Punisher #2: Grisly, funny, deadly serious
I have a confession to make: I don’t know much about the Punisher. I know the basic details about how he came to be, but beyond that, I don’t have a lot of experience with the character. I read Becky Cloonan and Steve Dillon’s #1 a few years ago, and have skimmed a few odd stories since, but I’m largely uninformed. So if you’re a lifelong fan of Frank Castle looking to see if the new run of The Punisher is faithful to the character, I’m afraid I can’t help you.
While I’ll readily agree that faithfulness to legacy characters is important, I also have no problem evaluating something on its own merit. I understand the components that contribute to a comic “working” for me—and in most cases, others. And independent of any considerations of legacy, Punisher #2 works, and it works really, really well.
Brutal, but not gratuitous
For a character with Frank’s reputation, I could see a writer going in several directions: comically-excessive violence, perhaps, or shadowy, jump-scare horror. In the former case, the book becomes a comment on the Punisher’s methods—on how grief has deranged and dehumanized him. The latter is an emphasis on his methods and intangible qualities—how the very idea of him is perhaps more terrifying even than what he does once he catches up with you. Rosenberg and Kudranski have taken a different tack in their run, however: the matter-of-fact approach.
Punisher #2 is incredibly violent. There’s blood, decapitation, hand removal, plenty of shots fired, and explosions galore. But the visual storytelling neither avoids nor lingers on the violence, and the dialogue follows suit. The…severances occur very quickly, and we see their results, but they’re always framed in fairly unspectacular ways. They seem like matter-of-fact occurrences in the course of the story, and to me, that makes the violence all the more terrifying: because the plot and layouts are almost devoid of dramatic embellishments, it seems real. By refusing to say behold this horror, Rosenberg and Kudranski leave us with nothing but the truth—and the truth is far more horrifying than what we might imagine.
Funny, but not silly
You might think that all of that honest brutality would make for a grave, somber read, but that’s not the case. Truth doesn’t discriminate, and it isn’t sensitive to our feelings, and we often find ourselves involuntarily breaking stunned silence with laughter. Rosenberg puts Frank on a collision course (literally) with a few Defenders, and I couldn’t help but crack up at some of the comments and goings-on. All of this rises organically, though, from the personalities and situations in the book. This isn’t Old Man Castle with baby Thanos strapped to his cosmic motorcycle (reverent tip of the hat to Donny Cates). This is people antagonizing each other, deliberately making light of circumstances, fighting so unscrupulously that we can’t help but laugh at the audacity. Just as with the violence, Rosenberg avoids constructing the plot or dialogue in ways that would emphasize the humor, so the characters and situations are funny, without it ever coming across as Rosenberg trying to be funny.
Serious as a hand grenade
The comically-violent and horror-of-the-unknown motifs can work. I may not have read much Punisher, but I’ve had plenty of experience with other characters in other universes, and I’ve enjoyed stories that take either approach. But I’m particularly fond of what Rosenberg and Kudranski have done here, because on its own, it doesn’t draw conclusions. It’s an entertaining story that tells you what happens, but it doesn’t tell you how you ought to feel about any of it. But if you have a pulse, any repeat reads of this book will force you to consider the deeper questions. What kind of man can cut off hands and heads as a matter of course? Has he become what he fights against? Is he worse? Is that what’s necessary to combat the sort of men he’s after? Is there another way, and if so, does that way exist in reality, or only in the abstract? I suppose these are the questions that always arise out of a Punisher story, because of his very nature, but in avoiding simple answers and judgments, Rosenberg avoids giving us an easy way out. There are no politics—left or right—to offend us, no stance for us to use as an excuse to sidestep the question. It’s just us and the methodical, brutal business of Frank Castle, and nothing to help us make up our minds but the evidence we see before us.
So what do you think?