To put it extremely mildly, the past year and a half has been eventful for The Punisher. Frank Castle got entangled in the mess that was Secret Empire batting for team Hydra, took advantage of the War Machine armor on a redemptive quest to dish out justice on Chernayan war criminals & Hydra admin and was introduced as the Cosmic Ghost Rider by rising Marvel writer Donny Cates (Venom, Doctor Strange) in the future-set Thanos ongoing. Oh…and he also presumably killed major villain, THE XXXXXXXN earlier this month. It’s a new age of punishment, albeit one of wild experimentation and fandom contention (just see any of the comments on the site so far). This review’s big question: How does Cosmic Ghost Rider hold up? Pretty freaking well in this writer’s personal opinion. Just turn your brain off and don’t take everything so seriously.
Note: I personally recommend reading the entire Thanos (2016) ongoing to understand where Cosmic Ghost Rider fits in. While, Frank only enters the series during the 13th issue, the run’s themes and vibes widely inform the Cosmic Ghost Rider mini-series and are in themselves, set-ups for the current Gerry Duggan-run Infinity Wars event! Whether you have read those issues or not, refresh yourself or catch up on how Frank became the Cosmic Ghost Rider through the brief recap below! Click on the mini play button to unravel the text!
“Thanos Wins” Recap:
Set thousands of years into a future where Thanos has succeeded in exterminating virtually all life for Lady Death, Cosmic Ghost Rider follows a Frank Castle who sold his soul to become the Ghost Rider for the purposes of taking down Thanos. Somewhere along the way, Frank teams up with Galactus on the same Thanos-killing quest until their eventual failure and Galactus’s demise. Unable to die and fully insane due to existing centuries without being able to deliver vengeance, Frank loses his way and becomes Thanos’s right hand man.
Now old and having spent decades without seeing Lady Death, Thanos realizes he has to kill his last living foe, the Silver Surfer, to summon her forth. Thanos sends Frank back in time to retrieve a younger Thanos, in the hopes that the combined might of two Thanoses (?) will result in the Silver Surfer’s demise. During the effort, a now worthy Silver Surfer succeeds in killing Frank with a crushing blow from Mjolnir before dying himself. Pitying his future self for his weakness in being so beholden to Lady Death, the younger Thanos returns in time, hellbent on living in such a way that he can avoid his future fate, effectively wiping his future self from existence. Meanwhile, a now deceased and sane Frank Castle finally arrives in Valhalla, welcomed by Odin…
Review: Picking up directly after the “Thanos Wins” storyline, Frank Castle is welcomed into Valhalla by Odin to live a warrior’s afterlife of serenity. But, his centuries of insanity and service under Thanos allow him no rest. Frank spends his time in Valhalla picking bar fights and generally loathing his peaceful existence. Verbally challenging Odin about his current circumstances, Frank earns a boot out of Valhalla and a return to his Spirit of Vengeance duties. Big guns? Check. A plasmic neon deathcycle? Check. Demonic space armor? Check. Molten Chains of Cyttorak? Check. Take the skull-clad, eternally vengeful human vessel that is The Punisher and add on the force of the skull-clad, eternally vengeful demon vessel that is the Ghost Rider, a couple billion years of insanity & disgrace and a Thanos-killing revenge mission. You’ve got Donny Cates’s Cosmic Ghost Rider.
If that sounds insane, that’s because it completely is. It’s also the reason the comic works.
Set-Up: In its own way, Cosmic Ghost Rider’s willingness to go for broke in the “crazy” department makes it the more successful of the two Punisher series going on right now in terms of narrative structure. In a world where all life is dead, where Thanos ripped Iron Man in two and melted the Hulk’s face off, there’s a legitimate context for Frank Castle as a deranged, billion year old Cosmic Ghost Rider driven into servitude under Thanos. That’s in contrast to the main run, which has been elevating Frank more and more into the larger universe while still having unanswered Frank’s out-of-character decision to join Hydra in Secret Empire. That’s not to say that this series is a literary masterpiece. It’s meant to be a ridiculous, entertaining and extended “What If?” comic and should be taken as such. After all, how serious can you take a comic that features a Juggernaut/Howard The Duck hybrid as a “Guardian Of The Galaxy”?
