D'Orazio Double Taps the Punisher

It's a good time to be a fan of Marvel Comics' Punisher. The Vietnam vet turned vigilante currently stars in two ongoing series with very different styles-"PunisherMax", from Marvel's mature reader's imprint, chronicles the title character's brutal exploits in a world that's grounded in reality and has no superheroes or supervillains, while "Punisher" chronicles Frank Castle's adventures in the fantastic world of the Marvel Universe.

In March ,writer Valerie D'Orazio, author of the acclaimed blog "Occasional Superheroine," serves up Punisher stories in both of these styles. In the one-shot "Punisher MAX: Butterfly," D'Orazio and artist Laurence Campbell ("Punisher MAX: Get Castle," "Moon Knight: Silent Knight") tell a tale of the Punisher's encounter with a hitwoman. Then, "Girl Comics" #1 features a short Marvel Universe set Punisher story by D'Orazio and artist Nikki Cook ("DMZ", "Comic Book Tattoo"). CBR News spoke with D'Orazio about both books.

CBR News: Valerie, what made you want to write Frank Castle? Are you a fan of the character? What aspects of the character intrigue you the most? Or are the two incarnations of Castle, Marvel U and MAX, interesting for different reasons?

Valerie D'Orazio: There was just something about Frank Castle that has always resonated with me. I even pitched a Punisher story to Marvel when I was a teenager. Honestly, I think it's because as a kid I felt intensely powerless. And the Punisher might seem like the biggest badass ever, but in that one moment when his family was killed he was the most powerless man in the entire world. And the rest of his life was then shaped by his reaction to that one moment. And I've never picked up a gun in my life, but writing has always been my weapon of choice. And my writing is my response to how it felt to be intensely powerless, it's a reaction to that feeling decades after the fact. And both the "Butterfly" one-shot and my story in "Girl Comics" #1 address those issues in different ways. I've always seen the Punisher in the MAX books as being a bit more of a terrifying force of nature than the Punisher of the Marvel U; one's an "angel of death" and one can be seen as some sort of superhero; I think my stories reflect that view.

In terms of plot and themes what is "Butterfly", your Punisher MAX one-shot, about?

A hitwoman named Butterfly wants to publish her tell-all memoirs about life in the Underworld. This obviously doesn't make her employers very happy, and they immediately set out to kill everybody related to the book. Butterfly's intentions with the book almost seem suicidal. Why is it so important to her for other people to read this book, even at the cost of everything else in her life? And how was Frank Castle the vital inspiration for her quixotic project?

And so that's the plot, this unflinching "Requiem For A Dream"-type descent into hell for this woman as she is on the run from the mob. At least, that was how I originally conceived the story to be. But there was this heart to the story - this vital core of humanity - that developed as I wrote "Butterfly" that just sort of took a life of its own. And I think in the end, it's that element that really makes the story unique & memorable. I joked that it was like "Goodfellas" meets "Good Will Hunting."

What can you tell me about the character of Butterfly? Is she just a supporting character in this story? Or does she share the spotlight with the Punisher?

It's really Butterfly's book, though Frank Castle always seems to be in the shadows lurking one way or another. Butterfly seems to have it all - she's glamorous, has lots of money, and a great girlfriend. But her life is a lie. She doesn't even feel "human" - and she's seemingly as coldblooded as hell. The only "real" thing she has going in her life is this memoir. And so she takes it to a book editor, Elliot Gates, to publish - and now he's the only other person who knows the "real" Butterfly. This puts Elliot in an incredibly dangerous position. But I guess you can say that he goes through incredible lengths to get this book in the hands of the public.

And so in the midst of all this gore and violence and really tragic stuff is this unlikely friendship between these two completely different people, this literal collision of different worlds. And until I added Elliot as a character for her to react against, I don't think Butterfly in my earlier drafts of the story seemed very human at all. In the first draft, she was actually a villain.

There have been so-called "female versions" of the Punisher before - and while Butterfly was not specifically conceived as a female analogue to Frank Castle, I think she comes pretty damn close just in terms of grit, determination, and perhaps just a hint of insanity. I like her, at any rate. She's the type of female protagonist I always wanted to find in my comics & movies, and I'm happy I had a chance to create her.

What's it like working with Laurence Campbell? What can fans expect from his art on this project?

Laurence's art on this book is jaw-droppingly visceral, detailed and beautiful. I've never met or talked to him before working on this project, but he was just so incredibly well-matched to the material. It was spooky how intuitive he was as to how I saw scenes and characters in my head. And Laurence just took the material to a whole new level - parallels between backgrounds, character movement, and the plot creating new dimensions and layers to the story. Just like a movie. He's definitely one of these artists that seems poised to just break out and be the next big thing in comics.

Punisher MAX stories usually feature a tone that mixes the hard hitting crime story with elements of black humor. Is that the case with "Butterfly"? Or is this a different type of Punisher MAX tale?

I think Butterfly's own running dialogue provides the black humor for this book. She can be in the absolute worst situation or refer to the most painful, horrible thing and just have this blase dry humor about it. There's just some things she says where it's like: "damn, this woman is COLD!" But I've been very influenced by the Garth Ennis/Quentin Tarantino school of black comedy and traumatic head wounds.

Now lets talk about your Punisher tale in "Girl Comics" #1. The presence of this character seems to indicate that this is an anthology that isn't just about female creators tackling female characters. How would you describe the mission statement of "Girl Comics"? What made you want to tell a Punisher story in this series?

