As readers of Marvel's Punisher know all too well, writer Garth Ennis concludes his character-defining run with this July's issue #59. Of course, prior to launching the relentlessly grim and famously ultra-violent MAX version of the title in 2004, Ennis wrote the character for many years, beginning with 1999's comedic, Steve Dillon-illustrated Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank. Ennis continued later with a 37-issue series set in a similarly humorous vein, a run that when combined with his lauded 59 issues of Punisher makes the already inimitable Ennis one of if not the preeminent Frank Castle author of the character's thirty-year history.
With the climactic "Valley Forge, Valley Forge" arc being literally drawn to a rapid close, fans are quite understandably asking who could possibly dare to follow such an illustrious tenure on the now-classic title?
Marvel has an answer: no one. Try three.
Gregg Hurwitz, Duane Swierczynski and Victor Gischler are three writers known to Marvel fans for their work across the publisher's line -- and to even larger audiences as crime novelists, each with their own unique spin on the genre - and series editor Axel Alonso's betting they're more than capable of administering the proper dosage of Frank Castle vengeance to Punisher's loyal fans.
"I had so many good candidates, I figured why pick one?" Alonso told CBR News. "Gregg, Duane and Victor are original voices in crime fiction -- in the case of Duane and Victor, their books straddle genres. And while none of them have Garth's profile in the comics market, each of these writers is a damned good and came up with a killer hook for their story. That's what matters most." Beginning in August's issue #60 and continuing for fifteen months, these three writers will in turn assume command of the MAX flagship, producing three self-contained five-issue story arcs. "These three stories maintain the overall flavor of Ennis's run -- fast-paced, ultra-violent, and gritty," Alonso said. "Frank Castle is still your best option in a compassionless world - but each story also displays the unique skills of each writer."
First up is Gregg Hurwitz's "Girls In White Dresses," serialized through August to December in Punisher #60-#65. The author of the best-selling crime novels The Kill Clause and The Crime Writer, Hurwitz made his comics debut last year with Wolverine Special: The Deathsong of Patrick Smitty and Foolkiller. The story will be illustrated by Laurence Campbell, who Punisher fans no doubt recall from his work on Punisher Special: The Hunted.
"My story is sort of a take on the Western tradition, with The Seven Samurai mixed in," Gregg Hurwitz told CBR News. "[It's set] in an industrial town in Mexico, a lot of girls and young women are disappearing. The townsfolk feel utterly powerless, and their last-ditch effort is to pool their resources and send one guy north to find the Punisher."
Regarding his murderous main character, Hurwitz said, "For me, the Punisher begins at Central Park. And even though Frank has evolved (or devolved?) into a reflection of the blackness he confronts, he also carries a deep-buried pain everywhere he goes. It's so deep that he may not even recognize it anymore, because he's always turned it into the emotion that's easiest for him to access - rage. And so that, to me, represents the mathematics of Frank Castle: pain to hate, hate to action."
Following Hurtwitz's arc will be January, 2009's "Six Hours To Kill," serialized through May in Punisher #66-#70 and written by Duane Swierczynski, the author of several crime-thrillers including Severence Package and Alonso's favorite, The Blonde. In comics, Swierczynski has signed an exclusive contract with Marvel, and writes a book some CBR readers may have heard of, called "Cable," and also penned the one-shot Punisher: Force of Nature, which many agree came with the most spectacular cover seen on comics stands in years.
"I've been a Punisher fan since I was teenager, when I first read Steve Grant's 'Circle of Blood," Swierczynski told CBR News. "But it's only since becoming a father that I've really started to connect with the character. Not that I think becoming a vigilante is the answer to life's tragedies, but I can certainly understand the impulse.
"Some have described Frank Castle as a 'moral vacuum,' but Axel Alonso and I don't see him that way. He does have a fierce moral code, and everything he does springs from the experience of having an emotional shock so great, his emotions burned themselves out. You could see it as being emotionless, but you could also see it as a survival mechanism. It's kind of admirable, in a twisted way. And that's the thing that really appeals to me"watching damaged goods like Frank Castle operate, strategize, act."
"Six Hours To Kill" finds Frank Castle injected with a slow-acting poison. Alonso explained, "The bad news: He's got just six hours to live. The good news: That's plenty of time to kill."
Swierczynski didn't want to reveal much, but did say, "I'm getting the chance to play with one of my favorite thriller conventions: the ticking clock. And I'm going to be dropping Frank into a place I know very, very well. "
"Force of Nature" artist Michael Lacombe is creating artwork for the story, and he has a big fan in Swierczynski. "I was absolutely thrilled when he signed on to do this arc," the writer said. "The experience has been great. We email quite a bit"fine-tuning sequences, kicking around ideas, selecting weapons. Michel's style is perfect for the story we have in mind, too, which is hyper-violent and frantic, but also very noir. He's very gifted at drawing characters who are in way over their heads. Of which there are plenty in this story."
The last planned arc, "Welcome To The Bayou," starts in June, 2009's Punisher #71 and runs through #75. The story is written by Victor Gischler, who makes his comics debut this July with Punisher Special: Little Black Book. Gischler's novels include Gun Monkeys, Pistol Poets and Shotgun Opera. Laughed Alonso, "He knows a thing or two about guns."
"We're taking Frank to the steamy, Louisiana bayou," Gischler told CBR News. "Things get a little macabre in a deep-fried sort of way. Sort of Deliverance meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And naturally, there are a few surprises along the way."
Interestingly, the illustrator of "Welcome To The Bayou" is longtime Punisher pillar Goran Parlov. "Once you see the setup for the story -- you'll know why," Alonso said. "Traveling the Louisiana back roads with something awful stored in his trunk, Frank stops at a service station on the edge of the bayou… and steps into a world of unspeakable depravity. Meet the Geautreauxs."
"Punisher is great because he's so straight-forward," said Gischler. "There's an unwavering commitment and confidence to what he does. There's often a purity to simple, direct action, and this is what Punisher does best." As some have suspected, joining Ennis in the annals of Punisher history is venerable cover artist Tim Bradstreet. Alonso confirmed, "Tim rides off into the sunset for the time being, though I seriously doubt it's the last you'll see of him. But the good news is that the new cover artist is the ultra-talented Dave Johnson -- and let me tell you, he is inspired. It's been seven or eight years since we started up 100 Bullets together, so there's a heck of a lot of dejÃ vu going on."
Indeed, Punisher is a kind of nexus point for Alonso, who developed with Garth Ennis the writer's other, even more distinctly dark and violent work, Preacher. "It's been a pleasure," said Alonso. "I've been working with Garth for more than a decade now, and it never gets old. The Punisher was tailor-made for him, and it shows. Hell, I was an editor at Vertigo back when Joe [Quesada] and Jimmy [Palmiotti] got Garth and Steve to do Welcome Back, Frank, and I was, like, "Mother^&%^s -- that was my plan!" Punisher #60, beginning Gregg Hurwitz and Laurence Campbell's "Girls In White Dresses" storyline, goes on sale in August.
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