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...

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