In October, the final chapter in Greg Rucka's "Punisher" saga began. "Punisher: War Zone" #1 saw Marvel's premiere super hero team, the Avengers, wrestle with what has been an unanswerable question: What do you do with the Punisher? Rucka, along with artist Carmine Di Giandomenico, seek to answer exactly that in a five-issue miniseries that serves as a culmination of Rucka's time with Frank Castle.
In order to gain some insight on the issue and the direction the miniseries will go, CBR spoke with Rucka with the writer providing his post-game thoughts on bringing Punisher to this point, the structure of the issue, writing Earth's Mightiest Heroes and how the series deals with not one, but two integral and possibly unanswerable questions of the Marvel Universe.
CBR News: Greg, after finishing an incredible run on "The Punisher," you're further putting your stamp on him in "Punisher: War Zone," further integrating him back into the Marvel Universe. The first issue makes this feel like something that could have easily been blown up into a much larger Marvel event -- how did you go about containing this concept and introducing it in the first issue with the efficiency and fluidity that you did?
Greg Rucka: It's funny -- when I started on "Punisher" with Marco, Marco and Steve Wacker and I knew this is where we were ultimately heading with Frank. That at some point, for lack of a better phrase, there was going to be a come-to-Jesus moment with Frank in the 616, that there was an inevitable confrontation there. It was sort of the elephant in the room. The problem with Frank in the 616, and one of the reasons why Frank works so well in MAX, is that he does not fit easily into a superhero universe. You have a couple options when you deal with that: you either ignore it and everybody then knows you're ignoring it, or you try to run towards it. That was really where we knew we were going to go with this.
It was logical coming out of the story in the Punisher and out of [issue] #16 that certainly Spider-Man, if not the hero community, would take notice. From there, it's just a question of trying to be as honest and fair to all the characters involved as possible. I don't know if there's a specific trick to integrating it one way or another. I really don't. It was logical that this was the time when finally the push was too much and, if nobody else, certainly Spider-Man was going to stand up and say, "Guys, we've gotta do something about this. If nothing else, he's making us look bad!"
You had some experience writing Spider-Man's interactions with Frank during "The Omega Effect" with Mark Waid. Did you take that opportunity to plant the seeds for "War Zone?"
Oh, yeah. More crucially, I don't think I ever really understood how to write Spider-Man until I got to do "Omega Effect." That was in no small part due to working with Waid and working with Wacker on that. Spider-Man had always, up until that point, been a very difficult character for me. I'd always found him very difficult to be sympathetic towards. He's always seemed to do the same sort of notes over and over again. I think in writing him and talking about him in-depth, I kind of got a new take on him and discovered that he's really -- aside from being what I'm late to the party on and what everybody else knows -- he's cool, but he's also a hell of a lot of fun to write! He's a fun character to write. I don't think of myself as a funny guy. I don't think of myself as particularly witty or quippy, and Spider-Man has always required that. It doesn't need to be good humor, but it needs to be humorous. He's always cracking wise. That's an element of the character.
If you read the recap pages -- I know a lot of people gloss over them -- the recap pages in "War Zone" actually are part of the story. There's information in those recap pages that set up future issues and where this thing is going. So, you ignore it at your peril. Matt Murdock is mentioned in there as well. He's being mentioned for a reason. The whole interaction with Spider-Man and Daredevil in "Omega Effect" was part of where I was intending to go with "War Zone." It all factored in.
The recap pages were also a very helpful part of your run on "Punisher." While "War Zone" isn't predicated on having read your entire "Punisher" run, it certainly seems like readers will get more of the story and references if they had. That said, the issue is amazingly approachable for new readers. How difficult was it to make this issue appealing to new readers while still making sure there was a good solid through line for longtime fans?
