Cover by Esad Ribic
The vigilantes of Marvel Comics each have their own style and method for fighting crime, but none of them are as extreme as the gun toting ex-Marine known as the Punisher (AKA Frank Castle), who uses his military skills to wage a one man war against crime. In the Punisher stories published by Marvel's mature readers' imprint, MAX, the character is the only vigilante of his world so his war on crime is even more brutal and focused.
He began that war shortly after returning home from the Vietnam War when his was family was murdered by organized crime, and he waged it all the way up to his recent death in the final issue of writer Jason Aaron's "PunisherMAX" series. The real time nature of the Punisher's war means there are plenty of battles readers know nothing about. This August, Edgar Award-winning novelist Megan Abbott makes her comics debut as she sheds light on of Castle's unrevealed exploits in "Untold Tales of the Punisher MAX" #3, featuring an art by Matteo Buffagni ("Daken: Dark Wolverine," "Captain America"). CBR News spoke with Abbott about her contribution to the miniseries and her previous work on an unpublished graphic novel from DC Comics' now defunct Vertigo Crime imprint.
Many future comic writers started as comic readers. Growing up, Abbott was the same, only instead of following the adventures of larger than life super heroes she preferred the exploits of All-American teenager Archie Andrews and the other citizens of the fictional town known as Riverdale.
"I was pretty addicted to 'Archie' comics. I'd read some of its extended universe -- 'Sabrina,' 'Josie and the Pussycats,' even 'Richie Rich' -- but Riverdale was my obsession from about ages four through eight or nine," Abbott told CBR News with a laugh. "My parents still have all my comics in the attic of their house. So that was my abiding fixation and my main experience. I did read some superhero comics but none of them quite sang to me the way 'Archie' did, which is so strange to me now because I have always tended towards the dark and, at the same age, I was a devotee of gangster movies. Maybe it's the 'Blue Velvet' quality; everything always seemed so perfect for them. You wondered what lie beneath."
Years later, Abbott would rediscover her love for comics when she was introduced to Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' creator owned series "Criminal." She especially enjoyed the recently concluded, Eisner Award-winning "Criminal: Last of the Innocent" miniseries because it was a noir story that paid homage to and satirized the conventions of "Archie" comics.
"'Criminal' was what hooked me. Someone told me I had to read Ed's stuff. So I started with 'Criminal' and now I'm loving what Ed and Sean are doing in 'Fatale,'" Abbott said. "Ed and I have become pals. So it's been a great experience. He was really helpful in talking me through this project."
Brubaker asked Abbott to submit a piece for the back matter features in "Criminal," which appeared in the second issue of "Last of the Innocent." "There's an ongoing feature in the back pages where different writers discuss their influences and I did one on the TV show 'In Search Of.' Sean Phillips did an illustration for it and to have him illustrate something I wrote was thrilling," Abbott said "He provided this unbelievably exquisite drawing. Visually he's so masterful. It's like he goes into the 16th chamber inside all noir lovers brains and finds what's there somehow," the writer joked.
Because of her friendship with Brubaker and several crime writers who had crossed over into comics, including Duane Swierczynski and Jason Starr, Abbott got an inside look at the story telling possibilities comic books offer writers, which made her want to try her hand at the medium. "I definitely was intrigued by the idea and when I write my novels I think in terms of visuals because I'm so influenced by movies. So I always thought I could maybe do it at some point because I often think of movie scenes when I write," Abbott remarked. "In my book 'Queenpin' there are a couple of scenes directly inspired by 'Goodfellas.' So I thought if I tried writing comics some day that I could maybe draw on that. But it did seem like a big leap to me though and I wasn't sure. I thought I would just wait until the opportunity arose. Then it did."
The opportunity came when DC Comics tapped Abbott and author Alison Gaylin to write a graphic novel for their now defunct Vertigo Crime line. "The book we came up with was called 'Normandy Gold,' but because they discontinued the line it never got to the artist stage," Abbott explained. "It was basically a story about a female vigilante in the '70s. It's set in Washington DC and is inspired by a lot of conspiracy movies from that era, like 'Parallax View.' There's a 'Taxi Driver' vibe, with a little bit of 'Death Wish' thrown in -- but with a really kick-ass woman at the center of it.
