When Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti launched the Marvel Knights imprint that would revitalize, reshape, and (basically) rescue Marvel, they grabbed four properties to launch with. Three of them were massive successes, whether critical, commercial, or both. The other one was The Punisher.
Written by Christopher Golden & Tom Sniegoski with penciled art from horror comics legend Bernie Wrightson, this four-issue limited series made the bold choice to take the Punisher out of his familiar Death Wish-esque milieu and put him in the middle of a war between heaven and hell. This take on the character made such a middling impression that Garth Ennis would retcon it away with a single-panel shrug, and Ennis’s rendition became the one that people refer to as “Marvel Knights Punisher.”
When these issues made their (extremely belated) debut on Marvel Unlimited almost the same day as Graeme and Jeff’s discussion of what makes a successful Punisher series in Wait What episode 264, it seemed like fate. So Matt suggested that all three of us should read this legendary misfire for the first time.
MATT: Sorry, guys.
JEFF: It’s not your fault, Matt! Or I guess I should say: there are lot more people who should pay for this first before your name pops up on the list, chief among them Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, the latter of which is not only an editor but an inker on this (and did a terrible job on both). Of course, Quesada and Palmiotti both were responsible for getting their buddy Garth Ennis to tackle the character later, so most Punisher fans would exonerate them.
What’s funny is I always wanted to read this, so I was actually tentatively excited to tackle this when you suggested it. In fact, as I was downloading these issues for offline use, I thought, Huh, i wonder why I never read these when they first came out. I was buying other Marvel Knights titles at the time…
Now, four issues later, I know. These are impressively bad comics. I guess some kind of spidey-sense saved me back then? In a way, it’s pretty easy to just look at the high concept—The Punisher has died but is brought back to life as a divine avenger, killing baddies both natural *and* supernatural—and be, like, “well, that’s a dumb idea for The Punisher. He should just be blowing up drug lords with a rocket launcher for the rest of his days.”
But…is that really true? This is a character that debuted in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man alongside a dude in a jackal costume and is first shown shooting up a life-size statue of Spider-Man like that was a thing people would buy and sell in the real world back then. One of the Punisher’s most popular stories is the one where he kills every single member of the Marvel Universe. I think there’s a way in which you can do a Punisher story with superhuman or supernatural elements and it’s a fun read that doesn’t break the character…but boy howdy is this not it.
So before I get into excoriating the book full bore for its failings, let me just throw this back to you guys. Before digging into the details of this, just on the elevator pitch alone for this miniseries: was it a bad idea from the get-go? Does the idea of supernatural shenanigans and a supernaturally powered Frank Castle just mess things up too much? And, for that matter, are any kind of superhero or superpowered shenanigans going to be more than is good for the character?
MATT: See, one of the reasons I wanted to look back at this book is because, in the years since, it’s become increasingly clear that the Punisher is a surprisingly flexible character. Rick Remender’s Franken-Castle run, Fraction’s firmly-in-the-Marvel-Universe run on Punisher War Journal, the significant roles in universe-spanning crossovers like Secret Wars and that horrible Nazi thing, and now whatever the hell it is Donny Cates thinks he’s doing with Cosmic Ghost Rider–the larger-than-life Frank Castle is proven to work narratively, and proven to resonate with readers.
Maybe, I thought, this book was just way ahead of its time.
It was not.
GRAEME: As the one person in this group who thinks that the Punisher isn’t a particularly interesting or worthwhile concept in and of itself — “man mistakes sadness for anger, tries to avenge death of loved ones with guns” is neither original nor insightful, to me; like any number of comic characters, he’s more a memorable visual than a memorable character, at heart — I feel like there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Angel Punisher idea in and of itself, at heart. Now, does that mean there aren’t any number of missteps in the execution of said concept? Of course not, because these are the kind of thing that you suspect has been suppressed for years for fears of undercutting the self-mythologizing of Marvel Knights v1.0 as the origins of Good Marvel. But as an idea, “man commits suicide but doesn’t die, ends up in biblical gang war” is… fine? Goofy, sure, but not any more so than any of the ideas Matt mentions, all of which seemed to go down fine.
There are a couple of problems with Angel Punisher as it’s actually delivered, though. Firstly, plugging the concept into an existing character which has pretty much stayed away from any of these ideas before this point was going to make for an awkward fit no matter what, especially something as… humorless isn’t the right word to describe the Punisher, but perhaps “anti-fantastic”? “Unrealistically and very specifically grounded, except where it comes to macho gun fetishism”? Given the Punisher as he’d existed for, what, a decade and a half before this series — crossovers with Ghost Rider aside — the whole idea of a divine avenger just… doesn’t really fit…?
