "Suicide Run". The plot of the series was fairly straight-forward: there's a meeting being held with all the bosses of all the big crime families. The Punisher takes it into his head to crash the meeting. The easiest way to do so apparently involves simply blowing up the building in which the meeting was set to occur. (A good seven years before 9/11, but it's worth noting that the original World Trade Center bombing was still fresh in peoples' minds. I believe, if memory serves me well, the Punisher also intended to use a truck bomb to collapse the building from the basement levels. So classy!) Anyway, he blows up the building and is declared dead. The media makes a big deal about this. So while everyone else thinks the Punisher's dead, a bunch of other people take up "the mantle" of the Punisher:

Can anyone say "Reign of the Punishers"?

Anyway, the Punisher obviously didn't die in the building explosion, but the fact that he had blown up a building I guess made him a bigger priority for law-enforcement than he had been in the past. So - you've got half-a-dozen people running around in Punisher costumes, a bunch of cops and SHIELD agents running after the Punisher, and God knows what else going on. At some point you've got a series called "Pariah" running in Punisher War Journal detailing, I guess, how the Punisher had become even more of a pariah to the rest of the Marvel Universe. Which doesn't make a lot of sense considering he was an anti-social mass-murderer to begin with, but there you go.

Most of the other Punishers didn't last long (most were dispatched in fairly short order) but they stuck with the Lynn Michaels character for a while - Punisher with breasts, basically. Her origin was the same as the origin of Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft in the 2000 sequel - a cop gets disgusted with the inefficiencies of the justice system and goes rogue. Only in her case it entailed skin-tight spandex and kevlar, with a strategically redesigned skull logo to accentuate her suspiciously spherical stripper tits.

However, I suspect that Lynn Michaels was much less popular than Marvel would have liked. Because not only was there no Lynn Michaels spin-off series to be seen - this being the disastrous mid 90s when seemingly any Marvel character, no matter how dubiously popular, received a spin-off under the logic of depriving competitors of that much more shelf space - but the big push for Michaels' character was made right before all three Punisher titles were cancelled in the early months of 1995. Whatever future the Punisher had, there was no room for female sidekicks / partners / analogues, even ones with big tits. In the space of twenty months - between the first issue of "Suicide Run", cover dated December 1993, and the final issues of all three Punisher titles, cover dated July of 1995 - the Punisher franchise imploded in as spectacular a fashion as conceivable. Not even statuesque blondes in skintight leather could save the day.

As previously discussed, the Punisher had always existed on a fragile foundation. There was a very delicate balance that needed to be upheld in order for the Punisher to remain a viable character. Despite his supposed status as a "gritty", street-level character, there's probably less you could do with the Punisher than a straight fantasy property like, say, the Silver Surfer. Thanos could kill half the universe in the pages of Infinity Gauntlet without raising an eyebrow, but for the Punisher to kill even one person under the Comics Code required some very careful juggling. The moment you start to pry into that status quo, you're asking questions that really can't be answered in the contest of a the Punisher's adventures: how does a mass murderer continually escape the clutches of not just thousands of crooks who want him dead but the cops, the feds, SHIELD, and every super-hero on the planet who see him as really no different from any other murderer? When they shook up the status quo they put these questions front and center, and the answers weren't flattering. If you insist on making the Punisher a global celebrity, an "inspiration" to dozens of wannabes and a target of not just street-level police organizations but super-spy groups like SHIELD and VIGIL, the character falls apart. From the standpoint of storytelling mechanics, it's easier to "believe" in overtly sci-fi or fantasy characters like the Silver Surfer, Thor or Dr. Strange than a world in which the law enforcement infrastructure is such a colossal failure that you can have dozens of well-armed vigilantes prancing over hither-and-yon with impunity and indulging in what are essentially large-scale gang-wars. The United States we see in these later Punisher stories has less to do with the "world outside our window" that still presumably makes up the backbone of the Marvel Universe than something you might expect from a former Soviet Republic, with corrupt warlords and freelance mercenaries carving out niches of "turf" on every corner.

The Punisher is simply not a character around whom you can accrue that kind of storytelling baggage. Once you start telling stories that mess with the basic principles of the Punisher's world - he's a loner, keeps a low profile, stays clear of law enforcement, not super powered but somehow manages never to get shot, no recurring antagonists - well, things just get kind of silly. Because then you've turned the Punisher into Batman, with Lady Punisher and Anti-Punishers and Arch-Nemeses and even a Punisher Dog. (Admittedly the Punisher Dog was around long before "Suicide Run". I liked the Punisher Dog, myself.) It doesn't fit, and it's not wha tthe fans even remotely wanted from the character.

