The Wait, What? Roundtable: Punisher (1998), AKA The Worst Punisher Comics Of All Time

March 15, 2019

When Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti launched the Marvel Knights imprint that would revitalize, reshape, and (basically) rescue Marvel, they grabbed four properties to launch with. Three of them were massive successes, whether critical, commercial, or both. The other one was The Punisher.

Written by Christopher Golden & Tom Sniegoski with penciled art from horror comics legend Bernie Wrightson, this four-issue limited series made the bold choice to take the Punisher out of his familiar Death Wish-esque milieu and put him in the middle of a war between heaven and hell. This take on the character made such a middling impression that Garth Ennis would retcon it away with a single-panel shrug, and Ennis’s rendition became the one that people refer to as “Marvel Knights Punisher.”

When these issues made their (extremely belated) debut on Marvel Unlimited almost the same day as Graeme and Jeff’s discussion of what makes a successful Punisher series in Wait What episode 264, it seemed like fate. So Matt suggested that all three of us should read this legendary misfire for the first time.

MATT: Sorry, guys.

JEFF: It’s not your fault, Matt! Or I guess I should say: there are lot more people who should pay for this first before your name pops up on the list, chief among them Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, the latter of which is not only an editor but an inker on this (and did a terrible job on both). Of course, Quesada and Palmiotti both were responsible for getting their buddy Garth Ennis to tackle the character later, so most Punisher fans would exonerate them.

What’s funny is I always wanted to read this, so I was actually tentatively excited to tackle this when you suggested it. In fact, as I was downloading these issues for offline use, I thought, Huh, i wonder why I never read these when they first came out. I was buying other Marvel Knights titles at the time…

Now, four issues later, I know. These are impressively bad comics. I guess some kind of spidey-sense saved me back then? In a way, it’s pretty easy to just look at the high concept—The Punisher has died but is brought back to life as a divine avenger, killing baddies both natural *and* supernatural—and be, like, “well, that’s a dumb idea for The Punisher. He should just be blowing up drug lords with a rocket launcher for the rest of his days.”

But…is that really true? This is a character that debuted in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man alongside a dude in a jackal costume and is first shown shooting up a life-size statue of Spider-Man like that was a thing people would buy and sell in the real world back then. One of the Punisher’s most popular stories is the one where he kills every single member of the Marvel Universe. I think there’s a way in which you can do a Punisher story with superhuman or supernatural elements and it’s a fun read that doesn’t break the character…but boy howdy is this not it.

So before I get into excoriating the book full bore for its failings, let me just throw this back to you guys. Before digging into the details of this, just on the elevator pitch alone for this miniseries: was it a bad idea from the get-go? Does the idea of supernatural shenanigans and a supernaturally powered Frank Castle just mess things up too much? And, for that matter, are any kind of superhero or superpowered shenanigans going to be more than is good for the character?

MATT: See, one of the reasons I wanted to look back at this book is because, in the years since, it’s become increasingly clear that the Punisher is a surprisingly flexible character. Rick Remender’s Franken-Castle run, Fraction’s firmly-in-the-Marvel-Universe run on Punisher War Journal, the significant roles in universe-spanning crossovers like Secret Wars and that horrible Nazi thing, and now whatever the hell it is Donny Cates thinks he’s doing with Cosmic Ghost Rider–the larger-than-life Frank Castle is proven to work narratively, and proven to resonate with readers.

Maybe, I thought, this book was just way ahead of its time.

It was not.

GRAEME: As the one person in this group who thinks that the Punisher isn’t a particularly interesting or worthwhile concept in and of itself — “man mistakes sadness for anger, tries to avenge death of loved ones with guns” is neither original nor insightful, to me; like any number of comic characters, he’s more a memorable visual than a memorable character, at heart — I feel like there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Angel Punisher idea in and of itself, at heart. Now, does that mean there aren’t any number of missteps in the execution of said concept? Of course not, because these are the kind of thing that you suspect has been suppressed for years for fears of undercutting the self-mythologizing of Marvel Knights v1.0 as the origins of Good Marvel. But as an idea, “man commits suicide but doesn’t die, ends up in biblical gang war” is… fine? Goofy, sure, but not any more so than any of the ideas Matt mentions, all of which seemed to go down fine.