When "Girl Comics" editor Jeanine Schaefer first approached me about this project, I immediately started wracking my brains thinking of some sort of "you go girl!" feminist story. And so I was like: "this is a story about the forgotten superheroine who got recognized and got a plaque recognizing her accomplishments, and everyone cried because it was just so meaningful." And it just felt very forced, me approaching this book with a set of preconceptions of what a women's anthology is "supposed" to be. Then Jeanine said the magic words: you know, that this book can be about any character I want, male or female. It's about female creators making comics, not specifically about "women's issues." And I liked that, and I immediately pitched another Punisher story because I figured, "why not?"

My whole adult life, I never thought I'd have a chance to write the Punisher. I was very cynical about it. You know, maybe I'd get to write comics about female characters, or whatnot. But certainly not about the most iconic male comic book action hero in the world. But when that door finally opened up for me, I just grabbed it. Women can write anything; they just need to have the affinity for it.

When is this story set? Does it take place in the Punisher's early days? During his recent vendetta against the Hood and Norman Osborn? Or is this a current tale featuring the Frankencastle incarnation of the Punisher?

This story is definitely set in the Marvel Universe, but it doesn't tackle any of the current storylines. It's more of like a snapshot; a poem starring Really Dangerous People and firearms.

What can you tell us about the plot and themes of your Punisher story in "Girl Comics" #1?

I don't want to spoil it, but let's just say the Punisher goes undercover in a very unusual fashion. In doing so, he literally identifies himself with victims in a way that's probably a little unsettling at first, then darkly humorous. I always see this story as the unofficial "footnote" or coda to the Punisher MAX "Butterfly" story, because the themes from both sort of intertwine with each other. I think if you are planning to get the "Butterfly" book, it's a must-buy to purchase the "Girl Comics" issue too.

What obstacles and adversaries do you throw at Frank Castle in this story?

Frank is up against the "banality of evil," basically. What if those grand psychotic villains that we love so much in comic books existed in "real life?" They may not prance around in garish multi-colored costumes and have a briefcase full of gimmicks. They may live next door to you, and you'd never know it. As a parallel, the Punisher always seemed to me a type of "super hero" who potentially lives in the "real world." He just needs weapons and a shirt with a skull on it. So what type of person would be his nemesis? The type that would blissfully floss his teeth as he prepares to go out and murder a child? The Patrick Batemans?

How would you describe the tone of your Punisher story in "Girl Comics" #1?

I've never seen "The Lovely Bones," but from reading about the movie and watching clips, I think there's definitely elements of that story in here. I've sometimes encountered the question, "what worth does a character like The Punisher have to female readers, or female issues?" I mean, how do you make a connection between that readership and this iconic "male" character with his big guns and Clint Eastwood type dialogue? And part of my answer to that is: in his own somewhat fanatical way, he's a defender of the innocent and avenger of the victim. I think men and women can both identify with that archetypal quality of the character. But also: I don't let the gender of a character stop me from identifying with him or her. There's this famous promotional still from the movie "The Spy Who Loved Me" with the Bond Girl posing behind Bond. Bond is pointing a gun at the camera. But the way the two are positioned, it looks like the Bond Girl is actually pointing the gun. It looks like she's reaching through Bond to point the gun herself. That sort of sums up my story in "Girl Comics."

And though I specifically tried to write a story sans "women's issues," it kind of crept up and got in there anyway. Just like that Bond Girl's gun.

What do you feel Nikki Cook, your collaborator on "Girl Comics" #1 brings to the story?

I've always been a big fan of the textured and organic style she's brought to her work for the Act-I-Vate webcomics collective and in her collaborations with Brian Wood. I really studied Nikki's artwork and then asked her if she'd be interested in doing the "Girl Comics" story with me. And then I wrote the script specifically for her. Her work on this Punisher story combines an intuitive grasp of the emotional lives behind each character with a raw, at times brutal honesty. That's what I really liked about it. Sometimes you see comic art where there's very little differentiation between facial expressions, like it's done with a cookie-cutter. Nikki tells a whole story in one face. But there is also just a way she draws everyday elements that we take for granted and makes them awesome, and really makes them part of the story. She's truly a powerful new vision on the mainstream comics scene that I'm sure we will see more from very soon.

Any other projects readers can expect from you in 2010? When we first chatted back in 2008 it was about a "Cloak and Dagger" mini-series that you were working on. Is that still in the works? Or have you moved on to other projects?

I certainly haven't closed the door forever on "Cloak & Dagger," but at the moment I'm focusing on other projects. Marvel Comics has given me incredible encouragement and support to pursue my lifelong dream of being a professional comic book writer. But not only that, they have taken a special interest to make sure that what has made me unique and widely popular as a blog writer translates to comics.

I have an X-Men project that I'm finishing up, and I think when it's revealed what character I'm working on, it will be kinda neat to see the reaction. I certainly don't want to be pigeon-holed writing just complex female characters, but by the same token I do seem to have an affinity for them. And this particular character is the mother of all complex female characters. I wrote a prose story for Moonstone's "Chicks In Capes" anthology about another new edgy female superhero, called Nightingale. Of course: she has to be a killer nurse named Gail. See, I know my classic superhero tropes. "Chicks In Capes" I think is supposed to come out on the Spring of 2010.

There's an upcoming Munden's Bar story for ComicMix that I did with Martha Thomases in which I, as "Occasional Superheroine," kinda play myself. OK, that's really meta, I'm getting confused now. And I'm currently working on an article for an upcoming Marvel Magazine on female villains called "Bring On The Bad Girls!" Between that and other stuff I prepping to pitch, I'm pretty busy.

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