Matt Fraction, Ariel Olivetti, et al., Punisher: War Journal (Marvel, 2007- ), $2.99
by James Moore
Contrary to a certain guttergeek's weak-kneed pleading on its behalf, Marvel Comics’ Civil War miniseries was overrated, inane, nigh-incomprehensible--so bad, in fact, that a redialoged parody floating around the internet has more coherence and dramatic heft. Nonetheless, the resulting manure left some fertile storytelling ground. One such flower from this muck was the return of skull-chested vigilante Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher to the Marvel Universe, after an exile to the pages of Garth Ennis’ adults only series, in Matt Fraction’s biting satire Punisher War Journal.
The series functions as an almost Venture Bros.-esque take on the Marvel Universe. Fraction writes Punisher War Journal with tongue firmly planted in cheek. It treats the likes of Stilt Man with all the respect they deserve, which is a missile to the crotch. Fraction take is actually more nuanced than that, while he does rub the new grim n’ bureaucratic status quo in the faces of the also-rans that pass through the book he clearly has compassion for those characters doomed to be trampled over and forgotten in Iron Mans New World Order.
Fraction’s Punisher is in many ways such a character. If he had his druthers he would be waging his war on crime unmolested by guys in animal costumes and cops in spandex, but instead finds himself neck deep in pervert suit antics, dealing with it the only way he knows how; extreme violence. The book gets a lot of mileage just mapping the Punisher's place in the Marvel Universe. He’s an invisible terror to D-list criminals, a footnote to the epics, and possessed of an almost pathological awe for Captain America while wrestling with the hard truth that he can never live up to his hero despite all they have in common. Fraction takes what could be a weakness, this entrenchment in a wider universe, and instead builds his stories scaffolding from it. Aside from the wrestling with what Captain America symbolizes, Fraction uses Spider-Man as an almost Jiminy Crickett figure for Castle, old Champions (snicker) villain Rampage as his gadget generating sidekick, and G.W. Bridge, as Fraction puts it, the Coyote to the Punisher’s Roadrunner.
It is also a book about Castles effect on that same universe, as well as the consequences of his actions. Fractions’ Punisher is every bit the symbol that Captain America is. He represents a line in the sand for the heroes, and a boogeyman for super villains. At the same time, Fraction accounts for the wreckage his protagonist leaves in his wake from the death of his sidekicks girlfriend, to a super-villain support group for those who survive the Punisher’s wrath, to psychopathic imitators.
While PWJ does have thematic depth for the casual reader, there is lots of the old kick/’splode and a sizable dollop of snark. It wallows in the absurd from wacky gadgets like a gun that shoots swords, to gags about the Gibbon crumping. It is a fun book that revels in its quirky milieu, with a refreshingly skewed perspective.
Multiple artists have illustrated War Journal who despite their differences in style have kept the art quality at a consistent level. The primary artist for War Journal has been Ariel Olivertti who used a painterly approach that looks like it could have come from venerable comics magazine, Heavy Metal. His slightly exaggerated style, and rich color textures convey both the humor and the gravitas necessary to carry the books tone. Mike Deodoto makes the largest impression amongst the fill-in artists, showing a surprising capacity for comedy (he already had grit down) in the sublimely tragicomic funeral of Stilt-Man.
War Journal, while perhaps a little mired in continuity, is nicely black-humored read that easily transcends its roots as a crossover spin-off.