So it’s only been about a year or so since the conclusion of Greg Rucka’s run on The Punisher – a run that we very much liked here at Crisis On Infinite Midlives. And in the meantime, we have had Punisher running around with The Thunderbolts, which has been fun but not exactly the natural habitat for a lone killer based on those pulp mercenary novels of the 60s and 70s where a lone man with a gun killed as many scumbags as it took for the writer to make his contract’s word count.
And sure, we’ve had a few tastes of the old loner, killing-criminals-alone-is-my-business-and-business-is-good Punisher in the meantime, but for every one of those, we’ve also had something like Space Punisher – fun, but not exactly The Punisher that long-time purists probably want to see. Sure, I like a fun guy wth a gun blowing shit up now and again, but in general, I like my Punisher like I like my steak: bloody, homicidal, and likely to kill not only you but your whole family. Which is why I am not welcome in finer dining establishments. Well, that and the obvious public drunkenness. But I digress.
So now, more than a year after Marvel Now started, we finally have a new solo Punisher title, written by Nathan Edmondson and drawn by Mitch Gerads. And it’s a Punisher that doesn’t include Venom or Elektra, that doesn’t have him out fighting weird supervillains, and instead has him back on the streets, fighting street-level crime with deadly force again. So a guy like me, who likes old-school Punisher, should be happy as a pig in shit, right?
The Punisher is out of the country, hunting down the opening of a drug distrubution line that begins there and ends in the United States, when he intercepts some low-level mules. Two he kills outright, before the third gives him the name of a middleman in Los Angeles. Frank follows the trail, spending some time in the city, hanging out in a diner, making friends with locals and cops who don’t know his face. He picks up a delivery from a friendly crooked army officer, and tails the middleman, picking off his bodyguards and kidnapping him, torturing the delivery point out of him. Turns out it’s a building belonging to Del Sols, a large-scale Mexican drug cartel who is armed to the teeth and prepared for any frontal assault through the front door. Which would be a problem for The Punisher… if he intended to go through the front door.
So what works here is The Punisher back fighting street-level crime on his own with lethal, cruel means. After spending a lot of time with Frank wearing a red skull shirt and taking order from The Hulk, it’s good to see Punisher being The Punisher again. That opening scene of Frank knocking off two goons like they were nothing, and then proceeding to questioning the main mule with means that will leave a mark, if your definition of “mark” includes having to ask for assistance every time you need to wipe your ass, was a refreshing return to form for the character.
Further, clearly Edmondson is swinging for the fences by having Punisher go after a major Mexican drug cartel right out of the gate. Such a target is worthy of Frank Castle, brings to mind the earliest story arcs of Mike Baron in the original Punisher series back in the mid 80s, and promises an adversary that, based on current real world events, will be willing to use as much random and graphic violence as the Punisher himself. So I like the direction in which this story is going.
But with that said, there are some problems here… maybe. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about The Punisher hanging around in a diner making small talk with the locals, including giving weapons advice to a local cop. On one hand, it’s an interesting choice, because it humanizes Punisher in a way that a lot of recent writers, including Rucka, haven’t done. Rucka was on record that Frank Castle saw his family murdered, and that afterwards, The Punisher walked out of the park. That was a great and pure characterization, and one that doesn’t jibe with a dude cracking wise about the quality of the eggs with a short order cook. But just because it isn’t a perfect match with previous characterizations doesn’t means it doesn’t work. I’ll want to see how it plays out over a few issues, but I’m not averse to seeing how Frank deals with people on a more human basis.
And again: I’m on the fence how I feel about the ending. How Frank gets around Del Sols security is a nice, clever little twist… and one I first saw in the second issue of Steven Grant’s and Mike Zeck’s Circle of Blood miniseries from the mid-80s. While I don’t personally think that series holds up well after nearly 30 years, there’s not denying that it’s what moved The Punisher from a guest start to a character that could carry his own book. So to end this issue with a beat that opened an issue from a classic series – as a matter of fact, it was a beat that was on the Goddamned cover of Baron’s Punisher #1 in the 80s – is a strange choice; it works in the story, but the reference is impossible to ignore, and it pulled me a bit out of the story.
I am not previously familiar with Gerads’s art, but I liked it for a Punisher story. His stuff is a little rough and sketchy looking, with what looks like a medium line and not a lot in the way of fine detail lines. So all the figures have a bit of a dark look, which fits for what is in its bones a pulp character, but still his backgrounds are clear and recognizable, and his action and pacing are easy to follow, with one exception: that page where The Punisher is swimming toward the surface, and yet he’s upside down and everything is flipped over? I had a hell of a time figuring out what the hell I was looking at there. That’s not totally Gerads’s fault – clearly Edmondson wrote it that way – but it was a bitch to decipher. But in general, I liked the look of his stuff for a Punisher book, and I’m looking forward to see more.
The Punisher #1 isn’t a perfect book. Edmondson makes some choices that feel counterintuitive for a Punisher book… and yet I can’t say that they don’t work. I’m not sure that I want to see Frank Castle palling around with people in a diner like a regular citizen, but there’s nothing here to prove to me that I won’t enjoy seeing it. It humanized Frank in a way I don’t recall seeing before, and while it might spin out into a place that doesn’t work, at least it’s a bold choice. Edmondson is namechecking some classic Punisher stories in this issue, and doing something a little different while doing it. It’s worth checking out.