When Words Collide

Wed, December 3rd, 2008 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: December 5th, 2008 at 8:44am

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

BEING FRANK CASTLE

Reinvention by way of Grant and Zeck

I remember the Teen Titans were fighting Trigon. It may have been a Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez cover, or perhaps it was a George Perez drawing on that "Tales of the Teen Titans" issue. Kole was flying around, I think, but I had no idea who she was until years later. What interested me wasn't the teen heroes fighting the big red demon. What interested me was the comic on the shelf below. A comic all about the Punisher.

I knew of the Punisher at the time, having seen him in a Spider-Man story or two, perhaps, or maybe I just knew him from his iconic skull-chested costume as he appeared in the "Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe." I didn't know a whole lot about comics back then, I suppose, but I knew the Mike Zeck cover illustration of issue #1 looked pretty badass. I was about a year away from immersing myself in "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen," and "The Punisher" -- a five-issue limited series (or was it four? It all depended on which cover you referred to) written by CBR's own Steven Grant (although I didn't know his work at the time, and it was long before the days of the internet or CBR) -- looked like the best thing in the history of ever.

I certainly thought so at the time. It was easily my favorite comic of that summer, and I remember it being particularly difficult to find all the issues, but I somehow stumbled on all of them between my trips to the local supermarket and a variety store in the next town over. I had the whole series, even the weird fifth issue drawn by a guy who was certainly not Mike Zeck. What a disappointment that was!

(I now know that Zeck was replaced by Mike Vosburg and Jo Duffy was brought in to script the final issue after Steven Grant walked away from the project, once he saw Vosburg's apparently sub-par pencils. But at the time, I just knew the last issue wasn't anywhere near as good as the first four.)

But even with the disaster of the final issue, Grant and Zeck's gruesome prison break story catapulted the Punisher from a minor supporting character in the Marvel Universe to, well, THE PUNISHER, darling of Marvel readership. The Punisher, guy who started appearing everywhere. The Punisher, overexploited and underwritten.

Maybe that last bit is too harsh, but I know I got sick of the Punisher pretty soon after, a dozen or so issues into his ongoing series (and after a handful of Jim Lee drawn "War Journals").

I haven't read the Grant/Zeck series in the intervening years. I know Marvel put out a couple of hardcover versions of the series and it has since achieved its appropriate status as the story that put Frank Castle on the Marvel map, but it's not "Circle of Blood" that I'm here to talk about. It's what has happened to the Punisher since.

But first, a little more backfill.

Mack Bolan Blows Stuff Up

The Punisher was born out of Vietnam. Not just in comic book continuity, but in artistic truth. When the character sprung, fully formed in black and white skullduggery, into the pages of 1974's "Amazing Spider-Man" #129, his origin was not directly stated, but soon the character began to resemble, more and more, his pulp fiction precedent: Don Pendelton's Mack Bolan, "The Executioner." Punisher creators Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and John Romita, Sr. may or may not have had Mack Bolan in mind when the Punisher arrived on the scene, but it didn't take long for the character to adopt plenty of Bolan's tactics (most notably, a "war wagon," a rolling arsenal for the assault on crime.) I don't know if Conway's ever gone on record saying, "yes, it's Mack Bolan in the Marvel Universe," but it's widely accepted that the Punisher started out as little more than that.

But what does that mean? What was the point of the Mack Bolan character to begin with?

Here's what the late Don Pendelton's wife, Linda, wrote about the artistic origin of "The Executioner" character:

Don wrote the first novel in the series, "War Against the Mafia" out of his desire to express his discomfort with the reaction of many Americans to our soldiers who were dying for our country in the jungles of Vietnam and those coming home to outrageous verbal and physical abuse. So Mack Bolan became Don's symbolic statement. He also became every soldier's voice. Don created a heroic character in Bolan, a true hero who was dedicated to justice. The enemy that Bolan had to fight was no longer on the battlefields of Vietnam but right here on American soil, and that enemy was the Mafia.

In Pendelton's mind, the character who would inspire the Punisher was the heroic counterpoint to the anti-war sentiment of the time. He was the super-soldier who could wipe out evil through bloodshed. He was the anger of America, directed at the corruption within. In a later paragraph from the statement above, Linda Pendelton goes on to explain the continued appeal of the Mack Bolan character, even decades after his initial appearance in 1969: "Don also believed that the male attraction to Bolan had to do with the innate warrior essence that has basically been lost over the centuries. Men identify with Bolan's warrior essence, even at a subliminal level, and in doing so, re-identify the male essence within self."

I'm not sure about the "innate warrior essence" mumbo jumbo, but there's certainly something viscerally attractive about a man with a gun. (Or to digress, as Jean-Luc Godard famously said, "all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.") The Punisher has never been much good with women, but guns? You bet.

