The Unfinished 1991 Punisher graphic novel by Greg Wright & Jim Lee

You gotta admit that in the late '80s/early '90s, Frank Castle, best known to aficionados of brutality as The Punisher, was all the rage in comics, having three hugely successful monthly series, along with an orgy of specials and guest appearances throughout the Marvel line. During that time, the most popular Punisher artist was Jim Lee, who went from lowly “Alpha Flight” [#51, 53, 55-62, 64, Oct. ’87 - Nov. '88] to becoming an industry sensation with his energetic art on “Punisher War Journal” [#1-19, Nov. ’88 - June '90]. Inevitably, Lee would be promoted onto “Uncanny X-Men” for a heralded 10-issue run [#267-277. Sept. ’90 - June '91] that would revitalize the mutant team. The heat generated from “Uncanny” allowed Marvel to expand, and Lee got his own book, titled simply “X-Men.” The first issue of “X-Men” [Oct. '91] with its five variant covers, sold eight million copies, giving Lee the financial freedom to create comics of his own through the company he co-founded, Image Comics.


Now somewhere during “Uncanny” and the adjectiveless “X-Men” title, Marvel made an announcement that Jim Lee would pencil and ink his final Punisher tale: a 64-page hardcover entitled “Rules of the Game” and scheduled for August of 1991. If the graphic novel isn’t in your collection, don’t fret… The project never came to fruition despite the fact the book was roughly drawn, half of the script completed, and Lee had close to 20 pages inked. For this article, we able to get some insight into this lost gem from the project’s writer, Gregory Wright, in 2004, who also wrote “Deathlok,” “Morbius,” and “Daredevil” for Marvel, and is one of the top colorists in comics.


Wright recalled the gist of “Games,” “[Nick] Fury and the Punisher form an uneasy alliance when they cross swords trying to take down the same enemy for different purposes. This enemy leads to the larger foe Fury is after, who also has a nasty past with the Punisher. The bad guy was named Maddox, and he was the leader of a group called the Blackhearts. The idea was to create as much tension between Fury and Punisher as possible. This gave us the opportunity to have several very brutal and surprising fight scenes between the two. While they did want essentially the same end result, they had very different reasons and wanted some very different… um… punishments… Jim and I were trying for a dark noir-ish fell, amped-up with spectacular action sequences and tense character interaction.”


Looking back on the collaboration between Lee and himself, Wright elaborated, “I had the initial idea of the two characters going after the same foe for different reasons, which would lead them to clash frequently while having to work together. Jim and I had several sit-downs to hash out the characters and sequences. Jim and his friend Brandon Choi had come up with a really cool bad guy named Blackheart that they wanted to use, so he became the villain of the piece. Jim and Brandon had come up with a whole history for the character which made its way into the story. Jim and I sent rough plots and corrections back and forth for a while so all of our ideas would get integrated. I did the final plots stringing together all the different ideas we had come up with and created an actual story. Fortunately, Jim was actually staying in New York near me at the time, so it was easy to collaborate. Once we had the plot, Jim sat down and started doing rough breakdowns of all the pages. He and I then went back and forth, revising some sequences until he had done a rough of the entire 62 pages. Even in rough form, these were awesome. The project really would have showcased just how good Jim really is as a storytelling artist. I then went to the task of scripting pages.”

After all the work they had done already, I asked Wright if the book’s cancellation was frustrating. “The project was never halted,” Wright retorted. “It was never actually scheduled, so we could take our time and do a great job. Marvel knew this one was going to make a ton of money. The problem was that Jim was overwhelmed with covers and 'X-Men’ work before he had gotten this project finished. No one wanted to give Jim Lee an ultimatum, as he was an incredibly valuable talent for Marvel. Jim was allowed to take whatever time he needed to do the project. Time just slipped away and both Jim and I kept working on it, but when you are the 'X-Men’ artist, you don’t get much time to work on other projects. And then Jim went on to help form Image and the project just sort of went into limbo. That was really disappointing because it was a great project I really loved and Jim was doing some of his best work ever on it. Jim and I have talked about finishing it on several occasions, and a couple different Marvel editors tried to finish the project, but to no avail. I maintain the project shouldn’t be done without Jim. And now Jim’s affiliated with DC, so who knows if or when he could ever even consider finishing it.”

As you can see from the terrific art accompanying these words, this graphic novel would have definitely been something to gaze at in awe. For its writer it remains a story he has left to tell. “I would need to go back and rework some of the plot and dialogue,” says the scribe, “but it would be sweet to see it completed!”

[Special thanks to Gregory Wright for talking with me. This story originally appeared in “Comic Book Artist” magazine #4 (vol. 2). The next installment of “Land of Lost Tales” is all-new, and features my favorite heroine.]

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