Friday, 31 May 2013

Essential Punisher volume 4

Essential Punisher volume 4 contains issues #41-59 and annuals #4-5 from the Punisher's first ongoing series. Mike's Amazing World of Comics allocates a 1991 Summer Special to the series, but it's not included here. Annual #4 is part of "The von Strucker Gambit", a crossover with Daredevil Annual #7 and Captain America Annual #10. Annual #5 is part of "The System Bytes", crossing over with Daredevil Annual #8 (that's the fourth year in a row the Punisher and Daredevil annuals were part of the same crossover), Wonder Man Annual #1 and Guardians of the Galaxy Annual #2. Once again only the Punisher issues are included in this volume.

The bulk of the regular issues are written by Mike Baron, with Chuck Dixon doing two fill-ins. The main artist is Hugh Haynes, but other issues are drawn by Bill Reinhold, Mark Texeira, Neil Hansen, Tod Smith, Ron Wagner and Tom Morgan. A back-up strip in issue #50 is written by Marc McLaurin and drawn by Roderick Delgado. The stories in the annuals are written by variously Baron, Gregory Wright & Dan Chichester, George Caragonne, Peter David, Rob Tokar and Roger Salick, and drawn by Morgan, John Hebert, Mike Harris, Steven Butler, Vince Evans and Val Mayerik. Due to the large number of creators, I've created a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

The series in this period also run a number of pin-ups in the regular issues but usually at most two. The dates on some suggest they were drawn from inventory but it's unclear whether they had been used before or not. I don't know if this was a way of slightly cutting the regular artists' workloads, a chance for other artists to get some exposure or even royalties, or just a way to clear out some backlog material. In general the pin-ups add nothing to the narrative but are kept alongside their original issues so they're not really intrusive.

The only crossovers in this volume come in the two annuals, though one manages to stand on it own rather better than the other. Annual #4 comes without the rest of "The von Strucker Gambit". It might have been more use to present the entire storyline. Here we get a rather confusing middle parter where it's hard to tell what's going on - there's an ongoing conflict between the recently returned Baron von Strucker of Hydra and Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., with the former testing genetically engineered assassins. There's some interaction with Nick Fury, but it would have been more interesting to give the Punisher another encounter with both Captain America and Daredevil, since the stories in volume 1 showed them to be the best heroes to contrast the Punisher against and it would be nice to see a later take given subsequent developments in all their careers. The back-up stories are far more interesting. Again Microchip gets a solo story and this time he goes to a weight loss health farm, only to discover a criminal operation being run in it. There's also two brief three page affairs, one retelling the Punisher's origin (I've seen a few others of these in other annuals from 1991 but I don't think they were in all of them) and the other featuring him escaping from being taken prisoner by a yuppie and demonstrating why car passengers should always wear seatbelts.

Annual #5 is an improvement on its predecessor and if it wasn't for the banner on the cover and first page proclaiming "The System Bytes" it would be easy to overlook that this is part of a bigger story at all. The main feature sees the Punisher taking on a business that's a front for drug smuggling, with the added complication of a rival smuggler trying to muscle in on the territory. The twist is that the rivals have infected the business's computer system with a virus which complicates the Punisher and Microchip's attempts to obtain information about shipment times. Today in 2013 this may seem like small stuff but back in 1992 computer viruses were very much a major real world concern. Modern readers will easily recognise Microchip's reaction to his system freezing up as he smashes his hand on the keyboard. I'm guessing that the rest of the crossover involves the other heroes dealing with the virus, named "Ultra Max" after its creator, but one can just read this annual and not come away feeling the story is incomplete. The annual's back up stories are a mix as well. Once again we get a Microchip solo tale as he demonstrates his abilities with disguises to infiltrate a hospital to obtain information on a criminal who was only wounded by the Punisher and then having discovered the criminal's contact is his doctor, Microchip uses his hacking skills to alter the criminal's prescription, killing him and setting up the doctor. Another story sees the Punisher take on a gang of vandals in an icehouse. But the feature that's common to just about every annual from 1992 is a three pager presenting the top ten villains of the series or character. Such features are often interesting as a statement of who are considered the biggest foes at any one point, and this one is presented as narrated by the Punisher. However he has the particular problem that most of his foes get killed on their first encounter. So his list consists of:

10. Jigsaw
9. Gregario
8. Sgt. Cleve Gorman
7. The Rev (Sammy Smith)
6. Spider-Man
5. Daredevil
4. The Reavers
3. Saracen
2. The Kingpin of Crime
1. Bruno Costa, Skinner, Kolsky

The inclusion of a couple of heroes on the list is justified by the Punisher on the basis that they get in his way, but indicates the problem in finding enough recurring and/or significant foes for a list of this sort. Most of the other eight have been seen in the Essential Punisher volumes so far, but Sgt. Cleve Gorman appeared in Punisher: Return to Big Nothing, a graphic novel from 1989 in which the Punisher ran into his former drill instructor who had turned crooked. The trio of Costa, Skinner and Kolsky were responsible for killing the Punisher's wife and children so it's understandable that they would be at the top of such a personal list, even though they, like Gorman, Smith and most of the Reavers (following events in Uncanny X-Men), were dead by this time. With Gregario based inside prison (actually called "Riker's Island" here rather than the usual Marvel spelling of "Ryker's Island") this leaves just three significant recurring foes on the loose - Jigsaw, Saracen and the Kingpin. All four appear in this volume.

Otherwise in the regular issues the Punisher faces another assortment of one-off foes in these issues including a group of women terrorists trying to destroy New York's water supply for a mixture of revenge and money, the head of a military academy who produces illegal porn on the side, another Latin American drug dealer and a dodgy doctor who helps with torture, amateur drug manufacturers in a small town facing rapid changes, a serial killer who murders taxi drivers, latter day Nazis, arms dealers, Middle Eastern dictatorships, high ransom kidnappers, an engineer who's built a huge substandard dam and retreated to a special biosphere to live detached from the world, Chinese gangs and ex-military and a woman who steals babies from the poor to be adopted by the rich. Interestingly on more one occasion a foe is motivated into revenge for rape, but rather than taking it out on the individual rapist or rapists in general, the first (actually a friend of the victim rather than the victim herself) focuses their hatred on the whole of New York City and the second on its cab drivers because none would stop to take her from the neighbourhood she found herself in that night and the tragedy occurred as she walked home. In the latter case the Punisher comments that had she instead targeted rapists his reaction to her would have been very different, offering advice on weapons and tactics.

Overall these single parters continue to put the Punisher through a huge variety of situations but as highlighted above there are some signs of repetition in both the types of foes and the motivations. However the series does take some steps towards a greater ongoing narrative with recurring foes. The lack of Essentials for Punisher War Journal really shows itself here when the regular Punisher #47-48 see the return of Saracen, who has become the Punisher's considered greatest enemy after events in Punisher War Journal #25 & #27, which would presumably be covered in a second Essential volume for that series. It's a similar mess to that in the Spider-Man Essentials where the Hobgoblin and alien costume sagas have had their epilogues or conclusions published before much of the previous story. Here's hoping it gets rectified soon, as currently Saracen's shift from one-off ally to recurring villain is left unexplored. The aforementioned issues #47-48 contain a two-part tale about arms in the Middle East. Originally published in February and March 1991, they show the dictatorship of "Trafia", led by President Jekohadeem, a mustachioed military dictator who shoots a subordinate in his own office. Trafia has built a giant supergun for attacks on neighbouring states. Trafia's traditional enemy is the neighbouring Islamic regime "Zukistan" and tensions build between the two, but Trafia is also threatening other states with weapons of mass destruction, most notably Israel. The covers to these issues are even more explicit, with #47 proclaiming "Caught in a Desert Storm!" and #48 shows the Punisher tied to the muzzle with the caption "Next stop: Baghdad!" (It's an odd caption when you consider the gun is located in the parody of Iraq rather than Iran.) It's surprising to see such a direct take on events in the real world from an early 1990s comic, though Jekohadeem has a different fate from Saddam Hussein - he is assassinated by a Mossad agent whereas Saddam did not fall in 1991, despite expectations and hopes.

