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...

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