The Marvel Universe is home to many powerful costumed crusaders against crime, many of whom can fly, shoot energy beams and bench press trucks. Encounters with these heroes can be frightening for criminals, but the Marvel U vigilante that truly terrifies them has no powers at all. His name is Frank Castle, but his enemies know him as the Punisher, the identity the former special forces soldier adopted after his family was murdered by organized crime. The Punisher is such a nightmarish figure to criminals because he doesn't just fight crime: he's declared war on it, and he's not taking any prisoners.
Writer Greg Rucka and artist Marco Checchetto recently kicked off a new volume of "The Punisher" ongoing series with a story that placed Frank Castle on the trail of gunmen responsible for a brutal massacre at a wedding. Unfortunately for Castle, the gunmen were agents of a cunning, clandestine criminal conspiracy that's proving difficult to destroy. Complicating things even further is the fact that a brilliant NYPD detective is now hot on the Punisher's trail. So what's next for Frank Castle's latest campaign against crime? And why has one NYPD detective sworn to bring it to an end? For the answers to these questions and more, CBR News went straight to Rucka.
As a highly trained soldier waging his own private war against crime, Frank Castle has a very unique and interesting perspective. Over the years, a number of Punisher stories have provided insight into that perspective through narrative devices like thought captions and the Punisher's private "War Journal." Rucka, however, has adopted a different approach which allows the titular character's actions speak for themselves.
"We've had so many people over the years do an amazing job of getting inside Frank's head, it seemed to me that nobody needed my take on it because it would just be me aping somebody else really. We know Frank. He's very straight-forward about what he wants, why he wants it and what he's willing to do to get it," Rucka told CBR News. "We ran with him not talking for as long as I think we could get away with in terms of the story. It's not that we were trying to render him mute as much as, he's a guy who doesn't have a lot to say. He's not the type to talk to hear himself talk. Plus, he doesn't really surround himself with people that he's going to converse with.
"I think certain characters, Batman is a really good example, and personally I like it when it's done with Wolverine as well, work very well when you are watching them. I think you can get great story and really wonderful depth out of them and you don't need to know everything that they're thinking. Their actions almost universally speak louder than words," Rucka continued. "The added benefit, especially with somebody like Frank, is seeing the effects of his morally gray actions on the people around him. He's most assuredly an anti-hero and he is the center of this whirlpool that's getting closer and closer to him. If I can have my way, we're never going to get inside his head. We're never going to have captions with his thoughts. The closer we spiral to the whirlpool, though, the more opportunity there will be to hear him speak, the more of him will be revealed."
Rucka's "Punisher" series is only four issues in, but a number of fascinating characters have already been caught up in the current of the Punisher's whirlpool. Like Detectives Walter Bolt and Ozzie Clemmons, who made their debut in "Punisher" #1 where they were assigned to investigate the wedding shootout the Punisher is currently working to avenge. It was an assignment that placed Bolt in an especially difficult position because he's also one of the Punisher's informants.
"Bolt recently got a promotion and assigned to a major case because of the Punisher, and now he's caught between a real rock and a hard place. He had a moment of weakness, and it was not telling the truth. Now, everybody thinks he was the hero of a shootout when it was really the Punisher. He's a big deal because of that, and wants to be a good cop," Rucka remarked. "It's not that the guy is a fraud. The thing with Bolt was that it wasn't a deliberate deception. It's like when you're in the middle of a conversation with somebody and they make an assumption and you don't correct it for whatever reason; either because you couldn't get them there fast enough or you had a moment of hesitation where you should have done it and you didn't. That's what happened to Bolt."
"He didn't go into this and say, 'If I do this right, the Punisher will be able to save my bacon and I can take all the credit.' What happened was, there was this unexpectedly crazy shoot out and his partner died. He was going to die, too, but thank God Frank was there, because he kept that from happening. Bolt didn't own up to that, though, and all the evidence made it look like Bolt did it himself," Rucka continued. "So Frank has Bolt under his thumb. Because now, it's not simply a question of the deception that he committed. It's also that very human thing of the humiliation that will come when the truth comes out, not to mention the loss of status, the -- ahem -- punishment Bolt will face. He's afraid of that, and Frank is going to use that. It's not because Frank has a grudge against him or anything. Bolt is simply a useful source of information."
The Punisher may have leverage over Bolt, but that doesn't mean the detective dislikes or disagrees with Frank Castle's war on crime. In fact, he's somewhat sympathetic to Frank's agenda, much to the chagrin of his partner, veteran detective Ozzie Clemmons.
"Ozzie is a smart guy, a great detective and he believes in the law. So he's a got a problem with Frank, who abandoned his belief in the law a long time ago. Ozzie would say, 'Yeah, Frank has got great reasons to not believe in the law, but the fact remains that what he's doing is criminal, it isn't helping and it isn't good.' That's a minority opinion amongst most of his colleagues and peers. They don't really have a problem with what Frank does. Ozzie sees Frank as an insidious cancer, because Frank's actions make his fellow cops say, 'Its okay. In this instance, we're going to let it ride,'" Rucka said. "Ozzie isn't looking to arrest Frank. I think he would if he could get away with it, but he also knows full well the result of that. Frank goes to Rykers Island and has a holiday where all the people he needs to kill are in one place. I wanted Ozzie to have a more complex view of the Punisher and what the Punisher means because I think that can sometimes get lost -- and it's good tension."