"She becomes a vigilante in the Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry vein. So that experience prepared me a little bit for this," Abbott continued. "I didn't feel like I was totally plunging into dark waters. Through that, [editor] Jeanine Schaefer at Marvel found me."
The other thing that helped Abbott prepare to write the Punisher was the work she did for her non-fiction book, "The Street Was Mine," which takes a scholarly look at the protagonist in classic mid-century crime fiction. "In that book I look at the tough guys of hard boiled fiction and film noir; the loners. The Punisher feels like a natural extension of that figure, the place where the loner tough guy eventually ends up. When a character realizes that there's nothing they can do in a corrupt system often the next stage for them is to become a vigilante," Abbott said. "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer is maybe the pivot point. He's practically a vigilante because he kills so many people and is pretty remorseless."
When many writers start tackling the Punisher they fall in love with the character's straightforward and uncomplicated nature, Abbott was no exception. "I think that was always the appeal to the tough guy crime fiction character for me too. I think in part it's this deeply American thing. It seems to go back to the western outlaw. It feels like somebody who's damaged and at one point things could have gone differently, but fate intervenes. That's something we always see in noir. Then that damage leads them into all kinds of places," Abbott remarked. "So he's such a rich character with seemingly endless possibilities. He's been taken into all kinds of eras and interacted with all kinds of characters. There's something in him that's eternal. He's not tied to time or place.
The real time nature of the Punisher's war on crime in the MAX line means stories with him can take place in a variety of times and locations. For her story in 'Untold Tales of the Punisher MAX' #3, Abbott chose to take Frank Castle to a mysterious and deceptively tranquil locale, the suburbs.
"I wanted to drop Frank into a world where he would never belong. So the story starts in the sunny suburbs. Then it progressively goes into a darker and darker place," Abbott explained.
Frank Castle enters the suburban jungle in search of prey that's blending into its surroundings via the camouflage of respectability. "I was inspired a lot by the protagonists in Jim Thompson's crime novels. They're often complicated, disturbed men, hiding in plain sight," Abbott said. "The story is about a man with a secret that haunts him. There's almost this biblical aspect to the story where a person has committed a crime, a sing, and eventually it's going to be revisited upon them. In classic noir fashion, the past is never in the past. There's always that rear view mirror and the bad things you did are always going to return. You just never know when, and in this case they return in the form of the Punisher."
In Abbott's story readers will see the Punisher from the perspective of his prey. Both Frank Castle and his antagonist's circumstances will have frightening and surreal qualities to them.
"Frank emerges at the end of the storyl; he takes us from one tone to another," Abbott remarked. "The first part has an almost dream like quality to it, but you know something bad is going to happen. I tried to create a old-school Grimm's Fairy Tale feel to the whole story."
Artist Matteo Buffagni was tasked with bringing Abbott's story to life and the writer feels her collaborator has done a fantastic job. "Matteo seems to have somehow captured the very images I had in my head when I wrote the story," Abbott remarked. "Dark, lush, mysterious, harrowing. Wow. I couldn't have hoped for a better rendering."
Abbott enjoyed penning the script to "Untold Tales of the Punisher MAX" #3 and would love the chance to write more comic scripts, especially if they feature a company-owned character. "Even though all the issues in this series are stand-alone, self-contained stories it's a little intimidating to take a character that almost anyone who reads comics knows better than me. I think one of the reasons I was asked to do this story was to bring a different perspective to the character," Abbott explained. "But it would also be exciting to learn a 'bible' of a character and pick their story up. I would love to drop myself into a world that's already been created and try to move the story along and be part of some larger story with other writers."
Abbott has also entertained the idea of working on a creator-owned comic, but her day job as a novelist takes precedence. Her latest novel, "Dare Me," was published July 31, and she's already hard at work on her next prose project.
"I would love to write a creator-owned comic, but the problem is I'm supposed to be writing books," Abbott said with a laugh. "I feel the lure when I look at the creative stuff Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are doing in books like 'Fatale' where they're merging noir with horror. Mixing genres and shaking things up and building whole universes. That is definitely tantalizing.
"I'm back to books for now though," Abbott continued. "We'll see if something happens with 'Normandy Gold' and then maybe I'll get sucked back in."
For more on Megan Abbott visit her official website.