The last seven issues in the volume feature another multi-part story that originally saw the title go biweekly for the season. "The Final Days" sees the Punisher undergo a marathon of endurance under pressure from the Kingpin. First Microchip is captured and has a finger chopped off to force the Punisher into removing one of the Kingpin's rivals. Then the Punisher gets captured and sent to Riker's Island where amongst the inside violence he once again encounters Gregario and Jigsaw, with the latter being presented rather more seriously than the comic element he sometimes became in previous encounters. Before the Punisher escapes his face is badly slashed, forcing him to seek medical help whilst also being pursued by the Kingpin's men. Meanwhile Microchip has been released, albeit in Thailand, and makes his way home to help the Punisher. By the end the Punisher had found a plastic surgeon and undergoes a startling transformation.

It's a very downbeat saga in which no one is left unscathed. Microchip has been developing a computer game on the side which proves quite successful; unfortunately thus leads to his capture at a toy fair and subsequent wounding then humiliating trek home from being dumped in rural Thailand. The Punisher is shown here to not trust his one friend completely, and maintains a private weapons store that even Microchip doesn't know about, guarded by a loyal dog called Max. Sadly when Microchip is sent to refill Max's feed the Kingpin's men follow him and Max is shot. It's a particularly sad moment when the Punisher finds the dog too wounded to save and has to put him down. Even the Kingpin's men come out badly, with anyone who survives and returns to report failure soon meeting finality at the hands of the crimelord. The Punisher himself endures the fate he's inflicted on Jigsaw when the latter cuts up his face. And the story (and the volume) ends on a shocking moment, though the impact is lessened in black & white as it lacks the most obvious give-away. The Punisher asked the doctor to make his face so that no-one will recognise him and she does just that - by making him black.

I have no idea just how scientifically plausible this scenario is, but there's dialogue about the doctor having conducted experiments with tissue regeneration and melanin, so it certainly sounds scientific enough to convince the lay reader as being realistically possible (and in 1991 the average reader wouldn't be able to just look this up on the internet), give or take the character of the doctor. Melinda Brewer trained in medicine and experimented on the side but found the pressure of hospital work drove her to drugs and was struck off for stealing them and now she works as a prostitute to feed her addiction. So the character is a little far fetched, although it's not as if the Punisher could go to a major stable plastic surgeon who might otherwise treat the likes of Michael Jackson. Melanin is a real word, being the pigment that determines skin colour, so it lends the situation an aura of credibility. But the real test is how the scenario is handled in practice, for which we'll have to await volume 5. If Marvel makes a go of Essentialising Punisher War Journal and bringing it up to speed then we may be waiting a while.

As well as the development of villains, we also see a little development with Microchip, who remains the sole supporting cast member in the title. As seen at the end of the previous volume he has spent some of his time developing a new computer game and some of the issues here show him in the process of refining it until it wins an award at a toy fair, though for Microchip personally this is a double edged sword. We also see his powers of disguise developed, not just in annual #5 but also in "The Final Days" storyline as he adopts a disguise that's notably thinner than his usual bulk and poses as the Punisher's lawyer. The pain and humiliation he undergoes in that storyline serve to underline just how loyal he is to his friend and willing to take almost anything for the greater mission. There's a bit of fleshing out of his background, with issue #46 revealing his father was forced to work for the Nazis in developing destructive weapons before escaping to the States, and issues #47-48 brings a clash from his strong Zionist opinions when the Punisher saves the engineer behind Trafia's supergun, when that state is committed to the destruction of Israel. In this story Microchip makes his own way to the Middle East to help Zukistan destroy its rivals' gun, and cuts a deal with that state to save the Punisher's life, even though it means letting the double-agent Saracen live, an arrangement the Punisher is none too happy with.

It's thanks to putting more development into both the Punisher's aide and his foes that overall this volume feels much more complete than earlier ones. The only story that stands out as a mess is the middle chapter of "The von Strucker Gambit" in annual #4, and that really reflects the wider problems of the annual crossovers in the early 1990s. It's easy to see why the tactic was generally abandoned after 1992. The rest of the series is reasonably high octane, putting the Punisher through some quite tense and gritty situations. In this period Marvel was still putting out its books with Comics Code Authority approval but it would appear that by this point either the Code was largely a rubber stamping formality or else Punisher was really pushing it right up to the permissible limits. The result is one of the more solid and consistent runs on the character and series so far. However the cliffhanger at the end is a sufficiently bizarre move that the next volume may test that...

Essential Punisher volume 4 - creator labels

Once again we have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Acts of Vengeance - the crossovers

Another quick guide to a significant crossover event that isn't (yet) fully collected in the Essentials.

Acts of Vengeance appeared in late 1989 (coinciding with a period when Marvel took steps to bring their cover dates closer to actual publication) and was one of the biggest ever Marvel crossovers with the two Marvel Omnibus editions devoted to it reprinting material from no less than sixty-eight different comics.

Although the core focus was on the various Avengers books, the story reached out into almost every single Marvel title. The basic premise is of super-villains working together, under the guidance of six leading villains and their mysterious lackey, and switching heroes in the hope of defeating them. In practice this led to many heroes fighting villains for the first time, such as the Punisher facing off against Doctor Doom.

An exact order for the story is hard to come by, not least because the main collected editions are structured around the "core" and "extended" parts of the crossover. However the (Almost) Complete Marvel Crossover Guide has had a go, noting problems due to long-running storylines in both New Mutants and X-Factor, and offers the following order, including some issues that didn't actually carry the "Acts of Vengeance" banner:
Avengers Annual #19 carries a back-up strip where the Avengers review and summarise the key events of the crossover. Another follow-up appeared in Web of Spider-Man #64-65 and that was also included in the Omnibus edition. And although it's not in any collected edition, Silver Surfer #33 parodied the concept with "Acts of Idiocy", featuring the Surfer's first encounter with the Impossible Man (one of the more enduring relationships to come out of the whole thing).

Friday, 24 May 2013

Essential Punisher volume 3

Essential Punisher volume 3 continues the journey through the Punisher's first ongoing series, containing #21-40 & Annual #2-3, with the exception of one back-up feature from Annual #2. In addition it contains Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for the Shadowmasters and the Reavers. All the regular issues and main features in the annuals are written by Mike Baron, with some back-up features by Roger Salick and Gregory Wright. The regular issues are mostly drawn by Erik Larsen and Bill Reinhold, with others drawn by Mark Texeira, Russ Heath and Jack Slamn, and the annuals see contributions by Reinhold, Texeira, Tod Smith, Jim Lee, Neil Hansen, Eliot R. Brown and Lee Sullivan.