The Punisher's actions have also caught the attention of a number of established supporting characters from "Amazing Spider-Man." In the first four issues, readers have been introduced Peter Parker's former girlfriend and crime scene investigator Carlie Cooper, as well as Norah Winters and Ben Urich of "The Daily Bugle."
"The benefit of having Steve Wacker as your editor is that he can sort of bring the deli tray and say, 'Are you interested in any of these characters?'" Rucka said with a laugh. "I had read the 'Osborn' mini that Kelly Sue DeConnick had written, and I thought what she did with Norah there was fabulous and it was Steve who said, 'Why don't you use Norah as a reporter?' Initially I didn't want to because I didn't think I could write her as well as Kelly Sue did. There was a high standard set there, but Steve was insistent about getting that point of view in there
"Carlie came along in much the same way. I was writing a crime scene and Steve said, 'You know, you could use Carlie Cooper here.' And you'll see her continue to play a supporting role in future issues. Then, Ben Urich is Ben Urich! If I was going to write Norah, then I had to write Ben. Talk about a character I've loved for decades," Rucka continued. "The other thing is that we want to be able to say, 'Look. This is the current Marvel U that Frank is existing in,' but because of the nature of Frank's existence and his need to stay below the super hero radar, he's got to be dealing with people like Norah and Ben. If and when he runs into Peter Parker, that's a totally different situation."
The presence of Ben Urich and Norah Winters has afforded Rucka the opportunity to examine how the institution of the press factors into Frank Castle's war against crime. "Frank is a really smart guy, and he's fighting alone. He has to gather intelligence anyway he can. If that means blackmailing Bolt or reading 'The Daily Bugle' and going to the websites, he's going to do it," Rucka stated. "By the same token, we have Ozzie and his take on the Punisher, and there's also a public face to the Punisher, as well. How Norah reports what Castle is doing feeds into that. Is he providing a service? Every time she writes a story about the Punisher, she's adding to his mythology, and I have a sneaking suspicion that every time they lead with a Punisher story, it sells more papers."
This reciprocal relationship is not something the Punisher actively cultivates, but he's happy to exploit the power of positive press coverage, especially if it makes it easier to take down certain targets. "Frank understands that he's being permitted to continue his war. This is one of the reasons why he doesn't shoot cops, because the second he does, the whole game changes and he loses any sympathy people might have for him. He also makes himself a huge target," Rucka explained. "So if the media is covering this horrible wedding shooting and, it looks like the Punisher is taking the public outrage over this crime and chasing the perpetrators down himself, the public aren't going to have a problem with him doing that unless they're in Ozzie's camp. Most of them will be like, 'Somebody should kill those people who did that to the poor women on her wedding day!'"
In "Punisher" #4, Rucka used the presence of the press to help reexamine and update Frank Castle's origin. The issue opened with Norah Winters writing a piece about Castle with readers seeing images from various points in his life. One of the images shown is Frank, during his time as a soldier for the U.S. Government. Instead of wading through the jungles of Vietnam as in in previous flashbacks, Castle is shown wearing modern military gear and fighting in the Middle East.
"Steve and I went round and round on this, but ultimately, he wanted to make Frank younger because if he fought in Vietnam, he's in his 70s, and I get more mileage out of him being in his early 40s. I don't think that takes anything away from his origin. In the Marvel U, the conflict matters only because he was asked to go and serve his country, and he did. When he returned, the society he was essentially defending betrayed him and murdered his wife and children in front of him," Rucka said. "The conflict matters less than the fact that he gave his service, and this was the reward. In that broad brush vague Marvel Universe sense there's always 'the war' whatever it was. If that put him in the Middle East rather than South East Asia I think that matters less for the purposes of the Marvel Universe. I really want to emphasize though that I'm only talking about the Marvel Universe Punisher and not 'PunisherMAX.'"
Frank Castle learned many things about waging war when he was serving his country. He's made good use of that knowledge fighting his own private war against crime, but currently, he's facing a very elusive organization known as the Exchange, and its members are proving hard to find and destroy.
"The thing with the Exchange is that it's basically a bunch of lower level henchman from a variety of organizations who were brought together by two people. Their sales pitch was, 'Your life will consist of you getting beaten up by Thor. Or you can take the training you have as a low level H.Y.D.R.A. henchman, for instance, and we could totally rule the streets. Which would you rather?' So the real world equivalent of this group would be something like if a CIA operative decides, 'Hey, I want to start a life of crime. I'll call everybody I can get in touch with in intelligence agencies around the world and say, "Let's form our own organized crime ring,"'" Rucka explained. "These people are actually bringing a fairly significant skill set. The problem is, they've also become complacent, because if you are, for instance, an A.I.M. henchman, the stuff you need to do to rule your corner or your section of the city is so easy for you that you're going to lose your edge. The second that somebody big comes along, like Frank, who is fighting a war and therefore is bringing military tactics to bear, they get rocked onto the back heel. Their initial response was a fairly reasonable and intelligent one. They say, 'Okay, we're going to get rid of him once and for all. The way we deal with the Punisher is kill him right away.' They bring in a contractor to do the job, and the Vulture almost succeeded killing Frank in issue #3."
