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Sunday Slugfest - Punisher War Journal #1

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2006
By: Keith Dallas

ďHow I Won The War Ė Part One: Bring On The Bad GuysĒ

Writer: Matt Fraction
Artists: Ariel Olivetti, Dean White (colors)

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Average Rating:

Michael Deeley:
Luke Handley:
Steven G. Saunders:
Adam Volk:
Dave Wallace:

Michael Deeley

You know, thereís a reason The Punisher was most popular when he left the Marvel Universe: the character is incompatible with superhero fiction. Frank Castle comes from the same genre of hard-boiled he-men like The Executioner and film noir detectives. He lives in moral ambiguity that just doesnít belong in a spandex world, despite a maturation of the medium. The Punisher can only exist in a world similar to our own, one so complicated and conflicted that murdering a murderer can be a good thing. That idea still doesnít belong in the superhero world, where good guys still win and death isnít always permanent. Thatís probably why the Punisher doesnít belong in the normal Marvel U. Why bother killing super-villains if they can always come back to life?

This issue shows us what the Punisher was up to before his return in Civil War #5. His attempt to kill a child pornographer is interrupted by a still-stupid Stilt-Man. Castle kills them both. He tracks down an escaped villain called Rampage and recruits him for tech support. Rampage supplies him with a device that tracks Stark-made technology. Castle uses it to find and rescue Spider-Man. Meanwhile, G.W. Bridge is brought back to S.H.I.E.L.D. to catch Castle, but he canít do it with S.H.I.E.L.D.ís poor resources and binding laws.

Couple of problems here, the biggest being why would Castle easily throw in with a villain? He hates how the Registration Act has distracted heroes from fighting crime. The Civil War has endangered regular people. Rampage has sold upgraded technology to minor villains signing on with the government. So why take help from someone whoís added to the problem? No threats, no violence, just seeing an opportunity to use Rampageís hatred of Stark to fight villains. Itís nice to see Castle being more manipulative than usual, but I doubt heíd compromise his solid moral code.

The only real reason to buy this comic is the art of Ariel Olivetti. Iíve loved his work since X-Man way back when. Nice to see his European-style painted art in a monthly comic. There are times when his anatomy is a little off, like Castleís arms changing size and peopleís heads appearing freakishly small. But it works within the overall style. Itís like an expressionist interpretation of photorealism. He starts with real-world models then alters and exaggerates to fit the mood. His faces and heads are the best, like Kevin McGuire in 3-D. Backgrounds could use more detail, though that would add to his work time. The finished product clearly took great time and effort. Weíll be lucky if Olivetti can maintain this level of quality on a monthly basis. Dean White does a decent coloring job, though Iíd have liked more gradations and shading in the style of Laura Martin. The coloring here tends to look a little bland.

So Frank Castle is fighting super-villains again. It looks good and we get some nice bits of dialogue. I think Castle can bring the normal-guy ďI canít believe this ridiculous crap is being taken seriouslyĒ attitude that a superhero universe needs. Iíll give Matt Fraction a few more issues to find his particular voice. But itís a tough premise to make work.

Luke Handley:

The Punisher is back in the Marvel universe proper, and heís not taking any prisoners. Even though Iím hardly a Punisher fan, I always enjoyed seeing him pop up in other Marvel mainstream books. Unfortunately, these appearances have been few and far between since he was shipped off to the MAX imprint. Not that this was in any way a bad move judging by what Iíve heard from people who follow his solo adventures, but I definitely think that Marvel New York has been all the poorer for Frankís absence. But now heís back in a big way.

Due to the nature of his return, it had to occur last week in Civil War #5 and not here in his own book so as not to step on that bookís toes and thatís a bit unfortunate, especially as even though some of the scenes from that book are retold here from Frankís perspective, some are omitted, and if you havenít read Civil War, you donít really know how they got to that last scene. What this book does do, however, is offer an explanation, or the beginning of an explanation, as to why the Punisher is getting back into the superhero game.

