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Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto’s Run on The Punisher, Vol. 9 (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

The Punisher isn’t really a complex character.

Indeed, despite his popularity and appeal, there’s really only so much you can do with the character before it feels like you’re repeating yourself. He is a vigilante who brutally murders criminals, possibly because criminals killed his family. That’s part of the reason why Rick Remender’s Punisher run was so exhilarating. It genuinely felt unlike anything that had been done with the character before – even if Remender had to take Frank Castle off the reservation to do it.

Writer Greg Rucka and artist Marco Checchetto came up with their ingenious way of making the Punisher seem novel again. Realising that readers have probably become a little too over-familiar with Frank Castle and his world, Rucka and Checchetto shrewdly decide to look at Frank Castle from the outside, treating the Punisher as something like a force of nature, a terror glimpsed fleetingly as he stalks the concrete jungle.

A smoking gun...

A smoking gun…

Reading The Punisher, it’s amazing how much of Rucka’s run passes in absolute silence. The first issue opens with five pages that silently establish mood and ambiance – setting the scene and introducing the players with no written exposition to welcome the viewer into the world of the comic. Even when characters do speak, Frank Castle is himself a curiously vacant figure. Issues pass before we hear him speak. It isn’t until the half-way point in the run that he speaks in more than clipped commands. He never narrates.

The Punisher remains an ethereal and unknowable figure at the centre of Rucka and Checchetto’s narrative. We feel his presence before we see him – he announces himself through text messages, and the movement of objects between panel. The first time he actually appears, in a full-page splash, he isn’t presented as the object of our attention. He’s a shadow figure skulking in an underground lair, the details of his latest self-appointed assignment pushed to the foreground.

Gunning for the criminal element...

Gunning for the criminal element…

When Frank Castle does finally appear, he’s almost a ghost – a horror story. The lights go down in an Irish bar, and then goons start dying. One of the gang fumbles for light. He falls to his knees, casting light on his assailant. “Oh god,” he begs, as we are introduced to Castle – with focus on the iconic skull, lit from below. Frank Castle is presented like a creature from a horror film – not the wonderfully cheesy monster mash of FrankenCastle, but something from a seventies or eighties slasher film.

He is a force of nature, death on two legs. He can’t be reasoned with. He won’t stop. He doesn’t speak as he brutally slaughters his way up the criminal food chain. The closest thing to humanity we see in the first issue is the faintest hint of a wry smile at the fear his very presence causes. This immediately establishes the tone and the mood of Rucka and Checchetto’s Punisher. This isn’t a book that is primarily focused on Frank Castle. It’s more interested in the impact that Frank Castle has on the world around him. It’s a deliciously novel twist on a familiar character.

The Punisher was here.

The Punisher was here.

What’s really remarkable about Rucka’s writing is the extent to which he trusts Checchetto to carry the story. Comic books are a visual medium, something that is easy to forget if you load them down with exposition or banter. Rucka is confident enough (and justifiably so) in Checchetto’s ability that he allows extended stretches to pass without captions or word balloons. For all the attention the pair generated in shifting Frank’s origin to the Gulf War, this was conveyed through imagery rather than exposition.

This conscious effort to minimise exposition and dialogue while emphasising visual storytelling is a key part of Rucka and Checchetto’s Punisher run. This emphasis does two wonderful things that help the ninth volume of The Punisher to stand apart from many of the character’s other iterations. Given the volume of appearances that the character has made, this distinctiveness is essential.

Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

Most obviously, this choice makes The Punisher a book driven by mood and atmosphere. The entire sixteen-issue run is essentially a single extended story arc, following Castle’s one-man war against “the Exchange” and the various characters caught in the crossfire. Ever issue is – in one form or another – in service of that agenda. So when we get a stand-alone tale about Castle crashing a supervillain auction, it’s really just to provide him with some bait for his final assault.

There is space to develop the supporting characters in the story, to build a world around Frank, the characters dragged into his gravitational pull. However, there’s also a lot of space for mood. Checchetto’s artwork is absolutely beautiful, and Rucka plays to his artist’s strengths. With a minimum amount of exposition or plotting to cloud out the isolation and grimness of this world, Rucka and Checchetto create the sense that Frank is a phantom stalking the landscape.

