Any two-bit pop culture historian will tell you that The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons pushed superhero comics into previously unseen realms of darkness and moral complexity during the mid ‘80s; what many of them fail to extrapolate upon is that these were only the two most prominent of many stories at the time which helped develop a new aesthetic for the genre. Whether it was the bloodletting of Matt Wagner’s Grendal, the exploration of supervillains-as-realpolitik of John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, or the quiet domestic drama of Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, superhero comics across the board became cape stories in name only as they attempted to bridge the gap between fantastical children’s stories and mature storytelling. Some succeeded, many failed, and the results of this period can be felt to this day as many superhero stories employ an aesthetic of “edginess” that lacks the substance of the comics that inspired this style in the first place.
In this sense, Punisher: Circle of Blood by Steve Grant and Mike Zeck can be seen as a bridge between the sophisticated greyness of the 1980s and the indulgent vacuity that came to define superhero comics in the 1990s. Though a character largely indebted to those earlier comics—a superhero as a vigilante murderer was a tough sell in the days before Miller and Moore—the Punisher remained bizarrely immune to the nuanced storytelling charms of his peers for years, his comics mainly consisting of meatheaded urban rampages until Garth Ennis took the reins of the comic in the early 2000s (wherein the comic changed to consistent mainly of hilarious metaheaded urban rampages). Circle of Blood, serialized in 1986, has the violence of its peers without the gore, the titillation without the sexuality, the message without the meaning. It is a strange case, one which displays an adoration of the “dark” superhero aesthetic without showing any commitment to it whatsoever.
The plot doesn’t really matter in most ways, but in essence, Circle of Blood is a story about the Punisher sparking a gang war after finding that the Kingpin has faked his death, leaving a power vacuum; without a Boss of Bosses to hold the gangland together, Punisher assumes they’ll destroy each other and leave New York a crime-free city, but soon a group called The Trust begins escalating the mayhem by using brainwashed soldiers in the Punisher’s likeness to carry out hits in order to further their agenda of what boils down to creating a private army in the war on crime. Like many superhero stories, it’s a plot that can only be described in run-on sentences, and a few ludicrous leaps of logic are par for the course with this type of comic.
The problem with Circle of Blood is less that it’s ridiculous and more that it isn’t really about anything. There are a few moments where Punisher wonders if he’s actually made things worse by destabilizing the mob system he’s spent his adult life combating; this could have lead to an interesting riddle as to whether some sort of criminal ecosystem is necessary to maintain public order, thereby calling the Punisher’s entire reason for being into question, but this isn’t an avenue that the story is interested in pursuing. The comic simply gets bored of its own plot after a certain point and abandons any semblance of thematic heft for the idea that The Lone Gunman Is Always Right. It’s boring to read, and it’s impossible to mentally spend any time on once you close the book.
To be sure, there’s a lot about this comic that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: Why does The Trust try to kill the Punisher in the midst of enlisting him, then try to kill him, then try to enlist him after he learns they tried to kill him? Shouldn’t a man who fought in Vietnam, of all people, understand what the consequences are when a system’s gravity of power collapses? Couldn’t you have gotten the gist of that prison break scene in just a few pages instead of, like, the entire opening chapter of the book? Why does the Punisher put implicit trust in a woman he’s had sex with three times and met while losing consciousness outside of an exploding penthouse? And so on and so on. But it’s hard not to think that the comic would have been a lot more memorable if there had been something real driving all of this kookiness.
Mike Zeck’s art is a testament to this idea; his layouts are uninspired but his figurework is sometimes chaotic to the point of grotesquery. Bodies are strained and pulverized by foreshortening whenever a character breaks into a run, faces twist hideously whether smiling or screaming, the dead crash and crumple like wadded up newspaper as they hit the ground. It’s an acquired taste to be sure, and this Buscema-by-way-of-McFarlane school of body language doesn’t show up in the story quite often enough to make the whole thing visually remarkable upon remembrance. But Zeck proves that his visuals are wasted on a comic as mundane as this one, and one can easily imagine a Punisher story where Zeck is allowed to go whole-hog in this style being a thing of brutal wonder.
Yet it was never to be. What we have instead is a comic that had the potential to either carry a modicum of philosophical weight or entertain with an onslaught of lurid violence, but the outcome of these ignored potentialities is something flaccid and meaningless, mindlessness without entertainment, too ugly to find appealing but not quite so brazenly hideous as to be considered fascinating. If this is the best the stories of this character had to offer at the time, imagine the duds Marvel must have found unfit to remaster.