The Punisher is staking a pedophile who is in the kiddie porn making business, and apparently untouchable by the law, when his party is crashed by loser villain extraordinaire Stiltman. Given all the previews and solicitations, I donít think Iíd be spoiling it for anyone by saying that things donít work out well for him. Though at first glance it appears that Stiltmanís upgrade and supposed new found will to ďdo goodĒ is a result of Iron Manís ill-advised ďThunderboltsĒ program, it quickly becomes apparent to Frank who is really responsible and in need of some punishment. This further leads to his tracking down one (or two)-time loser Stuart Clarke (a.k.a. Rampage) and after an surprisingly non-bloody resolution, Frank starts staking out Stark-tech using superheroes, which leads to his scenes in Civil War.

Overall, I enjoyed this. Frank Castle displays the no-nonsense attitude one would expect from someone who calls himself the Punisher. From his execution of Stiltman, who claims to be trying to reform, to his incapacitation of a grieving Tinkerer, he doesnít display an ounce of remorse. The fact that at the beginning of the issue his whole arsenal consists of one anti-tank grenade and a couple of rounds for a .38 suggests that Frank is down on his luck in the weapons department. Which doesnít really make much sense, considering the scene with S.H.I.E.L.D. raiding a storage facility that obviously belongs to him and going on about how much gear was in it. And Frank just happens to be hanging around in the tunnels when the agents are sent in so he can conveniently nick their guns. Plot-wise, this is in my opinion the weakest part of the book, but I suppose you need to have a way of setting up Frankís new status quo.

The mini Iron Men built by Stuart Clarke are brilliant. Itís always hard to get the mix of comedy and grim seriousness right and even harder to do them at the same time, yet thatís exactly what Fraction does here thanks to the inclusion of these little guys. It looks like Clarke is being set up to become the Punisherís tech guy, which will be fun to see. After all, the premise of this series is Frank taking down superpowered villains, and I was wondering where he was going to be getting the arsenal to do that. And this would mean we get to see more Iron Midgets. Good stuff.

My biggest complaint about this issue though is the inclusion of G.W. Bridge, and more specifically, the way heís cast. Several things: the timing of this is a problem, as heís currently leading the Six Pack against Cable in Cable & Deadpool. Yeah, G.W. is an on/off high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, but his main purpose has always been tackling Cable, and given that thatís exactly what heís up to at the moment, his switch to Punisher tracker is odd. And whatís up with the religion angle? Iím not an authority on the character, but I canít remember him being Islamic before, and given the kind of stuff heís done, working as a mercenary for hire most of his adult life and fighting alongside / against Cable, religion seems a very strange choice for him. Iím not too keen on the way Olivetti draws him either: slightly podgy and old, whereas heís always been an athletic hard chiseled figure.

Despite my personal feelings of his G.W. Bridge, I really liked Ariel Olivettiís work here, in no small part due to Dean Whiteís fantastic job on colours. His Punisher does seem a tad ridiculous and over the top at first, dwarfing everyone around him with his body mass, but I found myself liking the design a couple of pages in. Everything else is good. He draws some mean facial expressions and character poses, with Frank and G.W. in particular and really manages to convey the charactersí emotions. There are only a couple of panels that look a tiny bit awkward, and these are during action sequences. The big problem comes with Spider Manís beating. In Civil War, heís shown seriously bloodied and broken whereas here his costume is ripped but he himself doesnít look too worse for wear at all. Now, this is just the start of the series and on the whole these matters donít bother me too much as I have hopes that things will just get better from here.

Itís odd, the last three comics Iíve reviewed Iíve given them each . Not that Iím being lazy and not trying to seriously evaluate them, but theyíve all fallen into the same category really: good solid comics, definitely worth reading if youíre into the main characters, and maybe even if youíre not, but due to various reasons (different each time) just not quite that good to really recommend to anyone and everyone.

Steven G. Saunders:

When I heard Punisher War Journal was coming back, I didnít quite know what to think. On one hand, itís a new Punisher title to read! Finally! Huzzah! On the other hand, the thought that rang in my mind like a klaxon made of jet-engines was the one that went: ďWhat if this sucks and Frank is brought back into a world of suck again, just like last time? I remember all that crap! Itís one of the many reasons why I dropped 90% of the titles I was reading!Ē

Ah, the Ď90s. Remember them? Yeah, I try my best to forget (itís what we call ďdrinkingĒ, kidsÖ but thatís another story).