As noted we're already into the period when he had two titles a month, but we've yet to see an Essential Punisher War Journal, though there are occasional references to events there. Fortunately we're not yet faced with rampant crossovers between the two titles. That's not to say the series didn't take part in other crossovers though.

This volume contains the Punisher issues from three crossovers. Annual #2 is part of "Atlantis Attacks", which was a mega-crossover told in fourteen separate annuals in 1989. (The other thirteen annuals were Silver Surfer #2, Iron Man #10, X-Men #13, Amazing Spider-Man #23, Spectacular Spider-Man #9, Daredevil #4, Avengers #18, New Mutants #5, X-Factor #4, Web of Spider-Man #5, Avengers West Coast #4, Thor #14 & Fantastic Four #22, plus interludes in the regular Marvel Comics Presents #26, New Mutants #76 & Avengers West Coast #52. Due to an error the Daredevil annual is actually the second one numbered #4; the following year's annual saw the numbering restored to #6.) As well as the main event the annuals also included "The Saga of the Serpent Crown" which once again sought to reintroduce and tidy up the continuity of a key plot device; the relevant chapter is omitted but the whole crossover can be found in a Marvel Omnibus edition. The following year Marvel changed tact and switched to shorter storylines that ran in only a handful of annuals. Punisher Annual #3 was part of the "Lifeform" crossover (the other three parts were in Daredevil #6, Incredible Hulk #3 and Silver Surfer #3). Meanwhile issues #28 & #29 of the regular comic were part of the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover, a tale so long it encompassed no less than sixty-eight separate comics and takes up two separate Omnibuses (one has the core parts of the crossover, the other the tie-ins).

(Rather than fill up this post with a list of the other "Acts of Vengeance" issues, I'll do a special post to reproduce the best attempt at an order that I've yet seen.)

"Atlantis Attacks" is a convoluted saga involving plans to resurrect the serpent god Set. Punisher Annual #2 involves one phase of the plan, namely to convert the human race into serpent men using a special formula developed by the Viper and tested on drug addicts. The Punisher teams up with Moon Knight to take down a front for the operation, with the Punisher temporarily drugged up in the process. The story tries its best to marry the demands of the crossover with the tone of the Punisher's series but just doesn't really succeed. At US $2.00 an annual, the full set of "Atlantis Attacks" cost $28.00 in 1989, not counting the handful of additional tie-in issues. If a reader was only buying a couple of the regular series then they had to pay over an amount that was almost equal to 100% of their regular yearly comics expenditure on the rest of the storyline. And that was even before "Acts of Vengeance" loomed later that year. In such circumstances it's easy to see the switch to smaller crossovers in the 1990-1992 annuals as an improvement. But better still would have been stand alone annuals that presented a big standalone story that both regular and casual readers could enjoy. "Lifeform" is an attempt to cover both bases by portraying a creature steadily evolving in power levels, with a corresponding increase in the successive heroes' powers. Punisher Annual #3 is the opening portion of the story, concentrating on the son of a radical politician trying to obtain a biological weapon, only to be mutated into a monster who eventually turns on his father, with AIM along for the ride. Once again it's a rather fantastical step away from the more technical, non-powered world the Punisher's adventures normally take place in. The back-up features in both annuals are relatively similar, with both including features on the Punisher's fighting techniques and solo stories for Microchip that show how ruthless he can be when taking out those who hurt the people around him. I guess with no other supporting cast members there wasn't a lot of choice about what to include.

If the 1989 reader had some money to spare after buying Punisher, Punisher War Journal and all of "Atlantis Attacks", then for at least US $64.00 (probably more if some series had a higher price) they could get the entire "Acts of Vengeance" crossover. With sixty-eight issues in total, this was slightly excessive and it's not surprising that the following year's Avengers annual ran a summary of the key parts of the adventure. Both of the Punisher's titles contributed to the story but it seems the stories were kept separate and so only the original book's issues appear here. Issue #29's cover is reused for the volume as a whole but it's highly misleading as most of the superheroes and villains appear in just a single panel. The basic premise of the story involves an alliance of leading villains working together to bring down the superheroes by pitting them against foes they haven't fought before. As part of the rivalries amongst the top villains, Doctor Doom declares he will eliminate the Kingpin's most financially damaging foe, the Punisher. This proves harder than expected and the Punisher in turn opts to travel to Latveria to steal a vital possession of Doom's. This brings him into conflict with the other Doctor Doom (Kristoff, a boy who had Doom's memory and personality implanted into him when the real Doom was presumed dead), who rules Latveria. The overall premise of the crossover makes such an unusual match inevitable, but wisely Doom is kept to his scientific side and so apart from the two separate Dooms (part of a wider convoluted continuity in this era), the story fits in reasonably well with the general tone of the series. And although the basic set-up of the alliance between villains isn't really explained here, the story is sufficiently self-contained that one can get away with not knowing the details of the wider crossover.

Just in case a reader in 1990 had any money left over after all this, issues #35-40 represent yet another attack on their wallets. In the early 1990s several of the most popular titles had their frequency increased for a specific season (usually summer, occasionally autumn) and often used the increased frequency to tell longer stories that wouldn't take so many months to get through. Here we get a six part saga entitled "Jigsaw Puzzle", featuring the return of a couple of old foes. On the one hand it's nice that the additional expenditure required to get the whole story did at least go on some actual Punisher material this time, but on the other the story itself is stretched out more than necessary and the art suffers because of the need to bring in extra pencillers to handle the increased workload. Mark Texeira and Jack Slamn both have their own styles but they're different from each other and from Bill Reinhold, with the result that the visual look of the story can change significantly between chapters. The story is also let down by some elements that are rather at odds with the general scope of the series. For Jigsaw is working for the Rev. Sammy Smith, the evangelical preacher seen back in issues #4-5, who has now turned to the dark side and gained healing powers from a being called "Lucifer". The Punisher is sceptical, assuming Smith is in fact a mutant using conjuring tricks, but during the story Smith heals the faces of Jigsaw (though the Punisher subsequently "corrects" this), the Punisher and Joy Adams, a woman from a local hotel. "Lucifer" himself appears in the final part, and is presented as the genuine article. Otherwise the story is liberally ripped off from the Bond film Moonraker with a fanatic, aided by a deformed henchman, planning to destroy much of the human race through a special poison found only in a plant in a remote part of the South American jungle. The plan is to sterilise most of the human race by releasing the toxin into the water supply but the Punisher takes out the operation. Although some of the plot elements fit the norm for the series, there's a bit too much in the story that makes it too over the top and just not a natural Punisher tale for my liking. Yes the Punisher occupies a universe shared with everything from the Norse gods to a foul talking duck from another dimension, but normally he manages to keep away from all that and even when elements do cross his path they tend to be the more down to earth heroes or are else focused on their technological side. Encounters with the Devil just aren't the norm here.

Another out of the norm encounter comes in a two-parter when the Punisher and Microchip fight the Reavers, cyborgs more normally found in the X-Men titles. It's a fairly simple two parter as Microchip's hacking accidentally reveals the Punisher's warehouse to hostile forces and he and the Punisher have to face them off and escape, then have a showdown at a salvage yard run by Microchip's cousin. This battle allows for quite a focus on the high tech side of the Punisher, with the climax seeing him adopt an experimental exoskeleton armour to fight off the Reavers. Although the foes are on the fanciful side, the story itself feels more like a typical Punisher adventure. In the process Microchip's cousin is killed, a sign of the high mortality rate for those around the Punisher.

