Continuing immediately after his organized jailbreak from and destruction of Bagalia, the story begins with Frank crash-landed in cartel tropical island territory and about to be executed by drug overdose. Thanks to prior writer Mike Baron (see issues #29 and #30 of War Journal v1 and the awesome Punisher : G Force graphic novel respectively), Frank’s built some undercover drug tolerance over the years. Surrounded, outgunned and impaired, Frank Castle takes down as many foes as he can with drug needle and curved machete. It’s a short, but memorable showcase of Frank’s deadliness. On the ropes and nearly out, he’d rather bet on a guaranteed enemy casualty rather than a chance at safety. As the cartel forces close in, Frank is rescued by a curious mix of his former innocent Bagalian cellmates and fleeing ex-Hydra. Stranded, out of fuel and running low on food, they all have to work together to get off the island.
Let’s hit the positives. This issue features Frank Castle on an island, relegated to limited tools and manual weapons and adorned with a HEADBAND as well as the badass scarred skull left on his chest by Baron Zemo’s knifework. Matthew Rosenberg sets up a badass classic issue with Frank taking on John Rambo characteristics and relegating himself to Vietnam era tactics with punji stick traps, tunnel warfare and environmental camouflage to exterminate his foes. The only defense for Frank is offense, in gathering enemy attention and executing dismemberment. Action-wise, it’s as silky bread and butter as Frank Castle can get. There’s also a great homage to a certain classic Punisher War Journal issue by the end of it (think ski boats).
Outside of the action and fanservice however, this issue problematically forces Frank again to confront his former Hydra allegiance through his new ex-Hydra liberators and to deal with Sister Mercy’s remaining innocent followers and her imparted morality. As much as this run has been an awesome power-fantasy romp of Frank Castle’s deadliest hits, its Hydra shadow has left each issue feeling inconclusive and thematically part of the greater Secret Empire saga. With over twenty issues focused on Hydra, it’s clear that Rosenberg has something he wants to say about Frank Castle and his role in the event. The plot point feels a bit stagnant and at this point, the conflict demands Baron Zemo’s head on a stick as an assertion of Frank’s expanded role in the 616 or a swift return to basics if plot armor seizes the day. Once every head is cut off, what lies in Frank’s future given his new status quo as a former Hydra agent? Will this just be another meaningless, brief detour from Frank’s war on the streets? With every issue, these questions grow more pertinent.
In terms of art, I continue to be divided on Szymon Kudranski, although I will say that some of his work here is some of my favorite within the run. There are beautiful shots of Frank in shadow and shade wielding his bow and arrow in complete pitch black grimness. Closeups of faces and detailed eyes continue to excel. At other times, I see a frustrating cycle of recycled art, inconsistent body shapes and size ratios, and unnatural facial expressions and positions. Some shots and panels are displayed with such detail and heart, while others look like characters have been copy-pasted onto backgrounds or characters copy-pasted period with incomplete shading and penciling. One minute, it’s photorealistic ink drawn beauty and the other it’s obscure outlines and color-pastel fill-ins. Antonio Fabela runs the gamut of colors with this issue, starting with some very 90s purple/orange mixtures and ending with some much-needed day-time brights and lighter tones for variety within the series.
Overall Verdict: As this run was heading into its 5th arc without thematic resolution, there was a certain fear that Frank’s core character would be changed irreparably forever even further. Fortunately, The Punisher #12 triumphantly shows that Frank Castle has all but remained the same. With the issue ending with Frank back in his New York hunting grounds, let’s hope that his place and raison d’être (reason for existence) within the Marvel Universe have remained the same also. Let’s hope for a swifter conclusion to the Zemo saga as well…us Punisher fans are used to swift ends to vendettas.