Sometimes, it’s the most simple and straightforward characters that are the most difficult to use effectively, and as comics protagonists go, you can’t get much more streamlined than the Punisher: Frank Castle, ex-Marine, loses his wife and children in a Mafia crossfire, and devotes his entire existence to punishing both the guilty, and himself, as a vigilante anti-hero.
In the right hands, that formula can net you some fantastic revenge noir. Less capable ones, and you get every bad action movie cliché — Charles Bronson in a Death Wish remake as portrayed by some WWE superstar.
Writer Greg Rucka was certainly one of the former. In the 2011-2012 volume of The Punisher, Rucka revitalized a long-in-the-tooth character by stripping him down to his barest essentials. Gone was the ubiquitous first-person ‘War Journal’ narration device, which denied readers access to Frank’s inner monologues. Rucka’s Castle was taciturn to the point of being unsettling, barely speaking at all for the first few issues of the series, forcing us to make our own interpretations of what was really going on behind that steely glare based solely on the action.
Greg established a supporting cast of cops and reporters in a longer, consistent narrative, in direct opposition to most writers, who at most seemed to get three consecutive issues before moving Frank on to a new locale and objective. The bare bones approach even extended to the visual: Castle ditched his familiar black and white bodysuit for a Kevlar vest with the iconic skull sloppily spray-painted on, which only made it that much more terrifying.
It was a whole new Punisher . . . except Rucka hadn’t really changed a blessed thing but writing tactics.
Despite the quality of the storytelling and art, readers seemed to respond with a resounding ‘meh’, which ultimately ended with the highly promising series being cut down in its early prime. Outside of the ultraviolent Punisher MAX work by Garth Ennis and Jason Aaron, the Punisher hasn’t been treated well in the overall Marvel mosaic, and hasn’t had a noticeably strong role since a supporting bit in Civil War eons ago.
The character did suffer from long periods of overexposure and mishandling, so it’s not completely unfathomable why some readers stayed away, and the ultimate payoff there was that a brand that was once worthy of three concurrent monthly titles couldn’t manage to keep one on the racks. With the talent that was on display, that’s a damn shame.
Punisher War Zone serves as an epilogue-slash-extention to Rucka’s run, although it could be as aptly titled Punisher Vs. Avengers . . . which seems utterly ridiculous on the surface, but you have to place it in context of what’s come before.
One to the key facets of Greg’s time with the Punisher was to firmly place him within the Marvel Universe proper by introducing a brilliant new facet of organized crime named the Exchange. Made up of ex-Hydra and AIM techs and troops, the Exchange decided it would be more prudent to take the advanced technology they had access to and stop trying to conquer the world, constantly putting themselves firmly in the sights of defenders like the Avengers, and be content with being a large, well-armed fish in a smaller pond: the criminal underworld of New York, left in flux and ripe for the picking since the Kingpin was forced out of power.
With most of the superheroes tied up in a succession of larger events on the world stage, and even traditionally street-level, smaller scale names like Spider-Man and Daredevil hanging with the Avengers, the Exchange were able to fly underneath almost everyone’s radar — except the Punisher’s.
The Exchange represented a new kind of threat for Frank far beyond the usual gun-toting mooks he mows down ad infinitum, requiring a new level of tactics and strategy, and it was a fight not without its perils: for well over half Rucka’s run, Castle was nursing ugly wounds from an early brutal encounter with the newest incarnation of the Vulture (which didn’t end well for the flying mercenary — imagine his surprise in grabbing Castle and taking him several stories into mid-air and finding Castle’s no-blink response is to unsheath a knife and start stabbing, regardless of the near-suicidal drop to the pavement far below).
Frank had a new weapon in his op against the Exchange in the form of an ally, Rachel Cole-Alvarez, an ex-Marine who came from similarly tragic circumstances as his own: her wedding party was cut down in a crossfire between a pack of the Exchange and a rival group, and in one fateful moment, she lost friends and family en masse, not to mention her new husband. Whether or not Frank truly felt pity for Cole-Alvarez, we’ll never know — Rucka kept his internal wellspring of emotions locked up tight — but he did agree to take her on as a partner.
Unlike Castle, who sought to punish all crime in an engagement that will never truly end for him, and has had years to adjust and steel himself, Cole-Alvarez was driven by pure rage against the Exchange, which constantly worked against her military-bred discipline.
You didn’t have to ponder long if at some point, the relationship between her and her mentor was going to go bad, it was just a matter of when.
