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Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto (and Carmine Di Giandomenico’s) Punisher – War Zone (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!

Despite the continuity of character, plot and creator, it’s striking how distinct Punisher: War Zone feels from the sixteen-issue solo series leading into it. After Marvel cancelled Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto’s Punisher series, the company green-lit a five-issue miniseries to allow the duo to wrap up the various plot threads and themes that ran through their earlier work. It is nice to see the pair given a chance to bring closure to their story, to tidy away loose ends on their take on Frank Castle.

At the same time, Punisher: War Zone feels very much like its own thing. The plot is powered by the arrest of Rachel Cole-Alves, Frank Castle’s accomplice who accidentally murdered a police officer during a botched raid. At the end of the series, the New York City Police Department had taken Cole into custody while Castle escaped into the night. In a way, the story could just has effectively ended there – the Punisher disappearing back into the woodwork, the characters all squared away.

While Punisher: War Zone does resolve the Cole-Alves subplot, it feels like it is primarily an accuse to pit Frank Castle against the Avengers. It’s a rather demented comic book idea – allowing a guy with lots of guns to face off against “Earth’s mightiest heroes” – but it plays into the larger themes of Rucka’s run about what tolerance of Castle says about the people who share this world with him.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

The rules are different here. Rucka and Checchetto’s Punisher run treated Frank Castle as a largely absent figure – he seemed to be a supporting character in his own book. Treating Frank as a force of nature that could not be stopped, Rucka and Checchetto broadened the focus to the world around Frank – the people he encountered on his journey, the individuals who crossed his path and who entered his line of fire.  Crooks, cops, reporters, victims; Rucka and Checchetto’s version of Frank Castle seemed to primary exist as a catalyst for exploring the morality of those around him.

Most of that wonderful expansive supporting cast are gone by the time we reach Punisher: War Zone. Quite a few are dead, naturally. However, even the survivors are largely absent. Norah is credited on some of the summary page by-lines, but she’s not featured. There is a sense, too, that Detective Oscar Clemons has served his time in the Punisher’s sphere of influence and has moved on from all this. Rachel Cole-Alves is the primary point of overlap.

Casualty of war?

Casualty of war?

This makes sense. The Punisher was a book that was largely grounded in something resembling urban reality. It was a grim, stylised urban reality that consciously evoked the movie se7en, but it was a far cry from large-scale superheroics. Sure, there were occasional points of overlap. Spider-Man and Daredevil popped in for the Omega Drive crossover. The Punisher took on a newer Vulture. He also stole a piece of Doctor Octopus’ tech and used some of Spider-Man’s gimmicks. However, The Punisher was written as a book grounded in a street-level view of urban living, with the Punisher presented as an almost otherworldly force.

War Zone moves things to a different level. Rucka, Checchetto and Di Giandomenico make this clear a number of ways. For one thing, there’s more emphasis on Frank Castle as a character. He likely gets more lines in this five-issue miniseries than he had in the sixteen issues leading up to it – he certainly says more of substance. Frank Castle isn’t presented as an ethereal predator or some almost supernatural force stalking the urban jungle. He is presented as a very resourceful man who is still playing well outside his league.

What a tangled web...

What a tangled web…

Even the artwork has changed. Checchetto’s artwork was moody and atmospheric on the monthly series. Here, there’s a conscious effort made to colour it more lightly – to emphasise the line work. There’s less shading, less darkness, less murkiness in the artwork on War Zone. In fact, a far cry from the heavy and oppressive mood of the monthly series, the colouring and inking choices evoke the superhero artwork of Pascal Ferry. It does rob Checchetto’s art of a bit of its character, but it does clearly distinguish War Zone from what came before.

There’s a sense that Frank Castle is wandering into the world of the Avengers, rather than vice versa. Checchetto and Di Giandomenico’s artwork here would not look out of place on one of Marvel’s many Avengers titles, and there’s a sense that the change in emphasis is intentional. While remaining consistent with what came before in terms of theme and character, War Zone is very clearly constructed as a large-scale superhero epic. Frank even gets to have some globe-trotting adventures, to give War Zone a sense of scope.

A bolt from the blue...

