When I talk to non-comic reading friends about comics, one thing I like to mention to mess with them is that Archie Meets the Punisher is a thing that happened. That always seems to get a little bit of a reaction out of them, but not as much as my claims that it was actually quite good! The usual follow-up to that is, “How could that possibly be good?” and it hits me as a loaded question. There are different reasons why it works so well, but it wasn’t for years until I found out the perfect way to explain it to the uninitiated.
Archie Meets the Punisher came out in 1994, just prior to the explosion of Marvel/DC crossovers that we’d see throughout the era. The Archie and Marvel camps were friendly with each other and there was a joke going back and forth that there should be a crossover where Riverdale becomes a darker and more violent place and Archie becomes a vigilante after his family is killed. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but writer Batton Lash came up with an outline that pleasantly surprised everyone involved and they moved forward with it.
Many crossovers are meant to be a look at the similarities and differences between the two parties involved. This book is less about the former and very much about the latter. On one hand, we have Archie Andrews, the optimistic and corny lead character in a town where the sun is always shining and the biggest tragedy is the decision over which hot girlfriend he’s going to ask out on any given night. Then you have Frank Castle, the dead-inside Vietnam veteran whose family was murdered by the mob, leading him to dedicate his entire being to showing no mercy to the criminal element. Granted, these are still the days when Marvel and DC weren’t overly violent, even in murderer anti-hero comics, and the only blood you’d see was a shadowy spray of black with no shot of the wound, but it’s still entirely messed up to do a story that mixes these two very, very different characters.
The setup is simple and genius in its own right. Frank is hunting down a criminal named “Red” Fever. Red gets the slip on Frank and purchases a train ticket. Considering where he’s off to and who he happens to look like, we’re in for some violent sitcom misunderstandings.
Riverdale’s setting up for a big 1950’s-based dance and Archie was supposed to go with Veronica, but a comedic mishap caused her to dump him. He instead wallows in the company of over-eater BFF Jughead and Veronica is set up with her father’s new business friend “Melvin Jay”. Melvin is naturally Red with an assumed identity and with his Archie-like appearance – outside of being bigger and having buckteeth – and status as a rich go-getter, Veronica invites him to take her to the dance.
Frank and his then-sidekick Microchip (years before being killed off three times in comics) trail Red to Riverdale and we discover through Micro’s narration that Frank is working with the feds. They desperately want Red in alive and Frank is willing to play ball with them, only because Red could squeal and give him lots of info on his more important criminal associates. So the good news is that even though Frank is out to find a guy who looks like Archie, Archie doesn’t have to worry about being killed by the Punisher. The bad news is that there are already some criminals ready to set up shop in Riverdale and they want a word with Red. Since they see Archie first, they take him and Jughead for a ride.
Frank is right behind them.
You might notice the contrast in art style here. Archie Meets the Punisher is a jointly-drawn piece where everything Archie is done by Stan Goldberg and everything Punisher is John Buscema. This leads to some Who Framed Roger Rabbit style of visual disparity when they share the same panel. It works here incredibly well, though the same can’t be said for when Eric Powell tries the same magic years later with Dethklok vs. the Goon. That’ll be a review for another day.
When Frank briefly gets in Archie’s face, his gritty Marvel comic bookness is able to cut through the colorful comedy of errors crap and he easily notices that this isn’t Red at all. He chases after the bad guys, Archie and Jughead run off and everything comes to a head at the 50’s dance. Frank disguises himself as the new phys ed teacher, causing Miss Grundy to swoon over the hardened Vietnam vet. A big gunfight erupts between Frank and the mobsters while Red escapes, taking Veronica hostage. With Archie and friends’ help, Frank is able to track down Red and save Veronica. Though Archie’s heroic slapstick both hinders and helps within the same minute.
The next day, Frank says his goodbyes and to the surprise of Betty and Veronica, kisses Miss Grundy on the forehead as thanks for saving his life earlier in the story. Wearing a Riverdale jacket, Frank joins Micro (who approves of Jughead’s high opinion of hamburgers) and they drive off to Gotham City and the next comic company crossover. Meanwhile, we get a goofy cliffhanger about Wolverine ready to go after Jughead.
This panel always bugged me. Are there two Wolverines? Is his hand on backwards?
There never is any follow-up to that, nor is there any instance of Frank and Riverdale interacting ever again and that’s one of the things that makes this comic succeed for me. The comic does a great job of not compromising either property. At the end of the story, Frank Castle is still on a mission to murder the guilty and Archie is still being a dope in a cartoon wonderland. These two opposites came at each other head-to-head and there were no out-of-character casualties.