The same rate hits one of his allies in the mini-epic that opens the volume. What starts off as an investigation into match fixing in the boxing world soon transforms into the pursuit of a poisoner that leads first to a fake ninja training camp in the States and then to Japan to meet the genuine sensei and aid him and others (including the Shadowmasters, previously seen in Punisher War Journal although not fully until after the issues in Punisher War Journal Classic volume 1) in battling against a criminal political Japanese organisation, during which the sensei is killed. It's an interesting tale given the chain of events that leads the Punisher through successive situations, and also sees him being offered the legitimate American franchise for the ninja school; however he declines it preferring to continue his own war on crime.

The remaining stories continue the trend of pitching the Punisher against a wide variety of criminals, ranging from arms contractors working with corrupt military officials to a devout Catholic serial killer to a biker gang running drugs. Once again, the individual stories are generally well told, but overall there is no real sense of development. Microchip remains the only other recurring character in these stories and there are some tensions between the two over priorities and other pursuits, but these aren't really developed into an ongoing evolving relationship and once again it would be reasonably easy to rearrange the order of the stories without much trouble. There are a few signs of recurring foes but the impression given by the "Acts of Vengeance" story is that the Kingpin isn't really that bothered about the Punisher and there isn't a personal degree of enmity between the two, unlike the crime lord's relationships with both Daredevil and Spider-Man. This really leaves just Jigsaw, the Punisher foe who keeps on surviving and here he's left alive simply because the Punisher realises that to kill his foe will mean the end of the Rev. Smith's healing powers before they can be used on the Punisher's face. Jigsaw's history with the Punisher isn't properly recapped, despite his having not been seen since the Punisher's first (limited) series some four years earlier, and his recurrence making him the nearest the Punisher has to an ongoing archenemy. At times he's written almost for laughs, and more would be needed if he was to become a more credible threat in the future.

This remains the fundamental problem with the series - there is no sense of clear direction. The Punisher has declared war on all crime but moves between the many different types of offence without ever really stopping around long enough to focus on a particular type or source. The supporting cast remains confined to Microchip and one-off characters in individual stories, and so there's no prospect of really exploring why the Punisher does what he does and how his approach to life affects those around him. The move toward longer, multi-part epics suggests does at least offer the prospect of a greater exploration of individual situations, but the problem remains that this series tries to chart a middle course with the character and avoids both intense psychological examination and out and out over the top fun, and the result is that it continues to meander.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Sidesteps: Punisher War Journal Classic volume 1

Spider-Man may have been the first Marvel hero to get two ongoing solo series, but as we've seen it took a while and was a staggered process with Marvel Team-Up occupying a half-way slot (and Giant-Size Spider-Man was both an extension of Marvel Team-Up and part of a line that didn't last very long). Other Marvel spin-offs tended to be related rather than direct - for instance a solo series for the Human Torch and later a Thing team-up series rather than a second Fantastic Four title, or spin-off teams like the New Mutants and West Coast Avengers instead of doubling up the X-Men and Avengers. Or a character might get a second title but in a different format such as the Rampaging Hulk magazine or the various Conan titles. But the late 1980s saw a big change in the approach with more characters than just the flagship getting multiple titles. And the Punisher was the first in.

Punisher War Journal launched in (cover date) November 1988, when Punisher had reached just issue #13, a sign of the older series's instant success. The series hasn't yet been collected in the Essentials, in spite of the first Punisher series being up to issue #59, the contemporary of Punisher War Journal #38. However a single volume has appeared in the Classic line which reprints (mainly Bronze Age and Modern Age) series in colour, albeit with rather fewer issues and a higher price point than the Essentials. Punisher War Journal Classic volume 1 contains the first eight issues of the series. Carl Potts writes every issue, with plot assistance from colourist John Wellington on issue #4, and also does layouts on issues #1-3 & 6-7. The finishes on those and full pencils on the rest are by Jim Lee, at a very early stage in his comics career before he had even started on the X-Men.

The title of the series may imply it offers tales from the Punisher's War Journal but in practice the journal is only mentioned about three times in these first eight issues as part of the Punisher's standard internal thoughts. Otherwise, the series is basically more of the same. The only slight variation of note is that we get a small recurring cast of an Oriental family who run the deli in a New York building where the Punisher has a flat for when his New Jersey warehouse is too far away. As the series progresses, we discover there's more to them than at first seems, but in part this seems to be a trail for the Shadowmasters limited series. Nope, I haven't heard of it either. Unfortunately the volume stops before the series really delves into this so on its own the subplot is just a distraction.

Otherwise the Punisher is put through a variety of situations, though issue #1 ends with a trail of eight different scenes and only one of them is followed up in this volume. The series kicks off with the Punisher commiserating the anniversary of his family's killing, having en route helped a mobster's wife escape from her husband. The main storyline in the first three issues builds upon the family's death when they accidentally wandered into a criminal execution and we get a tale in which the son of the executionee and a drug smuggler each bring a tale of the reasons behind the execution, leaving the Punisher trying to work out who was responsible. As an introduction to the Punisher and his background this generally works a lot better than his first series, showing what makes him tick and his methods and thus gets the series rolling quite well. We also get a brief encounter with Daredevil and a quick reminder of the antagonism between him and the Punisher, filling in the latter's general relationship with other heroes which has at times dominated his appearances, so again a key factor is explained. However Microchip isn't introduced so well, being just presented and there's not much to explain why he aids the Punisher in spite of his own loss (which is briefly referenced). The next couple of issues build on the other key aspect of the Punisher's backstory, namely his time in Vietnam as he discovers that the surviving members of his old squad are being murdered one by one. The Punisher eventually takes down the killer but in the process also brings justice to his former colonel who put the squad in needless jeopardy by deliberately delaying and pick-up and then was responsible for "friendly" fire. The result of all this is an effective introduction to the character that puts the other series to shame.

The remaining issues include another guest appearance and what feels like an early case of gratuitous sales chasing - indeed adverts at the time pointed to the high back issue prices for most appearances of both characters. In this tale Microchip determines that the Punisher needs a vacation so sends him to the Congo (the Republic, or Brazzaville) as part of an expedition chasing rumours that dinosaurs have survived in a remote part of the jungle where the climate hasn't changed. Elements of fantasy akin to The Lost World may feel a little out of place but the dialogue offers a rationale that sounds plausible enough to the non-palaeontologist. During the course of the expedition the Punisher discovers that two of the party are engaged in poaching and smuggling for a Texan oil tycoon, and this brings him into conflict with someone investigating the same from the other end of the trail - Wolverine. We get the standard plot of a misunderstanding, a fight between them and then they discover who the real culprits are and team up to take them down. Fortunately this is only part of the story with much of it devoted to the expedition and the discoveries. Meanwhile back in the States the owner of the deli has visions that draw him to Texas where he infiltrates the mastermind's home and uses a computer to make bad investments and donations that wipe out the businessman's wealth. The final issue involves an urban gang who murder a local resident for organising against drugs, and the Punisher takes out the headquarters whilst half the gang attack his van and run afoul of the self-defence systems.