And of course the Punisher's rise to prominence in comics overlapped with the lingering influence of the gun-toting vigilante in popular cinema. Three of Charles Bronson's "Death Wish" films had been released before Steven Grant's seminal Punisher comic, and Dirty Harry Callahan had popped up in four films by the time "Circle of Blood" hit the stands. My brother (whom you may remember from this summer's adventures in San Diego, when he was famously known as Television's Ryan Callahan) once proposed that comic book trends were continually one decade behind cinema. The sci-fi influence of 1950s movies appeared most prominently in Silver Age comics of the early 1960s; the social protest movies of the 1960s manifested themselves in the Bronze Age concerns of the 1970s; etc.

The Callahan Cinema/Comics Manifesto doesn't take into account the immediacy of "Citizen Kane" on the work of Will Eisner, or the fact that Luke Cage premiered only one year after "Shaft," but that's why Television's Ryan Callahan works in an insignificant medium like television and not the high-stakes field of comic book punditry.

The Mid Nineties Punisher Nadir

But in the case of the Punisher, it seems that while the prosaic adventures of Mack Bolan may have provided the impetus for Frank Castle's one-man war on crime, the Charles Bronsons and Clint Eastwoods of the cinema world provided the cultural acceptance for a "hero" like the Punisher to make an impact on the comic book world.

Imagine a world with no "Watchmen" or "Dark Knight Returns." Would Steven Grant and Mike Zeck's work have provided a new inspiration for grim and gritty comics? Would the Punisher alone -- given a chance to shine in a darkly heroic role -- have changed the direction of comics as we know it?

Maybe not, but comic book culture seems to have been ready for such a thing.

Yet by the early 1990s, the Punisher had already become a parody of himself, and the writing was already on the cinematic wall as Joel Schumacher's "Falling Down" took the urbane vigilante archetype and satirized it, reveling in the uptight revenge of the white-collar worker yet showing some deep-seated mental instability beneath the whole situation. Of course, by the Callahan Cinema/Comics Manifesto, that would have given Frank Castle another decade to thrive before turning into a Michael Douglas anti-hero. But by the early 1990s, Image Comics had already turned an entire line of heroes into super-powered Punisher types. We got Punishers with demonic powers and lots of chains (Spawn) and Punishers with HIV (Shadowhawk). We got multi-armed, cybernetic Punishers (Stryker) and Punishers with sassy attitudes (Grifter).

How could the Punisher compete with any of their excesses? And I'm not even going to bother talking about the sins of the Dolph Lundgren movie version from 1989. Okay, I will: it's bad. So bad that it actually contains a lot of talking of "punishing." Frank Castle doesn't talk about punishing, he just does it.

So with the Punisher as an increasingly marginal figure within the Marvel Universe (marginal in terms of my completely biased non-interest in the character, and I assume other readers' as well, not marginal in emphasis -- there was a time when the Punisher popped up everywhere, even a hundred years in the future), it's no wonder that Marvel finally gave the character a bit of a rest in the late 1990s. The character had been sucked dry. His "warrior essence" reduced to pathetic attempts at staying relevant, looking more and more like a steroidal freak and less and less like an ex-Vietnam vet with a mad-on. His stories becoming increasingly ridiculous, going far beyond the "Soldier of Fortune" romance of the Mack Bolan days.

Then Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon came along.

(I'm pretty much going to ignore Ennis's first work on the character, in "Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe," because it's pretty terrible. It looks bad, and it's one joke taken to an extreme. But the joke's not funny to begin with. The one interesting bit, in retrospect, is that Frank Castle's family is killed when a gigantic heroic assault on an alien invasion takes place in Central Park. That's the scenario in "Secret Invasion," of course, although sans the Frank Castle family death. But one wonders what new Punisher is yet to be born out of the tragedy in Brian Michael Bendis's Central Park.)

The Bradstreet Cover Belies the Absurdity Within

But when Garth Ennis came to the Punisher for real, with erstwhile collaborator Steve Dillon, he resurrected the character for a new age. A more ironic age. Their 12-issue Marvel Knights take on the character, titled "Welcome Back, Frank," debuted in 2000 (a decade which followed a cinematic age of irony headlined by "Pulp Fiction" and "Fargo," interestingly enough -- perhaps the Callahan Cinema/Comics Manifesto shouldn't be mothballed just yet).

Though burdened by some of the worst lettering ever to grace a Marvel comic (using a crowquill font Comicraft abandoned for the ongoing series, thankfully), "Welcome Back, Frank" is a hideous, savage black comedy of a Punisher story. Instead of showing Frank Castle as an obsessed vigilante, it shows him as a crazy obsessed vigilante with a vicious sense of humor. The bleakest of the bleak, absurdist, ironic sense of humor, although he surely wouldn't ever admit to it. Ennis and Dillon's Frank Castle never winks at the audience, though the ridiculousness of the Ma Gnucci plot pushes the comic far away from any sense of "reality." And then there's Martin Soap, pathetic one-man Punisher task force. And the Punisher wannabes Elite, Mr. Payback, and the Holy who declare themselves "The Vigilante Squad." The resolution of that particular subplot is one of the best moments, considering how much time was spent showing the "origin story" of the "team." And how could I forget the Russian, who's gleeful destructive streak is matched only by the efficiency with which Frank Castle finishes him off?

