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.

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