Sunday, 6 February 2011

Review - Punisher: Dark Reign / Dead End / Frankencastle

I can go either way with the Punisher. It depends on how seriously the writer takes him. If he's played straight - as an unstoppable, vengeance-driven vigilante, I soon get bored. Played too silly, as in Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon's early Punisher Max work, the goofiness annoys me. What I like is a balance between the two, a writer who doesn't treat the character as a hero - just slightly better than the villains he's going up against - yet also recognises the faintly absurd side to Frank Castle. This is not a character the reader should aspire to emulate... but that doesn't mean we can't have fun reading his stories.

Prior to the books featured in this review, writer Matt Fraction had been getting that balance just right. He'd placed the Punisher firmly back in the Marvel Universe, pitting him against an assortment of ridiculous bad guys and over-the-top scenarios, never once taking Castle's blinkered, semi-fascist crusade too seriously. It was a lot of fun, but Fraction obviously felt he'd said everything he had to say, so he handed the reins over to Rick Remender just in time for the character's crossover with the Dark Reign saga.

There are many who bemoan the current crossover-obsessed state of the Big Two comic companies, but while DC's line-wide coupling effectively killed any interest I had in their comics (Grant Morrison's books aside), many of Marvel's universe-affecting ideas have kept me intrigued, especially when they lead characters down interesting pathways they wouldn't otherwise have followed. The worst kind of crossover are the ones that attempt to tie directly into events or occurrences in the central book. Secret Invasion and Siege both led to a number of pointless tie-ins which took place in the shadows of the main title's events and refused to allow any actual story development. They amounted to little more than characters standing round and staring off camera, saying "look at what's happening over there!" Dark Reign, by contrast (and perhaps because there is no central storyline), bred far more interesting scenarios. All you really need to know is the bad guys (led by ex-Green Goblin Norman Osborn) won - and now they're running the show. After that. it's up to the individual creators to tell us exactly how their characters deal with such a situation.

The Punisher, naturally, comes up with the most simplistic and straightforward solution of all - kill Norman Osborn with the biggest gun he can find - and that's where Remender's book kicks off. Norman responds by siccing Marvel's psychotic Superman analogue, Sentry, on Frank... and then hires The Hood to make Castle go away. Being magically powered, the Hood resurrects a bunch of old Marvel villains including Frank's former sidekick Microchip and a load of characters who were slaughtered in the 80s by the Scourge Of The Underworld. For those of us who were reading comics back then, it's great to see this old storyline referenced, and Remender has loads of fun playing around with these demoniacally revived baddies, proving there's no such thing as a bad character, and making villains like the Human Fly, Basilisk, Megatak, and Letha & Lascivious more interesting than they ever were.

The art in these first two volumes is by Jerome Opena and Tang Eng Huat, both of whom draw in a similar style to the currently hot Lenil Yu, but without the annoying bloodshot eyes Yu tends to give all his characters. The final story in volume 2, guest starring Spider-Man and played largely for laughs, features art by Jason Pearson who has a big, cartoony style - kind of like Rob Liefeld, if Rob Liefeld could actually draw. None of these artists strive for grittiness or photo-realism as some Punisher artists have in the past, and their efforts perfectly suit Remender's none-too-serious scripts.

There seemed to be a lot more potential in the Punisher's war against the Hood and his army of revived villains (particularly when the Hood offers to use his powers to resurrect Frank's wife and kids), but Remender instead chooses to set that aside and take the character in his most outrageous direction yet. Realising that the Hood has failed, Osborn hires Wolverine's son Daken to take Frank down. Daken succeeds, not just killing the Punisher but carving him up into chunks. As the hardcore Punisher fanbase scream, "You can't do that!", Remender screams back, "It's comics - we can do anything!" then proceeds to prove this by having Frank stitched back together by the Legion of Monsters (Morbius, Werewolf By Night, Man Thing, The Living Mummy, Manphibian et al.) Now he's become a true monster: Frankencastle. If that sounds utterly ridiculous to you, well, yes, it is. But really, what's so wrong with that? We need more utter ridiculousness in mainstream comics, if you ask me. That's the other reason I lost interest in DC - they take themselves so damned seriously! Comics should be fun.

Anyway, the League want Frankencastle to help him stop former monster-hunter Robert Hellgaard from killing off all their ugly-wugly friends. Reluctant at first, Frankencastle eventually agrees and what follows draws upon Remender's obvious love of horror comics, Universal monster films and old-time Marvel history. At times it feels more like Hellboy than the Punisher, but it's definitely more interesting than watching Frank Castle take down another drug cartel or other "real life" crime syndicate. If you read superhero comics primarily for escapism, this delivers exactly what you're looking for. It's only a shame it all falls apart so spectacularly at the end of the book, beginning with an unnecessarily padded rematch with Daken (a crossover with that character's own book, the non-Remender issues being particularly weak). Then it's as though Marvel wanted to press the reset button as soon as possible, without developing the idea any further, and Remender is given one issue to hurriedly tie up all Frankencastle's loose ends and restore the status quo.

