‘Punisher, Vol. 1: Black and White’ humanizes Marvel’s skull-clad antihero

(Marvel Comics)

My journey of attempting to return to Marvel comics continues with this unexpectedly pleasing paperback collecting issues #1-6 of Punisher  (2014).

In a couple of previous posts I’ve lamented about not being able to get back into Marvel and DC titles in the way that I wanted to, in the completely absorbed way that I remember from my youth. But really, now that I think about it, it was equally my own fault. I just didn’t try hard enough, and granted part of the problem was that I wasn’t sure if it was even worth trying so hard to begin with.

But with Punisher, Vol. 1: Black and White  (and also with Captain America, Vol. 2, which I recently reviewed) I’m happy to report that I’m moving ever closer to clearing away that doubt. This book was quite a lot of fun, and since the Punisher is a character I’m already well familiar with and since this trade starts at the very beginning of the new 2014 series, I had no problem following along.

(Marvel Comics)

Even if you’re not very acquainted with Frank Castle, you’re probably at least aware of how he became the Punisher, and even if that’s also not the case this book very quickly and easily establishes the kind of man he is: single-minded, driven and ruthless but clear in his mind about who he is and why he does what he does and not without his own sense of right and wrong. And given that this volume puts the Punisher through quite a lot of his own kind of punishment you also see how vulnerable he is physically compared to other gun-toting characters like Deadpool or Fantomex.

What Punisher, Vol. 1 does an excellent job of doing is presenting a strong case, whether intentionally or not, for the hypothetical need of a character like the Punisher in the Marvel world (and even our own real world). In Castle’s own words:

“There is a strata of villains too dangerous for the cops but not big enough for the superheroes.”

The events in this book back up his claim, and all throughout he makes pithy observations like this that make us sympathize with and even side with his cause, despite the fact that heroes like Captain America or Daredevil would call him a criminal no better than the ones he hunts.

Nathan Edmonson has done a splendid job of crafting a story that is, for the most part, self-contained and does not need any outside reference. In other words, you don’t need to simultaneously buy and read three other titles to understand what’s going on, nor do you need to have read any previous runs of the Punisher titles. For comic and Marvel newbies, this is therefore as good a place to start as any.

But for veterans or retired old-timers coming back to the game, you’ll also delight in the way Edmonson ties the story and character to the larger Marvel world and happenings that are clearly over Frank Castle’s head but which he gets himself into anyway.

I’ve seen versions of the Punisher that depict him as a brooding, hulking killing machine, and while the character does have that aspect to him, I love how Edmonson and artist Mitch Gerads have humanized Frank Castle here both in his actions and his appearance. In what constitutes some of the best scenes of the comic, Frank sits at a diner bar communing with a lady cop, and just from subtle body language and facial expressions we see that while his methods may differ radically, the Punisher does not dislike cops at all but cares very much for them and wants to protect them.

(Marvel Comics)

Gerads’ bold lines are appropriate for an action hero of this sort and the abundance of duller colors and greyish tones match the grittiness of both the character and the L.A. drug world setting. But, again, the story becomes linked to the Marvel world beyond, so when a certain familiar Marvel villain makes his entrance, it galvanizes the book with vibrant color both figuratively and literally.

While it remains to be seen whether I’m back on board the Marvel Comics train for good, Punisher, Vol. 1: Black and White made for an enjoyable first leg of this journey and has left me eagerly wanting more. It’s a great book for those who are either new to Marvel comics or are looking for an accessible reentry into a world they might have once left behind.

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.

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