The long, difficult road to liking the Punisher

July 16th, 2011 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell



For a few weeks, I house-sat for a friend of mine who has a floor-to-ceiling shelf of comic trades.  While patiently waiting for his cat to come out from under the bed so I could make sure she was still alive, I picked up a few of those trades and started reading.  I started with a massive Marvel hardcover of Garth Ennis’ original run on the Punisher, before he got the Max title, in part because I remembered David mentioning that a character named Joan returned in the run.

After that, I moved on to the ten Garth Ennis Punisher Max trades that comprise the most celebrated run anyone ever had on Punisher.  (What can I say?  It was a long trip and a shy cat.)  I’ve often repeated a saying about the Punisher that I’ve read online, “The more I read about the Punisher, the less I like him.”  After having read all the most loved Punisher stories, I have to say I finally changed my mind.  I do like the Punisher.  I even kind of like his world, although I expect I’ll have to be sparing with my Punisher reading since there are plenty of things that happen in that world that I don’t want to read about.

When I look at my ongoing reaction to the Punisher, and Punisher stories, I think what bothered me most all along was not the Punisher or his world – which I can read or hear about without having too much of an emotional reaction – but the way he’s sold to me.

When I’ve read Punisher reviews by people who are fans of the comic, I often run across the phrase, “You may not like him,” or “You’re not supposed to like him,” or even “I’m not sure I like him.”  Having read the books, I have to say that all those phrases are weapons-grade crap.  I don’t believe even one of them.  Of course you’re supposed to like the Punisher.  He’s the best fighter, the best tactician, the best judge of character, and the most purely committed to his cause without prejudice.  Oh, and he’s a war hero.  Also, when it comes to taking care not to have any civilian casualties, he’s more careful than specially-trained army and police forces.  He gets visas for mistreated undocumented immigrants.  He has a soft spot for damsels in distress.  In scenes when people are freaking out, he acts as impromptu counselor to get them back on their feet.  And is there a cute little kid?  You bet there is!  She loves the Punisher and hugs his knees and he stands over her for days making sure that she’s safe.  And finally, just for fun, he gives a cantankerous old man in a bar a bottle of the man’s favorite vodka, and makes the bartender treat him with respect.  Of course you’re supposed to like this guy.  And of course you do like this guy.  Don’t try to tell me different.

I’m not complaining about liking him.  Everything I said up there about the Punisher can be applied to Batman, Superman, and any other superhero.  As written by Garth Ennis, the characters who exposit just how great Frank Castle is at everything become well-rounded characters who are interesting to listen to when they speak.  The victims have voices, opinions, and speaking styles instead of predictable lines.  These are actual characters, not just props who stumble in and say whatever lines are needed to set the story in motion.  (Except the little kid.  There is no little kid in any fictional medium that even approximates what an actual child is like.  Maybe that’s because no kid lends his or herself to a coherent story.  They’re still too much like little space aliens come down to earth to fit into anyone else’s plot line.)

The reason you like him is he’s the only character who actually makes sense.  The thesis of the Punisher is set up in the first few pages of the Max storyline.  He recounts the story of his wife and kids being killed by chance during a mob shooting, and says that that was the day when the world went insane.  He finishes up with a line that goes (roughly), “I go out every night and make the world sane.”  If a guy in the real world were to say that with a massive gun in his hand, it would be time to run.  In this world, it’s correct.  People are in agonizing situations for which there is no effective help.  Official channels are clogged with corruption, technical procedure, and the need for public approval.  Unofficial channels are too weak and unprepared to be protection against the threats that face them.  And, over it all, there’s societal ignorance and indifference.

Set against this backdrop are, usually, two main sets of players.  There are villains who wow us with their sadism and evil, and who engage us with their petty prejudices and meanness.  And then there’s team Punisher.  As much as the Punisher is spoken of as a Force of Nature who Works Alone, he’s usually paired up with someone in these books.  Sometimes they’re reluctant to help him in any way.  Sometimes they’re insisting he join them.  Either way, the team up works because there is someone to bounce different ideas and opinions off the character, and draw out different sides of him.  Through these characters we see the Punisher’s philosophy, his disgust, his sense of duty, his more emotional sides, and the large part of him that’s still a soldier in the traditional sense of the word.  By going through these books, beginning and ending with military plots that show the Punisher as a soldier, we get a complete sense of his character, why he’s necessary to this particular world, and how he fits into it.