Characters: In terms of writing, there’s an effortlessness in the way Cates combines the different contexts of Frank and his cosmic costars, while still maintaining fun character moments and unique character dynamics. One of the highlights of Issue #1 lies in a humorous conversation between Frank and Odin, matching Frank’s trademark cynical, smart ass snark against Odin’s attempt to dole out fatherly advice. The end result maintains Frank’s voice in his morose, serious laments about his life as The Punisher and also brings out an hilarious “street” side to Odin’s usual magisterial demeanor as he waxes on about Frank’s ungrateful attitude, Asgardian eyelid punishments, orphan hordes and gods worthy of keeping their noses.
Those moments continue in the second issue. Galactus and Frank reunite and share a great older brother/younger brother type conversation that gives insight into the duo’s centuries old alliance and friendship, briefly alluded to in Thanos (2016) and a certain cataloging omniscient character shows up to both do his duty and essentially tell Frank “I told you so”. Appearances, dialogue and conversations build off the rich tapestry of characters in the Marvel Universe and speak to Cates’s love of the lore. On top of that, the Punisher’s trademark monologue and narration is also maintained, giving greater context into this Frank Castle’s cynical, deranged and driven mind.
Pacing: While the series hasn’t been heavy on action thus far, the character moments and timeline-razing, general havoc of Frank’s quest play off each other in a quick-witted way that keeps the comic fast-paced and snappy in a manner similar to Taika Watiti’s Thor: Ragnarok. There’s even a small panel in Issue #2 that directly quotes a saying from the film. From the moment the story kicks in with that bar fight in Valhalla, Cosmic Ghost Rider does not let up. It’s a comic of consequence. Interactions quickly branch off into newer ones and spur-of-the-moment decisions lead to immediate repercussions. Each issue has so far ended with a huge cliffhanger,
all relating to
Frank’s decision to raise a currently innocent baby Thanos so that he will not become the genocidal maniac he is in the future.
It’s a completely ridiculous and nonsensical decision, but it’s the hook of this book and one that stays true to Frank’s ethics, criminal code of conduct, stubborn belief in his own righteousness and his willingness to preserve life.
Art: Dylan Burnett’s art draws to mind a more grittier Genndy Tartakovsky meets Jack Kirby. The art brings the cosmic environment to life beautifully with an emphasis on lines, spikes, squares and the cybernetic/futuristic vibes of Jack Kirby. It’s wacky and detailed, but not alarmingly dense or overwhelmingly shaded. This comic would not work without Cosmic Ghost Rider looking awesome and Burnett nails it. From the suit to the spikes to the skull, the cosmic Spirit of Vengeance elicits a tactile chrome feeling of cool. It’s also a joy to see Burnett draw out the various denizens, races, locations and civilian items of the cosmic world. For the attentive reader, the book is brimming with architecture, alien civilians, drinks and trinkets that obviously had thought and care put into the design. Antonio Fabela lights up and saturates the world with beautiful complimenting colors, truly making it look like a cosmic book should. Talk about that Galactus entrance in Issue #2!
Overall Verdict: Cosmic Ghost Rider is an entertaining, schizoid cosmic journey featuring a combination of elements that would usually never cross paths…and it’s all the better for it. It’s not a regular Punisher comic, shouldn’t be judged by those metrics and will understandably draw much ire from “steak and potatoes” Punisher fans. For everyone else willing to take the dive, it’s a rich journey into the grander Marvel Universe and a great “What If?” for a character that has had more experience in alternate realities and supernatural extremes than his usual environment warrants. It’s one of the better ones.