A number of the issues also contain "equipment pages" that profile various weapons. The first one is badly lettered, using a font resembling handwriting that is virtually impossible to read, but the rest detail some of the more unusual weapons. One that also appears in the stories is the ballistic knife - a sharp blade and a spring launcher in the handle, allowing the blade to be fired at a short distance. I was surprised to see this one in use so early in the Punisher's career.

As second titles go, this one follows the pattern of initially being just more of the same as the first series rather than offering either a particularly distinctive take on the character or a unique environment. With only eight issues available in this volume (and to date no sign of either a second Classic volume or any Essentials) it may be a little unfair to judge it as such and it's quite possible the title developed a niche by the early teens. On its own the adventures are quite good, though drugs feature as the driving force a few too many times for my liking, and the Shadowmasters subplot offers hints of some ongoing development. Add in the fact that the first few issues do take time to establish the character, his background and some of the basics of situation and this is actually quite a good start for the series. Now if only we could get some longer reprints...

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Omitted material: What If? Classic volume 7

And now for the final look at the relevant issues from the original What If? series.

#44: "What If Captain America Were Revived Today?", written by Peter Gillis and drawn by Sal Buscema, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 7

Before reading this, I'd heard multiple thing about it. To some it's the greatest Captain America story of all time. To others "this reads more like an anti-Ronald Reagan diatribe than a story". Spider-Man has a partial role in this story as part of a resistance movement and it's a reminder of his basic values of decency and also how compatible he is for team-ups with Captain America.

If this story had been published just one month later it could have had an even more spectacular title - "What If Captain America Were Revived In 1984?" The premise is straight forward - with the original Captain America never having come out of the iceberg, when his replacement from the 1950s was revived in the 1970s there was nothing to challenge him as he emerged as an influential political figure pushing a hard right message that labelled protesters and minority groups as helpers of communism. With the support of shadowy figures in the Committee to Regain America's Principles ("CRAP" - how on earth did that get past the editors?), the 1950s Cap is able to successfully push authoritarian candidates and legislation through, all in the name of putting America right again.

Then in the present day an iceberg containing a man is found floating by a submarine and the man is revived. The captain of the submarine is a veteran of the war who realises this is the true Captain America (many rumours circulate that the other one is an impostor). He is brought home to a New York very different from the one he remembers. The people have accepted "Fear of the unknown, some glib words -- and the American need to believe in a hero". Racist, anti-Semitic armed guides walk the streets of New York in helmets designed after Captain America's cowl. Walls have been built to divide communities, with black Harlem a land of poverty and despair. The press is censored into the token dissent thanks to lip service to free speech but J. Jonah Jameson is using the Daily Bugle crossword puzzles to inform a resistance movement. And that movement contains the likes of Nick Fury, Spider-Man (who wasn't duped thanks to Jonah!) and "Snap" Wilson (the counterpart to Sam Wilson aka the Falcon). Looming soon is the national convention of the "America First Party" and CRAP plans to use it to nominate candidates to completely take over America, and permanently install themselves, shredding the last constitutional rights.

At the convention the real Captain America leads the resistance movement against the fake, and the two images of very different visions of America square off. Inside the convention hall Spider-Man and other resisters take down Cap's allies (the Freedom Five - the other members are the 1950s Bucky, an actress playing the Golden Girl, Hawkeye and the Hangman!) and ensure the cameras keep showing the country what happens as a second revolution rises to tear down the walls. Meanwhile the two Caps trade their philosophies as one dismisses the other's outlook as "War is Peace! Freedom is Slavery! Ignorance is Strength!" After defeating the impostor the real Captain America addresses the convention and the country: "I say America is nothing! Without its ideals -- its commitment to the freedom of all men, America is a piece of TRASH! A nation is NOTHING! A flag is a piece of CLOTH!!" He goes on about the need to bring back freedom, to heal the divisions in society and find America once again, but also to not succumb to leader-following. The story ends with a singing of the patriotic song (and peaceful alternative to the US national anthem) "America the Beautiful".

To many outside the US it's often extremely hard to understand its brand of political patriotism and the way the constitution and flag are elevated to almost religious levels. It's very different from the way things are done here where rampant flag waving is normally detached from political affairs and where there isn't really an "idea" of the country and a "British way" to appeal to. Such an approach just isn't the erm British way. So it's harder to relate to some of the core philosophical battles that underpin many Captain America adventures, and this is the ultimate one, pitting the embodiment of one vision of America against another. Also at a distance of nearly thirty years it's harder to immediately recognise parallels with early 1980s American political debate, so it's difficult to tell if the subliminal message of the story is "Don't Re-Elect Ronald Reagan!" However there always seem to be some who absolutely despise the current American President and want him defeated or impeached, and some conspiracy theory or other. Reagan (like Thatcher) did in part come to power after some very turbulent years in which people questioned whether or not the country could still be governed and there were certainly accusations thrown across the political spectrum that well-meaning radicals playing into the hands of shadowy forces. There was certainly a backlash against the protests of the 1960s. So I can well believe those who read into this Orwellian vision a political parallel with where they thought the US was heading in the early 1980s, with the 1950s Cap in the role of Reagan. As a story in its own right it has a particular problem of spanning a rather lengthy timescale, with the result the real Captain America doesn't get revived until halfway through and has limited time to establish himself before the showdown. But it's certainly a compelling tale that is almost 1984 in more ways than one.

Although limited in their roles it's good to see both Spider-Man and Jonah playing key parts in the resistance movement. For all his faults, Jonah is persistently portrayed in the regular universe as both a strong supporter of civil rights and a strong defender of the freedom of the press and it's unsurprising that he would do what he could to help the resistance. And I can see Peter Parker following Jonah's lead in politics, for all the hatred of Spider-Man. We get glimpses of a harder-edged Spider-Man who wears a huge cartridge belt, carries a gun and is willing to gun down a man if Nick Fury orders it. (Remember this was some years before the explosion of hard-edged gun carrying heroes in comics that came in the 1990s.) If there's one hero who the authorities could never relocate or take down other than Cap, it would be Spider-Man. 

#46: "What If Spider-Man's Uncle Ben had Lived?", written by Peter Gillis and drawn by Ron Frenz, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 7

This is yet another alternate take on Spider-Man's origin, with the premise that instead of Uncle Ben it was Aunt May who was killed by the Burglar.

The story briefly retells the events of the fateful night in the regular universe, showing more of what happened inside the house than almost any other telling that I'm aware of. And unfortunately it clashes with at least two other versions of that night, although only one had been told when this story first saw print. Here May was asleep when Ben, awake due to a backache, heard a noise downstairs, went to investigate and was shot dead in the living room. There's no argument where he walked out and got shot in the street (as happened in the 2000s) and equally May doesn't experience the direct horror of seeing her husband shot before her eyes (as first told in Amazing Spider-Man #200). This is the problem when the original story omits what can seem like mere details and no other retelling becomes the complete canonical version.

In this alternate version, Ben lacks the backache and so is asleep when May is awoken by a noise and goes to investigate, getting shot in the process. The story then follows through parallel to the first few years of Amazing but with the twist that with Ben alive the Parkers don't face financial problems, though Peter still takes photographs for the Bugle to supplement his income. Ben soon discovers that Peter is Spider-Man and we get to see the first take on Peter admitting his guilt to his surviving family - and Ben's response is that he feels even more guilty for being asleep when it happened. Ben rapidly becomes actively supportive of both Peter & Spider-Man, standing up to Flash and then Jonah and pulls off a trick that gives the Bugle greater circulation, Spider-Man more publicity and Peter a greater salary. He gets Spider-Man to unmask in front of Jonah.