Honestly? I never set out in one form or another to go, "This has to be accessible to new readers." In every issue, I want to make sure there's enough information so that the reader picks it up and at the very least has an idea of what's going on and at best understands why what's happening is important. The benefit of putting the Avengers on anything is you have more people paying attention to it. [Laughs] Simply the nature of what the conflict is in the miniseries lends itself to a really clear setup. Spider-Man ends up having to go to the Avengers and say, "Look, we have to do something about this." The second he does that, then that provides the reader with a great entrée into the story. You're getting from Spider-Man's point of view exactly what the stakes are. The end piece to the first issue with Logan and Frank frames it pretty effectively.
It's wonderful to hear people are finding it accessible. Maybe it says something about my writing that I wasn't trying to be any more accessible than normal, so maybe I should be working harder at it? [Laughs] I don't know, but I'm glad people found it easy to get into. It's fun and it is a very straightforward story in one sense. Here's the Punisher. He kills people! Here's Spider-Man. He goes to the Avengers and says, "Here's the Punisher! He kills people! We need to do something about this." The wonderful thing about writing anything with the Avengers is you always get different points of view. So many writers and especially just in the last several years have done such a wonderful job of bringing these characters into such clear focus. You look at them and you know what Tony's initial response is going to be. You know what Cap's response is going to be and you think you know what Thor's response is going to be.
I had never written Thor before. I just finished the final pass on that issue, on the Thor issue, and Jason Aaron was kind enough to read it. That was very generous of him. I'm very grateful. It's my first opportunity writing some of these people, so I want to get it right. I want to make sure they sound the way they should. Nothing would be worse than if people were reading "War Zone" and said, "That's not Spider-Man. Spider-Man would never do that."
One of the most impressive aspects of "Punisher War Zone" #1 was your ability to balance panel time between each of the Avengers and really solidify their attitudes towards Frank. Since you haven't worked with many of these characters in-depth before, what was the challenge not only in finding that balance, but effectively demonstrating their opinions about the Punisher?
One of the great things is, they play off each other so well. You put Spider-Man in a room with four of them, five of them -- that's the other wonderful thing about Spider-Man that I hadn't realized. Frank, throughout my run, has been stoic. He does not share what he's thinking, he does not talk a lot because he doesn't have people he talks to. He, frankly, doesn't care if they know what he's thinking or not. In that sense, he appears very reactive instead of proactive. He always has a plan.
The thing with Spider-Man is, you throw him at anything and he creates the situation. He hates that silence and he forces the interaction. By putting him in a room where you have Iron Man saying, "Really? Really? This is what we're meeting about?" and you have Natasha going, "Well, okay." I love Black Widow and one of the things I've always liked about her is she's a professional. I like that when Cap turns to her and says, "Well, can you find him?" She just says, "Yeah, I can find him." She doesn't prevaricate, there's no hedging. "It may take a while, but I'll find him." Those interactions and the way the characters interplay -- if you have the benefit of good writers who have come before, and I certainly have, you know what the characters are going to do in almost every instance.
Critical reaction to the first issue has been very good -- CBR actually gave the book a perfect score -- and our review called out a particularly interesting exchange between Wolverine and Captain America right before the conclusion of the first issue. Moving ahead, how will the Avengers' disagreements on how to handle the Punisher affect their ability to deal with him?
One of the things that I like about the Avengers is that even though they all have different opinions, they do unify around a cause. What Cap has to say in the first issue is certainly the Avengers thesis moving forward. Steve says, "When we permit this, we are saying it doesn't matter and we're saying we're only interested in those laws that pertain to us. Worse, we make our own laws." He's right. He is, I think, empirically write. If you look at Frank and look at Frank's actions in that context, whether or not you agree with what he does or his motivations, the fact of the matter is he breaks the law. He breaks the law on a pretty dramatic and consistent scale and he does so committing what is, in the hierarchy of superhero sins, a pretty big sin. He kills people and he gets a pass mostly because he's stayed below the radar -- at least, that's my argument.
