Tuesday, July 17, 2007

F*** You

Mike over at Progressive Ruin mentioned in passing the masterful way in which Marvel torpedoed the Punisher franchise back in the mid-90s. Having lived through (some of) these fearful comics as they arrived on the newsstands way back when, the memory of just how thoroughly Marvel demolished a character who had risen from obscurity to become one of their top franchises still boggles. They could not have destroyed the character more thoroughly and completely if they had sat down at a meeting with the intention of wiping every ounce of creative potential from the concept.

You can say what you will about the way the Spider-Man franchise imploded, but the Clone Saga at least began with the best of intentions before going entirely off the rails. It was pretty much the textbook example of a story getting away from every creator involved, as a succession of writers, artists, editors and even editors-in-chief tried and failed to right the damage done by a succession of progressively disastrous calls. Through it all, however, it's vital to remember that people still wanted to like Spider-Man. He remained the company's flagship character. The desire for quality stories on the part of Spider-Man's fanbase never wavered, the desire for saleable stories on the part of retailers never faltered, and ultimately after enough time had elapsed and the franchise had undergone a succession of purgative gestures the character was able to recapture all or most of the commercial stature he had held on the eve of the Clone Saga. (Admittedly, the Spider-stories on the eve of the Clone books hadn't been that great either - I vividly remember seemingly years' worth of stories, over a number of different titles, dedicated to dismantling the once-awesome character of the Hobgoblin, a move which struck me then and strikes me now as peevish and short-sighted, specially considering how poorly the Green Goblin has been handled since.)

(Digression: Jesus Fucking Christ in a birch bark canoe, has it really been over ten years since they brought back Norman Osborn? Way to make me feel old, God.)

Anyway - Spider-Man eventually recovered. He had enough fans and strong enough support from retailers that it was only a matter of time. The Punisher, on the other hand, was hurt so badly by four or five solid years of horrible stories that the character's entire fan base was demolished. A character who had no problem sustaining three solo titles and a raft of spin-off projects in the boom years of the 90s was soon reduced to no regular titles. Relaunches were attempted, and failed. The character was positioned as a lynchpin for a new publishing initiative - Marvel "Edge", courtesy of the editorial reshuffling brought about by corporate downsizing and bankruptcy - the initiative failed. The character was again resurrected in the early days of Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti's Marvel Knights line - and the relaunch again failed.


This was the brilliant idea that was supposed to revamp the character for the 21st Century: demon bounty hunter. This series also featured some of Bernie Wrightson's last comic book work before going to work primarily for Hollywood doing concept work for various and sundry projects. (Also: he's got some form of eye problems - macular degeneration or something similar - that prevents him from concentrating on extended sequential projects, doesn't he? Correct me if you know more.) Anyway - it was far from Wrightson's best work, and the series as a whole was three shades of horrible.

At that point, I think, offering up the character to Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (fresh off their successful run on Vertigo's post-Sandman flagship Preacher) was something of a "hail Mary". In hindsight it seems like the most natural fit conceivable, but at the time the idea of these particular creators tackling a Marvel character, any Marvel character, outside the bounds of a "What If?" one-shot (like Ennis' previous What If the Punisher Destroyed the Marvel Universe? book) or prestige project, was while certainly a promising idea, no more certain to succeed than any of the last half-dozen attempts at raising the character's flatline profile. It didn't fit Marvel's long-standing profile as a relatively safe company, which, despite it's "edgy" reputation, actually produced far less in the way of shocking or potentially controversial comics than DC, with its numerous different segmented publishing arms. Now, of course, the Punisher has become synonymous with Garth Ennis, to the point where Ennis is essentially allowed to do whatever he wishes with the character in his own nasty corner of the Marvel (Max) Universe.

After the initial twelve-issue maxi-series which did the grunt work of reintroducing the character to the reading public, the then-new Punisher ongoing was conceived as a rotating showcase, with Ennis & Dillon providing the initial arc, to be replaced by a succession of creators dealing with the Punisher in his new, gritty Marvel Knights milieu. The first arc after the initial Ennis & Dillon six-parter was a Tom Peyer story that received such a negative reaction from fans that Ennis was rushed back onto the title immediately afterwards, where he has remained ever since. It was unusual for Marvel to make such a public admission that a signature creator had become so vital to the ongoing viability of a property - the story of Marvel in the 90s, after all, is partly the story of the attempt to diminish the importance of the individual creator in the wake of the Image imbroglio - but the fact was that the Punisher was still in need of careful shepherding in order to regain the same stature he had once held. Once they had found an approach that worked, they couldn't afford to take chances - one false step and they would be back where they started, which was this:

Now, of course, the Punisher is sufficiently rehabilitated to the point that the company feels relatively secure in branching out again - launching a new title set at a remove from Ennis' work, established more firmly in the superhero context that Ennis has largely eschewed. But it's worth noting that this could only really happen after many years of methodical rebuilding, during which Marvel essentially rebuilt the character's fanbase from scratch. The only other character that suffered anywhere near as badly during the late-90s, early-00's interregnum was the Ghost Rider, and I'd argue that Ghost Rider has never really found the kind of post-bust equilibrium that the Punisher now enjoys.

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