After I finally got to read this issue, I could tell I was suitably pleased from that large grin I could feel locked on my face. Itís not like Punisher has been really gone or anything, but other than a few runs here and there and one ongoing title (Punisher MAX), we donít get to see too much of my favourite Marvel character. Old man Frank was a faint blip on the radar, it seemed, until he popped up in Civil War #5, a bloody spotlight shining directly on him all of a sudden.

Of course, Frank Castleís emergence in Civil War coincides with the new Punisher War Journal. I mentioned in my review of CW #5 that I hoped that he wouldnít become a Roach Motel of the Marvel Universe, killing off z-list bad guys who are probably scarier at their Dairy Queen and Wal-Mart day jobs. At first, I thought my fears were going to be realised, what with the apparent death of Stilt-Man, but it seems they were all for naught. This new War Journal is good on story and heavy on the humour. I love how Fraction handles dialogue and how the story is paced. It manages to stay gritty enough to please and involve typical 616 Marvel stuff without bogging it all down with what I like to call ďThe Lame.Ē

Olivettiís art is outstanding! Characters and action all seem to have this certain simplicity and exactness and yet radiate a certain charm. As far as technical things go, this book certainly has a lot going for it.

As far as the story itself goes, it meshes with the Civil War storyline, as I said. I really liked the way the Punisherís POV is presented concerning the rescue of Spider-Man. Itís neat that the new Microchip is the Tinkerer [Correction: Actually, my mistake! I mean to write "the new Microchip is Rampage"; Tinkerer gets killed! Mucho thanks go out to the nice reader that corrected my sleep deprived ass]. The Iron Man attack-toys were a goofy but nice touch. Iíve never liked Stilt-Man, he being one of the reasons why I shied away from the Daredevil comics as a kid (donít ask), and seeing him get owned is always a good thing, regardless of which goddamn Stilt-Man he is. Thereís some other stuff thatís going on thatís pretty cool, too. It all makes for a great Marvel Universe re-insertion of the Punisher in a major role.

I do have a couple of nitpicks, though. First, whatís up with that necklace Frank is wearingÖ? It appears and disappears, sometimes from panel to panel. Also, I noticed something else: In Civil War #5, Jester is shot in the head; and in PWJ #1, Jester is shot in the chest. Whatís up with that? I mean, thatís not a little thing, right? Well, in the greater scheme of things it is. Gunned down is gunned down is gunned down. The final result is always messy in some way. Still, I found that it bugged me a bit. I suppose it could be just that this is all in a different perspective. Or something that may or may not be explained at some later date.

In the end, this is a great book, errors aside. This is solid Punisher, with Matt Fraction treating the character of Frank Castle with the love and respect he deserves. This isnít Garth Ennisí Punisher (which I adore), mind you, but Fraction does an excellent job nonetheless. He has made this Punisher his own. Coupled with the great art, I see great things for this title in the future.

Adam Volk:

Captain America throws a shield, Spider-Man spins webs, Professor X uses his mind and the PunisherÖwell, the Punisher blows holes the size of softballs into peopleís head.

One of these things is not like the others.

The fact is the Punisher has always seemed like the odd man out when it comes to the Marvel Universe; heís a psychotic vigilante rather than a true superhero, so itís interesting to see Frank Castle emerge as a key figure in the spandex-clad extravaganza that is Civil War. Enter Punisher War Journal #1, a Civil War tie-in that sees Frank Castle finally setting his sights on the most dangerous criminal of all: the super-villain.

Itís the kind of concept that had the geeky, prepubescent fan boy in me positively drooling when I first heard about it. Sadly, Punisher War Journal #1 suffers from a classic case of a great idea and poor execution (no pun intended).

The story begins with the Punisher going head to head with B-list super-villain Stiltman (who now claims to have reformed his diabolical ways) and follows a trail leading to a small-time broker offering technology and services to super-villains. Meanwhile, S.H.I.E.L.D has brought in former operative G.W. Bridge (who has seemingly traded in his once muscular physique for a more Wilfred Brimley like appearance) and plans to take down Frank Castle once and for all. The Punisherís investigation leads him straight to Stuart Clarke, a misguided genius dabbling in super-villainy, and after a brief battle, the two agree to join forces to track down super-villains and eliminate them with extreme prejudice. Unfortunately for the Punisher, Bridge and an elite unit of S.H.I.E.L.D ďcape-killersĒ begins a city wide hunt for Frank Castle, leading to a climactic battle in the sewers of New York and tying in neatly to Civil War #5.

