I think one of the more unique frustrations comic readers face is the constant cycling in and out of writing teams on the books we enjoy. Of course, nowadays, a given book rarely lasts more than thirty issues, but certain characters and teams still remain and suffer the shake-ups of new writing teams ever twelve or so issues unless they’re written by Bendis for some godawful reason.
New creative directions mean that old, possibly enjoyable ones are lost, which is always a shame, but I feel like the worst part of it is when a writer comes on board who is obviously just not that into the book as it exists.
For example, when Rob Liefeld took over New Mutants, he turned the teen cast into a paramilitary force because he thought that was cool and the previous themes and… you know, actual plot and characterization were lame.
See, comic writers, at least for the Big Two, are essentially freelancers. They get assigned books by editors and, while they can decline a job, are pretty much expected to take whatever book they’re given whether they’re passionate about it or not and really whether they even like anything about the book or not.
A mature, thoughtful writer will take this as a professional challenge, learn more about the character, their history and lore. An obnoxious hack will kill off twenty or more characters ‘because they didn’t know what to do with them’ and pretend that was an artistic choice.
But I digress.
In the spirit of ‘if you think you can do better, I’d like to see you try’, I’d like to welcome you to my newest recurring article ‘Writing What I Hate’, wherein I propose a game attempt at a storyline for a property I abso-godamn-lutely hate. The exercise is to try and make a good, canon-friendly story with no retcons and that will require no retcons to get rid of for such a property to prove that I really do have the chops for this work (and to demonstrate that better writers should be ashamed of themselves for not putting in the effort).
Writing What I Hate articles are going to follow the format of This Old Monster where I lay out the background of the target, dissect the important elements, and then present my idea. So with no further ado, let’s do this.
What I Hate
The Punisher is a comic book franchise that started in the tail end of the Bronze Age of Comics centered on the titular character Frank Castle. Castle was a war vet whose family was brutally murdered in a mob hit.
Depending on the writer, they were either killed to send him a message or merely caught in the crossfire—it actually doesn’t matter in the long run. Also depending on the writer, the murderers either got off on a technicality or were given too light a sentence for Castle’s sense of justice, so he resorted to taking the law in his own hands and… well brutally murdered them.
Because vicious cycles fix everything.
Getting revenge (‘It’s not revenge, it’s Punishment’) wasn’t enough for castle though. He saw the system as worthless to the cause of stopping crime as opposed to his method of brutal murder. And so, he embarks on a literal war on crime, utilizing a vast array of weapons and methods to brutally murder criminals.
Brutal murder is a thing for Frank.
Just what litmus test Frank uses to decide who lives or dies is highly variable from story to story. Markedly, in the 80s when massive overreaction over drugs was at its peak, he killed tons of drug dealers for ‘poisoning the kids’. At certain points in the 90s, he was literally killing jaywalkers and litterers. Nowadays, he goes after more acceptable targets like pedophiles and sex traffickers.
How much evidence he needs is also fluid. He’s occasionally depicted as using detective skills to run down villains, but at the same time he’s come to New York to kill Spider-Man based entirely on J Jonah Jameson saying he was a criminal and/or Venom faking being Spider-Man.
He’s also been shown to be more than happy to use lethal force against heroes trying to stop all his brutal murders.
Famously, he’s tried to kill rapper Eminem, and actually did kill a guy in front of a bunch of orphans he was taking care of on Christmas Eve. During the awful, awful Civil War Event, he also killed the crap out of some supervillains who had called a truce with the heroes on his side. Somehow he is still meant to be regarded as a sympathetic character.
The Analysis (And Why I Hate It)
The Punisher is the Marvel Universe’s most successful supervillain. His body count is in the thousands including several powered individuals, he never faces real consequences for his actions that he doesn’t immediately escape, and in the meta sense, he manages to still be classified as a hero while possessing neither the motivations, the methods, nor the results of a hero.
Primarily, he is the four-color version of a cowboy cop without the cop; a revenge fantasy born from the economically and thus crime-ravaged 1980’s where society lost its grip on crime and fell into a flight-or-flight terror that made a lot of people wish they could just… brutally murder the bad guys.
While revenge is a big part of the appeal, there’s also an element of weapon and tactical pageantry that also pleases his fan base. Also, there is a character tradition of Frank going up against actual superheroes and, while not killing them, winning on some level.
Also, while most Punisher stories are deadly serious and grounded far more in our reality than the rest of the Marvel Universe, there have been surprisingly long stretches where… that is not a thing that was happening.
