Ah, the Annual. Once upon a time, these were special, oversized "events" in which you'd get "novel-length adventures" or "classic tales from yesteryear" (I may be making that last phrase up, but it sounds right). Then, they became glorified, or not even glorified, inventory issues that had little, if any, bearing on the series they were affiliated with.
They've kind of stayed that way for a while, even though Marvel and DC spent much of the 1990s trying to make Annuals matter again ("Atlantis Attacks" was pretty great, right? And "Bloodlines" gave us...Hitman.), before cutting back on Annual in the early years of the 2000's.
So here we are with "Punisher Annual" #1, which is certainly not the first "Punisher" annual, but it's Rick Remender's first "Punisher Annual," so I guess he gets to start with a clean slate. Which is fair, because his take on the character is fresh and funny and just about the best thing Frank Castle has seen since Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon decided to make theirs Marvel Knights.
Nevertheless, this Annual is a step down from the ongoing Remender series. It's still good. It's still worth reading. And it's still as deliriously ridiculous and darkly vicious as the regular "Punisher," but it has two problems that the ongoing doesn't: Jason Pearson and interlude-itis.
Now I never thought I'd say Jason Pearson was a problem on any comic book series. The guy can draw circles around 95% of the pros working today, and I love his stuff. There's a page in "Punisher Annual" #1 -- a page of Frank Castle flying above the cityscape with pumpkin bombs strapped to his chest and a frightened grimace on his face -- that's one of the best Punisher images ever. But his often-madcap illustrations are too tonally similar to Rick Remender's madcap story here. And that makes the drawings too on-the-nose.
One of the things that make the regular "Punisher" series work so well is that Jerome Opena and Tan Eng Huat have styles that contrast with Remender's absurdist tone. Opena's gritty etchings and Huat's angular savagery make Remender's "Punisher" a dark and twisted, yet uncomfortably hilarious, ride. Pearson makes the Annual a yuck-fest, and instead of amplifying the effect, it just makes it crass. It's like the comic is laughing at its own jokes in this story, at least some of the time.
And since it's little more than an interlude in the main plot (former Scourge victims trying to kill Frank Castle, as Frank Castle tries to track down and kill the Hood and Norman Osborn), none of the gags amount to much in the way of story progress. It's basically an extended chase scene in the middle of a larger narrative, and even though the chase scene has a few laughs -- not the least of which are at the expense of one Peter Parker, Spider-Man -- it's still closer to an inventory story than it is to something that feels like an essential part of Remender's "Punisher" saga.
Still, it's Rick Remender on the Punisher, so it's mostly good. Just not as good as what we've been seeing lately in the ongoing series. We've learned to expect that kind of thing from an Annual, and this issue doesn't do much to alter that preconception.