Friday, 20 July 2012

Essential Punisher volume 1

As a little side step I'll now turn to Essential Punisher volume 1. This is one of the most unusual of all the Essential volumes as it is made up of many of the Punisher's appearances across multiple Marvel titles prior to getting his own ongoing series. Since over half the issues in this volume come from the various Spider-Man titles I've decided to include it in this series as another special. For what it's worth the volume originally came out before any of the issues in it had been reached by the other Essentials (and whilst all the Spider-Man issues have now been caught up with, at the time of writing the Captain America and Daredevil issues are still later than the most recent Essential volumes).

The issues contained here are:
  • Amazing Spider-Man #129, #134-135, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Ross Andru
  • Giant-Size Spider-Man #4, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Ross Andru
  • Marvel Preview #2, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Tony Dezuniga
  • Marvel Super-Action #1, written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Tony Dezuniga
  • Amazing Spider-Man #161-162, #174-175, written by Len Wein and drawn by Ross Andru
  • Captain America #241, written by Mike W. Barr and drawn by Frank Springer
  • Amazing Spider-Man #201-202, written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Keith Pollard, & Annual #15, written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by Frank Miller
  • Daredevil #182 (part) & 183-184, written by Frank Miller & Roger McKenzie, drawn by Frank Miller
  • Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #81-82, written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Al Milgrom, and #83, written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Greg LaRocque
  • The Punisher (limited series) #1-4, written by Steven Grant and drawn by Mike Zeck, & #5, plotted by Steven Grant, written by Jo Duffy and drawn by Mike Vosburg
Also included is the Punisher's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. This appears to be from the Deluxe Edition. Because there are so many creators, some of the labels have been placed in a separate post.

This is a very different approach from the standard Essentials. Whereas most of the other volumes focus on a particular series and present an absolutely sequential run, only including issues from other series if they constitute the build up for the series or carry a crossover, this one is closer to a more conventional tradepaperback drawing together appearances from multiple titles, and also willing to present only the pages relevant to a character or storyline from a particular issue. It's a style that doesn't seem to have been repeated, probably because it steps a bit too far from the normal Essential approach. Nevertheless it's an interesting one-off, showing the Punisher over the years before he got his own ongoing series. (By all accounts for a long time a lot in Marvel had severe reservations about an ongoing series featuring a gun wielding protagonist who kills his opponents, despite having printed many Western comics in earlier years. But then that was a different age.)

In terms of continuity, reading this on its own can be a little confusing as it jumps through some ten years worth of Spider-Man developments. Some of them are mentioned in passing, such as taking a leave of absence from graduate school, or Jonah's breakdown, or twice we see people about to become the Green Goblin, but without the wider context it may confuse at first. Similarly the Daredevil issues overlap on Matt Murdock proposing to Heather Glenn whilst there are dark developments in her company, and the Captain America issue comes from a now forgotten period with Steve Rogers was working as a commercial artist. But this is par the course for crossovers and it's to the volume's credit that it (generally) didn't follow the pattern of early trade paperbacks that sought to cut out subplots and even rearrange the artwork in order to focus just on the reason for being collected. Instead it's nice to see the whole issues altogether, which better suits the collector that the Essential line appeals to. There is an exception with Daredevil #182 which only has the eight pages featuring the Punisher. This may have been part of a bigger Daredevil storyline but on their own the pages stand out. Still they are necessary for explaining the Punisher's escape after his previous capture.

But what about the Punisher himself? Well reading through these issues altogether it's clear that he was at times a victim of the Comics Code Authority rules, forcing Marvel to present a rather tamer version of the character than he could be, seen most notably with his use of "mercy bullets" that merely stun. The contrast is starkest between his 1970s appearances in the Spider-Man titles, printed with CCA approval, and those in Marvel Preview & Marvel Super-Action, both of which were part of Marvel's non-CCA approved magazine line aimed at somewhat older readers. Going into the 1980s issues, which start with Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 there are signs that suggest the CCA rules were relaxed with the Punisher becoming harsher in his appearances, culminating in his first limited series where the character is more brutal and the violence more graphic than in anything previously seen with the CCA symbol on it.

This is also a sign of changing values in comics. The earliest superhero comics, and indeed the pulps that preceded them, emerged during a simpler era. Authority was good. Corrupt politicians, police officers and the like were rogues, not part of wider systemic failings. Heroes caught criminals but it was down to the system to deal with them. And the system invariably did, with many a villain's return mentioning either they had been released or they had escaped. Although it took a few years, heroes usually had a clear relationship with the law-enforcement community that gave their actions a stamp of legitimacy. And above all heroes were noble crusaders for the "right" values. Sometimes they even led the way - the first issue of Captain America had a cover showing him punching Hitler, months before the US entered the Second World War. The Silver Age broadly stuck to these conventions - Spider-Man might have been an outsider with a poor relationship with authority but there was never any doubt that he was on the side of right.

