Hurt So Good: The Best Punisher Book You Never Read

This week marked the conclusion of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil run, which has been beautiful, glorious, and heartbreaking. Brett White over at CBR penned a piece about it that truly encapsulates the level of craft on display through the entirety of that book. He’s done a fantastic job of saying exactly what I think about Daredevil, so I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to talk about another book that started at the same time: The criminally slept-on Punisher book, by Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto. Today, we’re going to talk about the first issue of that book.

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Cover art for The Punisher (Vol. 9) #1, by Bryan Hitch

Just about everyone is familiar with the Punisher these days. He’s had three(!) feature films and fifteen different solo books, each of those iterations–film and comics both–a differing take on the character. If that seems excessive, well, it is, but consider: in itself, it’s a statement on the character, the way that he works. Frank Castle as a character is a good idea, pure and simple. He’s vengeance, revenge. He’s the hurt we all feel, and that we want others to understand. He’s cathartic, relentless justice in primal terms.

He is not good, though. He’s not a role model. He is violent, uncompromising. He has no faith in man to improve, to do or be better. There is a cynicism to him that feels almost infectious; a disease that has taken root, caused by trauma and loss. If the Hulk as a character is a demonstration of the dangers of uncontrollable rage, then Punisher is a lesson on how much more dangerous, how much more toxic rage can be when channeled–both to the carrier and its victims. Rage infects, it destroys. It’s not a thing that lasts; when it has no target, it only eats itself.

Frankly, that’s why the Punisher has had so many series–as good a concept as he is, his books don’t last because sustaining that rage over a prolonged period of time is difficult, if not impossible[1]. Protracted rage gives way to exhaustion. In a comic book, that’s a death knell. So, multiple volumes, with low issue runs. Short, staccato bursts. Which brings me to what is easily the best of those many volumes–Punisher Volume 9, by the aforementioned Rucka and Checchetto.

From the very start of their run, Frank Castle is a ghost in his own book. He barely says a thing throughout the first issue; in fact, he doesn’t appear in the book at all until page thirteen. When he is finally present, the ghost analogy holds; he haunts the shadows and the edges–we don’t see his face until further on, on page twenty.

Instead, the story is about a Marine named Rachel Alves. It opens on the day of her wedding, in a scene that feels like a love letter to Kill Bill, albeit filtered through a very different lens. For Rachel, unlike The Bride, the ceremony is complete, and the reception has begun. During the party, a fleeing man bursts in through the doors, chased by others. All of them are heavily armed. The men doing the chasing open fire; they kill their target, then, presumably to silence witnesses, proceed to murder the guests in attendance, not to mention the wedding party itself. The bloodstain on Mrs. Alve’s dress blossoms like a flower; we see her fall. There is an exceptional cruelty, an unnecessary act that cements the evil of these men; they hold the bride and groom, make them face each other as they’re murdered. Rachel is the last to be shot, and the final panel of the scene has her laying next to her already deceased husband, staring up at the camera. It’s grisly and disturbing, in exactly the way a crime story is meant to be. You cannot help but feel the tragedy of the moment, the quickness with which the joy of the day turns to heartbreak. There’s a caption in that same panel; one of the officers investigating the scene later informs us that Rachel does not die. She must bear the trauma of what’s been done to her, and to the people around her.

There are things to be said about the nature of violence toward women and way it’s used as a storytelling device; those things are for another piece (which I certainly will write). For this article and this story, it’s enough to describe these events and understand that they are crucial, pivotal to this story in a way that this type of violence often is not. This story is about pain. It’s about trauma, how it affects us, how we deal with it, and how much harder that is without a support network. It’s a story, despite the title of the book, about Rachel Alves.

From Punisher (Vol. 9) #2. Art by Marco Checchetto.

From Punisher (Vol. 9) #2. Art by Marco Checchetto.

Two policemen are introduced; Detectives Clemons and Bolt. They are our viewpoint for this arc of the story; they are the ones detached from the immediate action, viewing it analytically. They are there with a job to do. When we’re finally introduced to the titular character, it’s through a text message; he’s contacting Bolt, in search of information for his war on organized crime. His specific target is The Exchange; we find out that they’re behind the massacre at the reception. This information is not especially relevant to the Punisher; it’s another crime, another atrocity to him, something that justifies–or rather, necessitates–his actions. He stages a hit on a nightclub populated with criminals that is an interesting inversion to the first few pages; like the Exchange, the Punisher leaves alive only one individual. Unlike that organization, however, his choice is deliberate. It’s then that we see his face–he holds a gun to the man’s head, then smiles and walks away. His choice is not immediately explained.

Instead, his relationship with Detective Bolt is established; while doing routine surveillance of a suspected mobster, Bolt and his then-partner are caught unprepared by a meet that goes sideways. Being in public, there is also a class of school students present. As Bolt is only just beginning to react, the Punisher is there, holding him quiet. The Punisher pulls a fire alarm, alerting the class and getting them out of the way just in time, as a firefight begins. When his shooting hand is wounded, he loses his gun, and takes Bolt’s, finishing the job. Later, Bolt, unwilling to admit that the Punisher had taken his weapon and saved those children, takes the credit for both the fire alarm and the expert shooting. He’s given a promotion; the Punisher begins using him for information.

It’s only during this event that we finally see the Punisher in full; firing the shots that Bolt takes credit for. He’s a very different creature than the cover art shows us; much of that is due to the difference between the artists. Hitch is a much more mainstream type of penciller; his lines are clean and neat, and he draws the Punisher on the cover as we expect to see him; former military, close cropped hair, body armor, and a cold, grimacing look. When Checchetto’s Punisher first appears, it’s something else entirely.

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From Punisher (Vol. 9) #1. Art by Marco Checchetto.

His hair is loose, he hasn’t shaved in days. Instead of armor with a neatly designed skull emblem, he wears a shirt with an impressionistic feel; this skull is bleeding its color down the front of his chest. His coat flows and moves around him; we can see the injury in his primary hand, but he’s just as good firing with his left. That grimace is gone; his face bears the years of pain, but the knit brow is focus, the lines of his mouth are utterly impassive. It’s almost a worse kind of coldness; these men are already dead to him. Marco Checchetto draws the Punisher as a man riding his rage to the edge of his own ability to function. He is barely holding it together; not just in this moment, but as a human being. Fortunately, because this is a Greg Rucka book, everything will be okay and Frank Castle will finally find peahahahaHAHAHAHA.

No. This is a story about pain. One you should absolutely start reading.

[1]The two aberrations are the series which ran through the late 80s and early 90s. Consider that these series ran in the heyday of Marvel’s guns-and-pouches aesthetic, and it’s easy to see why they maintained as long as they did.

The Punisher (Vol. 9) is available in its entirety on Comixology, or you can read it on Marvel’s Digital Unlimited service.

 

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