There are a couple of problems with Angel Punisher as it’s actually delivered, though. Firstly, plugging the concept into an existing character which has pretty much stayed away from any of these ideas before this point was going to make for an awkward fit no matter what, especially something as… humorless isn’t the right word to describe the Punisher, but perhaps “anti-fantastic”? “Unrealistically and very specifically grounded, except where it comes to macho gun fetishism”? Given the Punisher as he’d existed for, what, a decade and a half before this series — crossovers with Ghost Rider aside — the whole idea of a divine avenger just… doesn’t really fit…?

And then there’s the second problem, which is far simpler to understand: These are genuinely, shockingly, bad comics. I mean, my God. These are astonishingly bad.

MATT: They really, really are, and that’s far and away the biggest issue. But before we get to details on the craft (or lack thereof) on show here, I have a higher-level question: what was going on in the mid-to-late nineties that made this sort of pop-art Judeo-Christian afterlife such a persistent trope?

Leaving aside other media (Kevin Smith’s Dogma!), in comics alone you had Spawn (and, by extension, Angela and Celestine and Violator–written by Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, and Alan Moore, respectively, true believers!) and Preacher, of course, and Sandman (which would beget Lucifer), not to mention Grant Morrison bringing an actual angel into the JLA and DC introducing Neron to be yet ANOTHER iteration of the devil in the DCU. And, heck, three of the four Marvel Knights launch titles featured some kind of devil-related theme or plot point (with this one being far and away the worst, and Mephisto’s pants in Black Panther being the best).

Was it something in the air? Pre-millennium tension (love you forever, early Tricky records!)? Or just a really easy story hook for writers of all skill levels?

JEFF: Hmm, great point, Matt! I’d say a little of all of the above? Don’t forget the massive success of The X-Files, which arguably peaked with the premiere of the movie in 1998, the same year this came out, and the TV show of Buffy the Vampire Slayer which started in 1996. (For my money, one of the more annoying things about this miniseries is how the villain of this series, “Olivier” (and what a garbage name that is!!), is all sassy and irreverent in a very Jossian way, lighting his cigarette off a burning skull not once but *twice* in four issues.)

I’d guess this stuff was probably popular because supernatural and apocalyptic fears tend to rise near the end of a century, and back then we also had a millennium coming to a close? Although we also had Stephen King and Marvel’s supernatural wave of superheroes helping to plant the seeds in creators like miniseries writers Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegoski, whose work in the Buffyverse and their own dark fantasy creations suggests these were guys who weren’t just cynically working the crowd.

In fact, nothing really underlines the horrible gap between what the teams might have been aiming for and what they delivered like the presence of Bernie Wrightson. Seeing the name of one of the all-time great comic book horror artists on these pages is genuinely puzzling, especially when you see his art on the page. Wrightson’s probably done worse work than here, but I haven’t seen it. The first issue is especially horrifying—and not in the intended way—as rushed incomplete sketches receive half-hearted inking by Palmiotti. It’s like lowest denomination Chaos! Comics work, but unleavened by any of the albinos-in-bikinis cheesecake.

I’m not a Wrightson scholar, or even much of a fan, but I’d say Wrightson’s horror work tends to be at its best when it has the room to find the delicate detail—a tendon in the neck of a corpse, a flower in a bloody field, a bit of shadow from a portcullis beautifully blacked in—in the midst of classically baroque horror. This miniseries of grinning yuppy angels, caucasian Blade-like “stalkers,” and large-scale battles on endless hellscapes is out of either Wrightson’s wheelhouse or what he can be bothered to give a fuck about because the art is lifeless and flat.

I guess I’ve begun the pile-on about the craft, so I’ll stand back and let others get their kicks in. I would like to come back to part of why this miniseries was such a mistake for the Punisher, but only after we all get a chance to complain about how poorly done this all was. Anyone?

