By Don Alsafi. To date, Building a Better Marvel has mostly focused on the latest debuts from the House of Ideas. But what about sampling a comic from the middle of a run? Every #1 has purported to be a new jumping-on point for readers, but through excessive overuse it just as easily becomes a convenient jumping-off point for readers who weren’t thrilled by their purchases. As a result, Marvel have voiced their intent to gradually return titles to their “legacy” numbering in coming months.
If we’re to assume they’ll stick with that plan and not restart running series at #1 at the drop of a hat, there remains the question: Will they be able to pull it off?
In theory, it should work. After all, two or three decades ago most comic book series were numbered in the double (if not triple) digits, and they sold just fine. (In fact, phenomenally well by today’s standards!) The major titles had been running since the 1960s, and potential readers grabbing a new comic off the rack understood that they were jumping in mid-stream. Hopefully Marvel’s overemphasis on new #1s over the past decade hasn’t trained an entire generation of readers to stay away from anything higher than what they can count on their hands.
Consumer willingness is only one half of the equation though. Readers could once dive in anywhere they like because creators strove to make every issue accessible, even when in the middle of a longer saga. That’s a facet of storytelling Marvel hasn’t focused on in recent years; even newly-launched titles have failed to properly introduce their cast, the assumption being that most readers are already familiar enough with the characters.
As we approach a new age of Marvel in which #1 issues will supposedly become more scarce, we have to wonder: Will Marvel’s comics, and its creators, still have the talent and craft necessary to make a non-launch issue something that any new reader can enjoy?
Let’s find out.
The Punisher #13
Written by Becky Cloonan.
Art by Kris Anka.
Colors by Matthew Wilson.
Letters by VC’s Cory Petit.
New reader friendly? Although this is issue #13 of the current Punisher series, the comic is surprisingly accessible and requires no prior knowledge or setup of the character. In fact, the recap page gives you exactly what’s needed and no more: “A mission to take down a mercenary organization of drug dealers became a chance to settle an old score, and took Frank far from his home. But springtime has returned to New York City, and so has the Punisher.”
(Contrast this with the off-putting recap page in Secret Empire #1, which listed in overwhelming detail prior events which then never entered into the ensuing comic!)
Frank Castle has been out of town over the first dozen issues, and is only just returned. And thus, with elegance and simplicity, the new reader is up to speed! Even better, this done-in-one, transitional story is both easy and inviting, since Frank’s very unique process of getting reacquainted with his city doubles as a worthy reintroduction of the character.
What makes him tick? One of the potential stumbling blocks for both readers and creators is that The Punisher is not, at its heart, a deeply compelling concept. Sure, an antihero waging his lethal one-man War On Crime may scratch a certain itch; recall, in fact, that the character was created to capitalize on the popularity of Don Pendleton’s Executioner stories.
But how does one make a Punisher story interesting? He doesn’t have a gallery of supervillains like Spider-Man. He doesn’t explore the mysteries of the cosmos like the Fantastic Four. After he’s killed his ten thousandth criminal, what new angles actually exist?
It turns out that Becky Cloonan writes a shockingly good Punisher. When he comes home to his bunker, takes stock of his arsenal and drinks a cup of coffee in silence, it’s impossible to see him as anything other than a horribly solitary soul. The quick premise at the top of the recap page states that “Frank Castle died with his family. Now, there is only… The Punisher.” What Cloonan shows us of the character when he’s not actively “punishing” starkly illustrates a life without living.
Horrifying but hilarious. Cloonan is joined this issue by fill-in artist Kris Anka, most recently known for runs on Star-Lord and Captain Marvel. His design work is superb without ever feeling flashy, and is strikingly elevated by colorist Matthew Wilson, who strives to give most scenes their own distinctive palette: Wan yellows for the washed-out lights of Frank’s bunker, light blues when he’s perusing a video screen, warm reds & oranges at sunset.
Due to the combined effect of writer, artist and colorist all working in tandem, the feelings and reactions of the characters within are both crystal clear and immediately evocative. When a group of young boys come across the aftermath of the Punisher’s most recent hit, the change in tone is chilling. The violence that later comes into play is never glorified or intended to thrill; it’s brutal, and merciless, and horrifying.
The biggest surprise might be just how funny the comic can be. The sight of the Punisher intimidating a prep school kid is unexpectedly hilarious, and his constant badassery makes you wonder if he’s always got it dialed up to eleven. None of which makes him any less formidable a force of nature; in fact, the creative team gets great mileage out of conveying the terrifying inhumanity of the Punisher, and how bewilderingly odd it is when he’s forced to interact with normal people.
Jump on. At the end of the day, of course, it’s still the Punisher. The character only really exists for the vicarious thrill of seeing bad guys getting theirs, and it’s tempting to wonder if there’s anything left to say after such celebrated runs as those of Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon, or Greg Rucka & Marco Checchetto.
And yet the creative team does an impressive job of taking a character who can be downright hard to care about and crafting one of the most striking Punisher stories in years. If you’re ultimately just not into the idea of a one-man killing machine, this won’t necessarily change your mind. But given the awesome talent on display here, you might be surprised to find yourself checking out the next issue anyway…
8 out of 10
What did you think of ‘The Punisher’ #13? Let us know in the comments below.