Given the recent resurgence in the Punisher’s popularity following Jon Bernthal’s acclaimed portrayal of the character in the second season of Daredevil, it’s no wonder Marvel has again re-booted its flagship Punisher title. Penned by acclaimed artist, and now rising writer, Becky Cloonan, and featuring the return of longtime Punisher and Preacher illustrator Steve Dillon, the new Punisher book looks and feels like a return to the Punisher comics of old with its brutal violence and grim tone. While the comic shows promise as a new start for the Punisher, it suffers in places from the limitations placed on it.
The comic opens on an ex-Marine turned hired gun named Olaf, who’s entangled in the schemes of a drug cartel called Condor, operating out of Brooklyn. Olaf has been made the head of the operation, which involves transporting a new drug called EMC that, when inhaled, turns regular people into hyper-aggressive super soldiers. Olaf is ridiculed by his superiors, including a younger overseer named Face, for his age and datedness.
Meanwhile, in a warehouse across the way from the drug den, a DEA team is prepping for a raid the next day. One of the agents laments the fact that they couldn’t have gone in sooner to get the dealers. His partner reminds him of the necessity of their method.
“Think of it like fishing,” she says. “You have to use the right lures. Go out at the right times. You have to learn patience. Sure, you could catch more fish with dynamite. But that’s a good way to get yourself blown to &$%#.” Little do the agents know that the proverbial dynamite, Frank Castle, lies in wait, overhearing their plans. Frank returns to his hideout to prep for his own attack.
Back at the warehouse, two of Face’s thugs taunt Olaf on his insistence on using an older model gun, bragging they change their own guns every few months to look updated, and are sure to chide him on his literal and metaphorical “gun”.
“A gun this old,” Olaf says. “Seen as much action as this one, if it’s still around, there’s only one thing you know for sure: it works.”
It’s just then that Frank storms the building, systematically eliminating the drug runners. Watching from the monitors, Olaf recognizes Frank, having been his commanding officer back in the Marines. When Face’s men demand Olaf talk to Frank, Olaf simply comments that “Frank” is dead, and they’re instead looking at the Punisher.
The following action scene sports the proper amounts of violence and brutality to be a warm return to form for any reader fond of the famous Garth Ennis or Jason Aaron MAX runs, including a few instances of characteristic over-the-top violence, such as Frank stabbing an EMC-enhanced enforcer all the way through with a piece of rebar, then hammering him into a circuit box to finish him. It’s the kind of violence that Marvel has never shied away from with its various Punisher titles over the years.
It’s just this kind of mature content that makes the restrictions set on The Punisher #1 more bothersome than they might be in another title. Primarily, the censoring of swearing. The Punisher #1 suffers primarily from what it’s trying to be: a Garth Ennis or Jason Aaron-esque book without the leg room of a Max rating. When characters are swearing left and right, only for their expletives to be censored out, the book simply feels cheapened, like a standup special on cable with too many words bleeped out. To maintain the censorship placed on the most recent Punisher books while attempting to mimic the most well-known examples of The Punisher’s freedom of expression is therefore a diminishing and unfortunate compromise.
Becky Cloonan’s script, matched with Dillon’s art, does a respectable job of recreating the tone and atmosphere of some of the Punisher’s most acclaimed runs, which makes it frustrating that the book needs to be restricted the way it is. Especially given the prominent “PARENTAL ADVISORY! NOT FOR KIDS!” logo on the front cover, there’s an odd contrast. What’s the point of censoring bad language if the comic is not meant for young kids in the first place? Especially given Marvel’s liberal use of language in their other properties of late (i.e., Spider-man yelling “holy shit!” in Captain America: Civil War), the gritty, (relatively) down to earth world of The Punisher seems like a bizarre place to draw the line on certain language.
In the midst of his killing spree, Frank is interrupted mid-cinderblock-execution by a stray bullet, which nails the thug he was about to bludgeon right through the skull. The bullet comes from Olaf, who’s shot his way out of his own predicament. Holding his gun up to the unarmed Frank, he tells Frank about a green folder he’s left upstairs for him, which has information on the rest of the crew, whom he admittedly despises.
“Semper Fi, Frank” he says, citing the Marines motto of “Always Loyal” before making his exit.
The inclusion of one of Frank’s former commanding officers seems to take a certain cue from the Trial of Frank Castle storyline in Daredevil, in which one of Frank’s former superiors Ray Schoonover (played by Clancy Brown), is called in by Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson to account for Frank’s past heroism as a soldier. As with Schoonover, Olaf seems to hold a fair amount of respect for the Frank he knew, despite apparent tensions between them. With Olaf serving as a kind of reflection of Frank in being another former soldier having since lost his place in the world, and with a skewered morality because of it, there is great potential for some interesting scenes between these two men and former brothers in arms.
The loyalty Olaf seems to still hold towards Frank, even in their post-military lives, is an intriguing insight. The information we’re given on Frank’s history is especially interesting given that Frank Castle doesn’t utter a single word the entire issue. It’s a sure sign that Cloonan understands the character of Frank Castle: one who, despite his chattiness in the show, is more often than not a silent gunslinger.
As with Schoonover in Daredevil, Olaf’s view of Frank is an interesting glimpse into the man Frank Castle once was, and arguably still is in some sense: a respected soldier and hero. The introduction of Olaf could be, and hopefully is, a setup for future exchanges between these two men.
The Punisher #1 is a faithful and refreshing return for the Marvel Universe’s most violent crusader. Cloonan’s smooth and characteristic dialogue captures the essence of the most well-respected Punisher stories, and Dillon’s art is as dour and brutally satisfying as ever. Despite the frustrations of the issue’s censorship, it’s not enough to detract from what is clearly a promising new direction for Frank Castle.