The art in Frankencastle is mostly good, especially the issues drawn by Tony Moore, Roland Boschi and Dan Brereton (good to see him back in mainstream comics) who relish every moment of their monster mayhem. Though I'm normally a huge fan of the John Romita Jr. / Klaus Janson team, the opening episode seems a little rushed, and the art for the Daken rematch is awful, particularly the issues drawn by Stephen Segovia, whose work reminded me of the worst of the 90s.

Pricewise, I paid about a fiver each (plus p&p) for the first two volumes (they're listed as £12.99 reduced to £9.09 on Amazon, but a number of sellers are offering them cheaper). I enjoyed them enough to pay a whopping £17 for the oversized hardback of the Frankencastle issues from Amazon (reduced from £29-99 - not bad for a collection of fourteen comics, even if the last few issues are a bit rubbish). That price has now gone up to £20, though other sellers are offering it for less.


  1. I really want to read these comics, for some reason, especially the Franken-Castle issues. I've had that Franken-Castle HC on my Amazon wish list for a while now and keep nearly cracking and ordering a copy. I notice that there is a softcover edition coming out in April but the RRP on that is only £4.00 less than the hardcover (£25.99) and even at the Book Depository and FPI (it's not listed on Amazon yet) it's still over £17.00, which I could have got the HC for until recently!

    I'm afraid Dark Reign was the crossover that finally killed my interest in the modern Marvel Universe. This was partly because I have never really liked Norman Osborn but mainly it was because I thought the idea that anyone would put the famously nuts Mr Osborn (the friggin' Green Goblin!) in charge of national security was utterly stupid - particularly when his henchmen included a serial killer (Bullseye) and an evil alien symbiote (Venom).

  2. I dunno, it struck me as the kind of mad idea / real world political satire that Stan would have had (albeit wrapping it up in two issues).

    The thing which convinced me to buy the hardcover (which I rarely do) was that there was virtually nothing between the price of that and the forthcoming softcover when I bought it. I've found this is happening quite a lot lately - much bigger discounts on the hardbacks. Dunno why.

  3. At the Book Depository, there is less than £1.00 between the price of the softcover and the hardcover (£19.49 for the softcover, £20.46 for the hardcover), which is ridiculous. I wish I'd bought a copy of the HC for £17 now.

    What I really want to know about Norman Osborn is how he managed to survive getting impaled by his Goblin Glider shortly after killing Gwen Stacy in 1972 (or thereabouts). I never did find out how he survived and I have a feeling you might know the answer.

  4. I've mocked Rob a few times for his longing for the Frankencastle comics. Now I know he's gonna crack and buy them.

  5. Short answer is that the Goblin formula that gave him his strength / powers kept him alive... but it took him a LONG time to recover, in which time he laid low in Europe for years, messing with Spider-Man's life from afar (including orchestrating the whole Spider-Clone mess). Which isn't any more or less implausible than most of the other villain resurrections we see... it was just more shocking for the hardcore fanbase because he'd been dead for so long and they actually believed it would stick.

  6. Thanks for that explanation! I take it all this happened in the '90s, when I wasn't paying attention?

  7. Yeah, right at the end of the Clone Saga - when nobody was paying attention anymore!

  8. I just noticed there was a chunk of this review missing - must have got cut when I copied and pasted, so sorry about that. I've restored it now - for what it's worth!

  9. Rol: I just read the Franken-Castle HC (which I bought on eBay for around £13.00, including postage). I was going to review it but, re-reading your review, I see that you've said pretty much everything I wanted to say already. The Legion of Monsters storyline was good fun and Tony Moore's art was excellent - he draws a great, rodent-like Morbius - but that final fight with Wolverine's son was very dragged out and boring, the art on the Dark Wolverine issues was pretty bad, and then the whole Franken-Castle idea seemed to wrap itself up very quickly in one issue. Ironically, by the time the Punisher comic changed its name to Franken-Castle, the idea seemed to have run out of steam already. In the first two issues of Franken-Castle, the Punisher fought some ninja woman who he had clearly already fought in an earlier issue, and she didn't even comment on the fact that he suddenly looked like Frankenstein (as far as I recall). It may as well have just been a normal Punisher comic! In summary: the first half of the book was good fun and the art was great, but it was ultimately a bit disappointing (it would have been a better book if they had missed out those two ninja issues and the four part Dark Wolverine fight).