These are very good stories, which is why the ‘selling’ of the Punisher doesn’t work.  In most of the issues, especially the issue of Max, characters are mostnly wrong to the degree that they disagree with the Punisher.  The more they differ from the Punisher, in situation assessment, personal philosophy, background, taste, and opinion, the worse they are.  Characters the reader is meant to respect – not necessarily like, but admire and trust the judgment of – talk up the Punisher’s professionalism, fighting technique, and personal character.  There are times when the Punisher is unaccountably contemptuous of certain characters.  They turn out to be bad.  There are times when he strangely decides to trust – although characters are careful to say that he never really trusts anyone completely.  They turn out to be good.  He’s perfect.  And yet, the whole world is against him.  Almost everyone resists giving him information.  Almost everyone is morally repulsed by him and feels the need to say so, despite being knee-deep in the proof that he’s the only one who can help.  In one story, the cops all hate him and several of them try to frame him for a crime he never committed.  In the next, a bunch of slain mobsters’ wives complain that the police all love him and won’t move against him.  Everyone is against poor Frank, despite him being the best guy ever.

When I read these stories, I believe that the Punisher is the only person in that world who could adequately deal with the problems that are presented.  I also believe that he doesn’t kill a single innocent person.  In the real world, a guy like this would.  But if he did in comics, the character’s justification would collapse, and I like the character, so I’m willing to believe that he’s meticulous enough to never hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it.  There are plenty of inventive and compassionate characterizations that twist the reader into liking a character they initially hated, or being soured on someone they initially liked.  To have a more crude push towards the Punisher as the be-all and end-all of characters, chopping down other characters or manipulating storylines to get there, feels like a loss of faith in the reader.

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This Week in Panels: Week 80

April 3rd, 2011 Posted by Gavok

Welp, I’m back from watching this year’s Wrestlemania. If you missed it, it was a really bad show that featured the burials of Sheamus (US Champion), Daniel Bryan, Alberto Del Rio (Royal Rumble winner), Wade Barrett (Intercontinental Champion), Heath Slater (Tag Team Champion), Justin Gabriel (other Tag Team Champion), Ezekiel Jackson, Jack Swagger, John Morrison and Dolph Ziggler. Why push what should be the future of the business on the show of the year when you can instead have Triple H and Undertaker boringly masturbate for 45 minutes?

At least things turned out well for Cody Rhodes. Good on you, Rey Mysterio.

This week I’m joined by Was Taters, Space Jawa and VersasoVantare in a week where I lose both Remender’s Punisher and Deadpool Team-Up. This has not been a good week for my hobbies.

Avengers #11
Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr.

Captain America #616
Ed Brubaker, Mike Deodato and many others

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This Week in Panels: Week 75

February 27th, 2011 Posted by Gavok

It’s the ThWiP 75th Week Double-Sized Spectacular! …Okay, it isn’t double-sized. It differs from week to week, so you can’t even define what single-sized is anyway. But I do have Was Taters and Space Jawa helping me out, so that’s neat.

Plus Deadpool Team-Up has the most Gavokian panel in the history of panels.

Avengers #10
Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr.

Captain America #615
Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice, Sean McKeever and Filipe Andrade

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Punisher Streaks the Marvel Universe

November 26th, 2010 Posted by Gavok

This week brought the end to one of the more enjoyable Marvel miniseries of the year in Avengers & the Infinity Gauntlet. Written by Brian Clevinger (of Atomic Robo and 8-Bit Theater fame) and Lee Black with art by Brian Churilla (the Anchor), it’s a very fun and all-ages reimagining of the Infinity Gauntlet storyline. Rather than have a bunch of heroes run headfirst into a gruesome death by Starlin’s second favorite character, only so that Starlin’s first favorite character can be the one to stop him, Clevinger goes a different route. The group of heroes sent to figure out what’s wiped out half the universe is made up of Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, Hulk, Wolverine, Doctor Doom and US Ace. Yes, that space trucker from the awful US-1 comics of yesteryear.

The real star of the comic is Dr. Doom, mainly because of his dynamics with the rest of the cast. He hates Spider-Man for his lack of respect and penchant for annoying humor. He hates Ms. Marvel for daring to give Doom orders. He hates Hulk for being an imbecile. He hates Thanos for being one level above him in the megalomaniac game. He hates US Ace for being a ridiculous space hick. He hates Wolver… actually, he sort of almost seems to respect Wolverine just because they see eye-to-eye as the straight men of the group.

