EXCLUSIVE: Guggenheim Takes the Stand in "Trial of the Punisher"

The Marvel Universe is home to many mass-murderers, but not all of them are villains. In fact one of the most aggressive killers in the Marvel Universe doesn't target heroes or innocents -- his prey are hardened criminals. I'm of course talking about former Marine turned gun-toting anti-hero Frank Castle AKA the Punisher.

Over the years, thousands of criminals have perished in Castle's unrelenting war on crime, but what would happen if the Punisher suddenly surrendered to the police and admitted to murdering a New York District Attorney? And why would he do such a thing? "Arrow" showrunner and comic book writer Marc Guggenheim makes his triumphant return to Marvel this September in the two-issue miniseries, "Punisher: Trial of the Punisher," illustrated by Leinil Yu and Mico Suayan to explore these questions and Frank's ongoing war on crime. CBR News spoke with Guggenheim about the project and how it feels to put the vigilante on trial, and just how his law degree comes in handy when writing this type of story.

CBR News: Marc it's been about three years since your last work for Marvel. How does it feel to be back working with them?

Marc Guggenheim: I've really been wanting to get back into the fold for some time now. I've missed working with Marvel. I've missed this particular universe. So it's really great.

I've been working with Mark Paniccia, who I didn't get to work with during my first run at Marvel. He's really an outstanding editor and is a huge part of why this project is finally moving forward.

It sounds like you came back to Marvel to do a story that involves a background and skills that some readers might not be aware you have, your law degree. Is that correct?

Yeah, it's always fun to exercise and revisit those muscles. I'm not only an attorney, I'm also a big fan of the legal drama genre. I love television shows like "L.A. Law," and "Picket Fences" and the works of writers like Scott Turrow and John Grisham.

So it's always fun to deploy my legal background, and it makes my parents very happy because they think on some level all those years at law school as an attorney were wasted. [Laughs] So I like to occasionally prove them wrong.

It feels like you kicked off a trend of comic book writers with legal degrees. Marjorie Liu started writing for Marvel shortly after you did, and Charles Soule recently went from writing some indie books to penning titles for both DC Comics and Marvel.

Well my big source of inspiration when I was growing up was Bill Mantlo, who was the first lawyer turned comic book writer. I was in awe of his writing before I found out he was an attorney. I was very young at the time, but that really spoke to me because I could feel myself even at a young age being torn between following a path to law or writing comics. Learning about him was the first time I realized it was possible to actually do both. That's one of the many reasons I'm such a huge Bill Mantlo fan.

You're no stranger to dark, street level vigilantes considering your "day job" these days as a writer and executive producer for the CW Network's "Arrow." Plus you pen the "Arrow" digital-first comic for DC. What's it like writing the Punisher though? Have you written the character before?

No, I've never written the Punisher before and it was a lot of fun. He's a character that was very much in my wheelhouse, and this project was written before "Arrow" was even a glimmer in our eyes. I think the two characters share a lot of similarities, obviously, and with this two issue miniseries that hits right before the premiere of "Arrow" Season Two -- and within a couple of weeks of the release of the first trade of the "Arrow" comic series -- it all feels very synergistic even though it was not planned this way at all.

You mentioned you've been having a lot of fun writing the Punisher and it seems like every writer I talk to who's writing the character for the first time comes away loving Frank Castle. Was that the case with you as well?

Oh yeah. This script was really a joy to write. Full disclosure though, this project was set up a number of years ago. It was actually my third comic book script. I did two issues of "Aquaman" and this was my first project for Marvel.

It was so great to write this character as my first Marvel project because his voice was so easy to get. I think in part that's because he's been written by some really great writers with a really specific voice. Writers like Mike Baron, Garth Ennis, and Chuck Dixon came up with a very clear voice for the character, especially his internal monologue, which I think almost everyone uses when they write the Punisher. I know I certainly do.

It was also fun to writer a character who is so clear in his purpose. Frank is a very unencumbered character and his trajectory is a straight line. There's no navel gazing or doubt. He's basically a force of nature and it's always fun to write a character like that. You'd probably have to look to Batman to find a character with as clear a purpose. This isn't to say that Frank is a simple or simplistic character. He's just a very clear one.

Let's talk about the events that put this Marvel Universe set story in motion. From what I understand it kicks off with Frank voluntarily surrendering himself to the NYPD?

Yeah, it's a really fun cold open. The Punisher is carrying a duffel bag and he walks straight into a police precinct station house. He dumps the duffel bag on the floor and unzips it. Inside is the body of a district attorney and the Punisher reveals that he's responsible for the murder and that he's surrendering himself.
So right from the opening pages we're wondering, "What the holy heck is going on here?" And I think as far as cold opens go it's one of the best I've written. From that point forward we're on this rocket ride, and I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that Frank is playing a very dangerous game. The method to his madness won't become clear until the final few pages, at least that's my hope.

In between that cold open and the reveal of his ultimate plan we really get a chance to explore what happens when the Punisher stands trial. The raison d'etre of the story is to put the Punisher on trial for his crimes and see new aspects of the character through the eyes of not just the lawyers, but all the witnesses, whose ranks will include Matt Murdock. We also make some fun use of flashbacks to see some previously unexplored moments in the Punisher's history.

