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.

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