And then there’s the second problem, which is far simpler to understand: These are genuinely, shockingly, bad comics. I mean, my God. These are astonishingly bad.
MATT: They really, really are, and that’s far and away the biggest issue. But before we get to details on the craft (or lack thereof) on show here, I have a higher-level question: what was going on in the mid-to-late nineties that made this sort of pop-art Judeo-Christian afterlife such a persistent trope?
Leaving aside other media (Kevin Smith’s Dogma!), in comics alone you had Spawn (and, by extension, Angela and Celestine and Violator–written by Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, and Alan Moore, respectively, true believers!) and Preacher, of course, and Sandman (which would beget Lucifer), not to mention Grant Morrison bringing an actual angel into the JLA and DC introducing Neron to be yet ANOTHER iteration of the devil in the DCU. And, heck, three of the four Marvel Knights launch titles featured some kind of devil-related theme or plot point (with this one being far and away the worst, and Mephisto’s pants in Black Panther being the best).
Was it something in the air? Pre-millennium tension (love you forever, early Tricky records!)? Or just a really easy story hook for writers of all skill levels?
JEFF: Hmm, great point, Matt! I’d say a little of all of the above? Don’t forget the massive success of The X-Files, which arguably peaked with the premiere of the movie in 1998, the same year this came out, and the TV show of Buffy the Vampire Slayer which started in 1996. (For my money, one of the more annoying things about this miniseries is how the villain of this series, “Olivier” (and what a garbage name that is!!), is all sassy and irreverent in a very Jossian way, lighting his cigarette off a burning skull not once but *twice* in four issues.)
I’d guess this stuff was probably popular because supernatural and apocalyptic fears tend to rise near the end of a century, and back then we also had a millennium coming to a close? Although we also had Stephen King and Marvel’s supernatural wave of superheroes helping to plant the seeds in creators like miniseries writers Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegoski, whose work in the Buffyverse and their own dark fantasy creations suggests these were guys who weren’t just cynically working the crowd.
In fact, nothing really underlines the horrible gap between what the teams might have been aiming for and what they delivered like the presence of Bernie Wrightson. Seeing the name of one of the all-time great comic book horror artists on these pages is genuinely puzzling, especially when you see his art on the page. Wrightson’s probably done worse work than here, but I haven’t seen it. The first issue is especially horrifying—and not in the intended way—as rushed incomplete sketches receive half-hearted inking by Palmiotti. It’s like lowest denomination Chaos! Comics work, but unleavened by any of the albinos-in-bikinis cheesecake.
I’m not a Wrightson scholar, or even much of a fan, but I’d say Wrightson’s horror work tends to be at its best when it has the room to find the delicate detail—a tendon in the neck of a corpse, a flower in a bloody field, a bit of shadow from a portcullis beautifully blacked in—in the midst of classically baroque horror. This miniseries of grinning yuppy angels, caucasian Blade-like “stalkers,” and large-scale battles on endless hellscapes is out of either Wrightson’s wheelhouse or what he can be bothered to give a fuck about because the art is lifeless and flat.
I guess I’ve begun the pile-on about the craft, so I’ll stand back and let others get their kicks in. I would like to come back to part of why this miniseries was such a mistake for the Punisher, but only after we all get a chance to complain about how poorly done this all was. Anyone?
GRAEME: There have been roundtables where we’ve read things I didn’t like, or didn’t particularly appreciate, but this was the first time where I was reading something and thinking, What if I just tell them I’ve gone blind and can’t read comics anymore because these were so, so fucking bad. It’s that rare comic where almost everything feels like the wrong choice or somehow misguided, from the sub-Buffy take on the religious mythological angle — or the hilarious reveal in the first issue that the dick of an angel who’s responsible for Frank’s situation is also the Guardian Angel who failed in his responsibilities, resulting in Frank’s family dying in the first place, which is such a breathtaking addition to the origin that it stopped me in my tracks — to the artwork, which is so generic and, honestly, unattractive that it makes you wonder if Wrightson ever deserved the plaudits he got earlier in his career. And that late ‘90s coloring! It’s like the icing on a really shitty cake. Really, this might be a comic where the only thing that isn’t subpar is the lettering.
And yet, despite all of that, none of this is entertainingly bad. It’s just… bad. It’s not fun, there’s no humor or joy here to leaven the apocalyptic attitude. It’s the ultimate collision of grimdark ideas: The gritty crime thriller where the fate of everyone’s souls is at risk. It’s the masturbatory fantasy for every teenage kid who grew up listening to metal in the same way that Vertigo’s output at the same time was the fantasy of teens who spent too much time listening to jangly guitars and wondering if they should give that “techno” thing a try.