GRAEME: There have been roundtables where we’ve read things I didn’t like, or didn’t particularly appreciate, but this was the first time where I was reading something and thinking, What if I just tell them I’ve gone blind and can’t read comics anymore because these were so, so fucking bad. It’s that rare comic where almost everything feels like the wrong choice or somehow misguided, from the sub-Buffy take on the religious mythological angle — or the hilarious reveal in the first issue that the dick of an angel who’s responsible for Frank’s situation is also the Guardian Angel who failed in his responsibilities, resulting in Frank’s family dying in the first place, which is such a breathtaking addition to the origin that it stopped me in my tracks — to the artwork, which is so generic and, honestly, unattractive that it makes you wonder if Wrightson ever deserved the plaudits he got earlier in his career. And that late ‘90s coloring! It’s like the icing on a really shitty cake. Really, this might be a comic where the only thing that isn’t subpar is the lettering.

And yet, despite all of that, none of this is entertainingly bad. It’s just… bad. It’s not fun, there’s no humor or joy here to leaven the apocalyptic attitude. It’s the ultimate collision of grimdark ideas: The gritty crime thriller where the fate of everyone’s souls is at risk. It’s the masturbatory fantasy for every teenage kid who grew up listening to metal in the same way that Vertigo’s output at the same time was the fantasy of teens who spent too much time listening to jangly guitars and wondering if they should give that “techno” thing a try.

MATT: The guardian angel angle is, to me, the surest sign that the problems in this book are entirely failures in craft and execution. Because there is a version of that idea that’s terrific, provided it’s executed with the appropriate amount of self-seriousness (i.e., much, much less than what’s in this version). But a Punisher storyline that was Preacher meets Death Wish? Frank Castle expanding his quest for vengeance to the supernatural beings who failed to protect his family? That sounds like something that Garth Ennis or Jason Aaron could’ve made a real meal of.

What shows up on the page here is not a meal. It’s not even an amuse-bouche. What I’m wondering now is how people with the instincts to guide the rest of the Marvel Knights launch deemed this even remotely publishable. In craft, in look, in overall feel, it is totally out of sync with the rest of the line.

JEFF: My guess would be that, if I’m remembering correctly, the Marvel Knights line at this point was a boutique imprint that was *heavily* distrusted and disliked by Bob Harras and the general editorial teams, sensing (correctly) management was doing a dry run for a regime change. I suspect when the art on this started coming back everyone realized this was dead in the water but they had to publish it. This is a book that everyone washed their hands of it even while they were still writing it.

At least I hope that’s why there’s no real explanation of Frank’s new powers or how or why they might work. The creative team sets up a new status quo but avoids any set-up of rules or stakes. What does it mean to shoot a demon with a supernatural gun? Does it die? Was it ever alive? Does Frank feel physical pain? Can *he* be killed now? The most work was put into retconning Frank’s origin into this new model. (And which I can only enjoy in a strange comic-book-related metaphor: all of the passion Frank put into killing criminals and avenging his family was nothing more than supernatural work-for-hire, wherein all he really did was enrich his “employer.”)

All that said, Matt, you mentioned wondering what Ennis or Aaron might do with the hook here. I didn’t re-read to double-check, but the strong sense of deja vu I had while reading these makes me think Ennis reinvented the wheel (or just lifted outright) some of the takes developed here for his Ghost Rider mini that came out later. Unsurprisingly, they work better there, where there’s less creative origami going on to make the “real-life-situations-mirrored-in-supernatural-situations-which-are-meant-to-be-commentary-on-different-real-life-situations” version of yuppie angels and the like come together more satisfyingly.

As for me, I also get the appeal of “Preacher meets Death Wish” but, even apart from how sloppily the team here builds a cosmology, I don’t think a supernatural graft works well for The Punisher’s origin. The Punisher is, in his way, the most extreme example of Marvel’s origin template, whereby the hero gets their powers by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Frank’s family gets killed, and he gains the super power level of total freedom: he has no life; he has no body (he can absorb any amount of torture or damage, never gives in to lust or hunger or exhaustion to the extent he even feels those things); he can go anywhere and do anything as long as it is an extension of his quest to punish. He is male self-pity taken to its furthest extreme, where the pity doesn’t matter because the self disappears (and what you’re left with is simple maleness).