Darkest knight...

Darkest knight…

Frank is a man of few words, withdrawn and isolated. One of the strongest issues of the run emphasises this by dropping Frank right into a zombie plague orchestrated by monologuing third-rate Avengers baddie Black Talon. As Bolt recounts the tale, it becomes clear that Frank dealt with the matter in a suitably direct manner. “Wait, that’s it?” the interviewer asks. “He just shot him dead?” He continues, “He didn’t even wait to hear what Black Talon — Barone — was saying? He didn’t wait to find out why he was doing this?”

Of course he didn’t. Frank Castle is a man of absolutes, with little time for superhero storytelling tropes. At another point, Frank manages to catch a bunch of goons off-guard in disguise. As he lies broken and bleeding on the floor, the head henchman weakly asks, “Who are you…?” Other heroes would treat it as an excuse to introduce themselves in a bad-ass manner. Frank doesn’t waste the words to introduce himself. “Die curious.”

Whiteout...

Whiteout…

(To some extent, Frank and Alves find themselves juxtaposed with the villains of the story – “the Exchange”, a bunch of former hench-people that have decided to strike out on their own. “The Exchange” are defined by their desire to be more than their original function – to have a share of the pie, a place at the table, a meaningful life. In contrast, Frank and Alves both seek to be less – to lose their humanity and become walking zombies. It’s telling that the interpersonal relationship between Christian and Stephanie grows over the series, while there’s much less warmth to be found between Alves and Frank.)

Towards the end of the run, having worked hard to distance readers from Frank, Rucka allows Castle to open up a bit. Having re-established Frank as alien and unknowable, Rucka is then able to peel back the layers a bit on the murderous vigilante. “There are your tools,” he explains to Alves, taking her personal belongings from her. “The rest are the luxuries of the living. The dead don’t get music. The dead don’t get beauty. The dead don’t get flavour, or colour, or warmth or friendship. Because the dead don’t feel. The dead get purpose. The dead get a mission. That’s all we get.”

Shadows...

Shadows…

Frank sees himself as a dead man still wandering around, and it makes sense with how Rucka and Checchetto portray him. This is the second distinctive feature of Rucka and Checchetto’s Punisher run. There’s a sense of otherworldliness around Frank that doesn’t involve the fancy stolen supervillain tech of Rick Remender’s run or anything as firmly transparent. Frank is portrayed as something that is fundamentally unknowable.

The distance that the duo create in the opening stretch of issues is brilliant, because it manages to disarm the audience. The Punisher is a character who has enjoyed massive popularity in the years since his creation. This is the ninth comic book series carrying his name. He has starred in three feature films. There are multiple on-going books featuring the character being published at the same time. It’s easy to think that we know him, and take him for granted. Rucka and Checchetto cleverly subvert that, by drawing us away from Frank and letting us see him as truly alien.

An eye for an eye...

An eye for an eye…

Frank Castle might not have any literal or explicit superpowers, but he is just as otherworldly a figure as Thor or Spider-Man in his own way. At the end of the run, Alves herself admits that Frank Castle cannot possibly be a mortal man. Rucka’s characters frequently meditate on the impossibility of Frank Castle. Alves points out how improbable his luck and skill are. When Norah watches him recover from a fight with the Vulture, she wonders, “How can you even be still alive?”

In fact, Rucka touches repeatedly on how shallow the standard origin story of the Punisher is – how little it actually accounts for Frank Castle. Detective Clemons points out that Castle’s response to the loss of his family was not normal. The book is populated with a variety of former soldiers who have adapted their new lives in various ways that seem more well-adjusted than Frank. Christian is a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent trying to strike out on his own. Bolt is a former combat soldier still serving his country.

Frank has a very particular set of skulls...