It’s a fun four issues and I can’t wait to check out Clevinger’s Captain America: The Fighting Avenger in January. But that’s not what this post is about. You see, Avengers & the Infinity Gauntlet has this subplot about the Skrulls and Kree joining forces to destroy Earth (long story). There’s a sequence that shows the people of Marvel Earth from all over the globe responding to this. Nick Fury, Mole Man, civilians trying to stay alive, etc. One panel shows the Punisher trying to fight back against the alien invasion. He’s surrounded by flame and… er… the bad choice of coloring hit me by surprise.

Hey, now! Hm… Then again, the guy’s already killing people on the streets. It’s not like public indecency is going to add that many years to his 329 back-to-back life sentences. Still, be warned: if you mention “Micro” around Frank Castle, you BETTER make sure he knows you mean his hacker sidekick.

I jabbed Clevinger about this and this is what he had to say about the Punisher’s Naked Kill:

😀 Lee and I never got to see a color proof for issue 4, so this panel came as quite a surprise. Looking at it now, I’m not sure if we’d have said anything or not. I mean, we got to include the phrase “meanest mother trucker” and show Wolverine killing a guy on panel in an all ages book. Why not go balls out and have Punisher, uh, go balls out?

It’s nice to see him taking it in stride like this. Since he’s been so cool about me poking fun at Frank’s exposed shotgun and grenades, I thought I’d do him a solid. Right here, right now, you’re getting a 4thletter! exclusive. Cross your fingers, but I’m hoping Marvel could use this for the cover for the Avengers & the Infinity Gauntlet trade.

What courage. I would never allow that thing anywhere near Wolverine’s claws!

…what? I meant the beach ball.

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Franken-Castle: A Look Back at Rick Remender’s Graveyard Smash

October 7th, 2010 Posted by Gavok

Just last week, Rick Remender’s infamous Franken-Castle story arc had come to a close. Never have I seen a more divisive reaction to the character’s developments in all his history. At least with his whole Punishment Spectre-lite run, just about everyone hated it. I thought the whole Frankenstein concept was interesting and fun and I’ve seen many agree with me, but I’ve seen just as many hate it with the fury of a million Nick Furys. My local comic shop for months had a bulletin board with nothing up it other than Punisher #11 with a sign over it saying, “DISGRACE!” I kept forgetting to lovingly lick the covers of whatever Punisher issue I was buying while at the register.

Since Matt Fraction took up the character in Punisher: War Journal, Frank Castle has become more and more involved in the greater Marvel Universe. Outside of Jigsaw being killed off (and then being replaced with another guy taking up the mantle several issues later), not much carried over into Rick Remender’s Punisher run other than his latest injection into the superhero scene. The problem was that the Dark Reign banner put Frank’s writing in a corner. With Osborn and Hood in charge of things, he obviously had to be itching to take care of them, but even as the protagonist, he can’t. There’s far too much plot armor to work through. So how does one write a story about Frank Castle being completely impotent as an unstoppable vigilante?

The first ten issues of Punisher and the one Annual take their time to get to something super-strong. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun bunch of issues, but the first five-issue arc is so closely melted into the second five-issue arc that there doesn’t appear to be much more than wheels spinning in place. There is one piece of interest in all this in the introduction of supporting character Henry Russo. Henry is a young hacker who tracks down Frank and makes himself the third man to take the role of Punisher’s tech-savvy sidekick. I really like Henry and want to see more from him. Thankfully, he’s gotten play in other stories like Deapdool: Suicide Kings and Anti-Venom: New Ways to Live.

Yes, yes. I’ll get to the next We Care a Lot soon. I promise.

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This Week in Panels: Week 54

October 3rd, 2010 Posted by Gavok

It’s a sad week for ThWiP. Not because David, Was Taters and I were only able to scrounge up ten panels collectively due to being such a light week. No, it’s because in one fell swoop, we’ve lost both Atlas and the Punisher being a supremely awesome stitched-up zombie thing. David Wolkin wrote up a good look at the finished status quo, but I’ll try and toss in my two cents sometime in the next couple days.