Again this had never been done before and Jonah's reaction is shock but he soon realises how difficult it is for him to go public. So instead he makes use of Spider-Man to get extra tips on crime and boost circulation. At first this goes well but then Ben suggests to Jonah that Spider-Man should shadow Betty Brant to investigate her brother and this infuriates Peter who had angry confrontations with both men and storms off. Determined to prove them wrong he shadows Betty and saves both her and her brother Bennett in this version, but then angrily tuns on Bennett for his associations with gangsters. Spider-Man briefly withdraws from his life as Peter, staying behind the costume as Spider-Man (again before this was tried in the regular continuity) until he's lured back by Jonah threatening to out his identity. Meanwhile the Green Goblin deduces that Jonah has a hold on Spider-Man, whilst John Jameson returns from space having been infected by spores. When Jonah visits his son in hospital, with a photo team in escort for publicity, the Goblin attacks and kidnaps the publisher. Then John's body grows due to the spores and he storms off to rescue his father. Peter is at first willing to let both Jamesons potentially die, and also almost wishes Ben had died instead of May, but then suddenly snaps to his senses and realises he cannot let another person die because he stood by and did nothing. John defeats the Goblin but he is so enraged he doesn't recognise his father and is about to strike when Spider-Man arrives and confronts him. In the event John is subjected to an electric shock which cures him. Jonah is stunned at the way his son didn't seem to know him, hated him and wanted to hurt him, and Spider-Man notes how these things happen between father and son. The next day the Bugle has written up John as a hero whilst Peter and Ben reconcile.

It's another story with an upbeat ending and it's possible to imagine this as the nucleus for an alternate series of Spider-Man stories in which the character has the burden of responsibility but also a supportive father figure. When first printed Uncle Ben hadn't really been explored much as a character in the regular comics but here we get a portrayal of a man who tries to understand and support his teenage "son" but both can make mistakes leading to anger without meaning to. There are elements of the relationship here that would be used in the 2002 Spider-Man movie. We also get to see how Spider-Man could have developed with a confidante and supportive figure from the outset who tells him to have more pride in himself, and then we get the cycle of Peter's angry break with Ben and reconciliation at the end. And there's the moment where Jonah finds out and his reaction, again done for the first time. Some of the best What If?s are those that really expand our understanding of key characters by showing them in particular circumstances and here Ben truly gets to shine.

And the artwork is incredible. A number of the What If?s appear to have been prepared some time in advance and used on an inventory basis so I don't know where this story slots in order of Ron Frenz's work on Spider-Man, but it came out the same month he began a regular run on Amazing Spider-Man (which we'll come to when Essential Spider-Man volume 12 is released). Even more than his work on Amazing and Marvel Team-Up this work is a strong homage to Ditko's artwork, and makes for a refreshing variation after many years of following John Romita's take on the character. Short of achieving the impossible and getting Ditko to draw the character again, Frenz was the best choice imaginable for such a retelling of those early days.

The other stories in the volume are:
  • #40: "What If Dr. Strange had not become Master of the Mystic Arts?"
  • #41: "What If Sub-Mariner Had Saved Atlantis from Its... Destiny?"
  • #42: "What If the Invisible Girl Had died?"
  • #43: "Behold..." (This is just the back-up story)
  • #45: "What If the Hulk Went -- Berserk?"
  • #47: "What If Loki had found the hammer of Thor?"
Once again excluded due to rights issues are:
  • #39: "What If the Mighty Thor Battled Conan the Barbarian?"
  • #43: "What If Conan the Barbarian... Were Stranded in the 20th Century?" (Just the lead story)
And after issue #47 that was it for several years. The last letters page promised some future specials in place of regular publication but it was four years before even one of these materialised. Then in 1989 a second series began. Maybe one day we'll see that on the bookshelves.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Essential Punisher volume 2

Essential Punisher volume 2 contains the early issues from the Punisher's first ever ongoing series, carrying #1-20 & Annual #1 and also Daredevil #257 which carried a crossover with the series. Annual #1 was part of the "Evolutionary War" crossover that ran through eleven Marvel annuals (or twelve if one includes Alf) but the others aren't included here. (The only missing material that I can spot is the chapter of the history of the High Evolutionary that ran in all the annuals that year and which sought to clarify a rather convoluted continuity.) The Punisher issues are all written by Mike Baron, bar a back-up in the annual by Roger Salick, and drawn by Whilce Portacio, Klaus Janson, David Ross, Larry Stroman and Shea Anton Pensa, with Mark Texeira and Mike Vosburg handling the annual. The Daredevil issue is written by Ann Nocenti and drawn by John Romita Jr.

Looking back it seems amazing that it took so long for the Punisher to gain his own ongoing series. The most likely explanation is that Marvel were cautious about having a series with a violent protagonist who set out to kill his adversaries. (A similar concern presumably hit Wolverine.) But over time tastes change, as do censors, and this series was launched in an era that saw the rise of heroes who were either loners or had very few allies and who were willing to adopt violent methods to get the job done. In an era with the likes of a grim & gritty Batman, Timothy Dalton's take on James Bond, the A-Team and so many more, the Punisher was a natural fit. Of course not all these heroes were portrayed in quite the same way - there's a wide gap between the A-Team's almost cartoon violence where few people get hurt or killed, and the hard edged violence and blood of Licence to Kill.

Curiously it's a very different series that springs to mind as the most obvious starting comparison for these issues. At about the same time as the series was launched, so too was the second Silver Surfer series (the first eighteen issues of which can be found in Essential Silver Surfer volume 2). Both series rapidly became amongst Marvel's top sellers, as seen most obviously when both were part of a 33% price rise on the nine top-selling titles at the start of 1988 (taking effect from issue #8; the other seven titles were Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, Avengers, Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor and the New Mutants) and both were among the only eleven superhero titles to have an annual that year (the others were the same list as before plus Fantastic Four and the West Coast Avengers). Both starred long established Marvel characters who had previously been used relatively sparsely, and both were in settings somewhat detached from the mainstream of the Marvel universe. But the contrast in approaches is clearest between the first issues. The Surfer had a double-sized first issue that contained a complete story (as well as setting up threads that would run throughout the first thirty issues), summarised all the key points of the character's history and sorted out the key issue in the status quo to allow unlimited adventures. By contrast the first issue of Punisher is a regular sized first part of an ongoing storyline that doesn't really introduce the character at all.

Perhaps realising the mistake early on, issue #2 opens with a text box with the Punisher rapidly summarising the key points in a very quick and to the point manner. Most subsequent issues include either a thought box or dialogue that recap the Punisher's origin with the same information. The obvious omission each time is just why the Punisher went down the route he did - not every relative of a victim of crime turns vigilante and even if they do, many don't go in for the arbitrary killing of criminals. Punisher stories can veer off to various extremes on this point - either they implicitly acknowledge the issue and just present the Punisher as an exaggerated killer of almost cartoonish shallowness, or else they delve deep in his mind, trying to reconcile the factors. This series, however, follows a more middling course (at least in this volume) by presenting the Punisher as a straightforward man with a general mission but without delving into just what it is that drives him so. I'm not persuaded that this is the best approach as it leaves the Punisher as a somewhat hollow character. This is enhanced by the state of the series around him.