I must confess that I completely missed this series when it first came out. I only just read it for the first time last week, when I cracked open my copy of "The Punisher Omnibus." The Punisher fatigue was so great that I didn't give even the Ennis/Dillon creative team a chance to bring me back into Frank Castle's world. After their work on "Preacher" it seemed like they were just slumming by working on a character like the Punisher. And yet while it might be an absurdist romp through the Punisher's twisted world, their work on the initial twelve issues is quite good. Much better, I think, than what Ennis later did on the Marvel Max series, which I have finally caught up with.

So this Omnibus edition was perfect for me, filling me in on all the Ennis Punisher stories from the pre-Max days. And, much to my delight, I liked these stories a lot more than the take-themselves-too seriously Max tales. Sure, "Punisher Max" has been a bleak and twisted series in its own way, but somewhere between "Welcome Back, Frank" and the first issue of the Max title, Garth Ennis seemed to lose touch with what made the Punisher work. He seemed to start believing Frank Castle's press. He seemed to start taking the character seriously, and I just don't think the character works as well as a straightforward gun-toting action hero.

The Twin Towers Hold Up the Logo

But in reading "The Punisher Omnibus," I can see where and when the change occurred. Ennis's shift in narrative point of view is apparent about halfway through the hardcover volume. Something happened to make the Punisher more serious. Something took away the absurdist, violent fun.

That something was, of course, the morning of September 11th, 2001.

It's impossible to spot the exact page or panel upon which that event changed Ennis's Punisher, and I don't know how many scripts Ennis already had finished before 9/11 affected his approach, but there's a clear difference in tone between the first half of the Omnibus volume and the second half. And the "Punisher Max" series picked up on and enhanced the tone of the latter half of the work here. After the 12-issue limited series, Ennis and Dillon basically picked up where they left off after "Welcome Back, Frank," writing and drawing the Punisher in an ongoing series through the Marvel Knights imprint. Their first story arc, culminating in "Do Not Fall in New York" must have been written before September 11th, and the "Do Not Fall" story, in particular, has a very pre-9/11 feel, back before New York City became humanized through its vulnerability. Back when New York was a scarier place because of the people who lived there, not because of a threat from outside.

Ron Zimmerman came in for a fill-in arc (not reprinted in the Omnibus), and Ennis returned with a new artist, Darick Robertson, for another absurdist story. Yet even this one, which focused on an organized army of little people, seems forced, as if Ennis was trying to continue in his old Punisher mode and finding it a bit difficult in the new context. Kind of like that first "Saturday Night Live" episode after the attacks, it may have proven that "it's okay to laugh again," but it also isn't as funny. The humor isn't as easy as it once was.

By the issue #37, the final issue of the Marvel Knights "Punisher" series, the events of September 11th had become an explicit part of the text, and even with Ennis's "Hitman" collaborator John McCrea on art chores and an abundance of silly-looking costumed superheroes running around its pages. "I remember the day the towers came down, not for all the sound and fury, not for the streets awash with smoke, but for the looks on the faces of the people," narrates Frank Castle. "The stricken horror of innocence killed stone dead. See? I thought. See now? See what the world is really like?"

The final image of the issue is the Punisher looking out over New York City from the top of the Empire State Building. It exactly mirrors the final page of issue #12 from "Welcome Back, Frank," except this time the World Trade Center is conspicuously absent.

The Ennis Punisher Come to Life

As absurd as it may sound -- given the gruesome and ultra-violent sequences in the pre 9/11 Ennis issues -- the innocent fun of the Punisher comics had been lost. Violence had consequences, pain became more real, and the sense of loss more forceful. Ennis wasn't able to recapture the sick, juvenile (though highly effective) humor of the more innocent times, and the "Punisher Max" series is a testament to a more grim and serious approach.

Ennis took Frank Castle more seriously, and so did readers.

Now we're on the verge of another Punisher film (I skipped the Thomas Jane version, for whatever that's worth), and early reports from CBR's Erik Amaya indicate that the pre-9/11 Ennis and Dillon issues have heavily influenced Lexi Alexander's new cinematic take on the character. And Ellis and Dillon themselves are scheduled to return to the Punisher (and Ma Gnucci) in a weekly limited series in 2009. Will the movie or the new series be able to recapture the darkly comic yet carefree viciousness of the first half of "The Punisher Omnibus"? Is it possible to return to the tone of that era, or does the emotional burden of September 11th still loom too large in the Frank Castle universe?

Only time will tell.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the in-this-month's-Diamond-Previews' "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, punisher, mike zeck, garth ennis, ray stevenson

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