A pox, a pox upon the early career retrospective.
The fact of the matter is that no matter how successful or well regarded one is today, there was a time when their work was not of the level that has brought them the regard they now may enjoy. Once success is at the door, though, it seems that every piece of work that one has produced, worthy or not, is fair game for critical reinterpretation and another round of marketing to consumers.
Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have spent recent years taking characters from the fringes of the Marvel universe and crafting a cosmic epic that’s managed to fly under the radar. The success of the ‘Annihilation’ series, which is now in its third iteration in Marvel’s galaxy spanning ‘War of Kings’, has meant a new lease on life for dozens of characters that Marvel had seemingly abandoned. The series has seen the resurrection – sometimes only figurative, but often literal - of former heavy hitters like Adam Warlock and the Silver Surfer. But it’s also seen the longtime writing partners take over authorial duties for characters that never even sniffed at mainstream success, making cosmic heroes and, more importantly, readable, engaging characters out of perennial D – listers like Groot, Darkhawk and Rocket Raccoon.
The Marvel editorial staff has seized the marketing opportunity, already repackaging the origin stories of series stars like Star Lord, Quasar and more in trade paperback. But the heroes aren’t the only ones getting the ‘Before They Were Stars’ treatment, and Marvel has also begun the inevitable rehash of Lanning and Abnett’s early work for the publisher. First in line to be revisited for fun and profit is the pair’s ‘Punisher:Year One’, the four issue origin of the most adored mass murderer in the Marvel Universe. Unfortunately, aside from a wham! bang! conclusion, the authors don’t show much affinity for or interest in the character. What little good there is in the writing is hampered by visuals that seem hurried and often half-finished. This leaves the book seeming less an exploration of a pair of artists early work and more a crassly commercial repackaging of a story that, despite its pedigree, is not worth its salt.
Beginning in the first moments after the death of Frank Castle’s family, the story attempts an exploration of the birth of the Punisher, as viewed by the reporters and police who watched it happen. The writing duo’s Frank Castle is all animal screams and growls, which is an understandable characterization of a man in the grips of trauma, but it doesn’t exactly make for compelling dialogue.
Equally boring but less forgivable is the parade of one liners and catch phrases spouted by the supporting cast. ‘She-suss’, exclaims the burnt out reporter caught up in the story of his life. ‘Sweet mother o’ mercy’ sighs the world-weary NYPD detective. It is annoyingly lazy writing that calls to mind a whole generation of Marvel Comics – in large part the generation that I was brought up on – that seemed just not to try very hard. Admittedly, there is something to be said for trying to tell the story of the Punisher’s origins from a variety of viewpoints, of learning what the birth of a force of nature looks like from the outside – it is something that has not been explored in earlier Punisher origin tales like Garth Ennis’ grisly Born. But this approach calls for those viewpoints to appear as actual characters, rather than the retinue of tired clichés.
Dale Eaglesham’s gritty, heavily shadowed pencils suffer beneath inks that lend no depth or character to the work, leaving the artwork seeming hurried and unpolished. One can hardly blame Eaglesham – there’s the framework for some really brilliant art here, but the inking by Scott Koblish takes it nowhere. While the occasional character portrait or full page spread is pulled off to fine effect, the vast majority of the pages look distinctly sloppy.
Only in the final issue, which can be seen as the birth of the modern Punisher, do the writers seem to treat the character seriously. Using the tried and true war journal, the authors craft a sequence that is vintage Punisher, reading like equal parts procedural and firefight. Unfortunately, the art never really lives up to this promise, and even if it did, one good sequence wouldn’t be enough to salvage a piece of work that manages to seem simultaneously overwrought and unfinished. Ultimately, Punisher:Year One represents the work of a pair of fine writers when they weren’t quite ready for primetime, and this collection proves that not all artistic relics warrant being unearthed.