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The Punisher by Rick Remender Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

Rick Remender’s Punisher is a fun run. It’s not the most important or iconic take on the character, nor is it the writer’s best work at Marvel (or in the industry as a whole). It’s disjointed, it’s awkwardly paced, it seems to resolve itself merely because Remender was moving on to another title, but it’s also fun, exciting and interesting. Somewhat akin to Jason Aaron’s Ghost Rider work, it’s a great writer cutting lose with a grindhouse character and concentrating on telling a tale that is entertaining rather than definitive. In many respects, Remender’s Punisher really shouldn’t work half as well as it does, and that’s certainly a testament to the writer’s skill.

Here there be monsters…

It’s very hard to talk about Rick Remender’s Punisher without discussing Frankencastle. Remender’s monster mash story featuring perhaps Marvel’s most grounded vigilante is one of those ideas which sounds completely ridiculous on paper, but works much better than one might expect. In fact, Remender seems to have a knack for recycling classic comic book concepts many would consider to be best forgotten. The author revived the idea of a brutal X-Men death squad in Uncanny X-Force to great critical acclaim, somehow redeeming Rob Liefeld’s “nineties-tastic” concept with a slick execution.

Here, he turns Frank Castle into a supernatural killing machine, echoing a much-maligned version of the character who had been returned to his roots by Garth Ennis’ Welcome Back, Frank. Once again, the idea works a lot better than one might expect. After all, the Punisher is a vigilante with lots of guns who routine massacres large numbers of mobsters. One might imagine that he’d feel somewhat out of place dealing with vampires and werewolves. “I’m not in this business,”Frank remarks when he’s revived by the monsters. Henry argues, “This isn’t our war, Frank. I don’t know what this is.”

Ghoulishly enjoyable…

It’s to Remender’s credit that he not only finds a way to make it work, but that he still manages to keep it fun while making some interesting observations about Frank himself. Frank is, after all, that perfect combination of monster and monster-hunter. “This here is an actual monster,” one of the surgeons comments as he revives Frank. Sure, he might be technically human, but Frank is a killing machine. All Remender does is change his outer appearance to match his grotesque insides.

Even the notion that the Marvel Universe will not allow Frank to die – that it would contort in such a darkly humorous manner to keep Frank from his peace – seems like astute observation from Remender. Cut into pieces by Daken, it seems like this is as close to death as Frank is ever likely to come. “My war is over,” he explains. “I should be with Maria.” Of course, he never will. Comic book characters are kept in a perpetual status quo, and the only way that Frank would ever find peace would be if he were to be written out if the book stopped selling.

A tough pill to swallow…

Until that happens, Remender seems to suggest, not even being sliced into chunks of meat can bring the character peace, but serve as a cruel joke. Instead, Remender instead wonders where such a plot might take the character and the book. The response is somewhere that is relatively new. This, combined with the obvious thematic resonance, make Frankencastle worth exploring. I don’t blame those who decide that it isn’t their cup of tea, but there are enough typical Punisher stories that a bit of experimentation is worth while. Jason Aaron, after all, just completed another iconic Punisher run on Punisher MAX. Even if Frankencastle turned out to be a failed experiment, I respect that Remender conducted it.

Of course, it turns out to be – on its own terms – a very successful experiment. It works for quite a few reasons, if you can get past the delightfully surreal genre shift that this brings about. The first is that Remender seems to harbour a sincere affection for Marvel’s “monster” books. I’ve been carefully making my way through the delightful Tomb of Dracula collections, and I have to admit that I have a soft-spot for that pulpy corner of comicdom. It’s a shame that it hasn’t really caught on in the past few years, and it’s a delight to see Remender playing in that particular sandbox.

No bones about it…

Remender rather wonderfully fuses the seventies Hammer horror aesthetic of Tomb of Dracula with the more Universal horror aesthetic of creatures like Manphibean. He also does an exceptional job uniting these two distinctly Western horror philosophies with the atomic horror of post-Second-World-War Japan. All these elements and influences are blended effortlessly. It’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness meets The Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Godzilla. To be honest, that’s all it really took to sell me on the premise.

Remender works with a bunch of exceptional artists on these issues. Tony Moore is a long-time collaborator with Remender, working with him on Venom and on Fear Agent. It’s easy to see why the pair have struck up such a fantastic creative partnership. While mainstream comics doesn’t have the generous scheduling that allows Moore to illustrate every issue, he gives the run a wonderful dynamism, a delightfully rough and grindhouse aesthetic that suits it perfectly.