For example, he was the avatar of God’s vengeance (possibly an actual angel… because that happened) for a while, armed with the Arsenal of Heaven—which was, of course, an infinite amount of guns and ammo. At another point, he was resurrected from death as a Frankenstein’s Monster referred to as FrankenCastle, who helped the Monster Squad protect Monster Town.
My research hasn’t told me how those were received by his traditional fans, but my guess is ‘not well’. Aside from all the love of brutal murder while pretending to be a hero, my main beef with this character is how divorced it is from the larger world most of the time. Neither Frank, nor the parts of the world he inhabits really take advantage of the setting they actually exist in.
To an extent, I understand that the Punisher fan base is more concerned with gritty realism than the fun and weird comic book stuff. I feel like a happy medium can be reached where we can have more fantastic elements but just treat them with the same deadly seriousness as the rest of Punisher’s little bubble of reality.
It will be there, in a place where I feel like I can still honor the character and please his fans, that I will be doing the most of my writer on board stuff instead of trying to make the character into something that appeals to me without regard for what’s come before an what the fans like.
So let’s do this:
The Execution – Punisher: Unity
My run on Punisher would open with Captain America punching Frank out, preventing Castle from going through with his plan to brutally murder high level mob boss The Whale as the man is being transported to a court hearing where he is expected to cut a plea deal.
While Cap is distracted by getting civilians clear of the mines Frank planted along the transport route, Frank escapes into the chaotic web of subway, steam, sewer and maintenance tunnels of New York.
As we follow him to his current hideout, Frank makes a War Journal entry where he analyzes his recent failures to properly deliver punishment in flashback. Superheroes have kept him from eliminating targets more often, especially since most of the veteran heroes have gotten smarter: not trying to reason with or ‘redeem’ him before moving to capture or incapacitate him.
While he’s managed to escape actual capture so far, he sees the writing on the wall. He’s become persona non-grata among the heroes, law enforcement is savvy to his tactics, and his final mission will be sooner rather than later if he doesn’t make some changes.
And so Frank begins to plan. He goes underground and does research, finding other people like him who lost loved ones and were denied justice thanks to the failed legal system and.or the actions of heroes. He brings them together, pools their resources and starts training them into the Punisher Army complete with skull patches and fatigues.
Using his own military training, he introduces something new to the Punisher repertoire: squad tactics. Specifically, he starts deploying multiple squads against a single target: one to hinder local heroes, the other to perform the actual punishment.
While success starts to mount, the logistical issues of running a secret guerrilla army mount, as do the trust issues. One of Frank’s lieutenants starts calling his own plays, being more brutal and cruel than Frank would ever be, drawing out their kills and specifically choosing wealthy targets to use their pillaged resources to bolster the cause.
Meanwhile, Frank is thinking bigger. The Punisher Army is good, but they’re still normal people being opposed to superheroes. He’s managed to hunt down something to event he odds: remnants of the Celestial Ship once under the command of Apocalypse.
Armed with Celestial Tech, the Punisher Army spends the back half of the run putting several heroes on the run and driving supervillains underground. That is until Frank’s rogue lieutenant decides to use the tech with an eye to enact Martial Law… and accidentally sends a Celestial distress signal from the scavenged tech.
This bring a Celestial, one of the most powerful being in the Marvel Universe to Earth and it isn’t happy with the ‘progress’ Marvel Earth has made.
With the Celectial tech being some of the only weaponry that can bring it down, Frank decides that annihilation of humanity is worse than crime or even ‘protecting’ criminals like the heroes do in his mind. So he joins the remaining loyal members of the Punisher Army with the Avengers and X-men to go up against the mighty Celestial.
In the end, Frank manages to deal a killing blow, creating a massive explosion in space where he is seemingly killed.
We end with another War Journal entry. Frank’s Celestial weaponry included a teleporter unit. He sent himself to one of his hideouts in a remote cabin. As he watches the great plasmatic fire still in the night sky, he reflects that the splinter of the Punisher Army is still out there, getting worse than even the criminals he fought before. He blames himself, wonders if he needs to be punished for creating them in the first place.
But he takes solace in one thing: the Celestials were the ones to set the world of superpowered crime and alien tech he lives in into motion. Even if it was just one, he managed to bring down one of the worst criminals in existence.
He concludes, getting up and opening a cache of weapons and a map of a nearby Punisher Army camp, that no matter how powerful, not matter ho numerous or seemingly untouchable… no one is above Punishment.