Frank has a very particular set of skulls…

Indeed, Rucka and Checchetto tease us with the idea of a second Punisher, Rachel Cole-Alves, another veteran of a foreign war who lost her loved ones to organised crime. However, even that brutal experience cannot have as transformative an effect as it had on Frank Castle. Alves remains human, as the climax of the series reveals. She hasn’t moved beyond in the same way that Frank has, despite her own experiences and her best efforts. Even having shared a lot of the same experiences, she concedes, “No one could be you.” That seems to be a central idea of Rucka and Checchetto’s Punisher.

Keeping us distant from the Punisher allows Rucka and Checchetto to play with some fascinating ideas. Most obviously, the duo get to focus on the people who exist around Frank Castle. In many ways, the supporting cast in the book get more development than the lead – something which makes sense, given how static the Punisher must be. We even get one stand-alone issue each dedicated to each of the two officers investigating the case, Oscar Clemons and Walter Bolt.

Winging it...

Winging it…

Rucka gets to ask some very probing questions about how the world (and the city) views the Punisher. The book repeatedly suggests that the Punisher is enabled by the apathy surrounding him. Sure, nobody explicitly lauds him, but everybody stands around and passively allows it to happen. “Just because you don’t weep for the people he kills, Detective,” Clemons advises his partner, “doesn’t make Castle a hero.”

Bolt accepts the credit for Frank Castle’s violent take-down of some brutal New York gangsters, earning a promotion in the process. Later on, the New York City Police Department decides to claim the murder of the Black Talon (and the prevention of a zombie apocalypse) as its own victory. Newspaper reporter Norah struggles with whether to protect Frank from the authorities by keeping quiet. On visiting her headquarters, she discovers other hints of society’s tacit endorsement of Frank’s methods.

Stalking the urban jungle...

Stalking the urban jungle…

“Where did you get all of this?” she wonders, examining the weapons on display. “Off the people you… punish. That’s got to be. Not all of it. Can’t be all of it. Some of this is military hardware, some of it…” Her unspoken accusation is never directly challenged. Later on, Norah allows Alves to read through her notes to get a lead on the Punisher. She never directly helps, but she is none-the-less complicit. “I knew what you were doing. I let you do it. That should tell you something.”

It is clear that New York City has (passively, at least) come to condone the Punisher by refusing to proactively stop him. Rucka and Checchetto push this idea as far as they can – the volume ends with the inevitable outcome of such tacit endorsement and enablement. As the Punisher finds himself on the run from the authorities, find everybody finally pushing down on him, Norah doesn’t seem too bothered. “NYPD has been trying to find the Punisher for years, how much luck have you had?” she asks. Clemons responds, “No, Norah, we haven’t. But now we are.”

A Bolt from the blue...

A Bolt from the blue…

It’s telling that Rucka and Checchetto seem to borrow so much of their tone and style from se7en, another urban horror story about the monsters that shelter in dark cold of a big city’s apathy. Indeed, Bolt and Clemons seems designed to evoke the two cops from the movie se7en, right down to Bolt reaching out to Clemons to invite him to a family meal. Oscar Clemons can’t help but evoke Morgan Freeman, both thanks to Checchetto’s design of the character and the fact that much of Rucka’s narration reads perfectly in Freeman’s voice. (Even the first name “Oscar” seems like a shout out to the caliber of the performer.)

Clemons’ attitude and outlook seem informed by the veteran detective Somerset. He even seems similarly well-read. While Somerset casually alludes to The Prisoner’s Tale, Clemons can be briefly seen reading The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare. Like Somerset, Clemons seems almost exhausted by the brutality the world has presented to him. “They had to split up the casualties, keep from overwhelming any single hospital,” he explains of the opening bloodbath. Investigating the wedding, he quickly realises the randomness of it all. “Wrong place. Wrong time.”

A bridge too far...

A bridge too far…

Clemons is a cynical observer of human nature, a sane man who seems to recognise that the Punisher is not an evil to be casually accepted. When Bolt tries to fob off the investigation into the case, suggesting that they should be thanking Frank Castle, Clemons will hear nothing of it. “You said Castle was doing us a favour. Castle doesn’t do favours, Walter. Who lives, who dies, that’s not for us to say. We serve the law. Like it or not, that’s our job. Castle serves himself.” He may well be right.

