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‘The Punisher #1’ (review, 2023)

Written by David Pepose
Art by Dave Wachter and Dan Brown
Cover Art by Rod Reis
Published by Marvel Comics

 

Marvel Comics’ uncomfortable relationship with The Punisher is as contentious, fractured, and layered as any between its heroes and villains. Too commercially (and at times, creatively) successful to drop, too lowbrow and right wing to embrace, the House of Ideas has never known what exactly to do with Gerry Conway’s delightful *ahem* homage to Mack Bolan since he first appeared on the cover of Amazing Spider-Man.

In a Bronze Age that was largely about throwing whatever you could at the wall and seeing what enough kids were willing to part with their milk money to tear down, the black clad, gun toting, vigilante struck a nerve and Marvel has never known precisely what to do with that (outside of cashing checks, naturally).

I’ll spare you a complete history but this tango culminated in last year’s Punisher series by Jason Aaron where the urban vigilante became the chief killer for a clan of evil ninjas, allowed himself to be possessed by a demon, began wearing an emblem that seemed designed to be so stupid looking no one could co-opt it, and finally finished up by getting told by the ghost of his dead wife that she never liked him. It was less a story and more akin to a DC event where editorial sends the creative team a list of demands like they’ve just taken over Nakatomi Plaza.

That run was advertised as the last Punisher story but retirements in comics are shorter than in wrestling and so we’ve been given a new Punisher with all the rough edges sanded down by a management that is deathly afraid of producing something that is liked for the wrong reasons.

The new Punisher is former S.H.I.E.L.D. “gravedigger” Joe Garrison whose family has been bombed out by a faux-Russian assassin and who is mowing through expendable super villain geeks to get to him on a rainy night in New York City. He’s the new Punisher because his space age S.H.I.E.L.D. battle suit vaguely resembles Castle’s old get up enough that the survivors of his rampage identify him as such, and he’s willing to let them if it keeps them from looking too closely at who he really is.

He’s got an arsenal of G.I. JOE-esque laser guns that we’re told fire bullets with GPS trackers in them by his genius “handler” back at base camp. He’s got a black Ducati motorcycle, some really bad Richard Stark pastiche dialogue, and he’s going to spend the issue delivering consequence free violence to Mr. Negative and Mr. Hyde’s gangs of goons.

What’s really infuriating about the issue is Dave Wachter’s excellent John Romita, Jr. style pencils and the moody inking done by Dan Brown would be perfect for a real Punisher story that featured some real grit and reflected the neurosis of the contemporary audience in the way that all urban pulp characters since The Shadow have. Instead it is married to a character who is going to be used to clear out the decks of Z-level Marvel villains you’ve never heard of in mildly ironic fashion.

There’s nothing “bad” in technical terms about The Punisher #1. The story plays it entirely safe, yes, but the art is legitimately good. There’s some stuff that’s eye roll inducing like giving Punisher a world weary, genius, woman of color sidekick but I never really disliked Micro because I acknowledge how useful it is to have a character for our hero to go over things with. I get how the sausage is made.

What I kept wondering though is “Who is this for?”

People who don’t like The Punisher aren’t going to pick this book up because it’s still a book about a man in black shooting bad people, no matter how they gussy it up. People who like The Punisher (this reviewer sheepishly raises his hand and pleads guilty to this charge) are instantly going to recognize this is an inauthentic bastardization of a favorite character and resent it. People who don’t like comics but put Punisher stickers and patches on their guns aren’t going to even acknowledge this because they don’t care about the comics either way.

So Marvel is either counting on there being thousands of people who will literally buy anything with the word “Punisher” on it out of demented brand loyalty or that there’s thousands of people who have heard of the Punisher but never given him a try and have just been waiting with baited breath for him to be turned into G.I. JOE so they can give him a try.

Good luck with that.

Mild Recommendation, for the art.

 

 

 

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