Tuesday, August 09, 2011


The Punisher #1

I must be missing the gene that makes crime / police procedural stuff appeal to a person. I read a comic like this and it's hard for me to even keep my eyes on the page, they just slide off like I'm looking at a blank wall. Is this a well-made comic book? I can't even answer that question because the very premise is so far and away from anything I'm interested in reading that I can't possibly judge.

For me, at least, the Punisher's appeal comes from the juxtaposition between his black & white, pulpy roots and the technicolor fantasy context of the Marvel Universe. He's a noirish figure who could have stepped out of any men's adventure magazine published between 1930 and 1970, a bloodthirsty urban vigilante stuck in a world of superheroes. The Punisher on his own outside the Marvel Universe is just another guy with a gun - which is something that the makers of the Punisher films, to their detriment, haven't quite realized how to make interesting. The right tone to strike with the Punisher is just slightly absurd, leaving the protagonist as a kind of straight man placed in an incrementally exaggerated version of the "real" world, be it the world of superheroes or something else. No flies on Garth Ennis's Punisher: even in his MAX stories Ennis understood the fact that the Punisher has to have something slightly larger-than-life to work against to keep him from becoming a garden-variety thug. Accordingly, is run was partly defined by the horror-tinged macabre tone of bookends The Tyger, Born and The End.

These things can go badly wrong, of course - go too far to one extreme of tonal juxtaposition and you risk doing something stupid like making him temporarily black or turning him into a renegade angel warrior. The Punisher is less about character and plot than tone and execution, and these are hard attributes to fudge. Mike Baron understood this perfectly. His run was never particularly original but he knew how to write the best kind of action stories - overheated like an 80s action movie, filled with mustache-twirling villains who deserved their inevitable comeuppance, which they received in superbly improbable action sequences. If you've seen Stallone's Cobra or Schwarzenegger's Raw Deal, then you should be able to understand the appeal of the Punisher in the late 80s and early 90s. These weren't really "serious" stories because they were obviously hyperventilated boy's fantasies, and could only be taken seriously with at least part of the tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The best Punisher story since Ennis left the franchise was undoubtedly Rick Remender's "Frankencastle" sequence - a story that worked where "Angel Punisher" failed through consistently strong execution and a precise understanding of exactly how to play the character. The Punisher is the man who keeps his head and stays 100% consistent in any and every situation: even when he's been turned into a giant Frankenstein's monster, he remains focused on nothing more and nothing less than killing bad guys in the most efficient way possible. In theory you could write a decent Punisher story in any genre if you just stayed true to the character's core tone - and certainly, there have been good funny Punisher stories, good fantasy-tinged Punisher stories, good sci-fi Punisher stories, even a handful of Punisher romance stories. As long as the Punisher remains the Punisher, the concept is pliable, all the more so for its stark simplicity.

But this? The first issue of Greg Rucka's anticipated run? I just don't understand how this is anyone's idea of a good comic book. There's no high concept here, barely any concept at all besides the most bafflingly, numbingly literal take on the character: criminals kill people, the Punisher kills them, rinse and repeat. It's strictly a police procedural with organized crime or terrorists or something like that. The Punisher, for one, is barely in it - he shows up at the end to shoot some people after almost a whole issue of nothing much happening. I thought the days of the heroes barely appearing in the comics were gone with Bill Jemas? There's cops at crime scenes and crooks gathering in underworld bars and oh god I'm getting bored just typing it. I don't like crime stories, that's an admitted weakness on my part, but come on: how is this anyone's idea of an interesting comic book? You're telling me you've been given the opportunity to write superhero comic books, a medium and a genre where literally almost anything is possible in the hands of an experienced practitioner, and this po-faced Law & Order-meets-Bernhard Goetz slash fiction is what you want? Really? For a comic book in the year 2011 to be so derivative and so uninteresting, and yet to take itself so damn seriously, is nothing less than a complete abdication of creative responsibility on the part of the creators involved. You really have to get up pretty early in the morning to craft something as willfully mediocre as this.

Is this what "real" Punisher fans want? Hardcore crime fiction with nary a trace of the fantastic, either in tone or content? Well, damn, I guess you get your wish then. I'll just wait a few years until sales drop back to cancellation levels and they turn Frank into a space alien for six issues.

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