The whole Marvel template of a person in the wrong place at wrong time being exposed to their worst fear (spider, radioactivity, Norse mythology) becomes a template for storytelling in the ‘70s. Those who made it through Vietnam, youthful rebellion and government suppression, toxic pollution and blatant discrimination, responded to the template when presented to them in the context of horror and exploitation movies.

The Punisher is the love-child of exploitation movies and Marvel comics but, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not just some arranged marriage of convenience–that’s a love that was meant to be. Removing the randomness to replace it with the machinations of a demon born into a human body who remembers his past (and schemes to take over all of Hell as part of a big supernatural real estate development scheme) is….a bad move, to put it lightly.

Oh, and as long as I’m talking about the Punisher’s origin, Graeme said “‘man mistakes sadness for anger, tries to avenge death of loved ones with guns’ is neither original nor insightful, to me.” To which I say: take out the word ‘guns’ and you just described Hamlet, Graeme. William Shakespeare is rightfully tweeting that “Drake waves you off” meme at you right now.

GRAEME: You’re right, Jeff; pointing out that someone did the Punisher hundreds of years before the Punisher is the perfect rebuttal of my suggestion that the Punisher is neither original nor insightful. I am utterly ashamed of how… right I was…?

That said, describing the Punisher as “male self-pity taken to its furthest extreme, where the pity doesn’t matter because the self disappears (and what you’re left with is simple maleness)” might be an even better explanation of why the character holds little interest in me, so if nothing else, I need to be appreciative of that.

Perhaps we all need to just be appreciative of the fact that, even in the halcyon days of millennium fever and Y2K panic, no-one thought that Frank Castle needed to be a supernatural spirit of vengeance but not the Ghost Rider one. Imagine if this series had been a hit.

MATT: That is impossible to imagine. This book is too awful to become a hit, even in an industry where Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose can run for 100+ issues.

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7 comments on “The Wait, What? Roundtable: Punisher (1998), AKA The Worst Punisher Comics Of All Time

  1. kotgb Mar 15, 2019

    I have only heard of this series and had never seen the art.
    you tell me that’s Wrightson but it’s…Wrong, son.

  2. Bengt Strand Mar 15, 2019

    I’ve never read this comic, nor am I fond of the Punisher (though I was in my teens). So I’ll use this space to complain about Kevin Smith’s Daredevil run, since A) it has art by Quesada and Palmiotti, and B) the plot (if you can call it that) is about some baby that maybe is Jesus or the anti-christ? It’s shit and fuck those guys for fridgeing Karen Page. The best part of Netflix DD is when Karen just shots that guy instead of suffering the same (though I’ve only seen the first season so if anything bad happens to her later, fuck those guys too).

    • Mike Murdock Mar 17, 2019

      Spoiler alert through three seasons, but you’re safe there. Karen does encounter Bullseye in Season Three, though.

      I too think Guardian Devil has serious problems with its plot. It reads through fine the first time, but makes no sense on re-read. That being said, Quesada’s art has actually grown on me through the years and I no longer think it’s as bad as I once did.

  3. Voord 99 Mar 16, 2019

    Frank Castle would be a lot more interesting if the people that he killed included his mother.

    And also if he accidentally killed an innocent, traumatizing their daughter and causing a parallel act of revenge that ends up killing him. It’s the suppression of possibilities like that that makes the Punisher default to “Man correctly identifies sadness as anger and we celebrate that he tries to avenge death of loved ones with guns.” Yes, not every Punisher story falls into that, but they default to it, because the character as a concept pushes in that direction (unless he’s the antagonist in a Spider-Man or Daredevil story, and even then he tends to be “sympathetic” and “understandable”).

    I’m generally with Jeff Lester in loving that ‘70s Marvel thing of “What B-movie did we see last Saturday night? Let’s take that and make it a superhero?” But not here.

    OK, “Hamlet — more morally serious about revenge than The Punisher” is not terribly surprising. But the parallel to revenge tragedy is interesting. One standard way to look at revenge tragedy (both in Greek tragedy and in Renaissance tragedy) is that it became prominent at times when legal and social mechanisms for dealing with harms done by one person to another were in transition from systems characterized private by self-help to ones in which the state took a more active role in resolving disputes by court processes.

