PunisherMAX: Better in Black & White

by  in Comic News Comment
PunisherMAX: Better in Black & White

Some books simply demand the stark simplicity of no color, the absence of any warmth or hope. Steve Dillon’s stunningly beautiful artwork shines in black and white. Simultaneously, Jason Aaron creates an all-encompassing bleak world view for the inhabitants of the Punisher’s world. The PunisherMAX has little use for color.

I just finished reading Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s PunisherMAX volume 2: Bullseye (or issues #6-12 of the monthly comic book, for people smart enough to be buying this in single issues.) I knew I’d like it, the only reason I didn’t buy it as it came out monthly is because I started with trades, and once I start I can’t really switch. It shouldn’t matter, but it does, so I’m reading the trades. I would have expected to jump on each one as it came out, but life got on top of me, so I’d forgotten more of them were out after I read the stylish and unexpectedly heartbreaking first volume (PunisherMAX Volume 1: Kingpin.) Sounds sad that I could have let this excellent book be in the world without jumping on it as soon as possible, but sometimes life gets awfully distracting and the luxury of literary escapism just isn’t possible. Anyway, I finally got around to buying it this weekend, and read it in one sitting as soon as I got home. In fact, I went out specifically to buy it because once I realized that I had a free few hours, it was the first thing on my mind and I had to have it.

Aaron and Dillon continue their path, further examining the depressingly warped logic of the super villians of the Punisher’s world, this time focusing on Bullseye, without moving their unblinking gaze from the miserable car wreck that is the Kingpin’s developing existence. The stark, matter-of-fact storytelling reminds me of independent action movies from the mid 1960’s – late ’70’s, like the original Get CarterBonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, or Raging Bull, films loaded with atmosphere and unflinching tragedy.

The weird thing about Steve Dillon’s art is how clean and almost cartooney it is in contrast to the subject matter (please know that this is NOT intended as any kind of criticism) His approach to something as raw and heartbreakingly violent as Aaron’s writing is oddly cool and linear, which is a perfect fit for Frank Castle’s world view of detachment and ruthless judgement. Dillon’s visceral, detailed content combined with his cool, explicit style on Aaron’s PunisherMAX remind me a little of Jacen Burrows work on Alan Moore’s Neonomicon script, in that there is an almost diagrammatic approach, a total lack of titillation in the horror, which makes it that much more palatable. With each man’s art, you get the idea that they’ve deeply delved into the hideous, nightmare-filled script which the writer presented them with, and spun from these horrors intricate documentation of everything that happened, making it all that much easier for us to digest.

Now I think the coloring on the PunisherMAX is very nice. The colorist does an extremely good job, the colors are beautiful, the detail is fantastic, and everything is appropriately colored too. However, when you take a look at how harsh and raw the two black and white pages are in the back (there are two of Dillon’s own inked pages in the back of the book as part of the extra material), you know that this should be a black and white comic book. Everything about it screams black and white, from Castle’s totally inflexible view of right and wrong, to Aaron’s moody, sparse, film-noir dialogue. Everyone in this book is living in a miserable, broken version of their lives, things are as bad as they can be. There are no pretty colors for these people, not for a single character, their world view is a dismal, monochromatic half-life, wasted on seeking vengeance which can only hurt them more. Coloring the book in such clean, crisp colors is one way to limit the impact of such a horrific world-view, but mitigating the stark existence of these characters does a disservice to the authors and to the readers because it feels more like a marketing decision than a smart choice for the story itself. The idea that people need bright colors is a mistake the DC and Marvel often make, and it assumes that we need pretty colors more than we need a realistic story, that we care more about printing costs than content.

Neonomicon would also have worked without color, but the fact that it used the muddy coloring so common on horror comics made it that much less noticeable. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we use Vertigo-esque coloring on Dillion and Aaron’s PunisherMAX story, that would be completely inappropriate, but I do think that if it MUST have color (and I personally do not feel that it should, but I’m willing to entertain the idea, just for marketing purposes) it needed to have a much more aggressively monochromatic color treatment. E.g. a simple red wash over a page to indicate the badly lit interior of the Punisher’s safe house could have indicated not only the claustrophobic nature of the space, the tension and simmering rage in the scene as the characters moved through it. The current, literal color scheme makes emotional sense in a low key way throughout, but I think monochrome would have had more impact. Having said that, in the scenes where Bullseye is playing “happy families” (and for people who haven’t read it yet, I’m not going to spoil it by explaining what is happening there) the color is perfect. The spring-color palette used on those pages gives the art a spectacularly surreal quality, reminiscent of the opening scenes of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where the audience is introduced to the perfectly happy suburban homes, complete with white picket fence and Disney-esque song birds. But even in Blue Velvet, as the story devolves into madness and pain, the scenes are increasingly shot at night, with only poor reflected ambient lighting, which eventually devolves to a very basic color scheme of (logically) blue tones. (I realize that I’m making a lot of film references here, but I find that Aaron’s pacing and storytelling style lends itself as well to techniques of filmmaking as it does to comparisons with other comic books.)

My love of books like Love & Rockets, Optic Nerve, Guy Delisle‘s travelogues, and The Courtyard (to name just a few) isn’t simply based on quality, but also on the impact and sensitive treatment of the art. I’m happy to buy black and white comic books and it seems to me that I cannot be the only person who feels this way. This year’s Oscar winning film was not only black and white, but silent too. Surely it is time for comic book publishers to accept that there is a market for black and white comic books, particularly when the subject matter is a single-minded, judgmental, brutally violent, adult-targeted comic, which lends itself so perfectly to a monochromatic treatment.