The Many Deaths of Frank Castle

February 14th, 2012 Posted by Gavok

Last week, we lost one hell of an ongoing series with Punisher MAX #22 by Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon. A lot of the time, when a series is canceled, the writer will claim that it isn’t true and that they insisted it end at this point. Sometimes it smells like bullshit, but here it’s legit as Aaron takes the MAX incarnation of the character to the logical conclusion. Frank Castle of Earth-200111 (yes, I looked it up), is dead. After taking on MAX incarnations of some of his usual punching bags, Frank’s body has finally given out and he collapses after being the last man standing one last time.

But so what? So he’s dead. Big deal. Frank Castle dies all the time, doesn’t he? Sure. I’ve seen it so many times I decided to take a trip down memory lane. As far as I can tell, here is the master list of all the times Frank has kicked the bucket. Now, of course, I’m not counting any “Earth blows up” scenarios because that goes without saying. I don’t need to mention every single time the Phoenix devours the universe. It has to be specifically about Frank buying the farm. I’ll also pass on the really vague mentions, like how he died somewhere along the line prior to Punisher 2099.

Despite debuting in 1974, it would take 17 years for any version of Frank to die. Not only did he die in 1991, but he died a lot. In the second volume of Marvel’s What If, Frank died three issues in a row! Let’s begin with that.

Comic: What If #24 (What If Wolverine Was Lord of the Vampires?)
Year: 1991
Writer: Roy Thomas and R.J.M. Lofficier
Artist: Tom Morgan
Background: The world of this issue is based on the time the X-Men fought Dracula. Rather than be defeated, Dracula turns the team to his side. Wolverine, being so awesome, has enough willpower to challenge Dracula. He ends up killing the Count and takes over his throne. While these days, a supernatural outbreak needs to take over the entire world to show that shit’s gotten real, Wolverine is happy enough taking over Manhattan and using it as his vampire nest. With no real reason given, some heroes and villains are turned to slaves while others are ordered by Wolverine to be killed completely. I feel the need to mention that artist Tom Morgan decided to include Frog-Man of all people into that latter group. Anyway, the whole city is in chaos and in that chaos is Frank Castle with a headband and a whole lot of silver bullets.

In regular continuity, Dr. Strange would read a spell that would wipe out all vampires. Vampire Wolverine gets wind of this and has Vampire Juggernaut take down Strange. Strange possesses the bitching cape and the Eye of Agamotto, then joins it with the Punisher to make the ultimate vampire-killing machine. Because nobody cared about Blade back then.

Punisher killing superhero vampires is a thing to see. He melts Colossus with holy water and fries Juggernaut with the Eye of Agamotto. That leads him to a one-on-one fight with Wolverine.

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“america is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey” [Secret Avengers 21]

January 11th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

The crux of the American Dream, of America as a concept, is that we are required to be better. Not born better, because the idea of hereditary quality/morality or divine right inevitably results in corruption. The better I’m talking about is a struggle to become better. A need to be better. We need to be better than our enemies, better than our past, and better than the darker aspects of our minds. We are here. We need to be there. We need to work at being better. It isn’t a static state. It’s a constant struggle. We choose to go against our baser natures for the greater good. We avoid the easy routes to fame or fortune in favor of a more honest and rewarding path. That’s the dream. But when people talk about America the Beautiful, that’s what they’re talking about. The American Dream is about being a good person and having that be paid forward throughout every level of society. Sometimes it works out. A lot of times it doesn’t. It’s always worth believing in and striving for, though. It’s a goal, not a status quo or an end point.

Captain America, my favorite interpretation of him anyway, represents that Dream. As a result, he’s often disappointed with the actions of the country as a whole, from its government to its people. Cap represents the best of us, and that’s the source of his disappointment. There’s a Superman scene that I like a lot, created by Garth Ennis and John McCrea in JLA/Hitman. He flies up to Earth orbit and looks down at his planet. “If you knew how you are loved,” he thinks, “not one of you would raise a hand in rage again.”

It’s Superman, but it fits for Cap, too. He knows the heights humanity and America are capable of, and he’s often disappointed in the fact that the country and her people fall so short of the mark so frequently. The Falcon isn’t someone to be coddled or emancipated or attacked or guarded against. He’s Cap’s brother, someone he loves dearly and treats like family. The flag isn’t a scrap of cloth. It’s a symbol of what unity can do. And on and on and on. He’s a good man, and he represents a good thing.

Here’s a page from Secret Avengers 21, by Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen, Wade von Grawbadger, Dave Lanphear, and Chris Sotomayor. Drops this week.

