The Punisher’s stories are frequently simple and repetitive: A fresh group of seedy individuals will find themselves in our protagonist’s crosshairs and what follows are 20 pages of over-the-top action. Though there are a few occasions where the art makes up for the dull narratives, there are really only so many times one can watch the skull-clad vigilante massacre a group of evildoers while internally monologuing about his war on crime before it becomes rote.
This is where the latest Epic Collection finds itself. Collecting three 64-page Marvel graphic novels alongside issues #26-34 of the ’80s Punisher ongoing, Classic Punisher #1 and Punisher Annual #3, this trade runs the gamut of every type of Punisher story. From high energy and visually creative standalone specials to the tiresome one-offs of the ongoing, this collection captures the highs and lows of the character.
The best portions of this collection are hands down the three prestige issues. Though all three follow the standard trappings of a Punisher tale, they still deliver great visuals. The first of these is the titular “Return to Big Nothing” by the all-star team of Steve Grant, Mike Zeck and John Beatty. This story reunites the creatives behind the Punisher’s first mini-series “Circle of Blood” for a visually stunning and brutal tale. Zeck and Beatty’s art fully realizes the action through their detailed style and makes for the most memorable issue in the collection.
The second of these is “Intruder” written by Mike Baron with art by Bill Reinhold and colors by Linda Lessmann. Baron and Reinhold collaborate throughout the rest of this collection in the single issues, but their quality reaches a peak here. This tale of a drug deal gone wrong quickly spirals into a political assassination plot and a Top Gun-style showdown. Here, Reinhold and Lessmann’s beautiful desert vistas and crisp linework sets this issue apart in the collection.
The final prestige issue is “Kingdom Gone” by Chuck Dixon and Jorge Zaffino. The real draw here is Zaffino’s art. The Argentinian artist’s abstract and simplistic style results in the most visually diverse tale in the collection. His angular character designs and exaggerated expressions suits the over-the-top and gritty story.
When it comes to the rest of the issues surrounding these specials, the quality drops off considerably. All of the tales come from the late ’80s/early ’90s era of the Punisher filled with battlevans, his middle aged sidekick Microchip and bizarre event tie-ins. All of these very much read like a product of their time and paint a portrait of this era of comics.
The first few of the single issues follow what one would expect from a Punisher comic. However, this monotony is then broken up by an “Acts of Vengeance” tie-in. These couple of issues come out of nowhere and give no indication to the scope or purpose of the event. The most comical part of this comes when the Punisher literally drives by the other heroes engaging in the rest of the event and decides to just continue driving right past them.
The rest of the selections border on the absurd as the Punisher joins a biker gang in one tale and dons a mech suit to fight the Reavers in the next. The unifying factor across these issues is the creative team of Baron and Reinhold. This collaboration results in consistently average tales. Baron’s voice for the Punisher reads consistently and Reinhold’s art does the job, but when put alongside their work on “Intruder”, the bulk of it just comes off as middle-of-the-road ’80s comics.
At the end of the day, this Epic Collection is a mixed bag. One gets the sense that Marvel wanted to reprint the prestige issues but couldn’t justify repackaging only three issues, so they padded out the rest of the collection with the monthly series. The result is a jarring one as it snaps back and forth from top notch comics to painfully dull ones. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have the prestige issues reprinted in one place, and the front and back cover reproductions are a nice touch. However, the rest of the issues bog down the collection as a whole.
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