Thursday, April 19, 2012

Punisher #7 "the String"

Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto's "the Punisher" ongoing series has from the start faced an uphill struggle. Coming at the heels of a long string of Punisher revamps that have been chipping away at the good will of all but the biggest fans of the character, it's easy to see why the latest #1 was met with a lukewarm response from both the critics and the audience. Debuting at the same time as the highly acclaimed latest iteration of "Daredevil", the Rucka/Checchetto vehicle seemingly felt too familiar, both in concept and execution.

On the other hand, "The Punisher" is highly comparable to Bendis and Maleev's "Moon Knight", in that it was the product of long form plotting, done in the style pioneered by Brian Michael Bendis in the early 2000s, that is slowly falling out of the favor. Rucka's police procedural inspired take on the Punisher aims for the slow burn, and takes time to develop an extensive supporting cast, basically approaching "the Punisher" as a true ongoing title, and not the publisher's latest shock tactic, to try and engineer interest in their longtime intellectual property.

The writer's soundly crafted scripts are regularly being brought to life by Checchetto, featuring a style that is both detailed and dynamic. Peppered throughout the backgrounds are occasional flashes to Daredevil continuity, serving the purpose of reminding the reader they should group together the publisher's grittier titles. Until this last month, little was done to actually make "Marvel New York" titles feel like a coherent whole. Over on "Daredevil", Mark Waid has introduced a subplot regarding Matt Murdock coming into possession of an Omega drive hiding the info about several of Marvel's terrorist organizations, but the publisher waited until the last moment to announce the three part crossover between their vigilante books.

When they finally unveiled the solicitations, the readers and retailers were informed that the "Omega effect" crossover would be taking over the April issues of "Punisher", "Daredevil" and heretofore unrelated Spider-Man's team up book "Avenging Spider-Man". The story would be co-written by Greg Rucka, and feature the artwork of Marco Checchetto. As such, it's understandable that artist's work on the ongoing title would have to be rescheduled for the duration. To no one's surprise, the editorial's solution was to hire fill in artists. Thanks to their previous work on DC's "Gotham Central", this meant that at least for an issue Rucka would be reunited with his "Gotham Central" collaborator Michael ("Daredevil") Lark.

Fitting between two parts of the ongoing storyline, "the String" acts as an intermission designed to spotlight one of the detectives tasked with investigating the massacre that opened Rucka's run. In many ways, the story works as a character piece, thus making it a much more approachable series primer than the aforementioned first issue. Oscar "Ozzy" Clemons, the Harry Edgerton-inspired veteran African American detective had up to that point made several negative asides regarding the Punisher, and Rucka uses the Lark drawn issue to explain the character's frustration.

Just seeing Michael Lark's work, inked by frequent collaborator Stefano Gaudiano almost serves to set the bar in regards to the artistic level. For all of Checchetto's attractive animated figures, Lark and Gaudiano, much like Matthew Southworth before them, simply present art that is more seasoned and better thought out. Where Checchetto opts for imitating the cinematic presentation, and the editorial sees fit to color his work to reinforce the illusion of familiar special effects, Lark dismisses the notion for the traditional, layered comic book storytelling. And while the series' regular artist could hardly be said to feature traditional superhero art, Lark and Gaudiano go one step further, by presenting the moody, representational style that works as quality comic book art by any definition.

Rucka starts the story off with the familiar image of the detective staring at the city map strewn with photos and pins, but thankfully it's the switchblade that Ozzy's playing with that becomes central to the story. Called up to investigate seemingly yet another in the crime scenes left after the Punisher's shootouts, the detective joins his younger partner and they finally start discussing their differences when it comes to Frank Castle's vigilante work. Detective Walter Bolt had already been revealed as the Punisher's police source to the reader, adding to the tension behind Clemons' monologue.

From the moment Ozzy hands his partner the keys to the car, the story starts feeling like an episode of the "Homicide" TV-series, but Rucka is careful not to get carried away on a tangent. These characters, no matter how well defined, exist primarily to add dimension to the Punisher, and it's in this way that a flashback to their shared past proves crucial. Rucka specifically recalls an early "Punisher" issue, that crossed over with "Daredevil". Typical of Mike Baron's scripts for the original Punisher ongoing, the story of the Zum killer was an over the top affair, but executed in a very memorable way. Marvel used an Ann Nocenti/John Romita jr. issue to recast the action from Daredevil's point of view which, barring the Frank Miller's work with the character remains the most memorable of the two vigilante's team ups.

By inserting Ozzy into the well regarded 1988 story, the writer both solidifies his character's place in the Punisher continuity, and at the same time foreshadows the upcoming "Daredevil" crossover. The latter is most important, as the recapped story basically boils down to a single heavily narrated action scene that would otherwise serve mostly as fan service for longtime readers. The Daredevil connection goes a long way to elevating it and justifies the continuity nod over the new scene that would have served a similar purpose.

By treading this kind of material, and basically recasting the superhero formula from the point of an innocent bystander, Rucka is clearly following in the steps of "Marvels" and his own work on DC's Batman titles. Despite the over familiarity with the scenario, the insertion of human element is often key in making the larger then life plots resonate for the reader. This is how Frank Miller used journalist Ben Urich in his history making "Daredevil" run (the character cameos in one of the early Rucka/Chacchetto "Punisher" issues), and there is nothing wrong with the practice. In a genre where the reader point of view characters routinely become superheroes themselves after a while, it's clear why Rucka felt the need to populate his story with both the ambitious journalist stereotype and a pair of detectives.

After making clear his enmity against the Punisher and his self insertion in New York's penal system, Ozzy goes on to directly confront Bolt on his role as Castle's informant. The moment feels needed but unearned, since the reader has seen little evidence to corroborate Clemons' conviction. That Ozzy's intuition alone was enough to infer that Punisher was being given information by someone close to the investigation seems plausible, but in lieu of any direct evidence, Ozzy's proclamation seems rash and unrealistic. Thankfully, Rucka follows it with an extended epilogue showcasing the investigative skills of both detectives, with Clemons' talents bringing the character on the right trail and concluding the issue on a high note.

The last two panels featuring Ozzy's switchblade perfectly round out the story, as they both call back to his story of the Punisher's tempering with the justice system when it comes to the Zum killer, as well as releasing the detective's pent up anger in a way that seems both threatening and methodical. Having affirmed his belief in his own abilities, Clemons slides the knife in for the last time, to symbolically proceed to tighten the net on the vigilante killer by using his mind as a weapon.

All this makes for a welcome change in the heavily plot-driven series, and serves as the showcase for both the character and the creators. If Rucka's "Punisher" was a TV series, "the String" would be the episode nominated for Oscar Clemons' performance, as realized through Lark and Gaudiano's spotless cinematography and actor direction. Following the "Omega effect" crossover, the reader can only hope that Rucka will feel inspired to turn out more issues at this level of quality.

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