The Punisher by Greg Rucka – Volume One

by deerinthexenonarclights

Though it was the relaunch and renumbering of the entire DC Universe late last year that rampaged through the comic consciousness – causing any number of headlines to be run and articles to be written – it is, somewhat ironically, the two books that Marvel moved back to number one a few months prior that have ultimately produced the two best premiere superhero runs of the year (with the caveat that i am behind on some of the best DCnU books) despite the little to no press and fanfare that surrounded them. Mark Waid wowed everyone by taking the stymying darkness of Daredevil’s most recent runs and removing it from the book completely, revealing the old fashioned, swashbuckling fun that lays at the core of the character. The other big release was The Punisher, whose rebirth was put in the capable hands of another honored comics veteran Greg Rucka, though his approach to the order was the exact opposite. Frank Castle is a stranger to me, much like Matt Murdoch was before this current run, and so i cannot claim to know much about what his books did in the past but as a passive follower i got the idea and in this case that means FrankenCastle. Like he did in “Gotham Central” Rucka has taken all of this silliness and removed it, revealing the relevant social commentary and gripping, gritty crime story at the heart of this character. For some reasons though while reading this book I began to question all of those things that I just said about it.

For those who don’t know The Punisher is the Marvel U’s version of a vigilante; his family lost their lives to crime, so he gave his to fighting it. I tell you this because the book doesn’t, at least not up front, which makes me wonder; is this really a reboot? We all have expectations of what a first issue will contain and this comic meets none of them; opening with page upon page of a mute maritime massacre, the reason for which is a mystery to us, and then continuing to hold out on the titular protagonist until near the issues end. It’s a drastic and daring play by Rucka and one that I loved once I understood exactly what it is he was doing. The Punishers origin story is told in this issue but not directly, rather it is related to us via its shadow; we see another marine, a mirror image of him, who loses everything she loves in a random, tragic crime and by the way she handles we are shown just how extraordinary Castle’s reaction is and possibly just how common, though there is more yet to come on that front. Certainly Castle’s reaction is justifiable, but it’s just not nice nor normal and so we need to be dragged through that kind of experience ourselves if we are to ever understand it; thanks to the familiarity of the tale his actual origin would no longer work effectively in this way and so this subversion was necessary.

Batman is defined by his need for revenge, but also for the rules that he follows in this pursuit while The Punisher simply slaughters those that he needs to; bending even the “No Women or Children” line that we may commonly expect our vigilantes to hold. He’s also very much an average man in a way that Bruce Wayne hasn’t been for decades, both of which made me wonder; Is The Punisher actually a superhero book? The one super heroic issue in the series so far, Frank’s fight with The Vulture, is by far the books worst and I think that says something quite important, though I wouldn’t be too dissuaded by it. Rucka has clearly realised that The Punisher is not a paranormal character at his core despite existing in this extravagant universe and so thankfully the real villains of the series are similarly stripped down; they’ve retired their masks since they realized that adorning themselves in a bright costume and a big name whilst scheming only ever gets them the wrong kind of attention, while all around the world silent villains are scoring without the superheroes ever noticing. It’s a smart move for them and for this book as a whole, which would almost be better classified alongside Criminal than Marvel’s usual fare if it wasn’t for one thing.

Though he is one of the more realistic superheroes in the U, one without any actual super powers per se, here Frank Castle is also presented as one of the most unbeleivable; a spirit of vengeance that moves millimetre perfect, a literal killing machine, never allowing the audience even the chance of feigned danger like other books do. The man is as if a ghost, both to his victims and to us the readers. Castle is an incorporeal figure in the comic named after him, silent and appearing in only the rare panel here or there and in his absence the book focuses instead on the cops and robbers involved in the crimes that he circles and strikes. Which in turn makes me wonder, is this really even a Punisher book? In lieu of one prominent leader the supporting ensemble are given more to do; characters that would usually only serve as contrived plot devices like the cops and reporters are given the time and depth needed to make them interesting. Normally these sub-leads and their sub-plots feel like just that, sub-standard; we want to get back to the superhero and so this is simply wasted space but personally I would read a whole book on any one of these people.

The answer to all of the aforementioned questions above is… not important in the slightest. The only question worth answering is that same one I ask every time I read; is it a good book? In terms of the writing the answer is yes, for all the reasons also listed above. This is a solid, sophisticated piece of pulp storytelling, the kind that the comics industry was built on. The other half of the creative process however, the art, is problematic; the young, almost Asian castle isn’t to my taste but otherwise the style is as it should be, dark and noirish. The covers however are crap, there’s no escaping the fact: their perverted posing, their ignorance of the characters redesign, their banality and cheesiness are all unforgivable on their own but when you take into account just how unrepresentative they are of the book they are hiding this only makes things worse. If single issues came sealed then I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this series fail to sell a single issue; thankfully though that is not the case.
The answer to that last question though is an unrepentant yes, niggles included. Which I guess is all I needed to say, well that and I already can’t wait for Volume Two.