And then came the shocks of the late 1960s. American public opinion turned against the war in Vietnam. At home social changes and a backlash against them were causing ever more confrontation. And corruption was exposed at the very top of the system. Many of the old certainties fell away and the world was now a confused places. What was "right" now?

It was in this environment that both the Punisher, and his near contemporary Wolverine, were created. Both characters had an approach that was very different from the older generation of noble crusading heroes. Both took a much more dubious approach. Both characters enjoyed an early surge in popularity but also presented Marvel with a challenge given their nature. Consequently neither received an ongoing title until the late 1980s. But whereas Wolverine was in constant use due to his membership of the X-Men, the Punisher was used more sparingly.

Fundamentally the Punisher is a vigilante who serves as judge, jury and executioner. A soldier gone rogue, he perhaps reflected the 1970s belief that not all soldiers were noble crusaders and instead the military had produced monstrous killers who chose for themselves who would live and who would die. The Punisher might commit his atrocities on the streets of America rather than in the jungles of Vietnam, but he is a brutal killer never the less. His methods are such that at one stage he is shooting at any breach of the law no matter how minor - in one scene he shoots at a man merely for throwing aside a newspaper and missing a bin, and then when a taxi driver panics and jumps the lights he too is shot at. This particular storyline (Spectacular Spider-Man #81-83) focuses on the Punisher being apparently mad and ends with him being ruled insane. Later in the limited series it's revealed that he was in fact reacting to drugs he'd been unknowingly doped with, and once his system flushes them he reverts to normal - well for him that is.

Or perhaps not. The Punisher is an agent of justice, attacking only those who break the law. The law itself is not infallible - in the Daredevil issues we see Matt Murdock successfully get a man off a murder charge, only for his client to then calmly confess to the crime (Matt hadn't detected the lying because a pacemaker prevented a leap in the man's heart beat). As shown in his origin, the gangsters who killed the Punisher's family for witnessing an execution were able to evade prosecution by producing alibis, but weren't able to evade him. In such an environment the Punisher is a latter day cowboy, enforcing the law in places where the authorities fail and bringing justice to those who would otherwise be denied it. His victims have only themselves to blame for their fates and he is bringing those fats about efficiently. He is willing to work with other heroes and adapt to their values by using mercy bullets, and fundamentally is on their side.

Such are the two interpretations of the character. There are many wider issues flying around relating to the death penalty, to whether or not the police should be armed, to the efficiency of the legal system, to what rights law-breakers are still entitled, to the nature of a civilised society and so forth. Most of those questions are beyond the scope of this post but they do show how difficult the character can be to handle, especially when guest-starring in other titles. He can be a difficult ally of the lead hero or he can come into direct conflict over their values or somewhere in between. The conflict side is best shown in his encounter with Daredevil, whilst his alliance with Spider-Man is at its strongest in Giant-Size Spider-Man #4 when they work together to take down an arms dealer. With Captain America there's a curious reaction on each side. The Punisher admires Cap and finds he cannot bring himself to let Cap die, even if it means not blowing up a meeting of top mobsters. However Captain America is true to the traditional noble values including that even criminals have rights and is firmly opposed to the Punisher's methods, though stopping other criminals prevents him from taking the Punisher down. In many ways I think Cap and Daredevil make for the best characters to interact with the Punisher because they bring such a clash of outlooks and force it to the forefront.

That's not to say that Spider-Man has flawed values, far from it. But whereas Cap and Daredevil are both ultimately wedded to the system of enforcing both order and law, Spider-Man is wedded more to the responsibility to protect people and has always had a tense relationship with that system. He may never have resorted to the Punisher's methods, but he doesn't really serve as the best advocate for the system in this debate of contrasts. And so instead his encounters with the Punisher tend to downplay some of the harsher aspects of the latter, particularly with the widespread use of mercy bullets, and instead focus more on the adventures. In their early encounters the Punisher is willing to believe the word of criminals about Spider-Man's activities, but slowly he comes to accept the wallcrawler is seeking the same ends, if not quite the same means, and the two become reluctant allies in most of their 1970s stories. But two things change with the 1980s - there's both an increase in the bloodiness of the Punisher and also Spider-Man is now far condemning of his methods. A further contrast comes in the Spectacular issues which also involve Cloak and Dagger and contrast between their focused targeting of the drug scene and the Punisher's broad ranging approach to all crime.