The Punisher will need some legal representation for his trial. Can you tease anything about the lawyer that will defend Frank?

He's represented by a hard-nosed public defender named Lisa Santos. She's a character I've used before. She appeared in issue #3 of my "Blade" series and my second Jackpot story for "Amazing Spider-Man," which was collected in the "Spider-Man: New York Stories" trade paperback.

Whenever I write for Marvel and I have a need for a defense attorney and Matt Murdock is unavailable or doesn't work for the story, Lisa is my go to character. I guess you could say she's my own minuscule contribution to a corner of the Marvel Universe.

Is "Trial of the Punisher" primarily a mystery/court room thriller? Applying that genre to the Punisher likely makes the story more character-driven than plot-driven, correct? Ultimately I'd imagine this story is about how the legal system views Frank Castle's actions.

Exactly. There's certainly a question of "is he insane? Can someone on this kind of crusade be considered sane in the eyes of the law?"

So there is a lot of character exploration. I think that's one of the fun aspects of the story. Like I said, though, we're also using flashbacks and those scenes will satisfy our action quotient.

I'm always very cognizant in my comic book writing of avoiding pure talking heads. Comics is a visual and action based medium. So you've always got to balance the talking heads stuff, which I really enjoy writing, with cool visuals and action because that's the bread and butter of comics, especially super hero ones. So we definitely have both in this two-parter.

You mentioned Matt Murdock would be a witness in "Trial of the Punisher." Can you talk about who some of the other witnesses might be? Is this a story with room for other heroes and any of Frank's still living enemies?

I was a little afraid of making it a parade of familiar characters. I was concerned that it would almost come off too much like a roast. So I limited myself to Matt Murdock mainly because he's the Marvel Universe hero that I feel has the strongest connection to the Punisher.

Pretty much every one else in the story are original characters who are paradigms, quite frankly, for perhaps some more familiar characters or more typical characters that we've seen in the Punisher stories of the past.

Since this was a project that's been in the works for some time I imagine you had to give it a sort of "evergreen" new reader friendly feel, which meant not using characters from recent Punisher runs like Henry Russo from Rick Remender's run or Rachel Cole Alves from Greg Rucka's run. Is that correct?

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to use those characters. Before this project came to Mark Paniccia it was on the desk of a variety of different editors and I would always revisit it whenever a new editor got the project and I would make changes to reflect current continuity. Then the book would be put on hold and the continuity sort of moved past us as continuity is wont to do.

In my most recent draft, I made it a pure evergreen story, which I think works to its benefit because it provides something of a timeless quality. Plus, it makes the story accessible to readers who are perhaps more intermittent Punisher fans. And to be completely frank, my hope is that fans of "Arrow" will come to this story fresh and I want to make it accessible for them. They might be pure television fans or pure DC fans and they might not be as familiar with Frank Castle. So it just made sense to make this a very new reader-friendly evergreen story.

You're working with Leinil Yu on the first issue of "Trial of the Punisher" and Mico Suayan on issue #2. What do you feel these guys bring to the story as artists?

I think Leinil has done some of the best work of his career and that's really saying something because he's such a phenomenal artist. I think Leinil's style works best on stories that allow his very expressive character work and his dynamic panel layouts to really shine. One of the cool things about this project is Leinil did full pencils and we're working off those full pencils. There are no inks to get in the way of his vision and what you see on the page. It's really gorgeous work.

Then Leinil handpicked Mico to do our second issue, and Mico is also doing incredibly great work. His style perfectly meshes with Leinil's. So you feel a real sense of continuity. He's also working in full pencils. Completely coincidentally, Mico had done one of the chapters of the "Arrow" tie-in comic, so there's another "Arrow" connection there.

Who's coloring Mico and Leinil's work?

Sunny Gho is our colorist and he's really terrific. His colors are very cinematic in that they are muted in a way similar to Wally Pfister's cinematography in a Christopher Nolan movie. I never intended for the story to be Nolan-esque when I wrote it, but it has that feel to it, I think, which is cool.

"Punisher: Trial of the Punisher" runs two issues, but after that where can fans of your writing go to get their fix? I know you've got the "Arrow" show and comic, but are there any other comic or movie and television projects in your immediate future that you can or can't talk about?

I wrote the "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" movie, which is in theaters August 7. I'm really excited for that. It turned out phenomenally well.

I'm also talking with Marvel about some additional projects, but nothing I can talk about at the moment. And, as always, I've got some secret projects -- in and out of comics -- that haven't been announced yet. I like to keep busy.

Also dropping in September is the first trade of our "Arrow" comic, and we're working really hard to make that a great package. It includes the free issue that we released at the San Diego Comic-Con that I don't think a lot of people got to see because it wasn't published as a monthly the way all the other chapters were. It laid the foundation for stuff that only paid off in the finale. So in that story, you really get a chance to see how deep the layers go in terms of planning.

Also, I just finished writing an "Adventures of Superman" story. It's a three-part digital comic that Joe Bennett is drawing and inking. He's doing an amazing job with it. I'm really excited about that story. It's about Superman returning to Krypton. It's a really fun, self contained, new reader-friendly Superman story.

"Punisher: Trial of the Punisher" #1 goes on sale in September.

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