It’s a jungle out there…

Remender is also assisted by Dan Brereton on a few issues. Brereton paints the characters in a way the beautifully evokes Gene Colan’s work on Tomb of Dracula, immediately setting Frankencastle apart from the vast majority of superhero comics out there. It lends the title a delightfully gothic mood, and Remender has been very lucky to work with such talented artists on the title. Of course, it would be nothing without Remender to really pull it all together, but the whole saga simply looks beautiful.

The observations about Frank are hardly subtle, but Remender certainly frames them in an original way. Frank, who hunts mobsters like those who murdered his family, finds himself up against a villain who hunts monsters like those who murdered his family. Both have become monsters to hunt monsters – in this case, literally. Again, Remender’s approach is hardly subtle, but it’s so delightfully up-front that it’s hard not to be charmed by it.

He’s done with the monster mash…

The villain of the piece even advises Frank, “Though gruesome, our families died for a reason. To set us on our crusades.” Remender suggests, throughout his run, that Frank Castle is so far gone that it’s not really about his family any more – they were just a catalyst for a change that took place long ago. Captured and tortured, Manphibean makes some cutting observations about the villain of the arc that could certainly be applied to Frank. “But I’m not a child,” Manphibean warns his foe. “I see nuance in the world. I’m nothing like you.”

It’s very easy to argue that Frank is in a similar position – after all, he brutally murders criminals with impunity, never really taking into account the nature of their crimes. He lacks nuance. The great tragedy of Frankencastle, as Remender observes in the final issue, is that Frank will refuse to learn from it. After killing a man who blindly hunted monsters for what one did to his family, Frank continues his war on crime without a hint of nuance. He brutally murders a cop-killer, but also kills his friend – “only” a drug dealer. (Remender even teases us with the idea that Frank might have learned about nuance, as he promises that the drug dealer can leave, only to reveal that Frank meant through the window.)

A slice of life…

Of course, that doesn’t discount the fact that a lot of Frankencastle – regardless of what it might say about its protagonist – runs on a level of absurd awesomeness. There is something gleefully ridiculous about the image of a zombified Punisher firing a Gatling Gun while riding on the back of a dragon. It’s the type of thing that deserves a celebratory all-caps COMICS!!!, like the best of Bob Haney’s The Brave and the Bold work. It’s the kind of thing that’ll either appeal to you, or it won’t – it needs no further explanation or articulation beyond that, either way.

The only real problem with Frankencastle is the ending. It literally seems like Remender ran out of time, or got read to move on, or an obstacle had been moved somewhere else and Remender was finally free to revert to the status quo. Don’t get me wrong, this was never going to be permanent. This wasn’t even going be “Batman’s dead… oh, wait…” level of permanent. The ending, however comes out of left-field.

Let me be Frank…

Castle vanquishes the big bad, has a few random encounters with the Hood’s goons, fights Daken again and then just sort of “times out” of being a monster. It just feels a little strange and surreal. That said, the aftermath of the transformation is delightfully handled, as Remender pretty explicitly states in a coda that being turned into an undead killing machine and slaughtering a counterpart have not changed Frank in the slightest. It feels pretty consistent with Remender’s take on the character. (And the character as a whole.)

Of course, there’s more to Remender’s run than Frankencastle, but that’s really the part that stands out, for obvious reasons. Read in the context of this lovely omnibus collection, it reads as the most surreal scenery change in the history of comic books, a way of shifting the character of Frank Castle out of the events of Dark Reign and back to his more traditional status quoby the strangest means imaginable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading (it certainly is), it just means that the whole omnibus has this delightfully off-the-wall feeling to it.

All cut up…

Those looking for a very clear psychological portrait of Frank Castle like in Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX probably won’t find it here. I think that Remender actually has a really good understanding of Frank, and his run is a very clever and a very thoughtful examination of the character, but it lacks a consistent through-line. There are ideas and elements and themes that are always present, but it feels like three large stories – the story of the Punisher during Dark Reign; the adventures of Frankencastle; and a final confrontation with Jigsaw.

There are, of course, characters and notions that recur. Remender, for example, introduces the supporting character Henry and gives him a relatively clear arc across his run. He also visits the idea of the Punisher existing within an incredibly vast and shared Marvel Universe. The opening few issues find the Punisher in the very rare situation of directly interacting and responding to the status quo of the larger Marvel Universe, rather than confined to his corner of it. Frankencastleobviously has the character interacting with creatures like Man-Thing and Morbias. And the finalé has Frank dealing with the possibility that his wife has been magically resurrected.

Golden moments…

I have to admit, while I wouldn’t want every run to feel like this, I do like that Remender makes a conscious effort to contextualise the Punisher in the somewhat absurd shared superhero continuity. Much like Garth Ennis’ Marvel Knights run, I find something delightfully absurd about a guy with a skull on his shirt running around and murdering people in a universe populated by grown men wearing tights. It’s ridiculous – but no less so than anything else.