When the Punisher gets his own solo slots the focus is invariably different. Curiously there's no attempt made to develop a supporting cast even though this could have helped to ground the character further. Perhaps all involved doubted there'd ever be an ongoing Punisher series (let alone the period when he had three!) and so didn't want to take up time building up things that would have no payoff. At the end of the Marvel Preview issue an FBI agent called Dave Hamilton does publicly declare a determination to bring down the Punisher but it's not followed up on in later appearances. The magazines do bring a personal edge to the Punisher, with the first one seeing him tracking down those responsible for turning ex-Marines into assassins and destroying them, whilst the second has a showdown with the gangsters who murdered his family. Whilst there's no clear chronology, the delay in the showdown is justified by the gangsters being inaccessible until they're moved, supposedly for protection from internal revenge killings for spawning the Punisher. Once that story is told the Punisher feels he hasn't had enough revenge as he didn't kill them all, so his mission continues.

The first solo series was a limited series in 1985-1986. On the face of it, it displays signs of changes midflow. Issues #1, 3 & 4 proclaim on the cover they are "in a four issue limited series", but #2 & 5 state "five issue". And the last issue has a change of creative team plus a caption on the first page thanking the new writer, artist and inker. Many wondered if this was a sign of a late in the day change of plans. However in researching this post it was apparently a combination of the printing department messing up, assuming the series would be the standard four issue length and requests for corrections were implemented then forgotten, and good old fashioned deadline problems. (Comic Book Resource: Comic Book Legends Revealed #196)

The story starts off with the Punisher (now given a name - Frank Castle - for the first time) escaping from jail and being offered help from a shadowy organisation known as "the Trust" which seeks to brainwash criminals into vigilantes modelled on the Punisher, even using his uniform. The Punisher initially goes solo but finds his plans spiralling out of control when he attempts to cause a gang war to make criminals wipe each other out. Eventually the Trust manipulate him into coming to them, in the hope of brainwashing him into their ultimate killer, but the Punisher manages to avoid the techniques and get Alaric, the leader in charge of the operation to leak all the information about the organisation. The ending is a surprise as the Punisher declines to kill Alaric, knowing that he's destroyed the organisation anyway, and sometimes it's best to walk away without killing. Then when he confronts Alaric's girlfriend, who had been using and manipulating him, and her car goes over the edge of a bridge the Punisher decides once again to walk away and do nothing. He also confronts the son of one his past kills who has been urged to take revenge and talks him out of it. It's an interesting ending suggesting that the Punisher is refining and reconsidering his methods beyond simply killing all criminals in sight, perhaps setting up the character to be a little more acceptable for an ongoing series. The limited series also brings back Jigsaw, the villain from Amazing Spider-Man #161-162 as the Punisher's first recurring adversary. Jigsaw survives largely because the Punisher has bigger fish to fry in each encounter, but does offer prospects of an ongoing conflict.

Overall the issues collected in this volume don't have a clear coherent direction, with multiple writers each doing their own thing with the character and some trying to undo previous developments. I doubt the Punisher was expected to be so popular when he was introduced - indeed I've read that co-creator Gerry Conway has said when he was writing Amazing Spider-Man he doubted the comics industry would last even a few more years - so there was never really a grand plan from the outset. As a result the character can oscillate between positions, pushed more by the Comics Code Authority rules than almost any other, but the limited series makes a good effort to find a happy medium between the extreme positions and make the character viable for further solo stories.

The decision to do the volume this way was a curious one, as it would have been far more conventional to lump together the two magazines, the limited series and the early issues of the ongoing series and not bother too much with the guest appearances. But instead an experiment was done in showing the development of the character, and it makes for an intriguing volume. I doubt they could have repeated this format too many times as it would lead to too many issues appearing multiple times, when many people buy multiple Essential volumes to build up an overall collection of classic Marvel runs and wouldn't react too favourably to being asked to keep buying the same material in new combinations. But as a one-off it's a nice approach.

Given this blog's primary focus it's fair to say that this volume's usefulness for the Spider-Man stories has rather diminished over time. When it came out it was the first time any of these issues had been Essentialised and so it offered an opportunity to get an advanced glimpse at them. Whilst this still applies for the Captain America and Daredevil issues, the volume now serves as a general sample of Spider-Man across ten years. The stories are generally good but the lack of the wider context to the many changes over the course of the decade means they can be confusing if one isn't familiar with the wider runs. However as an addition to those runs it serves as a good dip in and out.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...