The supporting cast is rather limited. We hear about Microchip before we're first introduced to the computer hacker and equipment developer. His son "Junior" also appears, but is soon killed off. There's an indication that Junior could perhaps have become a questioning voice to draw out details of the Punisher's actions such as how he prioritises, but it's also clear that such an approach can't work when the Punisher invariably operates solo. Junior accompanies the Punisher on a couple of missions but can't always obey orders to stay in the van. The first time he saves the Punisher's life but the second time he loses his own. His father sticks around for the whole series, providing the Punisher with much needed equipment and support at times but rarely taking to the field himself. Microchip is the star of a back-up feature in the annual in which he has to protect the widow of an old friend from her new husband who has become a assassin. We see how resourceful and ruthless 'Chip himself can be, but otherwise don't learn too much more. The only other characters who come close to recurring are the small band the Punisher assembles to take down the Kingpin - Reese McDowell, a student, and Vernon Brooks, a teacher, both from a rough inner city school that the Punisher briefly teaches at whilst tracking down a radical revolutionary hiding there, and Conchita Ortiz, the widow of a soldier turned prison guard who helps the Punisher in trying to advance a convict's execution. Over the course of the story the attrition rate is high with only Vernon living by the end. The possibility is dangled of Conchita becoming a recurring romantic interest, but she is then immediately killed, a reminder of how grim and lonely the Punisher's path can be.

The Punisher's methods invariably don't leave many foes who can recur. We get a variety of archetypes - Latin American drug barons, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, right-wing political extremists, cultist preachers, insider traders, serial killers, people traffickers, left-wing revolutionaries, drug dealers and mobsters. Many of these could be taken from the news though I don't know just which of these types were actually dominating the headlines in the late 1980s. The Kingpin appears in a multi-part storyline but curiously both he and the Punisher act as though they have never met - in fact they did so back in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #82. Still he's the only foe to walk away alive after Microchip and Vernon realise that it's the only way to prevent a vicious gang war.

The volume contains material from two different crossovers. One is a two parter with Daredevil and, as I previously discussed, Ol' Hornhead is one of the best heroes to contrast with the Punisher due to their very different views of the system of law & order. On this occasion we get a standard clash of values but presented in a novel approach - rather than a direct two part story each issue first focuses upon the title character's investigation of a disgruntled ex-employee of a pharmaceutical company who is taking revenge by poisoning bottles of its products until they encounter the other on a rooftop and fight over what to do with the criminal. Whilst the Punisher issue shows a conventional fight between the two, the Daredevil issue shows the same fight from the perspective of the killer who listens to them and concludes the two are more alike than they realise. We also get to see the Punisher acting as a detective, trying to quickly track down the killer and resorting to the unusual method of turning to the Jehovah's Witnesses to see if they have seen anything whilst door-knocking.

The other crossover is the second part of the "Evolutionary War" storyline. Although there had been stories told over a couple of annuals before this was the fist time such a large story was told there, taking up no less than eleven of the mainstream annuals (and also a humorous piece in Alf). At US $1.75 an issue (at a time when the regular Marvels cost $0.75 though most of the books were from the $1.00 line) it cost nearly $20.00 to own the entire crossover on first release - an early sign of the mess whereby readers increasingly found they either had to fork out large additional amounts for comics they wouldn't normally buy or else not get the full story. (A better approach in my opinion would be closer to that adopted by Secret Wars II and DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths whereby the main story is concentrated on a central limited series that individual ongoing titles feed off, but in such a way that a reader doesn't have to buy loads of other ongoing titles to know what's going on - and for that matter the limited series can later be collected by itself in a tradepaperback.) Fortunately most of the individual annuals are structured in such a way as to be reasonably self-contained with the High Evolutionary's plans as the sole common theme, and one can read them in isolation, as the Punisher annual is presented here on its own (and the same approach has been taken in the relevant volumes of Essential X-Factor, Essential Silver Surfer and Essential X-Men), though if one wants the entire story, including the back-up detailing the history of the High Evolutionary, it's available in an Omnibus hardcover edition (be warned though that this edition omits other back-up strips from each annual not related to the crossover). What makes the crossover stick out even more like a sore thumb is the poor motivation for the High Evolutionary's Eliminators (the High Evolutionary himself doesn't appear). This small squad of armoured humans are trying to wipe out all drugs across the world as a prelude to plans to forcibly advance humanity to the next stage of evolution, and also to eliminate potential threats like the Punisher. It's very hard to accept the High Evolutionary has anything like the resources for a global instantaneous war on drugs and as for the idea the Punisher could threaten his plans, it just doesn't seem likely.

The series doesn't limit itself to New York and instead takes us to many different parts of the United States and even abroad, with visits to variously Bolivia, Guiana (that spelling is used over twenty years after it became Guyana...), Colombia, Mexico and even the Australian outback. The multiple settings and situations help to keep the series fresh, showing the Punisher having to adapt to different situations and circumstances with some interesting results. That helps to make up for the shortfalls in character development and exploration.

Overall this series is quite mixed. The individual issues are generally well written and drawn, and it's easy to see why Whilce Portacio developed into one of the big name artists of the early 1990s. But fundamentally the main problem I have with the series is that there's very little sense of development and, with the exception of a few details, the stories could be rearranged in almost any order. Whilst the individual tales offer plenty of diversity and interest, with only really the annual sticking out as badly conceived, overall the whole thing just doesn't go anywhere. The Punisher has a mission against crime, but it's not always clear if he's just after organised crime or all criminals. There's no real overall strategy to his approach and instead he targets a succession of different crimes, sometimes responding to tip-offs, sometimes going after a particular wrong-doer them himself. Was this another series created by popular demand without thinking through its raison d'être? It's odd as all the issues in this volume have the same writer and editor (Carl Potts), so it's not as if it was a book handled by an endless succession of creators doing just a few issues at a time.

I'm not sure the basic problem lies with the Punisher's character - he's hardly the first example in comics of a bereaved relative with no actual super powers turning vigilante, and he's starting from a position of greater training than the likes of a young Bruce Wayne. Perhaps it's the way his approach of not adopting a secret identity and not being able to maintain a permanent base means that he rarely stays around any one place long enough to develop any roots, but again the wandering hero is common enough in fiction that it can be pulled off more successfully than here. Probably the deepest problem is the lack of any in-depth exploration of the Punisher's motivation and drive. Apart from his brief argument/fight with Daredevil there isn't any direct exploration as to just why he lacks faith in the system of law and order and instead has set himself up as a one man judge, jury and executioner. When the Punisher guest stars in other characters' titles it's often possible to contrast his outlook and methods with the title character's, but in his own title where the only supporting cast members are his technical support there just aren't any voices who can draw out the dilemma. Ultimately the Punisher is a difficult character to write a good developed ongoing series for, and unfortunately this volume doesn't hit the target.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Welcome back, Frank

(No, sorry, this isn't about that series. That's a long way off. But it is one of my all-time favourites.)

As I previously noted, the Punisher was the first break-out character from the Spider-Man titles, having steadily grown in popularity ever since his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #129. He spent the next dozen years largely confined to guest appearances, mainly in the Spider-Man titles, but with the occasional magazine appearance or limited series. Then in 1987 he was finally granted an ongoing series of his own. It was soon a massive success and spawned not one but two additional ongoing series.

