A lot of people would say the Punisher wasn’t really “born” as a character until the 21st century. Or, at least, the Punisher had never risen to his true potential until then. It was less than 20 years ago that Garth Ennis revolutionized Gerry Conway’s 1974 creation, bringing a change that Conway probably wasn’t totally on board with.
Because as we all know, when the Punisher debuted, he wasn’t exactly a villain, but he wasn’t really a hero, either. Later writers saw potential in Frank Castle’s plight, but no one really knew what to do with the guy. Solo series came and went, popularity waxed and waned, and sometimes the Punisher was a hard-nosed street assassin, while other times he fought crooked astronauts on a space shuttle.
Such is what we get in Punisher Epic Collection: Capital Punishment. The volume starts off with a one-shot called “G-Force,” not available on Marvel Unlimited (can’t imagine why), written by Mike Baron and drawn by Hugh Haynes, with inks by Jimmy Palmiotti. After being shot up (yes, shot up) with cocaine, tied to a chair and spun through a centrifuge, Frank uses a python to stow away onto a spaceship so he can bust heads in microgravity.
It starts out like many early ’90s Punisher stories do, taking on those nefarious drugs. Ripping someone’s ears off is a slightly different trick, though, and something you might not expect in a story from this time. The whole thing goes from gritty to garish in a hurry, though, ejector seats and all. Give credit to Haynes, he drew centripetal force-face Frank well, and the colors of Gregory Wright and Marie Javins create a good contrast between the dark swamp and the fiery burst of the shuttle’s thrusters.
What follows is even more ridiculous, but at least it’s self-aware. Punisher #63, written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Tod Smith, is called “The Big Check-Out,” and is a clear homage to the classic game show, Supermarket Sweep. Okay, maybe not, but haven’t you always wondered how Frank Castle would handle a cleanup on aisle 8? If you’re looking for 19 pages of exploding shopping carts, cleaning product phosgene gas and weaponized lobsters, you’ve come to the right place. It’s gloriously goofy, in yet another attempt to doing something different with the Punisher, and Smith’s pencils and Javins’ colors, well, they sure do make those pantyhose on the crooks’ heads look great.
The biggest chunk of Capital Punishment, in both size and magnitude, is taken up by the seven-part “Eurohit” story, written by industry legends Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, stretching through Punisher issues 64-70. Maybe better titled “Frank’s Continental Vacation,” this is the story that introduced Outlaw, the British Punisher copycat, although he plays a much smaller part in the narrative than you might think.
The premise is that the Kingpin is the main financial backing behind the Chunnel (early ’90s, remember) and he wants to use that influence to unite all of Europe’s crime families under him. Despite the Punisher working with known killer the Tarantula, it’s a well-written story, although it’s more James Bond than it is Punisher. Frank Castle going undercover as a husband on a ski trip (or whatever) is majorly dissonant in today’s age, and it’s yet another example of confusion about the character.
The art by Dougie Braithwaite is, unsurprisingly, the best in Capital Punishment, the only time anything really transcends the time’s house style. His fight scenes flow with ease and some of the story is actually told in panel sequences, as when Batroc (that’s right, Batroc!) reveals himself, formerly hidden as a stone gargoyle. Christie Sheele’s colors are nothing spectacular, but they don’t detract from the scenes, either.
D & A follow that up with a story that comes so close to confronting real issues. “Police Action,” and the two issues leading up to it, see Frank returning from holiday only to find out how much things have deteriorated in his absence. The Punisher then begins taking out small-timers, just the kind that rose to power while he was gone, almost asking questions about the severity of sentencing and the murkiness of profiling, before it just becomes another standard shoot ’em up between Frank and an anti-vigilante law enforcement group. Missed it by THAT much! Braithwaite’s art doesn’t sing as much here, and Javins’ colors are pretty par for the course.
John Wagner’s “Die Hard in the Big Easy” is kind of a pointless, over-sized one-shot about voodoo and … honestly, I can’t remember much else. Phil Gascoine’s art is too cartoony for a Punisher story, with simple curves and rounded features. Steve Buccellato’s colors are similarly just too bright.
Capital Punishment‘s final contribution is easily the worst of the lot, with a misleading title. “Punisher/Black Widow: Spinning Doomsday’s Web” is more like “Black Widow guest-starring Punisher,” and it has one of the poorer executions of a “superhero misunderstanding leading to team-up” that you’ll ever see. D.G. Chichester’s dialogue is atrocious and the art by Larry Stroman and Gloria Vasquez is some serious bargain basement, overly-stylized stuff.
Huh? There was a “Bar Wars” by Roger Salick and Val Mayerik, and a “Flare Up” by Mike Lackey and Simon Bisley, too? Maybe that should tell you something. I mean, I guess it’s cool to see Bisley do Punisher, but a pin-up would have sufficed.
I’m harping a lot on how weird this stuff looks today, but honestly, it wasn’t that great at the time, either. Yet somehow, it’s what the people wanted — Punisher was on sale twice a month during this Abnett and Lanning run, and it wasn’t the only Frank title on the stands. If you have fond memories of those times, Punisher Epic Collection: Capital Punishment is for you. If you’re used to more modern depictions of the Punisher, a lot of this probably won’t sit right, aside from a few creative deaths here and there.
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