And it’s all because of Frank. Which is why it works.
Like I said, they’re opposites, but while it’s sin meeting innocence, you have to remember that even the most sinful person was innocent at one point. Frank Castle was, once upon a time, innocent. Innocent enough, at least. It was the war and the loss of his family that drove him to darkness. He may ignore that part of himself, but he doesn’t forget. It is the meaning behind his war, after all. At first, he figures Riverdale to be some kind of front for criminal activity, but has a wistful moment when he sees a man not unlike himself enjoying a walk with a family not unlike the one he once had. He was already planning to take out those nameless hoods, but a walk through Riverdale High expedites the process.
I was so distracted by what a sweet moment that is that it took me a while to notice the meaning behind that last panel.
The gunfight between Frank and the criminals is notably ambiguous. We never see any of the bad guys get shot, though we are later told that they were. We see their disposed bodies, though we are never given any confirmation that any of them are dead. There’s even a moment where Frank gets his hands on one of them and as we see a close-up of a scared Archie peaking through his fingers, there’s a “KRAK” sound effect. Did he snap the guy’s neck or just slam him into something? Keep in mind, this is directly after Frank threw a cake into the guy’s face while saying, “Well, when in Riverdale…!”
It gives us this sequence, which is hilarious in its irony, but is the heart of the comic.
The liquid is a nice touch. Is it blood or a spilled drink? We’ll never know. It’s a Schrodinger’s cat effect that works for either party in the crossover, but not quite both.
One of the more telling panels is a completely unintentional one. There’s a bit where we see various cameo characters dancing at the party, such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch boasting about the time she met Dr. Strange while Josie and the Pussycats play on stage. One of the girls in there is Marvel character Patsy Walker. Patsy Walker who once had a comic series very much like Archie’s and lived a similar existence. Patsy Walker who was brought in to interact with the Marvel superhero world. Patsy Walker who became the Cat. Patsy Walker who changed her hero name to Hellcat. Patsy Walker who fell in love with a demon called the Son of Satan and ended up marrying him. Patsy Walker who was driven insane and killed herself. Patsy Walker who spent several years in Hell.
She lived in an innocent world once.
No matter how much of a monster Frank Castle is depicted as, there’s one trope that most writers are able to pin on him that redeems him in so many incarnations. Whether it’s Chuck Dixon or Garth Ennis or Rick Remender or Greg Rucka, there’s a line that shows off both how good and terrible Frank is.
“Don’t be like me. Stay away from all of this.”
There’s nothing fun or glamorous about being the Punisher. It’s not like Batman, who mopes all the time despite living a cocktail of fantasies. He isn’t happy with who he is or what he does or what he deals with and he wouldn’t wish it on anyone. People who associate with him end up dead, whether they’ve remained on his side or have been inspired to turn against him. Knowing the Punisher means being pulled into a poisonous and corrupting world. It’s a commentary of superhero comic books in general, really.
As meta as it is, Frank gets this in his own little way. He wants to protect Riverdale’s bubble. He gets rid of the criminal element. He makes sure not to kill Red when he has him at his mercy. When Archie wants to become his Jimmy Olsen, Frank tells him to take a hike. Despite his love for what Riverdale represents, he refuses to ever return and he knows that that’s the best gift he can ever give them, no matter how much they adore him.
Cute touch is that all of the War Journal entries are random numbers, even when they’re a page or two apart.
That’s one of the reasons I enjoy this comic, at least. Is that what I tell my non-comic friends to win them over on why Archie Meets the Punisher is good? Of course not. They wouldn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. Chances are, you don’t either.
Why is this book awesome? It’s really best explained with this page.
The interaction between Frank and Archie is pretty minimal, but when it’s there, it’s familiar. As far as I’m concerned, Archie Meets the Punisher is the prototype for this:
Think about it. Frank Castle and Archie Andrews are Brock Samson and Hank Venture almost a decade before Venture Brothers even existed.
That is what you tell your friends.
One last note, something in the comic that made me laugh a little is how not only are the Archie characters aware of the Punisher by reputation, but he’s mainly known as the guy that Moose is always talking about. When the comic came out, I was in middle school and one of my classmates, who retroactively reminds me of Moose, was HUGE into the Punisher and would talk about him all of the time. I love it when art and life imitate each other.
Join me next time when we ask the question: “Have you ever danced with the Chinese ninja warrior in the pale moonlight?”