Issue #2 brings further insight into the big bad(s) of the series, the motivations of The Hand themselves and why The Punisher has chosen to ally with the villainous ninja cult in the first place. The answers are not pretty.
SPOILERS BELOW! SPOILERS BELOW! SPOILERS BELOW! SPOILERS BELOW! SPOILERS BELOW!
Edgelord Frank: Off-Putting and Out of Turn Character Changes
While Jason Aaron is a writer that has proven himself capable of capturing the grittiness, action and uniqueness of The Punisher, his ultimate story decisions on The Punisher himself have a tendency to unnecessarily deconstruct the character towards out of turn “real life” bleakness. Aaron’s run on PunisherMAX dove headlong into PTSD/war addiction and gave us an epic arc about regret, psychopathy and self-acceptance that had Frank Castle take on and prevail against Elektra, Bullseye and Kingpin.
The cost for that narrative path was the reorienting of Frank Castle into a man that was unsure if he would follow a psychopathic marine who had just murdered innocents into further insanity and a man that verbally told his family that he would choose war over civilian peace (seconds before they were murdered). While these “real life” elements were sprinkled throughout Garth Ennis’s seminal MAX run (particularly in the Born miniseries and the dream sequence in “Up Is Down, Black Is White” arc), Ennis makes it clear that Frank Castle was still a decent, morally straight man that was warped first and foremost by the tragedy of his family’s murder and the specific, historically-based horrors of The Vietnam War. Frank was an honorable marine from the get (The Platoon miniseries). Frank’s attack on a neighbor for casual infidelity (“In The Beginning” arc) and his contemplations over a life where his family had survived and his connection with love interest/ally Kathryn O’Brien (“Long Cold Dark” arc) showcase a man that could have shed his heart of darkness post-war if his family was never killed.
Aaron’s problematic deconstructions continue here. While Frank was written as a hardened, street-smart child who was raised in a crime-ridden environment and was prepared to engage into violence to avenge a childhood sweetheart (“The Tyger” one-shot), Aaron opens up this issue by characterizing Frank as a proto-school shooter weirdo in the making. At twelve years old, Frank is a full-on edgelord who is playing with roadkill, has hidden gun cartridges and knives at home and is reading books on beheadings. Furthermore, Frank is revealed to have already killed someone at this age, which will be explored in Issue #3. To elaborate on why The Punisher is the destined “King Of Killers”, The Archpriestess of The Hand makes mention about the exceptional violence of America and cites “mall shootings” as an example. While these attempts to talk about real life violence might be for noble and thought provoking purposes, the price appears to be further unsatisfying and unnecessary reinvention to Frank Castle’s central character and motivations.
Unsatisfying Answers To Big Questions and Even More Questions Raised: Maria and The Hand
Maria Castle is revealed to be kept alive almost as an abomination. She doesn’t fully comprehend her current circumstances and does not question why her husband is walking around in samurai armor in a gun and sword-filled fortress. Frank appears content with keeping Maria ignorant and in the dark through magic and also appears intent on getting his children back in the same way.
Frank’s decision to get his family back in this manner…at the cost of working with The Hand and serving a demon is VASTLY, VASTLY out of character. It’s possible that Frank is working to dismantle things from within, but we have no access to his inner monologue/thoughts to know this. His frozen-in-fear response to seeing The Beast in person indicates that Frank has entered into this situation without planning and without an endgame. It appears that the main motivation here is Aaron wanting the opportunity to write Maria Castle as an actual character who has opinion and say over the life of The Punisher, rather than simply being “fridged”. It’s an interesting narrative decision, but one that also comes at high character inaccuracy cost.
The only real redeeming move in this issue is Frank stating that he would immediately cut ties with and kill The Hand if they act outside of his approval.
This issue raises further questions by showing that Frank has been already been scouted by The Archpriestess at twelve years old, under the belief that he is actually a resurrected former leader/”Fist” for The Hand: Shinsuke Ishiyama. Frank is revealed to want to train with swords of his own volition (WTF!) and later manifests powers and hidden memories that indicate that the reincarnation premise may be true. If so, we may be in for yet another retcon and reveal on why Frank’s family was REALLY murdered.
Still, there’s also the yellow eyes that Frank is uncharacteristically rocking and the magical demonic bullshit potential of The Hand, which also could indicate that they are pulling one over on Frank. I’ll take brainwashing/spellcasting over retcons any day.
It’s still “Heavy Metal” At Least?
The saving graces of this issue were the art, atmosphere and the violence. Jesus Saiz and Paul Azaceta working in tandem is an absolutely killer combo and it’s cool to see the artwork swap between the two as the story commands it. Paul Azaceta’s art on Frank’s past is dirty, yet refined and the tone make it feel like an old creepy true crime documentary. Jesus Saiz brings all the hyper realistic detail to the book with every panel looking like a painted heavy metal cover. This is all capped off with colors by Dave Stewart, who expertly mutes and saturates the color palette to match the environment and mood of past and present. There’s a lot of cool shots of Frank in his full cape and cowl “powered up”, an awesome hallway shot showing Frank and The Archpriestess walking past statues of all the former leaders of The Hand and a creepy look at The Beast himself, who is a grimacing Jabba The Hutt take on a bloated, horned demon. There’s an awesome violent sequence of Frank just beating on a goon by punching and slamming ninja stars all over his head, eyes and face and of newcomer villain Ares the “God of War” separating the top half of a goon’s face from the bottom with a well placed punch. Yep, Ares is the leader of the new villainous arm dealer group, the Apostles of War.
Final Verdict: Not For the Purists, Likely Awesome For Everyone Else
All in all, this issue is structurally sound, beautifully drawn and I would have no issues with it…if it didn’t involve The Punisher as we have come to know him. For the price of admission to this new and exciting story, there’s a legacy of Punisher-defining moments that are apparently being thrown out of the window.
Based on his latest interview with Marvel.com, Jason Aaron’s run on The Punisher is set to be a huge event for the character, that promises to impact and draw attention from the greater 616. For Punisher purists who are used to seeing the character in a grounded setting and true to his ways, this run should be avoided. For casuals and more open-minded fans that desire something different and interesting and don’t care about any of that, this may be and is likely the Punisher book for you. I’m on the purist side of the fence, cautiously watching the other side. The final verdict is…
Next Up! Issue #3 on May 25th.
To finish his war once and for all, Frank Castle is molding the ninjas of the Hand into his own army of unstoppable killers, by teaching them the Way of the Punisher. The secret lies in a story from his past that he’s never revealed to anyone: the story of Frank’s first kill.