When Words Collide

Mon, January 25th, 2010 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
8

THE PUNISHER IS DEAD: A RETROSPECTIVE

No, I'm not talking about the "FrankenCastle" arc in Rick Remender's "Punisher" series in which the title character has been dismembered and resurrected as an undead flesh robot. And, no, I'm not saying that Jason Aaron's "Punishermax" is an unworthy successor to Garth Ennis's run on the Max title -- because it's not, and after three issues, it's one of the best new series from Marvel.

What I'm talking about is Matt Fraction's 26-issue "Punisher War Journal" series. The series that officially kicked off Fraction's career as a big-time mainstream superhero writer. The series that eventually transitioned Rick Remender into the Punisherverse. The series that began with Frank Castle reengaging with the Marvel superhero universe by blowing up Stilt Man's crotch. The series that, among other things, operates as a capes and cowls fantasia on Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."

There's absolutely no substantial connection between Stoppard's riff on "Hamlet" and Fraction's riff on Frank Castle, and I suspect Fraction didn't have Stoppard's play in mind when he wrote the series, but I'm not interested in getting into discussions of authorial intent this week anyway. I'm speaking of the convergence between the idea of Stoppard's play, the approach he takes, and the idea and approach of Fraction's "Punisher War Journal." There's something they both share in their narrative DNA. They are works that exist on the outskirts. They are playful. They explore the meaning of life, at least within the bounds of the fictional universes in which they exist.

I remember first coming across Stoppard's play in the stacks of my high school library. I don't know what kind of high school you went to, but our library didn't have a whole lot of interesting books. Anything somewhat new was stolen within a few weeks of hitting the shelves -- actually, they wouldn't even hit the shelves. They would be displayed on top of the shelves near the entrance to the library, as if to say, "here's some new books, prime for stealin'." I suspect students just took the books without officially checking them out, and lost them or left them at home. Can you imagine book-thievery nerds waiting for that new Umberto Eco to pop up on the display shelf and sending their freshman Artful Dodgers in for the score? Yeah, neither can I.

But like every school library I've ever seen, this one was filled with thirty-year-old books mostly used by students forced to write research papers on thirty-year-old topics.

We didn't have the internet, folks.

And because we didn't have the internet, I didn't know what "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Was Dead" was all about, other than sharing a title with a line from "Hamlet," which I had just read in English class, and kind of loved. I didn't admit that love, of course, because I was in high school and it's not something you do when you should be pretending to think "The Breakfast Club" is a good movie and that Pink Floyd is worth listening to. And though it occurred to me that I might like something smart enough to be called "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," I never did check that book out of the high school library. Nor did I steal it.

I just ignored it for years, until I ended up teaching "Hamlet" and remembering that I'd always wanted to read that Stoppard play. And what I found was absurd but surprisingly affecting. It's probably a good thing that I read Samuel Beckett first, and Sartre too, for there was an existentialist streak to the play, beneath its metafictional surface.

"Punisher War Journal" has almost none of those qualities, at least not explicitly, but in its substratum, Matt Fraction's hyper-violent vigilante comic book explores some of the same territory. It's the "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" to mid-to-late-decade Marvel comics. Reading the whole series in one sitting recently, I couldn't help but think that. Divorced from its of-the-moment crossover connections and its engagement with the Marvel continuity of its time, Fraction's "Punisher War Journal" reads like a commentary on the notion of Marvel narrative, an absurdist romp on the borderlands of this superhero universe, and a story about a fictional character's search for meaning in a world in which he clearly doesn't belong.

Early on in Stoppard's play, after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss the nature of probability and coin-flippery, they try to recall what they're doing here. What their purpose is. What they remember, Guildenstern says, in his fragmentary way, "Practically starting from scratch…An awakening, a man standing on his saddle to bang on the shutters, our names shouted in a certain dawn, a message, a summons…" These fictional characters popped into existence just for this play (or for Shakespeare's play, echoed and parodied in this one), and they cannot remember their origins.

Fraction's Frank Castle is nowhere near as ponderous, clarifying his motivation in narrative captions: "Mastercard, I'm bored," the Punisher says, "shooting pedophiles in the face will entertain me."

I'm pretty sure that's not a Shakespeare allusion, there.

But Fraction's Punisher is nearly as memory-deficient as Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He has to be. Because this character who appears in "Punisher War Journal" is a fictional construct. A character who is not exactly the same character who appeared in all the other Punisher stories, but one who vaguely alludes to them. A character who bears almost no resemblance to the character Garth Ennis wrote in the days of Marvel Knights before turning him into a Max-ified version of himself. A character who shares the continuity with the Frank Castle who previously existed in the Marvel Universe, but not exactly. He can't be. Few, if any, readers have read all of those stories in all their different versions of the Punisher, from urban vigilante to armor-clad superhero to psychotic killer. Fraction's Punisher, like Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern simply exist, and they must tackle the challenges placed in front of them.