Remender has Frank acknowledge that he inhabits an irrational world, and has him take advantage of the fact. Remender’s Frank Castle isn’t just a guy with an outfit an a load of guns. He’s also a scavenger willing to pick up anything that might make his war on crime just a little easier. The series opens with Frank attempting to assassinate Norman Osborn, explaining, “That’s where the cape crowd always misses the point. Some enemies you charge head-on. Others you shoot through the head with a high-powered Skrull Sniper Rifle from four miles away.”

Takin’ out the trash…

Again, I’m not sure I’d want every version of the character to share this aesthetic, but I do like Remender’s version of the character gleefully embracing the tropes and conventions of the superhero narrative to allow him to basically evolve to a next-level killing machine. This is a version of the character who drives what might be termed a “Punisher Cycle.” He has a van, a glider and branded bombs. Like any guerilla warrior, he appropriates the enemy’s supplies to make himself stronger – he uses things like the Goblin’s pumpkin bombs and Daredevil’s sticks.

There are some slight problems with this portrayal. For one thing, it feels very weird to see Frank Castle punning as if auditioning for a role in an eighties action movie. “I’m late,” he states after one dramatic entrance. “The pizza’s free.” When he finds a foe is hiddne away in the Alps, Frank is keen to pay a visit. “Alps is cold,” Frank advises his colleagues. “Perfect temperature for the dish I’m gonna serve him.” It does seem a little surreal to hear Frank boast,“All I have to look forward to most day is ending the life of a violent perpetrator — and my morning beer.”

Stickin’ it to the man…

On the other hand, Remender writes his sardonic responses a bit more in-character. “I’ve crushed gods!” Mr. Hyde declares. The Punisher responds by shooting him, “Congratulations.” The Shaolin Scientist Squad arrive, warning, “Your life is forfeit, Great Western Satan!” Castle sighs, “Right.” These sorts of dismissive seen-it-all-before responses feel a bit more like they’re coming from a military veteran who is dealing a variety of ridiculous bad guys in stupid outfits.

I also find Frank’s confidence that he’ll see Maria again to be somewhat confusing. Frank knows that there is a heaven and a hell in this shared universe. (After all, he worked for God for a while.) “I’ll be home soon, baby,” he promises Maria. “One last thing needs doing.” Does Frank think that, after all he’s done, that he’s going to heaven? Remender seems to borrow a page from Garth Ennis when it comes to Frank’s appraisal of his own morality: Frank just sees himself as the last to be punished. Confronting Daken, he rejects the idea that the villain killed him. “Didn’t kill me, boy. You were just the gun I used to shoot myself.”

What a man(phibean)…

One of the best things that Remender does is explore the implications of the Punisher within the shared universe. It’s a delightfully weird place, and Castle is usually confined to a small corner of it. Here, he broadens it out a bit. The Punisher engages with Dark Reign head-on, effectively treating the situation as justification for his violence. “They should’ve killed Osborn day one,” he explains. “So I do my duty. I do what they can’t.”

Of course, the shared universe confines Frank. It hems him in. Unlike regular superheroes, Frank Castle kills with impunity. That means that his foes don’t really tend to recur. It also means that he can’t really ever defeat a heavy-hitter, because he’d get to kill them – and deprive the shared universe of a big name. As a result of these outside pressures, the change that Frank Castle can make to the shared universe is somewhat limited.

Fathers of the year…

Remender, to his credit, repeatedly draws attention to and acknowledges this. During their rematch, Daken accuses him, “In all your time hunting, what did you ever change? Stop some cocaine? Bury some thug?” The Punisher, as a concept, seems fairly inefficient within the framework of the shared universe. Daken challenges him, “You should have stuck to gangsters, Castle.” Perhaps he’s right. After all, the Punisher can’t kill Daken. He’s a popular character. When Wolverine shows up and says he can’t let Castle kill the kid, he might as well admit that editorial sent him down.

Remender plays with this idea. He allows the Hood to resurrect a bunch of already-dead C-list villains so that the Punisher can murder and kill with impunity during the arc. (“That’s the trouble with the geeks,” Castle laments. “They never stay dead.”) It’s a clever storytelling device, and it seems like Remender is at least being relatively up-front with his audience about what he can and can’t do. There’s no real fake-out or attempt to push or suspension of disbelief. Remender never tries to convince us that Frank will definitely kill Wilson Fisk or anything of that magnitude. It’s an honest approach that I admire.

