“The Punisher” #1: Frank Castle’s Dead, The Punisher Lives
The Punisher #1
Story by Becky Cloonan
Art by Steve Dillon
Colors by Frank Martin
Letters by VC’s Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
With an iconic character like the Punisher, it takes an all-star team to do him justice. Fortunately, Becky Cloonan and Steve Dillon have got it covered. Dillon returns to the series with his signature grit, while newbie writer Becky Cloonan writes an engaging thriller. Most interesting of all, Frank Castle is characterized in a new, interesting way that defines the theme of this issue: Frank Castle is dead, the Punisher lives on.
The main cover by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire is not the most aesthetically complex or even appealing cover, but its symbolism is fascinating. It’s the Punisher’s skull, as iconic as Superman’s “S”, but while the subsequent symbol invokes hope and life, the former invokes fear and death. Showing this symbol instead of the man symbolizes its dominance. There is no semblance of Frank Castle left, only the icon, its persona, and the darkness behind it.
However, Castle’s eyes appear in the middle of the skull. Perhaps some semblance of his former self still remains? That may not be a good thing though. The choice of color is red which washes over everything. If red is associated with violence, then here it symbolizes that’s the only aspect of Castle left. He’s a war vet, a man trained to kill. He applies those teachings to the hunting down and killing of criminals. This is the only part of him left, one that can aid the Punisher persona in its homicidal actions. All other aspects of Frank Castle, being a loving husband, a caring and nurturing father, are abandoned. It’s hard to tell which is worse: the Punisher, or the man that feeds him.
Steve Dillon has brought his A-game with his signature style. Realistic art in super(anti)hero comics can be boring due to their uniformity, but Dillon’s art has unique characteristics, such as expressive, chiseled character designs and an intense atmosphere. There’s also Dillon’s violence. While not his most outlandish, it’s raw and detailed, fleshed out by Frank Martin’s colors. Most gruesome of all are the scene of eye-plucking and the final splash page sure to make a few readers squirm and others giggle with sadistic glee. For long Dillon fans, his artwork is as good as ever.
It’s interesting to have Becky Cloonan as the writer of the series. Since her delving into writing, she’s tackled a diverse range of projects, from the kid-friendly, manga-inspired Gotham Academy to the trippy, Lovecraftian scifi Southern Cross. What she does as a writer is give an artist a story, setting, and characters that compliment their style. Here, she does Dillon’s work justice by giving him an action-packed crime thriller to play around in. The story is simple: evil mercenary corporation is selling experimental drug that gives users super strength and agility. They want to sell the stuff for cash, but Punisher crashes their party with guns, bullets, and more bullets. This is not the most appealing aspect of the story though, it’s the characters and how Cloonan and Dillon work together to flesh them out.
The first two major players introduced are Olaf and Face. Olaf is a middle-aged war veteran seen sitting alone in his office, staring at the wall intensely. Many of the younger men he works with mock him for his age, but he hides his disdain with an impenetrable mask of concentration. Face is a sociopath with an ever present sadistic smile that loves to command people and remind them all of the fatal consequences for failure. Then there is the police duo, Henderson and Ortiz. Henderson is an anxious Doubting Thomas that might remind readers of Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon. Ortiz is a woman police officer dedicated to her job with an investigative stare, always looking for clues and figuring things out. These characters aren’t complex, but they make a strong impression on the reader. Even after the book is put down, reader’s will be able to conjure up clear images of the characters and their personalities. By far, they are the most engaging part of the comic.
As for the titular antihero, Punisher is remarkable in the fact he’s mostly absent. Up until halfway into the comic, he’s not fully shown, just brief glimpses. Those glimpses are always of him in the shadows, stalking like a monster. Becky Cloonan calls Punisher “like Jason Voorhees for criminals”, which is an app description, especially the warehouse scene where, like any true slasher killer, he comes out guns blazing (literally) and racks up the body count. It’s an interesting take on the character, treating him less like a protagonist and more like the antagonist the other characters are trying to pin down.
This characterization of Punisher is also what defines the issue’s theme and its cynical meaning. When the comic says “Frank Castle’ dead”, it doesn’t mean literally, but figuratively. As said before, there’s not much of Frank Castle left. Most of his humanity died along with his family. What is left is the Punisher, an embodiment of homicidal rage. By having no dialogue, by being characterized as a slasher killer, the comic demonstrates the character’s dismal existence. He does nothing but kill. He has no normal human connections or activities. The Punisher is all that’s left of Castle, and it lives on. This theme is rather depressing yet strangeful fascinating one.
Of course, even this can become tiresome. It’s what has defined the character for decades, and a character simply defined as a psycho killer can get boring unless there’s something else, lest he become as tiresome as the most throwaway slasher villains. A big part of that will have to do with the pace of the story. With only 20 pages to work with, this issue focuses on set up, laying down the story and characters speedily and without much complexity. If Cloonan and Dillon play their cards right, they can continue to expand the story and make it richer. If they keep it at the current level, it will get old quick.
Punisher #1 is a promising start. While simple in plot, the action and characters are strong, and the exploration into Frank Castle’s humanity could make an interesting theme if explored properly. It’s a solid read and highly recommended for fans of the character and new readers alike.