The latest “Punisher” iteration seems to be finding a happy medium between the grim MAX series and the goofier “Punisher War Journal,” as Frank Castle is smack dab in the middle of the Marvel Universe, but possesses a serious attitude with villains played up as actual threats instead of walking punch lines. There’s still an element of fun here, though, with the odd little moment of cool goofiness like the Shaolin Scientist Squad, a group of Chinese doctors charged with harvesting organs.
The Punisher continues to work on taking down all of Norman Osborn’s underground criminal ties, mostly hitting “businesses” run by the Hood. Over in “New Avengers,” Brian Michael Bendis has worked hard to make the Hood a legitimate heir to the Kingpin and, I think, has succeeded, but an appearance like this helps a great deal. Since the Kingpin was a villain for not just Spider-Man and Daredevil, but the Punisher also, having the man who’s taken his place set his sights on Frank lends weight to the Hood’s role in Marvel’s New York.
While Remender’s use of the Hood is quite good, his use of the Punisher isn’t nearly as confident. Given a new partner to handle the intel and technological side, Frank comes off here as little more than a mindless thug rather than the driving force behind the attacks on the Hood’s establishment. With Henry constantly feeding him information and telling him what to do, the Punisher loses a lot of the autonomy and skill he already possesses. What’s more, he seems content to be nothing more than a weapon someone else points.
As technology advances, it makes sense that the Punisher would want someone to handle that element for him, but it rings false in its current incarnation. It’s little more than Henry telling Frank want to do, which isn’t the Punisher fans are used to.
Remender’s ability to walk that fine line between bleak seriousness and absurdity is helped greatly by Jerome Opena, whose art is gritty and detailed, and, honestly, would look perfectly at home on the MAX book. This style lends gravity to characters like the Hood and even the Punisher himself, making their costumes fit into the world around them. Dan Brown’s muted colors work well with Opena’s art, not quite descending into mid-’90s Vertigo bleak, but still less flamboyant and bright than most superhero comics. Their work on the Hood’s interrogation/killing of his men is graphic yet understated, again trying to push the limits of the violence a comic like this would necessitate, but not go far. It’s a hard act to pull off, but Opena and Brown manage it.
While the goofy and comedic “Punisher War Journal” didn’t quite work, “Punisher” succeeds with a more serious tone akin to “Daredevil” or the MAX book. Remember, Opena and Brown are a great team (see “Fear Agent”), working harmoniously, but the book suffers from the lack of its strong protagonist with the Punisher presented more as a thug-for-hire than the driven vigilante we’re used to.