Greg Rucka's Punisher simply transcends the well-worn expectations of comics fiction and positions itself with Jonathan Franzen's Freedom to become one of the core texts of the institutional decay facing us all.
Punisher #1-#2Publisher: Marvel
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Greg Rucka
Publication Date: 2011
There's something absolutely final about Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns & Money", the final track on his Excitable Boy album. It's that backbeat loaded right into the front end. It's those seductive lyrics,
"I went home with a waitress, the way I always do. How was I to know she was with the Russians too?
"I was gambling in Havana, I took a little risk. Send lawyers guns and money. Dad get me out of this".
And it's the idea that, finally, our adventurism has lead to a point where we just cannot go back home. We've replicated too much of ourselves in too many places across the globe. "Lawyers, Guns and Money", is the working end of the kind of writing Hunter S. Thompson had been experimenting with for decades. Or to put it another way, "America is everywhere", as Howard Chaykin wrote in American Century. There's no going back, anymore.
And yet, counterintuitively, that very sense of an absolute finality comes from the act of imagining how we could possibly go on in this no-win scenario. A deeply human drama, not of how we might escape, but of how we might continue, lies at the heart of "Lawyers, Guns & Money". And that drama is no less at the heart of Greg Rucka's Punisher.
Rucka's Punisher is one of the solo-character re-ups that follow in the wake of last year's "Shadowland" megaevent. (We've already looked at Daredevil, Moon Knight, and Ghost Rider). What make's Rucka's Punisher stand out among these reboot books is his command and precision in pushing Frank Castle's Punisher to the very edge of the story. As a character Frank Castle pounces from the shadows. A single text message to a lone informant, half an appearance as nothing more than a face in the crowd at a railway station. Castle haunts the periphery of his own book.
And yet, Castle is everywhere. His own story, his own motivations, stalk their way through the entire story. There's no need for clarification, reading Punisher you make the necessary connections almost instantly. The wedding massacre is clearly Castle's now-mythic walk in the park that ends in his family being slaughtered. The story of the Punisher is repeating. And at a conceptual level this makes sense; the Punisher and New York are irreducible. New York has, at a psychological level at least, become the Punisher.
The core of the first issue however, plays out in the backup story. Written with the consummate skill of Rucka as accomplished author of crime-fiction, the backup story tells of the debriefing of Officer Walter Bolt. Bolt was on loan to Narcotics when he and his partner tailed a gang boss to a secret meet in a public place. While Bolt's testimony to IA tells the story of how Bolt reacted to save the lives of a class of school children, the images show an entirely different story. Both Bolt himself and the schoolkids would have been killed, had the Punisher not stepped in.
It's Bolt's redacting of the Punisher from his report gets that him promoted to Detective. But his silence on the Punisher's appearance that leads Castle to trust him. This trust, ironically, puts Bolt in the ethically compromised position of providing Castle with intel while simultaneously investigating Castle's crimes. The moral complexity of this drama reaches beyond traditional social science into the cutting-edge research of Dr. Phil Zimbardo in his book the Lucifer Effect.
Zimbardo begins by acknowledging the traditional wisdom of psychology, that the occurrence of evil seldom boils down to individuals (bad apples). Instead, traditional psychology has demonstrated time and again evil appears as a function of the situational strains (bad barrels). Zimbardo's work however outlines how how situational stresses (which shape the choices of individuals) are themselves shaped by systemic pressures (bad barrel-makers).
Rucka's bold creative choice to not have the Punisher utter a single word for two full issues not only shows that he has perhaps intuited Zimbardo's research, but what an astute judge of character Rucka himself is. Rucka's no doubt intimately conversant with the human psyche, but his creativity lies in his protracting that deep understanding and extending it to the city. Rucka's Punisher is the story of a failed system. One that has produced a Punisher just as easily as it produces the morally checkmated Walter Bolt. Rucka's Punisher is the story of the rescue of a corrupt system that darkens the psychology of both the rescuer and the rescued. Sometimes by doing good we become worse, seems to be the moral here.
And in this regard, Rucka's art exceeds the expectations of genre literature, of comicbook-fictions. Rucka's Punisher cannot be measured against Huston's Moon Knight or against Johns' Justice League or even Carmine Infantino's legendary run on the Flash. By doing good we become worse is an emotional core that puts Rucka's Punisher on equal footing with Bret Easton Ellis' Imperial Bedrooms, or more poignantly, with Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.
As Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of the NYT Book Review reminds us in his review of Freedom,
The Berglunds really are headed for disaster, though not because there’s something wrong with them. They are, after all, “fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street” — and much of America, too. They resemble any number of well-meaning couples for whom “the home” has become a citadel of aspirational self-regard and family life a sequence of ennobling rites…
Franzen grasps that the central paradox of modern American liberalism inheres not in its doctrines but in the unstated presumptions that govern its daily habits. Liberals, no less than conservatives — and for that matter revolutionaries and reactionaries; in other words, all of us — believe some modes of existence are superior to others. But only the liberal, committed to a vision of harmonious communal pluralism, is unsettled by this truth.
For Rucka to be able to carve out this quality of story from a 40-plus year old character weighed down by the accumulated wealth of popular culture, is nothing short of amazing. Rucka's Punisher appears as a crucial text to understanding our negotiated identities in an age of institutional decay. It's as perennial as Hamlet and as grounded as Homicide: Life on the Streets.
Rucka's Punisher simply deserves being read.