First Impressions – THE PUNISHER (2014) #1

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Another new year, and another round of new series. Marvel is having its Marvel NOW initiative, and among the characters getting new or renumbered series is everyone’s favorite deliverer of lethal justice. Frank Castle is back to his old tricks, killing underworld goons and torturing scum for information, after which he kills them. It’s THE PUNISHER #1 (2014 Edition). Is it as good as the last one? How high will Frank’s body count climb this time? Who are the Howling Commandos? And what do they want with Frank?

The Punisher barely needs introduction. Retired Marine Frank Castle watched his family die in the crossfire of a mob war. In retaliation, he decided to kill all the criminals. All of them. As brutally as possible.

In fact, that’s the character in a nutshell. He’s pissed at crime, and so shoots, cuts, burns, maims, and explodes his way through the worst of humanity.

So THE PUNISHER #1 takes place predominantly in Mexico and LA, where Frank Castle is doing what he does: fighting a local drug cartel. And then he kills them. Yes, it’s only been one issue, and he’s already killed most if not all of a cartel. I don’t know how big cartels are, I’m not a police officer or a person who works the drug market. But he kills a bunch of them.

While we’re on the subject, “And then he kills them” is basically the end to almost every Punisher comic ever made.

But in the process of blowing buildings up with rocket launchers, Frank runs afoul of…someone…and they call in a group of fighters calling themselves the Howling Commandos. Not sure if they really are the Howling Commandos, but they nonetheless have Castle in their sights.

As one can tell from my minimalist descriptions, THE PUNISHER #1 doesn’t have a particularly deep plot. Most Punisher comics don’t; they’re primarily about violent power fantasies that frustrated readers can live vicariously through. The Punisher very much exists to scratch the particular itch readers have for serial murder. But like any itch, the Punisher can end up scratching it raw if done too much at a time. Hence, why I find Punisher comics best consumed occasionally, like a rich chocolate cake or state fair food.

That is, when it’s normal everyday Punisher comics. The usual adventures of our favorite psychopath for justice are literally the descriptions above: Frank finds bad guys, and he kills them. Sure, there is variety in the execution (of the perps), but it’s not unfair to say most Punisher comics are basically the same. THE PUNISHER (2014) is no different.

This is especially disappointing to me because it comes off of the previous Punisher series written by Greg Rucka.

In brief, Rucka’s run on the Punisher beginning in 2011 and ending in 2013 (if one counts the 2012 version of Punisher: War Zone) is MY Punisher. It might not be the best run; it might not be the most iconic, or the best representative of the character as a whole. But for every character, individual comic readers always have that one run that they hold dearest to their hearts. Usually it’s the first run of a character they’ve ever followed, but it’s always the one they remember most fondly. For me, that’s the very serious, very quiet, very contemplative Rucka run. The one that is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to Punisher comics.

THE PUNISHER (2014) by the way is very much the rule. It’s what will make or break one’s enjoyment of the new series. It’s cathartically violent, funny, and plays things for coolness. Frank here is an unambigious good guy figure, meting retribution to the wicked while being pointlessly cruel. There’s even an undercurrent of black humor in there. It’s everything a boilerplate Punisher series strives to be, and it does it well.

It’s just that I feel like I’ve been spoiled by Greg Rucka, so I can’t enjoy the issue as much as I ought. Additionally, I may just not be in the mood for it, or may have outgrown it entirely, but the mindless, cruel retribution fantasy that the character runs off of just didn’t do it for me this time.

Perhaps unrelated, but the Punisher is written differently nowadays than he was in the last few years. I think Castle’s depictions in the comics goes through cycles. He’ll be super serious for a while, maybe even a little crazy, and then readers or writers will get sick of that, and play him like he actually enjoys his work. We’re definitely in the latter these days, with his depiction here and in issues of Superior Spiderman Team-Up having Frank snark it up more. This isn’t a positive or negative assessment, it’s just what I’ve noticed lately.

The art of Mitch Gerads is solid, reminding me just a bit of Chris Samnee’s current work on Daredevil with Mark Waid. The Punisher himself has gone through another makeover as to his character design. Back in Rucka’s days he sported a thicker beard and an eye-patch. And his recent stint in Thunderbolts had him in a clean shave and buzz cut. Here it’s messy peach fuzz and relatively short hair slicked back that flares out a bit to the side. It’s important for artists to find their own interpretations of characters, and I’m fine with the one on display here.

The cover meanwhile looks great on issue one. And unlike the covers for the first half of Rucka’s run, this cover actually fits with the style of the interiors. I could look at it and tell you exactly what series it goes to, rather than being super generic. That’s one thing this series has over the last one, at least.

THE PUNISHER #1 (2014) is not bad. Punisher comics can get a lot worse. But they can also get a lot better. Mostly this one is average. If one always meant to start reading Punisher books, this here is a perfectly valid place to start. If one craves really good comics starring Frank Castle, I will mention my favorite series one last time (I promise) in order to recommend that instead. For the first group, know that as of the time of this writing, the second issue just came out.

I did not buy it. I have enough on my plate with the release of all the new series I really want to read.

One last thing: I’m disappointed that Marvel stopped doing the titles with the subtitles, like they did with Thor: God Of Thunder, or The Fearless Defenders (a series I still regret not reading past the first issue). Giving one to this series would at least make it easier to refer to in passing. Now I have to specify it by year, which is unwieldy and awkward.

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