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This year’s Marvel NOW! relaunches have been pretty amazing - She-Hulk, Ghost Rider, Ms. Marvel, Loki, Magneto and Silver Surfer are all brilliant new titles with fresh takes on old characters. Unfortunately The Punisher isn’t one of them. That’s not to say Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerads’ story of Frank Castle in LA sucks but it’s definitely not up there with the others I mentioned.
How’s this for an original plotline: Frank hunts down drug dealers! If mob guys are Frank’s #1 target, drug dealers are a close second and feature in a ton of Punisher comics. But wait, these ones want to blow up Los Angeles with a bioweapon for some reason! And Electro’s in this because… oh, and the Howling Commandoes are after Frank because…
You get the idea - this first story arc is pretty much all setup with no payoff. The many plot threads Edmondson establishes don’t go anywhere, at least not for now, leading to a pretty disappointing reading experience.
Take Electro, a character whose MO is that he doesn’t have an MO. Like in the (awful) Amazing Spider-Man 2 movie, Electro shows up for no reason and goes after the hero for no reason! Lots of crackly blue colours on the page that look pretty but he doesn’t seem to have any motivation to do anything he’s doing. But let’s be honest - he’s not here for things only boffins care about like “motivation”, he’s here because he’s in a new movie and Marvel want you to know who he is.
Ditto the Howling Commandoes who show up to shoot guns at Frank and little else. Invested in this plot yet? So what about the main villain, the non-descript Mexican drug baron dude who wants the bioweapon to blow up LA? What do you think - does he succeed? And anyway, why does he want to blow up LA with a bioweapon?! We never find out. Oh, character motivation, where art thou?!
I appreciated that Edmondson didn’t take too long to establish Frank’s character as I think pretty much everyone reading this has read a Punisher comic before and/or knows his backstory: former military dude whose family is killed by the mob and decides to wage unending war against all bad guys now and forever. A few panels of silent flashback are all Edmondson does while his military past is glossed over in passing. By the way, the Vietnam-era Frank is long gone, killed off by Jason Aaron in his outstanding Punisher MAX series, replaced with a 40-ish Frank who’s a vet of an un-named war, conveniently making him ageless.
It’s an interesting move to make Frank and the Punisher two separate people to the outside world. Previously everyone knew Frank Castle was the Punisher - dude never wore a mask so of course people would know - whereas this Punisher wears a skull mask so his identity is secret, maybe the only aspect of his character that has anything in common with other Marvel superheroes. And the fact that the LAPD (not to mention the public!) actually like the Punisher was a realistic element to throw in - he does help them out when they’re getting shot at and he’s doing their job for them, taking the bad guys off the streets, albeit far more brutally.
Like Edmondson’s other Marvel book, Black Widow, the formerly cold main character gets a pet: Natasha got a cat, Frank gets a coyote! To humanise them, right? I guess it works, though how a wild animal gets domesticated so quickly is a tad unrealistic. Not only does he get a pet but I noticed Frank smiling - or not grimacing, to be more accurate - which was a surprise. His image really is getting rehabilitated!
Unlike Black Widow though where Phil Noto’s fantastic art made up for Edmondson’s pretty ok script (which remains pretty ok here too), Mitch Gerads’ art isn’t as remarkable. It’s certainly not bad, it just lacks the wow factor that makes you sit up and really pay attention. I did like the way he switched perspectives in the first chapter, I think it was the second page, where Frank and the dealers fall into the water and Frank’s talking about not knowing which way was up and swims downwards which turns out to be up and immediately draws the reader into the page - but for the most part, while the book doesn’t look bad, there weren’t many images that stayed with me.
The first Marvel NOW! Punisher book is just an ok Punisher story. It’s essentially the right character and Edmondon’s added a few small, interesting new elements to establish this is his take, but it’s also a pretty average Punisher story, undistinguished from the majority that’ve gone before though safely below the heights of the Ennis and Aaron runs.
I would’ve preferred a more self-contained story for a first book rather than what feels like a lot of setup for the next volume or two, but it could’ve been a lot worse and it’s certainly readable and entertaining at times. While not of the same quality as the other 2014 Marvel NOW! releases, it’s worth a look if you’re a Punisher fan but don’t expect the same kind of fresh take on Frank that Silver Surfer and Ms Marvel received.