For something like a dozen years now, the go-to interpretation of the Punisher has belonged to Garth Ennis. He’s a solitary figure, driven in his quest beyond any ability to relate to another functional human being ever again. But our view has always been a myopic one, for the most part; we see the world through Frank Castle’s shattered eyes, filtered through his ubiquitous Peckinpah narration. What does the world think of Frank Castle, and what effect does an unstoppable figure like him have on the people who care? After the jump, let’s talk about one of the big Punisher crossovers of the 90s: Suicide Run.
I’ll admit right off that this week, it’s not a crossover like you’d see in, say, Secret Wars II or whatever. This one isn’t about a bunch of properties colliding in one multifranchise marketing bonanza: it’s all Punisher, remaining totally insulated within his zone of the Marvel Universe, with no superheroes to speak of. That said, it takes its cues from some of the bigger 90s mega-events. You could even call this one “Reign of the Punishers” without it being at all inaccurate; the basic structure is pretty much copped directly from DC’s Death and Return of Superman epic, just compressed and without even pretending to tell us that Frank is gone forever.
The plot: Frank Castle gets word of an unprecedented meeting of organized crime figures in New York, which turns out to be a trap for him. Of course, he comes prepared; he detonates a ton of semtex in the building’s basement, bringing a skyscraper crashing down onto Manhattan in a plot twist that likely explains in and of itself why this storyline remains in the dusty corner of continuity. With the Punisher believed dead (this being back in the days when a collapsed skyscraper was theoretically enough to even slow him down), a group of psychotic souls all lay claim to his legacy for varying reasons, battling each other and an government anti-vigilante squad until Frank comes back and starts shooting people again.
The plot of Frank Castle inspiring fervent disciples has been used again since, most notably in Garth Ennis’s first Punisher stint. There, however, all three were one-note jokes who existed just so Frank could look at them with disgust and blast the roofs of their heads right off. Here, the approach is more varied: there’s the “Idiot Punisher,” a slovenly postal worker who seeks to take over Castle’s legacy and, having nothing on his side but fanatical devotion to the idea of killing wrongdoers, promptly gets his dumb ass murdered. But there’s also a more interesting notion at play, where capable, resilient, experienced soldiers look at the work Castle has done and say “You know, he’s right.”
It’s not like this is far-fetched. Google “Afghanistan kill team” and check out how people ostensibly fighting for the forces of good can be corrupted into an unarguably evil groupthink. (For what it’s worth, my view of the Punisher is that he’s so committed to fighting evil that he’s become consumed by evil himself.) When people are followers, it’s easier to justify the crazy things that they do. I can’t imagine there’d be half as many “real life superheroes” if they didn’t have existing templates to draw upon for inspiration, predecessors to cite and emulate. Dangerous innovators breed dangerous followers, it’s just that in the Punisher’s case, he’s not looking for acolytes. So the people crazy enough to follow him can only really do so to preserve his legacy once he’s gone.
We’re not talking about an Alan Moore comic, though. The depth of this examination is about as deep as a puddle, and these characters are sketches, interesting variations on a basic riff. There’s the Mafia-sponsored pet Punisher, Hitman; the fame-seeking and privileged Yuppunisher; the cop gone wrong Lynn Michaels; the British Punisher fanboy Outlaw; and on, and on. (Less interesting are the villains, although it does give us the second and final appearance of the gun-armed Frenchman Rapido, a concept so ridiculous that not even Matt Fraction’s run could have come up with it.) These people range from stupid to crazy to psychopathic, and their collective story is what amounts to one long gunfight, punctuated by moments of gratuitous action-movie badassery that struggle to top one another. At the wheel of all of this were Chuck Dixon, Steven Grant, and Larry Hama; that alone should tell you all you need to know about Suicide Run’s tone and subtlety.
As with most mid-90s Punisher comics, the art is variable at the best of times; Michael Golden provides a series of great covers, although the first one does its best to make the Punisher’s head look like some sort of rejected Madball. (Remember those? Look for their write-up next week in “Crossed-Out Toy Franchises.”) The legendary John Buscema handles about a third of it, but from issue to issue (and sometimes from page to page) the finishes on his pencils get extremely rough — ‘gritty’ might be one word for it, but ‘sloppy’ also applies. Hugh Haynes, who seems to have disappeared from comics in the late 90s, handles another third, turning in surprisingly cartoony (but dark) work that calls to mind 90s Justice League artist Chuck Wojtkewicz (I hope I spelled that right). And rounding us off? Gary Kwapisz, another late-90s dropout, who turns in capable but heavy-shadowed work that calls to mind the house style of Marvel’s Midnight Sons product line. The shift in tone from artist to artist doesn’t disrupt things as wildly as, say, Jae Lee suddenly bursting into the middle of X-Cutioner’s Song or something. It’s not ideal — especially the really rough Buscema pages — but as far as 90s Punisher comics go, it’s probably as good as you can reasonably expect.
The question we have to ask, though, is whether this is worth tracking down. It certainly won’t cost you much money; these aren’t exactly burning up the Wizard back-issue charts, and looking at a prominent online back-issue retailer, the single most expensive piece was a Punisher War Zone issue going for the positively wallet-exploding two dollars and thirty cents. I might put whether or not this is the comic for you in terms of a questionnaire: 1. Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? 1a. If yes, do you care about its results? 2. Have you ever seen the movie The Expendables? 2a. If yes, was it not the most totally badass thing ever? 3. Is Batman a pussy for not breaking the Joker’s neck? 3a. If yes, what’s the deal with Robin, seriously?
Suicide Run is a comic that does nothing by half-measures, up to and including stealing plot structure. It starts with the Punisher blowing up a skyscraped in the middle of New York City, and just tries to ramp up the intensity from there. It doesn’t always succeed, and its grasps at sentimentality or nuanced character are usually pretty laughable (witness the Punisher’s conversation with a mentally challenged girl who protects him in her treehouse, a sentence I never thought I’d ever type), but if what you want is a cheap fix of guns, guns, guns, you could seriously do so much worse. This is as good as the Punisher’s days as a blue-chip franchise got, love it or hate it.