"Punisher" #4 was about Frank Castle picking himself up after the Vulture's sneak attack, escaping from the police that were hot on his tail. Issue #5, now in stores, picks up some time later.
"It's 100 days after the events of issue #4. Frank had to go to ground for a while because he got seriously mauled by the Vulture. I love how Marco draws Frank in issue #5," Rucka stated. "This is a guy whose been healing for a hundred days. He's restless and he's still hurt because a hundred days isn't quite long enough, but that's 100 days where the Exchange was able to go, 'Nobody found his body, so we're going to assume he's still alive. But wherever he is, he ain't bugging us. We should solidify our holdings as fast as we can.'"
Issue #5 will also provide some interesting insight into the personal lives and outlooks of the Punisher and some of his supporting cast. "Issue #5 is Frank's Very Special Thanksgiving. Because Frank has so much to be thankful for," Rucka said with a laugh. "In issue #5 you'll also see that Ozzie may be a brilliant detective, but he's pretty much a failure as a human being. You'll see him when he's home alone. He's got a dog. That's his world. He has no real world outside of work, versus Bolt who actually knows how to live."
"Punisher" #6-7 are special issues that reunite Rucka with some old friends and collaborators. "We have two fill ins in #6-7. The issue #6 fill-in is drawn by Matthew Southworth and Matthew Clark and is sort of a dual narrative that coalesces at the end. It's Frank getting back on his feet and going back to work. Issue #7 is a fill-in by Michael Lark that explores Ozzie's background and character a little further. It puts his backstory in the context of the events of issue #6. Then, with issue #8, Marco is back, and that issue picks up exactly where issue #6 leaves off.
"The greatest pleasure of this job is working with great artists. It really is as simple as that. So it's been great working again with all these guys," Rucka continued. "Issue #7 is sort of like a mini 'Gotham Central' reunion, because we have Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano and Matt Hollingsworth."
"Punisher" #7 also features a story certain to interest fans of "Gotham Central," a title that Rucka co-wrote with Ed Brubaker for DC cCmics, since it involves a police officer's perspective on crime in a world of costumed heroes. "Ozzie worked a case that was a crossover story between 'Punisher' and 'Daredevil' back in the days that Mike Baron and Anne Nocenti were writing those books. So there's a flashback sequence that's been giving Michael fits," Rucka joked. "It's like, 'Okay. Here's the particular issue. Look at this panel.' And he's like, 'AUGGH! You want me to draw that!'"
Writing "Punisher" #7 caused Rucka to start thinking about the relationship between the Punisher and Daredevil and whether or not the two rival vigilantes truly hate each other or if their clashes simply stem from their conflicting ideologies.
"'Daredevil' writer Mark Waid and I have talked about this, and eventually, that question will be answered on the page. I think in the past, there's been a lot of stuff, especially when you read the Baron work, where Frank is presented very politically. He's presented as responding to weak-kneed liberalism and coddling and permissiveness about crime and punishment," Rucka remarked. "That's just not my take on Frank. I don't think politics matter to him. He doesn't care how you vote. That has nothing to do with his work. He's not going to stop if the White House becomes Republican tomorrow. That's not going to change anything for him. He's not making a political argument. This is a private war that he's fighting. That's not to disabuse earlier iterations or takes -- I just don't think Frank cares about that stuff. He doesn't have time to think about it. I don't see him mourning his lost opportunities to cast a vote. That just seems to be irrelevant with him."
The Punisher's campaign against the Exchange will continue after the flashback issue with Daredevil and will continue to escalate well into 2012. The increased aggression from Castle will catch the attention of some of the Marvel U's more prominent heroes and political figures.
"There's only so long that Frank's going to able to run around in the Marvel Universe killing as many people as he does before somebody wearing a very nice costume steps up and says, 'He needs to stop that.' Frank's profile is going to get higher, and as the profile of what's he doing gets higher, more attention is going to be drawn," Rucka stated. "We might also explore how political institutions and figures react to Frank. Steve and I have talked about using New York's Mayor J. Jonah Jameson in the book. We have some plans. Right now we're in the middle of a long arc that I suspect will ultimately wrap up around issue #16. We're going to be seeing some other faces and we're going to be seeing some costumes soon as well. So, soon, the Exchange is going to be the least of Frank's worries."
Painting Frank Castle into hopeless corners and watching him fight his way out of them has been a labor of love for Rucka, and the writer hopes fans are having as much fun reading "The Punisher" as he is writing it.
"It's some of the most fun I've had writing in years. I'm really fortunate, right now. It's fantastic working with Marco Checchetto, and Steve Wacker is a fantastic editor. Plus, I get Matt Hollingsworth on colors, so I've got nothing to complain about, here," Rucka said with a laugh. "The Punisher is a great character that's much more complicated than people give him credit for. I just want to do right about him."