Torture. It’s been a big deal over the past few years. The US has engaged in torture for ages, from slavery to the Cold War, but now that it’s public, it’s a lot harder to ignore. The behavior of the US government in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere has been deplorable on that front. Torture is a pretty simple concept. Even a child can define it. “I am going to hurt you until you give me what I want.”

But at some point, the government redefined it so that things like making someone think they’re drowning don’t count as torture. Waterboarding is something that Japanese soldiers were hanged for back in the World War II days, was defined as illegal in the Vietnam War, was used in apartheid South Africa on political prisoners, and was a favored tactic of both the Khmer Rouge (who murdered over a million people for unbelievably stupid and petty reasons) and Pinochet’s Chile.

Waterboarding, torture in general really, is indefensible, but the defense usually involves the words “necessity” and “protection” and other scaremongering ideas. We have to hurt them before they can hurt us.

If there is any one thing that it is important that 2012 America should be better than, it’s torture. It is an actual evil, and people who engage in it have no right to call themselves good people. Being better is about being better, not lowering yourself to the level of Pol Pot or Augusto Pinochet because you’re afraid of someone or something. Being better is about finding better ways to solve problems. Being better is about not hurting unarmed, defenseless men and women. Torture is vile.

“I don’t believe in torture. It’s ugly, dishonorable, and unreliable. So I’m going to let my colleagues do it.”

And here we meet the 2012 Captain America. He’s the antithesis of the Captain America that I enjoy reading about. He’s exactly what America should stand against. He’s a coward. This isn’t a momentary lapse in judgment. This is a man who knows better, who explains that he knows better even as he goes against what he believes, turns his back in the face of actual evil. He allows the existence of evil because it is convenient, which may well be worse than the evil itself.

There’s that axiom about all evil needing to prosper is for good men to do nothing, but I don’t agree with that at all. Good men don’t do nothing. Good men stop evil when it rears its head in their presence. They stamp it out and refuse to allow it to exist. Good men do better.

It’s 2012, and Captain America turns his back and tacitly endorses one of the worst crimes of the US government in recent memory. He turns his back on everything he should stand for and approves the use of everything America should not be. Captain America broke.

That’s vile. Maybe it’s a cynical statement on American politics and hypocrisy. Maybe not. It’s still vile. Reject it.

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“Not gonna be as easy as that.” [Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis]

March 3rd, 2011 Posted by david brothers

I wrote about Warren Ellis and Kaare Andrews’s Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis for ComicsAlliance, and how much I liked Andrews’s art. I think this is probably the best looking X-book in a good while, even above Ron Garney’s work with Jason Aaron on Wolverine: Weapon X: The Adamantium Men. Just ugly and grimey and awesome. Also notable: someone gets stabbed through the chest with no sound effect covering the exit wound (which is something Marvel has done something like 99% of the time since Elektra died) and Wolverine holds his own guts in his hands.

So this, then, is a sidebar to the CA post. This right here? Best Wolverine sequence in years. For real. Neat use of his powers, good way to sell the threat of the Furies, and good way to show that Wolverine is down, down… but not out, no… not out.

(colors by Frank D’Armata)

Pick that series up if you find the trade or back issues or whatever. It’s got Furies in it, and as a lapsed Ellis fan… best thing he’s done in years. Probably since Ultimate Fantastic Four.

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Warren Ellis’ Shoot

November 13th, 2010 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

In late October, Vertigo published Vertigo Resurrected, a collection of rare stories.  One of them was Shoot, a story about schoolyard shootings in America by Warren Ellis.  Before it was published, the Columbine shooting happened.  According to Ellis, DC wanted to change the story, he refused, they refused to publish, and that was that. 

The new people at DC had a different take, and obviously it’s been a while since Columbine, and so the story came out.  I don’t have any problem with Ellis refusing to change his story.  That’s his decision.  I have to say, though, that I think not publishing it, especially at the time, was the right call.  That’s a debate for another time. 

For now, I’m looking at the content of the story.  Reading Shoot left me feeling acutely annoyed.  On his blog, Warren Ellis says that he intended the story to be horror, not social commentary.  Reading the story, I’m not sure that’s true.  It’s a Hellblazer story, so it has John Constantine swaggering across the page, saything pithy and clear-sighted things.  In the last few pages, he gives a long speech about what prompted the shooting.  I can’t say the speech wrong.  What I can say, is the speech is completely off the mark.

Let’s see what we have in the paragraphs above.  The first two panels are Constantine ridiculing the woman for thinking there is any one thing that made the kid do it.  It wasn’t violent video games, or movies or music.  Those ideas are stupid and simplistic.