Tony's line when he shows up is, "What are we saving the Earth from this time?" It's glib, but honest. You call the Avengers when there's a serious freaking crisis. You don't call the Avengers when there's one guy who's been shooting people. That's a waste of their resources, it's a waste of their talent. The way the series progresses over the first three issues is, Natasha attempts to find him and bring him in and then failing that, Thor's interest is piqued. It turns out, what is revealed by issue #4 is what Thor has done with a great amount of calculation. By the time we get to issue #4, the situation comes to a head because Frank's not an idiot. Frank knows that if he gets into a straight-up fight against the Avengers -- even a team of Avengers who are not 100% sure they need to bring him in -- it's still the Avengers! He's going to lose, and he knows that. It doesn't matter if they're all like, "Yay, team! Let's go get Frank!" It doesn't matter if Logan's dragging his feet or not, because when push comes to shove, what is Logan going to do? He's either going to sit it out or if he's in the game, he's going to be in the game. But Logan isn't going to throw the game. It's not like Cap's going to back down, it's certainly not like Iron Man's going to back down simply as an issue of ego, he's not going to let himself be beaten by this guy.
By the time we get to issue #4, the stage is set for a full-on confrontation. That confrontation, while different Avengers may be approaching it with different attitudes about Frank, they are agreed on a fundamental: that what he is trying to do must be stopped. The question then becomes how do you stop the Punisher? How do you stop a guy who really isn't afraid of dying, knows that the people he's up against will not kill him? How do you stop Frank Castle? Then, once you stop him, what do you do with him? He's been caught before.
What happens when you put Frank in Ryker's Island? The criminal population decreases rapidly. Frank gets to Rykers, people get killed. I have a friend, Eric Trautmann -- he's another comic book writer -- and he and I were talking about this. It's like Club Med! It's like sending Frank to Club Med! He doesn't even have to hunt them -- they're here! They just line up. It's great! I do like the fact that [the Avengers] are smart enough to know that from the beginning. "If we do get this guy, what are we going to do with him?" and that goes back to the other issue. What Cap has to say at the beginning of "War Zone" #1 about law and where the Avengers stand in relation to it is actually pretty critical to the resolution of the whole miniseries.
We tried to front load everything. [Laughs] It's all there!
Marco Checchetto was originally slated to draw the book, but Carmine Di Giandomenico stepped in as penciller for the issue. How do you feel Carmine was able to capture the same street-level feel Marco maintained in your previous Punisher title?
I think one of the nice things is that Marco made such a beautifully indelible mark, stylistically, across the sixteen issues that he pretty much drew the majority of. He really captured the design of Frank -- the wet paint skull on the body armor feel of it. Carmine can come in and grab those pieces and link back very cleanly, but at the same time -- to Carmine's credit -- it's very distinctively his. I can't draw to save my life, I have no idea how these guys do it. I don't know how one artist can look at what another artist has done and say, "I am paying homage to it quite literally," but at the same time, it's distinctly his. Frank is recognizable as the same Frank that Marco was drawing, but he's not. He's a different Frank. He looks different.
I've been really lucky. I'm able to say that about almost every work I've had in my career. I've been very fortunate with the artists I've been paired with. They've almost to a one been incredibly talented storytellers as well as just artists. That combination has served me well. It's made me look better than I am, let's put it that way.
In the more immediate future, you've got Punisher versus Black Widow coming up in "Punisher: War Zone" #2. What challenges await Frank in that encounter?
I will say this: one of the reasons I've been so leery of saying, "It's the Punisher versus the Avengers" is that my take on Frank has never been -- I've tried to articulate this elsewhere and I don't think I've done it very successfully. It goes back to "Omega Effect," because after looking at people like Daredevil and Spider-Man, I think Frank has an incredible respect for them. I think in the '80s iteration of the Punisher, when it was very broadly drawn between "bleeding-heart-liberals-soft-on-crime and the Punisher is the chalky pink medicine that solves crime" -- that kind of stuff -- it gets blurred. One of the things I've always tried to do with this Punisher is it's apolitical. This isn't about how he votes. It's never been about the fact he votes. This is about the fact that his wife and children were murdered in front of him and he's going to be the guy that makes sure that shit doesn't happen anymore.