Action Comics #893
Paul Cornell, Sean Chen, Nick Spencer and RB Silva

Amazing Spider-Man #644
Mark Waid, Paul Azaceta, Stan Lee and Marcos Martin

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This Year in Panels: Year 1

September 20th, 2010 Posted by Gavok

A year ago I talked to David Brothers about an idea I had for the site. I had tried writing reviews of weekly releases before, but I never got into it. There were a couple reasons and they’re both about redundancies. I can tell you about how great the latest issue of Captain America is, but so will every other site. There are so many other comic sites that will give better reviews of new stuff that I don’t know why anyone would give a damn what I have to say among all that. Then there’s the fact that comic quality doesn’t change so often within the series’ run. If I tell you that Captain America is great one month, chances are it’s going to be just as good the next. Why waste my breath? If I want to give you my opinions, I want it to at least be interesting and hopefully unique.

I thought back to the first issue of the Agents of Atlas miniseries from several years back. The general response of people who read it and tried to push it was to point out that there’s a scene where a 1950’s robot runs down a hallway while carrying a talking gorilla and that gorilla is firing four uzis with his hands and feet. I figured that maybe that could be the unique way to cover the comics of the week. I’d settle on one panel that really pushes what the comic is about, more than often more than the cover does. It’s no longer so much a review as it is giving you a gist on what we all read. At the same time, I would make sure not to have any major spoilers. If the comic has Wolverine beat up Daken in the climax, then I won’t show it. I will, on the other hand, show them about to fight it out.

If anything, it was also an excuse to keep me from straying from doing anything for the site too long at a time. I’d have a deadline of some point every Sunday and I’ve been pretty good on that. I’ve only delayed two weeks and those were because of a lengthy power outage and the loss of my computer.

I didn’t know if it would work, but David said to go for it. Now it’s been a year and I thought it would be fun to do an extra installment in a retrospective form. The idea was to pick one of my favorite panels from the previous 52 weeks, but with the challenge of not double-dipping from the same title at any point. Here we go!

Adventure Comics #4
Geoff Johns, Sterling Gates and Jerry Ordway

Amazing Spider-Man #617
Joe Kelly, Max Fiumara and Javier Pulido

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4 Elements: Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher

September 20th, 2010 Posted by Gavok

With a swift biweekly run, last week saw the ending of the miniseries Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher by writer Jonathan Maberry and veteran Punisher artist Goran Parlov. I was a bit wary on this mini when it came out, since Maberry’s Doomwar just wrapped up and I didn’t enjoy it like I hoped I would. I gave the first issue a try and it certainly paid off. I’ve seen multiple people agree with my sentiment: this comic is surprisingly pretty good!

The comic appears to be based on Mark Millar’s intentions for the original Marvel Zombies miniseries. The idea being that Frank Castle is the last man alive and plays the I Am Legend role by hunting down superhero zombies and trying to survive day-to-day. Robert Kirkman decided to go a similar route, only using Hawkeye, until he realized that it had already been established that Hawkeye was a zombie too. Then he went with the Black Panther/Silver Surfer plotline and the rest is history.

So what is it about this second attempt at this idea that makes it so enjoyable to me? Well, there are four elements. This is ignoring the obvious one of “a Mark Millar idea that isn’t actually written by Mark Millar.”

The series takes three existing Marvel stories with promising concepts, improves them separately and mixes them together. The first one is obvious in Marvel Zombies, where the infected Marvel superheroes and villains go tear apart and feed on the populace. The second is Punisher: The End, where Frank kills what’s left of the post-apocalypse. Then there’s Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe. I’ll get to the former two in the other elements.

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This Week in Panels: Week 52

September 19th, 2010 Posted by Gavok

Goddamn. It’s been an entire year of this. I hope you folks have been actually enjoying these. I mean, I do it regardless because it’s fun, but if you’re digging it too, sweet.

It’s just me and Was Taters this time around. Shockingly, we’ve BOTH read Azrael this week, making me wonder if we’re in fact the only two who are keeping up with the series. And yet Azrael is still going to last at least 14 issues. I’m not complaining, but it is rather strange to me. Maybe Didio really likes the guy.

Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine #3
Jason Aaron and Adam Kubert

Avengers & The Infinity Gauntlet #2
Brian Clevinger, Lee Black and Brian Churilla

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This Week in Panels: Week 50

September 5th, 2010 Posted by Gavok

Wow, it’s Week 50 already? I should do something special for it. Like… Uh… I could…

Anyway, Week 52 is coming and that’s a bigger deal, so we’ll wait on that.

Deadpool Pulp #1
Adam Glass, Mike Benson and Laurence Campbell

Franken-Castle #20
Rick Remender, Tony Moore, Paco Diaz and John Lucas

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