Talented writer Greg Rucka, author of the acclaimed Batwoman starring arc of Detective Comics, Crime Bible, and co-writer on Superman: World of New Krypton, brings his hard boiled crime story writing abilities to full bear on Marvel Comics’ newest Punisher ongoing series. Judging from the first issue’s developments, The Punisher and Greg Rucka might end up being a match made in heaven. Known for his strong characters and depth of plot, which work best in the crime noir type setting his above mentioned titles and story arcs sported, Rucka really is the only current comic book writer who can seriously tackle the task of returning Frank Castle/The Punisher to his crime noir roots. With his signature tools in hand, Rucka begins what looks to be a bit of a Punisher renaissance at Marvel Comics.
Artist Marco Checchetto draws the best Punisher we've seen in some time.
A slew of murders at a mob wedding opens Rucka’s first story arc on The Punisher (2011). While a mob wedding massacre isn’t necessarily a new plot device in the world of crime fiction, the characters are, in true Rucka style. The bride in this case is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and the only survivor. Rucka has created some really engaging and strong female lead and co-lead characters in the past. Will this bride turn out to be another one? Rucka might be about to weave yet another powerful female character’s story. The lead detective investigating the murders, named Det. Clemons, is well flushed out character wise as well. He’s reminiscent of the world weary detective that Morgan Freeman played in the classic film Se7en (1995), but in Rucka’s story the young detective that Clemons is partnered with isn’t a do-gooder looking to make a difference. Clemon’s partner, Det. Walter Bolt, is new to the rank, but has earned this rank under dubious circumstances that Rucka makes clear in the second, and deftly written, half of this first issue. Once again, Rucka does an excellent job of introducing his characters, setting them in motion, and then revealing tantalizing complexities to their story that make them multi-dimensional and worthy of getting interested in, but…
…what about the series titular character? While The Punisher is a driving aspect of the plot, Rucka places him in the background. He serves as more of a plot device than center of action. Frank Castle/The Punisher’s relationship to the newly promoted Det. Bolt is revelatory more of the complexities that are an inherent aspect of Bolt’s character rather than Castle’s. At this point, nearly 40 years into The Punisher’s existence in print and on film, the character has been explored, defined, redefined, and deepened story wise about as much as he can be. (The 40 years of The Punisher’s existence is a fact mentioned in Stephen Wacker’s afterword to issue #1—a fact that caught me off guard. It really is amazing to realize that The Punisher has been around for half the time that Superman has been around at this point.) While Castle isn’t a terribly deep character, and attempts to deepen him have proven varyingly successful, at best, over the years, he is a powerfully driving character. Rucka seems to be taking a cue, and this is no slight on his brilliance as a creative writer, from Frank Castle’s characterization in the better than received film Punisher War Zone (2008). Castle was portrayed pretty one dimensionally in the film. He had a mission and stopped at nothing to achieve it, but the characters around him were pretty well flushed out and developed. Castle, as a character, works best this way. These long term characters, like Superman (and like I’ve stated many times before) can be come stagnant after a while, and (again like I’ve stated many times before) can be revitalized with a solid and well developed supporting cast around them. Rucka understood this when he was working with Superman as a character on New Krypton, and brings the same mentality to his writing on The Punisher (2011). Considering these facts by themselves, and not even taking into account Rucka’s superb writing history, this series is almost assured to be a great read.
While I’ve been following Rucka for a while now, I haven’t followed The Punisher with any consistency or seriousness since the Carl Potts and Jim Lee helmed Punisher War Journal (1988). While it took Rucka’s involvement to get me interested in picking up a Punisher book again for the first time in years, there must have been some original appeal to the character that I once possessed. Sadly, upon reflection, the appeal simply boiled down to an adolescent attraction to big guns, firefights, and joy in vicariously getting a final revenge on all evil doers. Now though, I’ve discovered that I may have dimly been aware that The Punisher, as a character, was, and still is, a deliciously evil and violent, albeit vicarious, assault upon my adult civic mindedness. To a firm believer in the rule of law, due process, and, yes, of Congressional representation (one can believe in the system if not in its participants), The Punisher is the ultimate villain. He does away with due process and allows for no equal protection under the law for anyone, as long as you are truly guilty. While English jurist William Blackstone’s famous quote, "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," is still a valid assertion when applied to the justice system, it is incredibly frustrating when a mother who murders her children is found not guilty, or a Ponzi scheming billionaire gets a light sentence. The Punisher would take no stock in what a jury has to say, and his brand of justice would be applied without mercy. This type of justice is appealing on a visceral and emotional level, but on the intellectual and reasonable level this type of justice is really not “justice” as we define it in this fading neo-Enlightenment Age. I find myself fighting the age old battle of emotion vs. reason within myself when I read, or re-read, a well written Punisher story, and sometimes a self debate with ones own sensibilities is needed. Such debates at least afford and opportunity for one to better examine why we have things like court systems and due process. Turns out The Punisher’s stories can be much more intellectually stimulating than they appear to be at first glance. In Rucka’s very capable hands, there’s little doubt that this will continue to be the case.
So once again it’s been shown by a talented writer that nearly any character, even one as one dimensional as The Punisher, can be a great story telling vehicle for some profound ideas. I can’t think of anyone else right now other than Greg Rucka that I’d rather see writing stories about the only true, in every sense of the word, anti-hero in mainstream comics. Hopefully, the stories Rucka comes up with will keep me at war with my sensibilities and help moderate my conflicting definitions of justice intelligently. Somehow, I think that they will.