A bolt from the blue…

This is, after all, the story of the Avengers stepping in to stop Frank Castle. The artwork is lighter because there are no more shadows to hide Frank Castle. He is pushed to the top of the Avengers’ priority list, with the team deciding to bring Frank in once and for all. It’s the culmination of one of the core themes of Greg Rucka’s work on the character – the idea that making no effort to stop Frank is to offer a tacit endorsement of his means and philosophy.

It’s this idea that finally convinces Captain America to unleash the Avengers against the Punisher, after decades (in real-time of least) of allowing the serial killer to operate under the radar. When Tony Stark tries to make an excuse for why the Punisher isn’t their problem, Captain America is having none of it. “By letting the Punisher go free, we are condoning what he does,” he states, succinctly. It is, in essence, the same argument that Clemons made about Castle back in the regular series.

The fight stuff...

The fight stuff…

It’s also telling that Spider-Man instigates all of this. It’s Spider-Man who finally convinces the Avengers to pursue Frank Castle. This build off Rucka’s characterisation of the relationship between Frank and Peter during the Omega Drive crossover. Peter Parker is an optimist. He is an idealist. There is absolutely no way that allowing Frank Castle to roam free cannot play across his conscience.

To be fair, the issue is forced with the murder of the three police officers. In particular, Spider-Man is spurred to action by the fact that Frank used his web-shooters in the assault. “You used something I created to kill,” he states. There is a sense that even Spider-Man is intervening in all this far too late. Although, to his credit, he repeatedly argues that whether Frank actually killed those cops is irrelevant. “I don’t know if you killed those people or not. I really don’t.”

He read the news today, oh boy!

He read the news today, oh boy!

Of course, the readers know that Frank did not kill those officers, so repeatedly stressing that – as much as the pursuit of Frank might have been provoked by those deaths – it is not the only reason that Frank Castle needs to be captured and detained. “It’s time we brought him in,” Spider-Man explains to to the Avengers. “This has gone on for too long, guys!” Spider-Man draws attention to the fact that the Punisher is enabled by the people around him, and by society as a whole. Even putting Frank Castle in a prison cell allows him to continue his reign of terror.

That said, it is worth noting that War Zone is far from entirely sympathetic to the Avengers. For one thing, the team can’t seem to put up a united front against Frank. Wolverine actively and repeatedly assists Frank in avoiding detection and arrest. The Black Widow seems indifferent to his capture. Even Thor decides to share a polite “ale” with Frank in a foreign part of the world rather than arresting him on the spot – satisfying Thor’s sense of “honour.”

Seizing the Castle...

Seizing the Castle…

Of course, Thor could easily have overpowered Frank and arrested him, a decision that would have prevented Castle from mounting a risky escape in the middle of New York against a selection of the world’s mightiest superheroes. The implication is that Thor was more interested in providing Castle – with whom he seemed to share some measure of empathy – one last battle. Without any real thought for who might get caught in the crossfire.

At the same time, the Avengers are repeatedly stressed as disconnected from the reality in which Frank operates. Drinking with the Black Widow, veteran police officer Oleg muses that Castle simply deals with different problems than the Avengers. Asked what he makes of the Punisher, he reflects, “I am old and I am tired and I have seen the small evils persist while people like you fight against the big ones.”

Flying finish?

Flying finish?

The Avengers simply deem Frank and his world beneath them, as Tony tries to argue at the start of the miniseries. In fact, Tony Stark comes in for some pretty harsh criticism from Rucka. Presented as the most detached of Avengers, Stark is completely dismissive of Frank Castle. “You don’t think we’re maybe being a little over-cautious, here?” he asks Steve Rogers while planning the mission. “It’s one guy with a lot of guns.” Not coincidentally, Stark is the one Avenger consistently and repeatedly outwitted by Frank Castle.

Indeed, there’s a wonderful establishing shot of Frank Castle arriving anonymously in New York, and catching sight of Stark Tower. It’s big, it’s audacious, it’s loud. It looms over the city, with Stark sitting inside completely removed from the world beneath him. Frank knows where Stark is, but Stark has no idea about Frank. Frank defeats Stark on his own turf, and again during the last stand. It’s no coincidence that Frank is able to sneak into Stark Tower by disconnecting it from the city of New York for the briefest of moments.

Putting their heads together...