I've previously looked at Essential Punisher volume 1 which carries most of his appearance from his first dozen years. Three further volumes have been published, covering his first ongoing series. It's now time to have a look at them.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Secret Wars II

But what about Secret Wars II itself? It was one of the first crossovers to be based around a limited series with tie-ins in other titles, but by and large the core series should be readable on its own, hence its presentation in a trade paperback without all the tie-ins. All nine issues are written by Jim Shooter and drawn by Al Milgrom.

Few series have a reputation on the scale of this one. Long seen as the triumph of sales and marketing over story, as the harbinger of the huge, company wide crossovers that stomped through numerous series without leaving a great impact, and as the personal project of one of the most controversial of editors-in-chief, it has been much mocked over the years. Many have attacked it not because of the content itself but because of these external factors. After Jim Shooter was replaced as Editor-in-Chief the series and its lead character were generally marginalised, with one storyline even downgrading the Beyonder's status. As for the story itself, has it been unfairly caught up in wider office and industry politics that have kept people away from one of Marvel's gems? Or have all the wider factors generated helpful smoke that has discouraged later readers from discovering a rather awful storyline? Or should the verdict be somewhere in between?

The story has a relatively straightforward plot, but that's probably to its advantage as it makes it easier to read just the core series without the numerous spin-offs. In this tale an all-powerful outsider visits our universe and tries to make sense of existence, particularly the concept of desire. Along the way he takes on a human body and learns about the ways of mortals, encountering most of the Marvel heroes en route.

This is a very different set-up compared to the original Secret Wars and lends itself to a much looser narrative. Each issue sees the Beyonder undertaking a specific activity and encountering some of the heroes in the process. Issue #7 sees an attempt by the multiverse's grand cosmic entities to destroy the Beyonder through using a legion of supervillains, whilst issue #9 brings together almost all the superheroes for a final assault. Some of the plot threads run over into crossover issues, but only two cliffhangers do so - issue #1 ends with the Beyonder following Captain America and issue #8 ends in a confrontation with the Avengers. On other occasions the issue manages to end in such a way to cover both bases - for instance issue #4 ends implying this is the end of things for the Beyonder and Dazzler, but they would reunited in her own title. Broadly it's possible to follow the series without getting confused by all the tie-ins, though it's not as tight as some later crossover core series. What does get repetitive when read all at once are the large number of flashbacks recounting the original Secret Wars series. I guess this is a curse of conflicting practises - back in the 1980s and early 1990s it was not uncommon for collected editions to trim out pages, especially multiple recaps, whereas in more recent years the demand is to have the issues absolutely complete and series are often written with collected editions in mind.

Unfortunately the core character isn't terribly interesting. We have an all powerful outsider trying to understand the basic nature of existence and the motivation of desire when with his powers he can have almost anything. The result is an almost childlike naivety combined with infinite power and a not terribly fascinating personality, and it's hard to get excited about that. The reaction of many of the other characters doesn't ring true either - in general they try to attack the Beyonder and drive him back to his home dimension despite his infinite power level making him almost unbeatable. Only the scheme headed by Mephisto and Eternity seems plausible. Only the Molecule Man really tries to educate the Beyonder and even then it's only occasionally and when the Beyonder visits him. Otherwise we get far too many issues of the Beyonder just wandering about trying to achieve some goal, often one that can't be done with his powers such as understanding or free will, and various heroes falling over him along the way. The series is trying to make a commentary on life in general but many of the philosophical points are vague and just not terribly interesting. It also draws back from the deeper concept that the Beyonder is close to a deity, with all the consequences that could flow from such a revelation.

There's a lot of humour along the way, such as in issue #5 when the supposedly omnipotent being doesn't realise a time bomb has been stuffed down his trousers. Or there's an infamous scene in issue #2 when the Beyonder feels pressure in his body, and Spider-Man has to explain the basics of how to go to the loo (fortunately the precise description comes off-panel). Yes Spider-Man meets the most powerful being in the universe and potty trains him. Still the experience could come in handy in the right circumstances, especially if certain Marvel staff and demons from the netherworld ever relent on their hostility to a married Spider-Man.

Spider-Man gets a few other appearances in the story but they are mostly brief rather than a substantial full-on encounter (although his own titles managed to make up for that). There's an odd moment in issue #8 when the Beyonder visits to discuss attitudes to life and death. He knocks on the door and it's answered by Peter wearing his Spider-Man costume albeit unmasked. Talk about taking risks with one's secret identity - the Spider-Sense hasn't always been enough to protect him and there's no sign that the Beyonder has taken control or forced his way in. Otherwise Spidey is one of many heroes gathered by Phoenix for the final battle in issue #9 and it's his Spider-Sense that warns everyone of an initial explosion, allowing forcefields to be erected in time. But in general he falls into the role of bit part that he plays in many a cosmic event, being just a small player on the sidelines whilst more powerful heroes drive the story.

As well as Spider-Man himself, some of his villains show up in issue #7 when Mephisto assembles an army of villains as pawns in a master strategy against the Beyonder. Most of them have fought Spider-Man over the years but from his own titles come Electro, the Vulture, Kraven, Doctor Octopus, the Hobgoblin and the Rhino. Most of them are the type to be easily combined into an army, but this is the first time the Hobgoblin has been used as generic muscle, an early indication of where the next incarnation of the character would go. Some of the other villains are surprising choices, particularly Doctor Doom whose other dealings with Mephisto suggest he wouldn't easily just sign up to the scheme the demon's agent proposes. Baron Mordo appears to grasp the idea, but Doom is much more likely to be sceptical.

The final battle in issue #9 gathers almost all the Earth based heroes of the day but there are a few surprising omissions including Daredevil, Dazzler, Doctor Strange, Power Pack and X-Factor (who had only just formed, though it was very soon after the end of the New Defenders), plus the various former Avengers and X-Men who were little used at the time. Otherwise Spider-Man is joined by both Avengers teams, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Alpha Flight, Cloak & Dagger, Power Man & Iron Fist, the Vision & Scarlet Witch, the Silver Surfer and the Hulk, with the New Mutants also showing up as pawns of the Beyonder. This is a pretty large gathering but it ultimately takes a combination of the Beyonder's desire to experience humanity and the Molecule Man's power & willingness to press the advantage when the heroes are reluctant to attack a being in the form of a baby.

(The very last scene takes place in the Beyonder's own universe, where his power is detonated, creating a whole new universe of life. Was this intended to be the origin of the New Universe, which launched the following year? If so I suspect it was rapidly changed whenever either the Beyonder universe or the New Universe were fist referenced in the post-Shooter Marvel.)

Overall Secret Wars II feels rather hollow. It was clearly commissioned as a quick sequel to the publishing success of the original Secret Wars and it's to be commended for trying something different rather than just arranging another grand battle between all the major heroes and villains. But instead we get the tale of a rather uninteresting character wandering through the universe bringing accidental chaos with him that's invariably quickly resolved without much fuss. The artwork is functional but nothing spectacular. Maybe as a four part limited series on its own the story might have worked, but as a nine parter plus numerous crossovers the story feels overstretched and just not worthy of being the first mega crossover event to consume the entire Marvel superhero line. It's not the worst but its reputation hasn't kept later generations away from a classic.

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