They say you should write what you know. Commonly thought to mean your interests and your own knowledge of events, other scholars interpret the “what you know” as the emotions you yourself have felt, so the characters you create are more authentic.
In The Punisher: Shadowmasters, writer Carl Potts has both sides covered.
Former Marvel writer and editor Ralph Macchio opens Shadowmasters (as he often seems to do with these new collections of older material) by noting Potts’ Japanese heritage and his infatuation with the country’s history, which makes him the perfect person to bring to life the four-part Shadowmasters mini-series originally published in 1989.
It’s the story of a family. Well, two families, really — one Japanese and one American — during the United States’ occupation of Japan following World War II. Shigeru Ezaki is both the mayor of a small town and a legendary ninja-like, mythologic Shadowmaster, protector of his culture. Needless to say, he’s initially angry at having to work with a representative of the nation that killed his countrymen.
But then Army Captain James Richards saves his son, and Ezaki reconsiders. A friendship is born, and the two grow together and end up opposing the real enemy — a group of hardliner Japanese citizens who aren’t so forgiving, and want to work their way into economically and politically powerful positions to eventually spring a plan that would bring back imperial rule.
It’s a plot that spans decades, with the children of the two men eventually taking up the fight during the final machinations. They’ve grown up with the ways of the Shadowmaster, but each approaches the task with their own philosophies. The whole tale is a mostly realistic portrayal of the differing attitudes in Japan over the years, and the personal connections and tolls they take are tangible.
Shadowmasters is drawn by Dan Lawlis and colored by Steve Oliff, who appear to be aping the style of Jim Lee, artist of the trade’s next installment, which was actually released before the Shadowmasters mini — Punisher: War Journal #1-3. There doesn’t seem to be much connective tissue there, except that Potts also writes these issues and one of the characters from the mini-series makes background appearances.
Odd placement aside, it’s a very good story! Issue #1 retreads the Punisher’s origin in the best way possible, while introducing new characters and playing with the idea of how family can make anyone do kind of crazy things. It’s also interesting for being some of Lee’s first professional comics work — Potts, an artist himself, actually did the layouts, with Lee doing the finishing. Gregory Wright does a decent “house style” job with the colors for the most part, though there are some strange hue choices for the darker scenes set in prison.
We then jump ahead to War Journal #8 and 9, by the same creative team, which ran concurrently with the Shadowmasters mini (confused yet?). Like #1-3, these issues only feature one character (technically two?) from that book, although her actions and demeanor aren’t all that recognizable.
But we do get the debut of Damage! And a fun B-story with hoods trying to break into the Battle Van while Punisher does his business, along with some light-hearted Frank moments that weren’t present in issues 1-3.
The final story in Shadowmasters is Punisher#24 and 25, which finally recapitulates the group’s origin for readers who missed the mini, although the one remaining character still doesn’t feel authentic (Potts only edits this time; the writing is now entrusted to Mike Baron). Frank heads to Japan to field a bizarre offer to head a ninja organization only to meet up with … IRIS GREEN?!
Wait, does that not shock you? It’s apparently a big deal, even though this is the first time we meet her, again showing how poorly chosen this assortment of stories is, despite the tenuous Shadowmasters connections.
And hey, more early work from another big name comic artist — Erik Larsen. His pencils here are also Lee-esque, but more exaggerated and harder to discern. John Wellington’s colors look pulled from the Wright playbook, and it’s worth noting how terribly small and smudged Ken Bruzenak’s letters are. Maybe they were originally cleaner, but as presented in this collection, the words are very hard to read.
If it sounds like Punisher: Shadowmasters is a bad collection — well, it is and it isn’t. The individual stories are mostly good to great, with the first few issues of the original War Journal series being the standout. The titular mini-series is also gripping and unique. But taken as a whole, the stories are just too disparate and the tone swings wildly. Arranging things the way Marvel did is a good excuse to get Shadowmasters back in print, but the reader should probably take a break between installments, because despite sharing characters, these books are great tastes that don’t go great together.