Greetings Dear Readers,
Today’s post has nothing to do with civil rights or the justice system in America. No, that is better left for other blogs. This post is dedicated to Greg Rucka and his run on The Punisher/Punisher War Zone for Marvel Comics. As a huge fan of Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, I could not be more thankful for the incredible storytelling and characterization of my favorite comic personality over the past two years. When Marvel handed the reigns of Frank Castle’s lore to Greg Rucka, I am not quite sure they even knew or appreciated the depth of talent, thoughtfulness, and inspiration that resided in this man’s mind. Rucka also had the help of Marco Checchetto and Carmine Di Giandomenico who took Rucka’s vision and brought it to life on the page in a way that this fan had never before seen. These are undoubtedly two of the fastest rising stars in graphic novel art today!
The character I love so dearly has been through a sort of creative purgatory over the course of the past twenty years. Originally appearing in Amazing Spider-man #129, in the 1970’s, Punisher began as a mercenary hired to end the famed hero. Gaining popularity after more guest appearances in various stories, a limited series was launched in the mid-80’s at a time when gun-toting action stars ruled the big screens. Modelled after Charles Bronson’s Death Wish character and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Frank Castle was a Vietnam vet who came home from one war and found that he could not escape it when his family was gunned down after witnessing a mob execution. He survived to wage a one-man campaign against organized crime, murderers, and deviants of all stripes. Somehow becoming what he despised most, yet keeping a code of honor simultaneously. The perfect Great White Shark of graphic novelty.
After many years of popularity, the Punisher went through a bit of a transformation as Marvel saw fit to have Castle go off the rails and assasinate Nick Fury (as known to most audiences as the cool head of SHIELD portrayed by Samuel Jackson in the current Avengers series). This led to Marvel coming up with the terrible idea of making him the head of a crime family. That short-lived incarnation later led into the character becoming some tool of divine judgement using angelic weapons (in a thankfully shorter lived series), before Garth Ennis saved The Punisher character by returning him to his roots…..fighting a dirty mob war without the supernatural enhancement package (sarcasm mode off). Garth Ennis righted the Punisher ship for many years giving fans just what they wanted. It was a no holds-barred Frank Castle. A force of nature doing what he does best. But he kept him mainly in his own little corner of the Marvel world, separated from the larger Marvel cast of characters. And when he did write Castle in a space occupied by the superhero community, he did so in such a way that reflected the writer’s own feelings on spandex-clad characters. He just didn’t like them, and it showed. Following Ennis’ departure, Matt Fraction took over the Punisher storytelling to mediocre result, followed by Rick Remender who in spite of his talent decided to drop the character down one of the weirdest rabbit holes in all of comic history. Killing the Punisher in one of the most epicly horrific ways, and having him reassembled into some Frankenstein creature. ACK! Somebody stop the madness!
Enter Greg Rucka! Returning Castle to his roots, Rucka created a world heavy on supporting cast, which was a huge departure from the previous 10-15 years of Punisher storytelling. Fleshing out the world around him, and allowing Castle to be a shadowy force of nature working in the story’s backdrop proved to be masterful. Introducing characters that people could care about (two detectives assigned to solve the Punisher killings, the lone survivor of a mob execution that wiped out an entire wedding, the leadership of a new crime syndicate called The Exchange), while also intergrating in existing supporting characters from other Marvel books, and then having some very logical appearances from other featured Marvel heroes, Rucka’s Punisher run can only be considered a shining moment in history for the character. Sixteen issues of a regular series returned Castle to being what I believe he always was at the heart of the character. A highly principled killing machine that also happens to be a brilliant field strategist and soldier. Rucka knows Frank Castle, and it is apparent that he holds the character in the highest respect by not minimalizing his attributes.
By the end of the 16 issue run, we are left with a sincere and deep interest in Frank, his relationship with Seargant Rachel Cole-Alves (lone survivor of her ill-fated wedding), and where the story would go from there. There is some real gut-wrenching stuff in these pages. And the artwork is spectacular. If gritty could ever be beautiful, it is demonstrated here.
After finding out that Marvel was going to add Punisher to a team book, Rucka knew his run would have to come to an end and he delivered the 5 issue Punisher War Zone to bring his story to a grand finale. What happened in the pages of the preceding 16 issue run causes The Avengers to stand up and take notice. Something would have to be done to solve the “Castle problem”, and Rucka masterfully develops a condensed character study on each of these Avengers, which is reflected in the progression of events and in the actions/words of the heroes with respect to dealing with the Punisher. It is great to see a writer go to great lengths to honor the histories and motives of the many characters in the story. In life there is rarely the black and the white. Most live in the gray, and I think the sophisticated storytelling by Rucka relfects in this work perfectly.
I just read the final issue, which was released to stores today, and I have to say that it is the finest run of all Punisher stories. I say that with great joy and also a feeling of great remorse. Knowing that it is not likely that we will ever see Greg Rucka deliver another Punisher story to the masses is a bitter pill, but I am most thankful for his time with the character that got me started in comic books so many years ago. I raise a celebratory glass to you Mr. Rucka (and to both Marco Checchetto and Carmine Di Giandomenico) for two years of graphic novel bliss. Thank you for returning Frank Castle to such a high place creatively, with honor, respect, and dedication to your art.
As for me, I will be seeking out Greg Rucka’s past, present, and future projects with eagerness. And I encourage any of you readers out there to do the same. The Punisher trade paperbacks would be a great place to start!
Chris (for the Great Stories team)