“Punisher War Journal” has always worked best as an absurd comedy with short little bursts of the inane and stupid parts of the Marvel universe where Frank Castle stands out. Unlike Garth Ennis’ “Punisher MAX,” “War Journal” has had to contend with the reality that the Punisher hunting supervillains is really just wacky and stupid at its core. There’s no way around it: there’s nothing “cool” about the Punisher versus the Rhino, because it’s too damn funny an idea to do seriously. When Matt Fraction remembered that, the book worked quite well, but when he forgets, it drags. To close out the series, he delivers a one-off story that wraps up various elements of the series in absurd glory and, finally, points out the book’s conceptual flaw.
Castle spends Christmas perched on a roof across from the bar he blew up way back in issue four, listening to a bunch of small-timers fight over a newly purchased Stilt-Man suit. And whose roof is he perched atop? Why, the Rhino’s roof, of course! What ensues is the Rhino pointing out why this series never quite worked. He tells Castle, “You punish the guilty, Frank. Not the stupid.” Those two sentences sum up why “War Journal” never really worked, because Castle spent much of the time dealing with the stupid and treating them like they were threats.
More than that, that idea seems to contain a criticism of the past few years of Marvel’s output where stupid, inane characters were made to be serious threats when no amount of “remaking” can change that harsh reality. Is there any way in which Stilt-Man can be cool or tough? Not really, because he’s a guy who wears a suit with really tall legs. The Rhino is a guy dressed up as a rhino! He can cause damage and wreak havoc, but he’s still a grown man in a rhino costume. There’s a glorious stupidity to most supervillains and trying to pretend otherwise is futile.
Even the Punisher, himself, has a certain amount of stupidity in his concept. He spends Christmas sitting on a roof with a giant gun, listening to a bunch of losers fight over a Stilt-Man costume. How dumb is that?
Fraction delivers this message with wit and humor, making it seem less a harsh critique than a gentle and good-humored bit of teasing. Andy MacDonald’s art strikes the right blend between cartoony figures and realism to match the same blend in the writing. That the Stilt-Man costume and Frank’s giant gun both look real helps to highlight the absurdity of each. This is a cartoon world trying to pretend that it’s not, and you can’t help but laugh at it all.
“Punisher War Journal” may not have set the sales charts on fire or won giant amounts of critical acclaim, but it did deliver a good laugh from time to time, and this final issue is no exception.
(Andy MacDonald’s Punisher looks pretty stupid with his big gun on Christmas in CBR’s preview!)