For nearly a decade, Garth Ennis worked to build, define and grow the world of Frank Castle largely apart and away from the superheroes of the 616 Marvel Comic Universe. It was a struggle that not even canonical accuracy could maintain (see Civil War Files #1 (2006) for the 616 Universe referencing events from the MAX Universe). In that same time, Marvel has also felt that struggle. No matter how well Frank sold during those superhero-free years, no matter how well readers received its characters and against regard for its strong, mature storytelling, Marvel always felt the desire to pull him back into the larger universe and away from his street level activities. The results have been turbulent in the past few years, to say the least. The push and pull of reader’s reactions have led to compromise and stagnation, a punishment limbo of sorts.
Writer Matt Fraction brought Frank far too much in contact with the fantastical elements of the Marvel Universe, losing the spirit, grit, tone and voice of the character. Writer Nathan Edmondson took Frank on a journey to battle corrupt corporate and political villains, only to conclude on the note that Frank didn’t belong there at all. Returning to a street crime approach, writer Becky Cloonan reduced The Punisher to caricature and overt simplicity, illogically preserving the light reading of the more fantastic runs in a grounded context that called for depth and detail. As they sailed for uncharted waters beyond Garth Ennis’s realm, each writer struggled with balancing the tone of The Punisher along with their individual influences, styles and original characters. The more we saw of each writer’s world, the less we saw of the Frank we once knew. With dwindling comic sales and consistent reboots, runs were cut early and failed to build on to the next. And Frank Castle had deadened, flaccid impact in the 616 and wasted, inconsistent characterization…until Matthew Rosenberg.
Matthew Rosenberg’s run should not have worked. Rosenberg donned Frank in War Machine’s armor and sent him against foreign warlords and the majority of Marvel’s superheroes after Secret Empire (a disastrous event series that begged for a return to normalcy), yet somehow made it feel like 90s Frank with his headband, .45 and Uzi tearing up the streets of New York. A talking, sarcastic suit of armor somehow became the best “guy in the chair” since 80s/90s Micro. Multiple panels. Each issue feeling like a journey, rather than a few moments. To put it shortly, the man got The Punisher…the voice, the mannerisms, the spirit, the action and the dark humor. Against the odds of the disastrous “Hydra Punisher” storyline, Rosenberg successfully ran with the concept, rather than from it and has now written 11 issues dealing with Frank’s “situation”.
That run was a promise, that things were planned and would be handled accurately and respectfully, even given Secret Empire. With The Punisher #1, Rosenberg has extended the terms of that promise with a monumental first issue that has changed Frank Castle and his role in the Marvel Comic Universe forever.
The Punisher #1 deals with Frank, back to basics and after his initial target during the “War Machine Punisher” run, Baron Zemo, who is now allied with The Mandarin in a quest to obtain UN recognition of the villainous nation of Bagalia. There’s all manner of badassery: a car chase, a motorcycle chase, vehicular manslaughter, vehicular collisions, a tank (yep!), laser-melted baddies, FRANK DUEL-WIELDING UZIS, death montages, electromagnetic explosions, fried seagulls and some small Marvel hero cameos (emphasis on cameo). It’s the same great Rosenberg work. But, the action is besides the point. This issue is less about the content and more about its ending statement: Frank Castle is now a valid threat to EVERYONE in the Marvel Universe. No more cowering Jackal’s behind bulletproof windows. No more jammed rifles with Wilson Fisk in sight. Frank Castle has killed
and ANYBODY can be next.
Rosenberg delivers a massive moment that Punisher fans have been waiting on for years and the fact that Marvel lets him get away with it, speaks volumes on things to come.
Szymon Kudranski, who I have a love/hate relationship with, does some of his best work in this issue. Having always possessed a hyper-realistic skill for scale, architecture and objects, Kudranski fills the issue with great and beautiful action sequences, lit and colored by the very capable Antonio Fabela. We get full splash page explosions, multi-panel kill montages, beautiful facial close-ups, unique angles and spotlights on weaponry. Kudranski’s weaknesses in depicting faces at certain angles and characters stance and fingers in natural motion (see Daredevil vs. The Punisher: Seventh Circle) are not as apparent in this issue, though he can always use work there. His depiction of Frank is unique, taking cues from John Romita Jr., Tim Bradstreet and Lewis Larosa into a blend all his own. Despite Frank looking a bit “squished” and odd facially, Frank’s awesome appearance in a splash page midway through as well as the overall art gives me great hope that Kudranski will leave his mark on The Punisher. I hope it wouldn’t be too much to ask for a bit more gore and detailed gibbing either.
With The Punisher #1, Rosenberg reminds us that he knows how to handle Frank in all contexts and brutally delivers on his promise of impact and trajectory for the character. It’s the “Infinity War” to what will be the “Avengers 4” to come and and where Rosenberg goes from here should be the metric by which he is measured. There’s still a lot that has to be resolved given Frank’s complicity in “Hydra Nation”, character-wise and message-wise and the ending is a hell of a teaser on things to come. With no inner Punisher monologue, it will be a mighty task for Rosenberg to wrap up what those themes are. Having great action and writing Frank well will NOT be enough to erase the specter of Secret Empire or excuse an unnatural story plotted more by “cool moments” rather than by informed, organic writing, but I’m going along with Rosenberg’s “promise” for now. “World War Frank” is uncharted waters on a scale “hitherto undreamt of” (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Strange) and I’m both excited and scared to see what comes next.