Putting their heads together…

This should not be read as an endorsement of Frank – merely an acknowledgement that he inhabits a rather complex world. When Spider-Man wonders why the victory at the end of the miniseries feels so hollow, Captain America informs him, “Nobody gets to feel like they won.” Frank Castle is a mad man tolerated by a cynical and apathetic world, but the Avengers sit outside that world, to a certain extent. Neither side is correct, and both are fundamentally broken.

With only five issues in which to wrap up his story, Rucka is a lot more candid about Frank Castle here. He delves a lot deeper into Frank’s psyche, dealing in fewer ambiguities and uncertainties. He reiterates the core concepts of his run, suggesting that Frank is not somebody who can be excused due to a sad origin story. After all, Spider-Man’s story isn’t too dissimilar. “You’re not the only person to have lost people you love — you’re just the guy who turned it into an excuse to commit murder!”

Semper fi.

Semper fi.

Thor offers perhaps the most succinct assessment of Frank Castle, cutting through all the stock justifications and excuses. “You fight because you do not know how not to fight,” he suggests, recognising something mythological and familiar in the Punisher. “I fight in a war,” Frank tries to respond, falling back on a tried-and-tested line. Thor is having none of this. “No… you have made a war so you may fight. You have made a war so you may murder.” It’s hard to disagree.

The discussion between Thor and the Punisher is one of the highlights of War Zone, and a scene that really demonstrates the beauty of Ruccka’s juxtaposition here. After all, there was a clear sense during the sixteen-issue Punisher run that Frank Castle was something ethereal and strange – not just a mad man with a lot of ordinance. Putting him in the same context of Thor is a beautiful choice, and it’s fascinating to see the Punisher interact with characters he would not normally deal with.

A shocking shift...

A shocking shift…

At the same time, there’s a sense that War Zone is hemmed in by the five issues available to Rucka and his artists. The plot rushes along, as the team try to wrap up absolutely everything that they have set in motion. This creates a sense that War Zone is a little cramped, too large for the space afforded it. For all that it is great to see the Punisher interacting with Thor, and seeing Iron Man confront a character he’d wilfully overlooked in the past, there’s a sense that there’s much more story to be told here.

It would have been nice – for example – to fold in Daredevil as the superhero with the most direct experience with Frank. It also seems like War Zone is really missing a big confrontation between Captain America and Frank Castle. Civil War may have been a bit of a mess, but one of Mark Millar’s more intriguing ideas was that Captain America evoked the Second World War in the same way that Frank Castle evoked Vietnam. (Or, as of now, the Gulf War.)

A towering accomplishment...

A towering accomplishment…

More than that, War Zone stresses Frank’s history as a marine and a soldier. Captain America suggests that this is the reason he cannot leave Cole-Alves behind, even as Rucka suggests there may be a glimmer of humanity to Frank. Of course, that glimmer was also seen at the climax of the monthly series, where the Punisher conspired to keep Cole-Alves alive against her own best wishes. When Captain America instructs Frank Castle to surrender, Frank Castle does so readily, yielding to a superior. “Sir, yes, sir.”

It would have been interesting to have more room to explore the relationship between the two, to see Captain America and the Punisher play off each other more thoroughly. There are a number of such curtailed storytelling opportunities. It seems weird that Spider-Man and Wolverine are the only major character with direct experience with Castle. Why doesn’t Captain America recruit Luke Cage to intervene or other characters who have crossed paths more frequently with Castle? Why don’t the Avengers try working from the ground up on this case, given that was one of the principles of New Avengers?

Ain't it a kick in the head?

Ain’t it a kick in the head?

The answer is obvious. This is a five issue series. One suspects that Rucka probably had this story in mind when he originally pitched The Punisher to Marvel – that he always intended Frank Castle to cross the Avengers and to force a long-delayed confrontation between Frank Castle and the people who call themselves the heroes of the Marvel Universe. It was probably envisaged as running longer than five issues, and it probably drew in some bigger ideas and more thorough exploration and juxtaposition.

As it stands, War Zone is a thoughtful and clever conclusion to Rucka and Checchetto’s Punisher run. It doesn’t have enough space to quite measure up to the monthly series, and there’s a sense that there’s really too much here for the space afforded it. At the same time, it’s great that Marvel gave the team this chance to wrap everything up, and it does offer something radically different for the character.

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