Unfortunately, despite its intriguing premise Punisher War Journal #1 never really delivers on the goods. The plot suffers from a rather poor sense of pacing and fails to develop in any meaningful way. As a result, what could have been a gripping narrative essentially falls by the wayside. I wanted to see the Punisher armed to the teeth with high-powered A.I.M-crafted energy rifles taking on the likes of the Rhino and Doc Ock, not the plodding, slightly clichťd story arc weíre presented with here. Similarly, there are some loose plot threads that never really seem to be adequately explained (for example, why after all these years and while in the grips of a super-powered Civil War would S.H.I.E.L.D even bother to deal with Frank Castle?). And while the Civil War tie in ending was well done, it also seems a little extraneous and perhaps even unnecessary. Matt Fraction is a wonderful writer (I was blown away by his work on The Five Fists of Science), but in this particular series, he doesnít seem to be able to capture the essence of the Punisher, particularly when it comes to dialogue. Also, for a book centered on a gun-totting vigilante, the Punisher seems to be surprisingly unarmed for a majority of the issue. Of course, one canít judge too harshly. Fraction is essentially writing in the shadow of Garth Ennis, a man who has become almost synonymous with Frank Castle. This isnít the Marvel MAX imprint however, so Fraction has to work with what he has. None the less, the issue fell short from what it could have been, and I was disappointed by the direction Fraction chose to take the story. Fortunately, Ariel Olivettiís artwork is incredibly well done with a unique style and wonderfully expressive panels.

Hereís hoping Fraction is able to spin the series in another direction and put Frank Castle back where he should beÖbehind the barrel of a big-ass gun.

Dave Wallace:

Another week, another Civil War tie-in. However, whereas some of the Civil War crossover issues have been blasted for being either out-of-character for the heroes involved or very tenuously connected to the event, this issue does a good job of balancing the two concerns to give us the beginnings of a decent enough Punisher story that also intersects with the core Civil War book in a fairly important way.

Frank Castle is very much the archetypal Punisher when this book begins: more concerned with going about his business icing villains than getting caught up with the in-fighting of Civil War. Iíve not read Garth Ennisí MAX series, so I havenít got the harder-edged Punisher to compare this book to, but for the most part writer Matt Fraction integrates Castleís abrasive, totalitarian, black-and-white attitude with the more colourful dalliances of the Marvel Universe well. Thereís humour to be found, but it isnít knockabout comedy which sells the character short; rather, itís deadpan droll one-liners (mainly through Castleís narration) which let us in on the fact that the Punisher doesnít always take himself 100% seriously after all.

However, some of the sillier elements do threaten to overshadow the darker tone of the book once the Civil War comes knocking on his door. If you can stomach the Punisher vs. Stilt-Man or Frank Castle fighting an army of miniature Iron Man robots whilst keeping a straight face, youíre a better man than I, and thereís also some extraneous chatter about plot developments from the very first issues of New Avengers which I donít quite think sit easily with the tone of the rest of the book (but at least it shows that Marvel hasnít forgotten about them). That said, thereís an interesting subplot about S.H.I.E.L.D. having their hands tied in their attempts to apprehend Castle (and the development of this thread at the end of the issue makes me fairly interested to see where it goes) and the way in which the Punisher joins the Civil War definitely has me interested to see what role the character plays in the crossover Ė although anyone whoís read the latest issue of Civil War wonít find any plot developments here to surprise them.

Iím not completely sold on the book yet: the painted-style artwork has a bit too much of a shiny texture and isnít quite energetic enough to really carry the action scenes, and some may feel that Castleís character has been neutered in order to accommodate him in a Civil War tie-in book (I was surprised how many villains remained alive after their encounters with him). However, Fraction writes with enough wit to keep the reader entertained and provides a more complex and involving plot than I imagined for such a traditionally simplistic character. This is very much the Punisher returning to his all-ages anti-hero roots to take a role in the Marvel crossover event of the year, and from that description you should probably know whether youíll want to pick this up or not.

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