So what’s his take?

Second scan, second bubble:  “These are the end times.”

Second scan, fourth, fifth and sixth bubble:  “The sins of the father are visited on the son.”

Third scan, first bubble:  “Television is taking over.”

Third scan, second bubble: “Think of the children.”

Although the ‘raised by television’ argument is a new one, it harkens back to boarding schools, nannies, the modern novel, the internet, pacifiers, and any other invention that lets parents forget they’re parents every once in a while.  The rest are biblically old.  They were trotted out to explain everything from plagues to fires to pre-marital sex.  They’re not useful advice.  They’re not insight.  They’re not even observations.  They’re slogans.

And they’re slogans that can be used for anything.  I’m willing to bet the people Constantine ridicules used the same lines he does.  ‘Our society is crumbling’ is a set up used for any argument, from lowering taxes to distributing condoms in schools.  And  I know that the ‘raised by television’ bit and ‘parents asleep at the wheel’ bit were trotted out by people wanting to ban graphic video games and violent music.

To be honest, if asked to side with a person making Constantine’s speech or someone who wanted to start a campaign to tone down video game violence, I’d go with the latter.  Not because I think it would work, but because it’s something.  It’s some concrete step.  It’s some way to engage with kids.  And if it doesn’t work, it can be changed.

What Constantine is offering is a four word explanation for everything.  “Society is to blame.”  Well, okay.  Thanks for letting us in on that. 

Now what?

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We Care a Lot Part 18: The Sammy Hagar of Cannibalism

October 13th, 2009 Posted by Gavok

“Oh, no. No no no. That’s—that’s Venom. That’s Venom as me. That’s—and it’s not even the good one. It’s Mac Gargan.”

— Spider-Man, New Avengers #50

Due to popular demand, I guess I have to dedicate one of these installments towards Mac Gargan, the current Venom. First, a quick refresher on who Mac Gargan is and what he was up to before donning the hungry goo spandex.

Mac Gargan used to be a greedy private investigator, doing just about any job as long as the price was right. Jonah Jameson hired him to figure out the link between Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Mac wasn’t getting anywhere due to Peter’s spider-sense indicating when to slip away, so Jameson pulled out the big bucks for more desperate measures. Using an experimental serum and a cybernetic suit, he transformed Mac into the Scorpion. On the plus side, he was granted strength and agility to counter Spider-Man, along with a cool tail that shoots stuff. On the minus side, it drove him completely mad.

I think we need more villains who are only evil because whatever gave them powers also made them fucking crazy. A lot of the early Spider-Man villains had that going for them.

Scorpion existed for decades as a B-list Spider-Man villain. He was one of the many, many villains who in some way existed as the dark shadow of Spider-Man. Due to his insanity and his insatiable hatred for Jameson, Gargan tended to fail as a team player. Also, some of his insanity came from his inability to remove his costume.

Mark Millar reinvented Gargan for the better during his run in Marvel Knights Spider-Man, which I covered earlier in this series. At some point, Gargan had become a top henchman for Norman Osborn. His armor was gone, though with many operational scars left behind, and his sanity had been more or less restored. Sure, he was still a bad guy, but he was a coherent bad guy. Under Osborn’s orders, he orchestrated the kidnapping of Aunt May as a way to mess with Spider-Man and get Osborn out of prison.

As we know, the Venom symbiote – having skipped on its latest host – decided that Gargan was ideal. Perhaps it was how Gargan’s Scorpion powers are notably comparable to Spider-Man’s. Perhaps it was Gargan’s hatred of Spider-Man, spiked with his lack of Eddie Brock’s morals. But by the end of the day, Mac Gargan had become Venom.

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Geoff Klock & Planetary: +3 Years

October 13th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Back in 2006, I did some linkblogging over Geoff Klock’s issues with Planetary 26 and the big end of the series. It’s still a good read, and well worth a look.

It’s kind of funny that a few weeks shy of three years later I’m linking his review of Planetary 27. It’s thorough and brutal and completely, 100% true. Just a snip, because you really must click through:

It feels to me like Ellis failed to give her anything at all to do in the first draft of this script, then writes the problem into the script as her discussion with Elijah (resolved in her future self telling her (not showing her) everything is going to be fine). But then he still wants her to have something to do visually (since a lot of the “action” in this issue is pretty hard to make visual, such as “putting more power to the pulse lamps”), so she gets to leap into action and GRAB A LAMP like a monkey.

I think the first thing I said to some comics reading friends was that the issue was, at best, a C+. It felt like Ellis was going “Wikipedia Wikipedia Wikipedia Wikipedia Wikipedia ZAP! He’s back.” Just miles and miles of clunky and jargon-laden exposition, dragging us kicking and screaming to the end of the issue.