Fittingly, considering the influences at play, Rucka suggests that Clemons’ cynicism is well-practised – perhaps even masking some quirky optimism about the human condition. Much like the horrors of se7en convince Somerset that there must be some good in the world, the last issue reveals that Clemons has served for two decades without taking a life. “I’ve gone twenty years in this department without killing anyone,” he assures Alves. Perhaps the world isn’t quite as bleak as it might seem in its darkest hours – with the series ending on the Punisher saving a life.

Howling at the moon...

Howling at the moon…

As much as New York seems to tacitly endorse and enable Frank Castle’s violence, it’s telling that Rucka frequently has more optimistic and heroic character criticise Castle and his methods. Forced to lay low while recovering from a horrific brawl, Castle seeks refuge in a small barn in upstate New York. A young child initially mistakes Castle for a soldier, something that Castle (reluctantly) plays along with. However, once the kid spots the iconic skull and realises who Castle is, he coldly remarks, “You’re not a soldier.”

It’s a lovely little scene in an issue-long vignette. It serves to effectively undercut the rationale that characters frequently adopt to justify or legitimise Castle’s conduct – suggesting that the Punisher is a soldier waging a one-man war on crime, or that he’s a soldier who never came home. Indeed, Norah seems to start to construct a similar narrative in her article on Castle. However, as Rucka points out, that’s just a comforting lie that people tell to allow them to feel better about Castle’s violence and brutality.

Stand-off...

Stand-off…

Similarly, the wonderful three-issue Omega Drive crossover allows for an intersection between the Punisher and some other iconic Marvel superheroes. Rather tellingly – and a detail that will become more important in their WarZone epilogue – Rucka and Checchetto have Spider-Man explicitly and repeatedly condemn Frank Castle and his methods. While Daredevil is willing to compromise as accept Frank Castle as a necessary evil, Spider-Man is less ready to trust and accept the Punisher. “Working with the Punisher puts the ‘in’ in insane,” he explains.

It’s fitting that Rucka makes Spider-Man the voice of criticism here. Spider-Man is a character who has been a hero since he was a teenager, and who represents a lot of the idealism of the early Marvel universe. Spider-Man is associated with the bright-coloured panels and styles of the sixties, one of the two properties that really cemented Marvel as a Silver Age comic book company. As such, it makes sense that Spider-Man is the kind of innocent idealist who is most offended by Castle, and least likely to compromise with him.

A Punishing Partner...

A Punishing Partner…

After all, in WarZone, it is Spider-Man who really pushes the apathetic Avengers to hunt Castle, using the murder of the three police officers as nothing more than an excuse to do something that really should have been done a long time ago. One of the most interesting aspects of Rucka and Checchetto’s Punisher run is the flat-out condemnation of any justification or excuse for tolerance of Frank Castle.

(While on the topic of other Marvel superheroes, it is quite nice that Mark Waid’s Daredevil and Rucka’s Punisher open with such a strong juxtaposition of similar imagery. Both first issues open on an attack against a wedding party. Waid and Rucka both use these two separate weddings as a way to set two very different tones for their books. In Waid’s Daredevil, it reintroduces a sense of fun to the costumed Avenger; in Rucka’s Punisher, it’s a way of establishing how cruel and indifferent the city can be.)

My crossover sense is tingling...!

My crossover sense is tingling…!

Rucka and Checchetto have written a rather wonderful long-form Punisher story, and one that deserves to be measured among the best stories featuring the character. It’s a shame that The Punisher never found the audience that it so sorely deserved, but it will hopefully stand the test of time as a thoughtful and beautiful piece of work. It is nice that Marvel afforded Rucka and Checchetto a chance to wind up the loose ends left at their sixteen-issue run with the WarZone miniseries, but the sixteen-issue series stand quite well on its own.

One Response

  1. I am not joking when I say I would not mind having sex with that version of the punisher. My god i would have the most aggressive sex with him

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