    Death Wish, The Punisher, etc. — I think the emergence of the mass shooter as vigilante hero in the ‘70s and ‘80s is to a significant degree a counter-reaction to the civil rights movement, and specifically it’s about lynching: the way the debate over lynching shifted from being about law and order (i.e., whether private violence was an acceptable means to an end) to being about justice (i.e. whether the end itself was horrific and wrong, whether pursued by private violence or by state action).

    Basically, the only Punisher story I want to see is the story of the NYPD team tasked with arresting him and bringing him to justice.

  4. The Punisher seems to be most relatable, to me at least, as the Damaged Soldier archetype.

    I grew up in the rural Midwest of the United States in the 70s and 80s so…. I’m just not dissmissive of the character is all I’m trying to say there I guess. Like, there can be a complexity there I think, and knowing that The Punisher means something to people in military or law enforcement circles or you might even find members of a particularly right-leaning persuasion adorning their trucks or man caves with The Punisher’s emblem, I don’t know man, The Punisher’s got a spot.

    And I mean yeah, as a kid I got into the Larry Hama-Carl Potts military/ninja-realism thing and Steven Grant and Mike Zeck and so I’m okay with The Punisher in a legit way–without really saying I’m a Punisher fan?

    So I feel like I could participate in a conversation about The Punisher from the stance of “there is a there there” and we can drill down into it but I got nothing for the Angel Punisher story. All I remember from that was that it was bad. Bad, bad comics.

    Anyway, thanks.

  5. Bruce Baugh Mar 16, 2019

    Two thoughts on “Why the religious riffs in the ’90s?”

    #1. Millenial fervor turns out not to exist, not in any substantial way. (Sure, you can find some people really into it, but you can find people into trepanning, too.) The original version was Enlightenment bullshit, from the same smug jerks who gave us the myth of a thousand-year Dark Age and invented racism as we have it now. Later versions are likewise pretty much all the invention of bigoted elites happily inventing more reasons to hate the masses, particularly those dark, foreign, and/or female masses.

    I was startled to first encounter this idea in college, but have spent enough time studying real social history to have become convinced it’s true. If you really want to see people panicking – and getting violent – about loss of control, you really want to go to the local elites. Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built In Hell is a great look at this with regard to major natural disasters like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina.

    #2. Religious-themed horror boomed in the ’90s largely because it was a fresh field, having not been tapped much at all in the ’80s. And the reason it was lying fallow in the ’80s is that it had boomed in the ’70s, thanks very largely to the fact that William Peter Blatty had an obsession with it, and a fair amount of charisma. The Exorcist came out in 1971, largely disconnected from anything beyond Blatty’s fascination, and interested a lot of people who hadn’t seen anything much like it.

    Ira Levin had come before him in 1967 with Rosemary’s Baby, and there are a few other examples from the trailing edge of the ’60s. Poking at America’s weird relationship with religion was a fairly obvious thing to do at the time. Stephen King would work with some of the same themes as he saw them in the communities around him – Carrie came out in 1974, ‘Salem’s Lot in 1975. Things took off, and there was a whole lot of crap before the explosion settled down. The Amityville Horror, the book, came out in 1977, and you can do worse in the “how to piss off a friend you’re tired of” department than giving it to someone.

    There was also British folk horror charging along at the same time: The Witchfinder General in 1967, Blood on Satan’s Claw in 1971, The Wicker Man in 1973.

    By the time the decade was done, horror working strongly with Christian myth seemed pretty well mined out, and the ’80s went in other directions. Clive Barker started his career, and Ramsey Campbell built his. Stephen King built his. Anne Rice developed hers. John Carpenter and Dan Simmons and others built there. Cthulhu became mainstream after decades of being off in a side bog. Some of this work was great, some the opposite, but it all added up to answers to the perennial question “now what?”.

    And then the 1990s came around, and y’know, really, nobody had done much that explicitly engaged with American (and Western) takes on Christianity a while, even as it had become more of a regular thing in popular discourse thanks to the rising right wing. It was just lying there in plain sight, not chained up or locked or anything, waiting for someone to drive it off. So Joss Whedon, Neal Gaiman, Garth Ennnis, and so many others hopped on and pedaled on their way.

    And so did the people who decided that Frank Castle, guardian angel, was a good look.

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