Ellis should’ve left it in the oven longer. It feels like an anticlimax, just like 26 did. In 26, the big bad guys are dropped down a hole. That’s their end. Ellis spent issues upon issues telling us how horrible and evil they are, only giving us a few actual examples (the death of Superman/Wonder Woman/JLA, Snow being mindwiped), and then their big end is that they get dropped in a hole and die. It’s stupid and anticlimactic. Even if the series is about bigger things, you can’t end it that way. It’s lazy. At least the Emperor from Star Wars did his laser show and Satan in a Cloak thing before he got dropped in a hole.

I don’t like the back half of Planetary. Once the series turned from “Other kinds of fiction are fun!” to “The Fantastic Four are Evil, here is evidence, it is just off-screen, do you see it?” I got bored. It turned into Ellis’s trademark Good Bastard vs Evil Bastard, with all of the barked orders and hidden agendas that made Transmetropolitan unbearable. The Four are bad guys, yes, we’re told that over and over. And Snow can be bad (he’s not averse to physical torture [see: Invisible Man, William Leather], he sabotages a chance to harvest wealth of data to get rid of a villain), but he’s not as bad as them, no. And he kept time travel secret just because.

It’s not good. It’s poor writing. It’s telling, not showing. It feels tired, it feels soft, it feels weak. But really, Geoff Klock tells it better than I do.

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Physics Phail

August 13th, 2009 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

Fine, I know, spelling fail, too.  Still.

In comics there are a lot of situations in which characters of wildly different sizes fight.  Lilliputian characters will go up against regular-sized people, or normal people will fight fee-fie-foe-fum-style giants.  Sometimes, not always, but sometimes these fights will contain knock-out punches delivered by the smaller character.

Imagine a fist smashing into your face, hard enough to knock you out.

Now imagine a something the size of a pen cap smash into your face at the same speed as a punch.  Now imagine a pen-tip.  A needle tip.

Yes, it would depend on the thickness of the relative giant’s skin, and the amount of momentum behind the punch.  But if you see Wonder Woman punch Giganta, Giganta shouldn’t fall down, she should be stabbed through the cheek.

I would think this would appeal to some of the gore-loving creators.  Think of a super-speed-powered character punching a giant foe again and again, ripping holes into the skin, the hero’s arms dripping with capillary fragments and subcutaneous fat, until the giant character was just one walking blood-fountain.  Very Ennis, no?  Or do I mean Ellis?

Well, I imagine they’d both like it.

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Comic Economics Linkblogging

January 14th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Comics going up to four bucks has been a hot topic lately, with good reason. It’s a big jump in price from 3 bucks, and it’s coming at a time when people are screaming “Recession!” at each other like it was “bingo.”

Probably the best financial-based look at the price increase came from Conor at iFanboy, where he broke down price per page for trades and singles. Matt Silady hipped me to Marvel’s Ultimate trade and hardcover pricing a while back (ten cents per page on the OSHCs, approximately, saves you money, with Ultimate Power being the first to cost more than that), and I’d been paying attention to comic prices before then anyway, since I’d taken an axe to my pull list and gotten rid of 90% of the dross I was reading.

I found another interesting post this weekend, courtesy of Heidi Meeley. She breaks down some real-world equivalents for what you pay for comics:

12 comic books at $2.99 = $35.88
Monthly electric bill at $34.76
That is a big one, right?
16 comic books at $2.99 = $47.84
Cell phone bill at $49.95
Unfortunately, some form of communication remains a viable expense.

I buy most of my trades off Amazon at this point. Getting up to 60% off counts for a lot, particularly when it comes to OSHCs or Absolutes. As my attitude toward comics adjusts, I’ve become more comfortable with waiting to read, or even not reading, some stories. As the price of comics has gone up, I’ve become even more comfortable with waiting to read books and dropping other books entirely.

Basically, I don’t really have any interest in paying four bucks for a comic book, especially not when I can double that investment, add a couple bucks, and get six times the story. Four dollars for 22 pages is a quite a bit more than a bit much. I quit buying CDs when they went over 12 bucks for similar reasons. I started looking for sales. With comics, I’m looking for full stories. Serialization is good and all, and hanging with the gang on Wednesday is fun, but most stories are interminable when split up these days.

And with Marvel pulling tricks like sixteen pages of story and charging four bucks for books like Astonishing X-Men Ghost Boxes, which wasn’t even really worth three bucks to begin with, well, I don’t feel too guilty about making four bucks my hard line.

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