MATT: The guardian angel angle is, to me, the surest sign that the problems in this book are entirely failures in craft and execution. Because there is a version of that idea that’s terrific, provided it’s executed with the appropriate amount of self-seriousness (i.e., much, much less than what’s in this version). But a Punisher storyline that was Preacher meets Death Wish? Frank Castle expanding his quest for vengeance to the supernatural beings who failed to protect his family? That sounds like something that Garth Ennis or Jason Aaron could’ve made a real meal of.
What shows up on the page here is not a meal. It’s not even an amuse-bouche. What I’m wondering now is how people with the instincts to guide the rest of the Marvel Knights launch deemed this even remotely publishable. In craft, in look, in overall feel, it is totally out of sync with the rest of the line.
JEFF: My guess would be that, if I’m remembering correctly, the Marvel Knights line at this point was a boutique imprint that was *heavily* distrusted and disliked by Bob Harras and the general editorial teams, sensing (correctly) management was doing a dry run for a regime change. I suspect when the art on this started coming back everyone realized this was dead in the water but they had to publish it. This is a book that everyone washed their hands of it even while they were still writing it.
At least I hope that’s why there’s no real explanation of Frank’s new powers or how or why they might work. The creative team sets up a new status quo but avoids any set-up of rules or stakes. What does it mean to shoot a demon with a supernatural gun? Does it die? Was it ever alive? Does Frank feel physical pain? Can *he* be killed now? The most work was put into retconning Frank’s origin into this new model. (And which I can only enjoy in a strange comic-book-related metaphor: all of the passion Frank put into killing criminals and avenging his family was nothing more than supernatural work-for-hire, wherein all he really did was enrich his “employer.”)
All that said, Matt, you mentioned wondering what Ennis or Aaron might do with the hook here. I didn’t re-read to double-check, but the strong sense of deja vu I had while reading these makes me think Ennis reinvented the wheel (or just lifted outright) some of the takes developed here for his Ghost Rider mini that came out later. Unsurprisingly, they work better there, where there’s less creative origami going on to make the “real-life-situations-mirrored-in-supernatural-situations-which-are-meant-to-be-commentary-on-different-real-life-situations” version of yuppie angels and the like come together more satisfyingly.
As for me, I also get the appeal of “Preacher meets Death Wish” but, even apart from how sloppily the team here builds a cosmology, I don’t think a supernatural graft works well for The Punisher’s origin. The Punisher is, in his way, the most extreme example of Marvel’s origin template, whereby the hero gets their powers by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Frank’s family gets killed, and he gains the super power level of total freedom: he has no life; he has no body (he can absorb any amount of torture or damage, never gives in to lust or hunger or exhaustion to the extent he even feels those things); he can go anywhere and do anything as long as it is an extension of his quest to punish. He is male self-pity taken to its furthest extreme, where the pity doesn’t matter because the self disappears (and what you’re left with is simple maleness).
The whole Marvel template of a person in the wrong place at wrong time being exposed to their worst fear (spider, radioactivity, Norse mythology) becomes a template for storytelling in the ‘70s. Those who made it through Vietnam, youthful rebellion and government suppression, toxic pollution and blatant discrimination, responded to the template when presented to them in the context of horror and exploitation movies.
The Punisher is the love-child of exploitation movies and Marvel comics but, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not just some arranged marriage of convenience–that’s a love that was meant to be. Removing the randomness to replace it with the machinations of a demon born into a human body who remembers his past (and schemes to take over all of Hell as part of a big supernatural real estate development scheme) is….a bad move, to put it lightly.
Oh, and as long as I’m talking about the Punisher’s origin, Graeme said “‘man mistakes sadness for anger, tries to avenge death of loved ones with guns’ is neither original nor insightful, to me.” To which I say: take out the word ‘guns’ and you just described Hamlet, Graeme. William Shakespeare is rightfully tweeting that “Drake waves you off” meme at you right now.
GRAEME: You’re right, Jeff; pointing out that someone did the Punisher hundreds of years before the Punisher is the perfect rebuttal of my suggestion that the Punisher is neither original nor insightful. I am utterly ashamed of how… right I was…?
That said, describing the Punisher as “male self-pity taken to its furthest extreme, where the pity doesn’t matter because the self disappears (and what you’re left with is simple maleness)” might be an even better explanation of why the character holds little interest in me, so if nothing else, I need to be appreciative of that.
Perhaps we all need to just be appreciative of the fact that, even in the halcyon days of millennium fever and Y2K panic, no-one thought that Frank Castle needed to be a supernatural spirit of vengeance but not the Ghost Rider one. Imagine if this series had been a hit.
MATT: That is impossible to imagine. This book is too awful to become a hit, even in an industry where Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose can run for 100+ issues.