But running into problems with suspension of disbelief was ultimately only a symptom of greater instability. The Punisher had reached a wall where the stories in the main titles were increasingly repetitive and were shedding readers in a context of greater industry instability. When "Suicide Run" began in fall of 1993, the industry was just beginning its tumble down the economic precipice of the 90s crash: Superman died in the fall of 1992, and the successful "Reign of the Superman" series ran through the spring and summer of 1993. But Turok: Dinosaur Hunter #1 also hit stores that summer, cover dated July 1993. Dark Horse's "Comics' Greatest World" hit. (They actually had a feasible idea, I thought at the time - sixteen issues introducing their new universe, each costing $1. Would that the interiors had been worth even that.) Malibu launched its Ultraverse. Valiant and Image crossed over with Deathmate (tying up hundreds of thousands of dollars in product that shipped many months late and stunk up shelves for months). Warriors of Plasm launched from Jim Shooter's Defiant. Marvel launched the fourteen-part "Maximum Carnage" crossover. Batman had "Knightfall". I could go on . . .

So, basically, the industry was tanking and the appearance of an ill-conceived multi-part Punisher crossover was just another squirt of lighter fluid to fan the flames. By July of 1995 Marvel had bought Heroes World - I still remember the cover of the very first Heroes World Marvel-exclusive catalog, it had a picture of the Punisher from the Double Edge Alpha special -

- a picture which is barely legible here because of the chromium cover on which is was printed. The "Double Edge" event was an attempt by the editorial office that oversaw the "unaffiliated" characters of the Marvel Universe - the Punisher, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, the Hulk - to replicate the success of the X-Men's "Age of Apocalypse" event. "Age of Apocalypse" had been a line-defining event that ran through the entire X-Men family of titles, beginning and ending with bookend "Alpha" and "Omega" one-shots. The difference between "Age of Apocalypse" and "Double Edge" was that the "Age of Apocalypse" was both extremely popular and actually pretty good. I read a lot of bad comics in the 90s that I wish I could take back, but I still have some pretty good memories of that story. Definitely the highlight of the post-Claremont era of X-Men stories (not that that is saying a lot, but still, bear with me).

"Double Edge", however, took off from the last issues of the Punisher's various defunct titles, which ended with the character in SHIELD custody and insane - I mean, more insane than usual. Then, because he's insane, he gets it into his head - somehow - that Nick Fury was responsible for the death of his family. Never mind that the Punisher had killed the people directly responsible for his family's death decades before. Anyway. He went on a rampage and encountered everyone involved - including heavy-hitters like the Hulk and Ghost Rider - none of whom were any help in stopping the Punisher from killing Nick Fury. Of course, it was eventually revealed that that Fury had been an LMD - of course! Bwahahahaha.

Somewhere in the middle of this the Punisher also popped in to Spider-Man's "Maximum Clonage" story, suddenly remembering how the Jackal - Professor Miles Warren - set him up against Spider-Man way back in the Punisher's first appearance. So not only was he involved in his own bad storyline, but he was also incriminated in the worst Spider-Man storyline of all time.

So. After killing Fury the Punisher is in federal custody, at which point he is sentenced to death by the electric chair. The first issue of the Punisher's next series, therefore, began with his death by electrocution. But of course he didn't really die, he was resurrected by the mob (??!!) or something in order to do something or other. This brings us up to cover date November 1995, right before the collapse of Marvel.

And this series would limp on for another year and a half before ending with issue 18, cover dated April 1997. This was Marvel's nadir: bankruptcy, near collapse, creative entropy. And this was the last we saw of the Punisher before he was resurrected in the pages of his first Marvel Knights series as (uggh) Demon Bounty Hunter Punisher. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What saved the Punisher? In the end, I think it boils down to one thing: the Comics Code, or rather, the corporate culture that enabled a character like the Punisher to exist ostensibly under the auspices of the Comics Code. As soon as Marval had changed enough to let a creator like Garth Ennis have his way with the character in the context of a "mature readers" title, the character immediately went from being a dead-end creative nightmare - how many stories can you possibly tell where the Punisher "just barely" escapes from Daredevil / Spider-Man / Nick Fury / Wolverine? - to one of boundless potential. At his best, the Punisher is the ultimate 80s action hero, Sylvester Stallone out of Cobra and Arnie from Commando wrapped up with a skull on it. Presenting his stories as PG-13 adventures where the untenable and unsavory aspects of the character are necessarily ignored castrates the character in a very literal fashion. Allow the creators room for some black comedy, some satire, even some dark ultra-violence, and you've given the writers a lot more room in which to play. Taking the Punisher seriously is a big mistake, because on the face of it the character is really abominable. But you're not supposed to sympathize with the Punisher - he's less a character than a fulcrum, a force of nature around whom things happen, and who can be used as a vehicle for any number of stories. Just don't try to actually tell stories about the Punisher. Effacing the blank slate of the Punisher's featureless wrath risks obscuring why anyone cares in the first place.

No comments :