Burn, baby, burn…

However, the most wonderful development is something so ingenious I’m surprised that it was never tried before. Remender suggests using the forces of magic and mysticism within Marvel’s incredibly vast universe to resurrect Frank’s family. It’s a very fantastical story element, but it’s perfectly in keeping with Remender’s arc. It allows the writer to explore the character in a very overt way. (Much like literally making him a monster did.)

It raises some very interesting and insightful hypothetical questions about Frank and the nature of his quest. Like Jason Aaron, Remender suggests that Frank’s family kept the darkness inside him at bay. “Without the love of your family to subdue the twisted thing inside you, your future is only this — all around you,” the Hood claims. “A leisurely crawl into madness. The thing will be fed, Frank. It’ll find new rationales, new crimes worthy of punishment. Over time you’ll kill indiscriminately — because you need to… You’ll kill because the thing is all that’s left.”

Maria, you gotta see her!

However, is Frank so far gone that even Maria couldn’t bring him back? His response to their return is to immediately torch them. Remender very cleverly keeps Frank’s motivations relatively close to his vest – there are multiple alternative reasons for Frank’s reaction (“torch ’em”) from various cast members, including Frank himself. Microchip suggests, “Your family would shun you. You think Maria would have you as you are?” After all you’ve done?” That seems credible.

Remender uses the character of Henry as a surrogate son for Frank. After all, the grisly ole warhorse puts up with far more guff from the kid than he ever did from Microchip, and he remembers the kid’s birthday to boot. However, Frank is so far gone that the closest thing he can do to father-and-son bonding is to maintain a “list” of targets to kill. At one point, Frank asks, “Never mind that now find me a target with a bloody history.” Henry responds, “Someone you can kill? About that… you think maybe we could do some cleanup that doesn’t involve a one-eight-seven?”(Frank responds by slamming him into a wall – another abusive father figure for Henry.)

The missing part of the Jigsaw puzzle…

You know that Frank is pretty far gone when even the maniac Jigsaw has more objectivity on how Frank is treating Henry. “Tell me you’d do this to your own kid,” Jigsaw challenges him. “Go on. Let him hear it. Would you have let your own boy partake of this sweet life you’ve stitched together for yourself?” There’s no response, no rebuttal. “Nah. Hell no. But Henry, for my boy, it’s okay, right? For him, well, why the hell not?” It seems that the thought never consciously occurred to Frank – based on the fact that this seems to inspire him to cut Henry out of his life. Still, it’s a sign of how far gone Frank is.

And yet, despite all this, Remender manages to present perhaps the most believably heroic take on the character I’ve read. He doesn’t soften Frank – the Punisher is still a mass-murdering psychotic. However, Remender seems to suggest that there’s a place in the grand scheme of things for him, perhaps articulating what Garth Ennis hinted at with the character. On Monster Island, Frank comments, “It’s natural. I fit. The strong hunt the weak… I get in their way.”

He who hunts monsters…

That’s perhaps the most romanticised and idealised interpretation of the character I think I’ve ever read – a character who stops the strong from preying on the weak. Again, Remender just about gets away with it because he doesn’t shrug from the psychotic brutality of Frank’s one-man war on crime, but it’s an interpretation that I kind of like, to be honest. Barring the occasional dialogue issues, I think that Remender actually writes a pretty damn-good Frank Castle.

There are problems with the run. Despite the fact that supporting character Henry has a clear arc, the overall collection feels a bit disjointed. It tends to shift gears very rapidly, and as a result not all the ideas brought up at the start are fully explored by the end. After all, the notion of the Punisher targeting marquee villains like Osborn during Dark Reign is dropped once the status quo has passed, despite the fact that there are other high-profile villains in positions of authority. It feels like a plot point that Remender shuffles off during Frankencastle without ever resolving. There’s also the clumsy ending to Frankencastle itself, which feels almost like an egg-timer went off in the Marvel offices and it was time to revert Frank back to “classic”mode.

Pull yourself together, man!

Still, Remender’s Punisher run is fun stuff. It’s pulpy, it’s clever, and it’s relatively light while still being well-observed. While it’s far from the collection of Remender’s work that I most want (that’s Uncanny X-Force), it’s an entertaining and diverting read. If you are interested in trying something a bit outside the norm, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Frankencastle is perhaps one of the boldest change in direction of any title in the past five years. Even if it’s not quite perfect, it’s bristling with an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious.

We could certainly do with more of that.

One Response

  1. All that was missing was a scene where Franken-Castle and Hellsgaard are somehow turned into giants so they can duke it out in the middle of Tokyo.

    And a nice send-off for Jigsaw; I know a lot of people dislike (if not outright hate) him and the concept of the Punisher having an archenemy, but I’ve always been partial to the character.

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