Through a series of surgical strikes, not to mention a brief team-up with Daredevil and Spider-Man, Frank and Rachel were finally able to push the Exchange against the wall and force them into a final confrontation. Before switching out the lights, though, the Exchange was able to shaft Castle but good, setting him up for a crime he didn’t commit: a seemingly indiscriminate assault on a crowd of civilians and cops, which left twenty dead, including three of the NYPD’s own.
No one is able to prove the Punisher’s innocence, save Castle and Cole-Alvarez themselves, and with her mission fulfilled, Rachel felt like nothing more than a spent shell casing, desiring nothing more than final peace going out in a blaze of glory resisting arrest — a ‘reward’ the Punisher denied her, leaving her to be captured by the police while he flees into the night in the final pages of the previous series.
This is where Punisher War Zone #1 picks up, days after the Wall Street massacre and the capture of Cole-Alvarez, with the NYPD launching a massive manhunt against the Punisher, sparking much debate among the populace over whether or not the Punisher should’ve been made a priority much earlier, rather than the NYPD’s unofficial lax stance against the vigilante.
The city government has made it clear they will have zero-tolerance for Cole-Alvarez, who will be left holding Castle’s bag in his absence. Rachel refuses to cooperate with the investigation, knowing full well the consequences.
One person who is particularly perturbed about the situation, far beyond just a sense of general moral outrage, is our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man — particularly since the Punisher used what appeared to be one of his web-shooters, acquired through unknown means, in the final assault on the Exchange’s Wall Street sanctum.
(Frank also used an Adamantium-tipped slug to shatter a high-tech ‘unbreakable’ window dozen of stories off the ground, which he made by seating a ball bearing from a discarded set of Doc Ock’s cybernetic arms on a high-caliber sniper round– Rucka established the Punisher had a small cache of superhero and villain tech appropriated from some unknown sources, including an Iron Man faceplate and one of Cyclops’ visors.)
Spidey takes it upon himself to track down and confront the Punisher, which thanks to a well-timed flashbang and a being a bit slow on the spider-sense, ends with a dazed Peter Parker cursing under his breath as the Punisher makes a getaway — with another one of his web-shooters, for good measure.
Angry, Peter calls together the Avengers to plead his case, that it’s far past time for them to do something about Castle. Tony Stark, surprising no one, scoffs — dealing with a lone non-powered psychotic vigilante is well beneath Earth’s Mightiest Heroes — but Captain America disagrees.
Cap tasks Black Widow with tracking down the Punisher and bringing him in, which suits Tony just fine and placates Peter. Wolverine, on the other hand, has an issue with it — while not exactly Castle’s BFF, Logan respects what Frank is, enough so to head off on his own to try to warn the Punisher that the Avengers are on his trail.
While purely set-up, and another taught Rucka Punisher outing, my sole complaint here is that I don’t feel editorial did enough to recap the situation for new readers who might have been drawn in via the Avengers connection. While you can get by on “The Punisher has crossed enough lines that the Avengers are going to take him down” as an explanation, I feel it does Rucka’s The Punisher run a great disservice by not delving deeper into the backstory of how we got here.
It’s entirely possible this arc was written as part of the previous ongoing series that just picked up from the aftermath of the Exchange confrontation that just happened to guest-star the Avengers — the fact that Frank used one of Peter’s web-shooters in a crucial moment in the earlier storyline provides a logical connective bridge — but being the final product is now a supposedly stand-alone limited series offering, I feel like a page or two of recap, even as just a detailed text piece, was called for.
I’m also a bit disappointed that stellar regular Punisher artist Marco Checchetto wasn’t present for the proceedings. Carmine di Giandomenico did a solid job on art here, but I would’ve really liked to see Mario take a crack at the Avengers.
Minor complaints aside, I’m glad to see Greg get a chance to cap off his time with the Punisher in a high-profile way: this showdown, a formal reprimand for Castle from the larger superhuman community, has been a long time coming and while it seems a bit on the ‘seriously?’ side, I have every bit of faith that Rucka will make this a fantastic send-off.
If you’ve been missing out on The Punisher, here’s a chance to jump in and take a seat for the final act of Rucka’s amazing run.
Punisher, Avengers, and other Marvel characters ©2013 Marvel Entertainment. Art by Marco Checchetto and Carmine di Giandomenico.
Thanks for stopping by Public Domain! While I have fortunately not had my family wiped out by mobsters, I would still be happy to contribute to bettering the world via vigilantism by throwing on a skull t-shirt and taking the law into my own hands.
I’d sneak up on one of those idiots with their faces buried in a smartphone that practically walk right into you, oblivious to the world around them. Then snatching their wi-fi enabled teat, I’d dash it to the ground before disappearing into a dark alleyway.
Status update: Justice is served.