And while Stoppard's characters dodge in and out of various scenes in Elsinore castle, engaging with Hamlet when necessary (i.e. when they're forced to act out their obligatory scenes, as written by Shakespeare all those centuries ago), and living in the margins of someone else's story, Frank Castle pops in and out of major Marvel events, a character who is a hero in his own mind, but ultimately, this is the Marvel story, and he just lives in it.

We see this approach in the very first issue, launched as a "Civil War" tie-in. While the "Civil War" may have been a massive, company-wide event in which brother fought brother and lines were drawn and sides were chosen, as far as the Punisher is concerned, it's a world that's "far removed from what [he's] used to dealing with. Super heroes. Super-villains. Powers." He has no place in such a world, not really. So he carves his own path. He shoots some villains and starts hanging out with Captain America.

In the algebra of "Punisher War Journal" = "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," Captain America = Hamlet. Which, of course, changes everything. The passive, reflective prince of Denmark is played here, sort of, by the proactive leader of the freedom fighters, by the embodiment of the ultimate soldier. And just as the title characters in Stoppard's play cannot escape Hamlet's orbit until their own death, the Punisher cannot escape Captain America's orbit until Cap's death. And the farther Frank Castle gets from the death of Steve Rogers, the father this series spins off in its own direction.

With the Punisher's Hamlet dead, Frank Castle assumes the role himself, in his own twisted way, thereby forcing himself into a major role in the larger Marvel narrative. He adopts a faux-Captain America costume -- a mixture of his own iconography and that of the "Sentinel of Liberty" -- to use the power of symbolism to oppose the symbols of evil. In Fraction's second extended arc on the series, the Punisher, a mass-murderer, but never a racist, stands tall against the white supremacist Hate-Monger. It's a vision of Captain America as arch conservative isolationist vs. Captain America as soldier fighting for the freedom and safety of innocents. But each issue is emblazoned with "The Initiative" banner, as if this is an essential story in the larger narrative of life-after-Civil-War. But it's not. It's a minor story at best. Major to Frank Castle, but minor to the world at large, except in the notice he received for daring to wear anything hinting at stars and stripes.

And as soon as that story concludes, this Marvel Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern) in the Punisher finds himself in a war. A "World War Hulk," in which he must -- in his own minor way -- fight against the Warbound. While the various Avengers of the world battled the weapon-wielding, and extra-angry Hulk, Frank Castle ends up protecting a small group of refugees from feral space insects. In the concentric circles of importance that comprise the Marvel Universe, this story would be far outside the bullseye. Even if the cover shows the Punisher striding above the cityscape, locked in combat with the green goliath, this story is another one written in the margins of Marvel. It's another Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bit, one of many in this series.

After a three-issue comedy of errors with Kraven the Hunter and a menagerie of Marvel minions, Fraction's "Punisher War Journal" enters into its longest, and least Rosencrantzy, story arc. Free from the crossovers and months away from the gravity of Captain America's death, Frank Castle finally becomes the center of his own story. His own mini-epic, a tale in which he is the character that others orbit around. A "Punisher Family" sprouts up, concocted by Jigsaw, in a story that calls back to the first major Punisher story, the miniseries by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck that turned Frank Castle into a protagonist for the first time. It was as if Fraction was saying, "now we're ready to bring the Punisher back to the forefront of his own series, of his own universe. We've played around in the Marvel outskirts for long enough."

The six-part "Jigsaw" arc makes a case for the Punisher as more than a minor character in the Marvel Universe, but, fittingly, it ends in much the same way that the larger "Civil War" story ended. The Civil War came to a halt with the surrender of Captain America. In the "Jigsaw" finale, the Punisher turns himself in. He cannot escape the influence of Captain America -- of his Hamlet -- even after spinning out into a story of his own making. Like Stoppard's characters, he can't gain any traction in the world of originality. He's forced to relive the plots of others.

Two of the final three issues emphasize this, as the Punisher runs around in the corners of the "Secret Invasion" gunning down skrulls and fighting a ridiculous amalgamation of Hammerhead, Kingpin, and Silvermane. It's all a joke again, the same kind of absurdist romp the series began with. The same cycle of gleeful meaninglessness.

It's only in the final issue -- the final panel of the final issue, in Fraction's goodbye to the character before sending him off to Remender for a new series -- it's only at that point that Frank Castle steps outside of the story he's been forced to follow. The Punisher steps away from his gun. He walks away from a chance at killing. Compelled by an even-less significant character in the form of the Rhino. His Osric, perhaps, coming in for a scene or two, and, unexpectedly, calling for a break from the established narrative.

Finally, if only for the moment between the end of this series and the beginning of the next one, the Punisher escaped his inevitable fate. He lived, not in the margins of the Marvel Universe, but outside them. In the space between issues. Free.

A chance neither Rosencrantz or Guildenstern had, even under the guidance of Tom Stoppard.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "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.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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