He recognizes that in doing that, he is sacrificing a great many things. He is sacrificing morality, he is sacrificing recovery, he is sacrificing health -- he is, as he said to Cole in the "Punisher" run, "You're dead. If you do this, you are dead. You do not get those things that the living get any more. You give it up." At the same time, I think he's got to look at somebody like Spider-Man and -- he would never say it to Spider-Man, he would never in a million years say to Spider-Man, "You know, kid, I have an incredible respect for you. You're out there and you're a real hero," but he sure as hell thinks it. He thinks the same thing about Daredevil and he thinks the same thing about almost everybody who goes out there to be heroic, because he has never viewed himself as a hero -- or, I should say never following the death of Maria and the kids.
He looks at them, and I think he acknowledges the need for heroism. He even envies it. I think there's a piece of him that looks at it and says, "I wish I could be that man, but I'm not that man. That is not the path." There's a certain argument you could make that could extend to him saying, "And you guys need me to be the man that I am because it permits you to be the people you are."
So when we say it's the Punisher versus the Avengers, it makes it seem like -- and of course you get nice, sensational art that Marco does with bullet holes in people and so on, but Frank's not going to shoot Spider-Man. He's not going to shoot somebody if there's a chance he's going to kill them. Not these guys. For no other reason, it just doesn't fit in the code. His code is he's punishing the wicked. These people are demonstrably not wicked. He may think Tony Stark is an arrogant prick, but that's not reason enough to shoot him twice in the head. [Laughs]
If somebody came to him and was able to prove to his satisfaction that Tony Stark was actually involved in wide scale, global human trafficking, then it's a different issue. Then, he'll happily put two bullets in his head, but you're not going to do that because that's not who Tony is. That's not who Tony has ever been in the 616.
One of the things that really puts Frank in the doghouse in this series is, sure, Black Widow comes after him. If she finds him, what are his options? He doesn't want to kill her. He actually really doesn't want to be forced into a situation where he has to do that, and you can say the same thing -- Spider-Man comes after him, same problem. Thor comes after him, same problem. Iron Man comes after him, same problem. How does he get away, how is he able to continue doing what he feels he must do? It's a situation that begs a terminal result and it's not a terminal result that he is willing to deliver.
In that sense, I think we're touching on something we ended the "Punisher" run on, which is not every solution to Frank is a solution that requires blood on the ground. It's interesting, it's been a very interesting tightrope. One of the things that's actually made me very nervous is the reaction to "War Zone" #1 has been really, really good and I'm delighted. But I'm really worried people will get to #3 or #4 and go, "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! When's he going to shoot Spider-Man?" He's not -- or he's not going to in the way you think. It's not going to track that way.
The series as a whole, then, seems like a representation of unsolvable problems on both sides.
Yeah, and like I said, that goes back to the very fundamental questions that Steve and I were talking about when we began the run. It's the elephant in the room: What do you do with a problem like Frank Castle? That's frankly one of the things that makes the character so brilliant. It's one of the things I said at the beginning of the run -- inherently, what Frank is, is a revenge tale. Well, every revenge tale ends the same way. It ends with death. Frank actually got his revenge ages ago and yet he goes on, he persists. I can't think of a character in Literature -- I mean capital 'L' Literature, from comic books to novels to epic poetry -- where that's the case. It makes him remarkable and it makes him unique and it begs certain questions. You have to ask, how can he do this? How can he sustain it? How has it not been self-destructive, how has it not been self-consuming? These are, for lack of a better phrase, grown-up questions and they may ultimately not matter one whit. [Laughs] But they are the kind of things I find inform me when I'm working on it.
"Punisher: War Zone" #1 is available now.