So there’s this guy. This guy who was a hard core Green Beret in ‘Nam. His kids and wife are killed in a botched mafia hit, and he kinda snaps, and spends the rest of his life killing as many scum bags as he possibly can.
That’s the pitch. That’s Frank Castle’s origin story in a nutshell. Ignoring his brief flirtation as a heavenly avenger, The Punisher has spent the last 30+ years killing criminals in a war without end. He’s had his ups and downs, and right now it must be one of his ups, because Marvel has not one but two monthlies featuring the character.
Or do they? The Frank Castle of Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX series bears little or no resemblance to the Frank Castle of Matt Fraction’s Punisher War Journal. I’ve heard people insist that the MAX series takes place in the regular Marvel Universe, but I just don’t see how that could be true. The appearance of a SHIELD-less Nick Fury notwithstanding, the MAX series clearly takes place in a seperate universe, one in which there are no superheros, and Frank Castle is the only vigilante.
And goddamn, does it ever feel right. Punisher comics, by necessity, deals with some of the worst people society has to offer. And when Frank is hunting these animals down, and bullets are flying, nothing takes me out of the moment more than reading somebody shouting, “IT’S THE MOTHER-LOVIN’ PUNISHER! FREAKIN’ BLAST ‘IM!”
It just doesn’t work for me. I can accept Dr. Doom speaking in overwrought histrionics, and I can accept the odd Gotham thug stammering out some watered-down profanity, but now that I’ve had a taste of Frank Castle’s uncensored world, there’s no going back. It’s like watching HBO and Showtime for weeks and then suddenly your cable gets cut, and you’re stuck watching network TV. There are some good shows, but they’re good for network TV. The characters don’t quite speak the way they should. Sometimes, if the writing is good enough, you don’t notice it. More often than not, however, I can’t help wince and shake my head at the pap the actors are trying desperately to pass off as realistic speech.
And that’s why Matt Fraction’s take on the Punisher just doesn’t work for me. Punisher’s an HBO character, and Fraction is sticking him back in the NBC world that birthed him lo those many years ago. Hunting down penny-ante supervillians? Allying himself with some guy who’s built a bunch of miniature Iron Man toys to protect himself? Fraction tries to recreate the grim interior monologue that Ennis has perfected on the MAX run, but it comes off sounding a bit too light-hearted, and a bit too hip. Fraction is writing Castle as a superhero that happens to kill, while Ennis writes Castle as a soldier fighting a different kind of war. Not that Fraction’s Punisher is bad comics: after reading Fraction’s work on Last of the Independents and Iron Fist, I know this guy is capable of writing damn fine comics, and his Punisher is pretty good, all things considered. In my mind, it’s just an interpretation of the character that falls flat, given the high quality of the uncensored MAX interpretation, like watching The Sopranos on A&E instead of HBO.