Punisher War Journal #21

Under the guidance of Matt Fraction, "Punisher War Journal" has alternated between clever, witty looks at the Marvel Universe and serious and severe looks at the screwed-up world in which Frank Castle lives. The tone hasn't been exactly consistent from arc to arc, but I don't see that as a drawback at all, because the Punisher in straight-up vigilante mode has never been all that interesting in the long term. The Punisher is an inconsistent character, really, if you take into account all of his in-Universe portrayals over the years. He's been a buffoonish killer, a monster, a hero, a lunatic, a patriot, and almost anything you can imagine. Fraction has written him as a strange combination of all of those things, and if he isn't heroic in a traditional sense, at least he has a code he follows. He's a psychopath headlining a book set in the Marvel Universe, and Fraction has made him compelling and somewhat noble, while never going so far as to make Frank Castle admirable.

In the "Jigsaw" arc, Fraction has been joined by co-writer Rick Remender, who will presumably take over the series as Fraction departs, and the Fraction/Remender team has taken this series in a slightly darker direction. Things are starting to get serious for the Punisher now, and by the time issue #21 ends, Frank Castle is in a whole lot of trouble.

One of the great things about this issue of "Punisher War Journal" -- and it's true of all the issues in this arc -- is the artistry of Howard Chaykin. In the 1980s, Chaykin was known for his hyper-sexualized women, and just the idea of Chaykin illustrating a story in which a trio of super-powered female assassins fought with a trio of catsuit-clad S.H.I.E.L.D. beauties would have caused heart palpitations in the average fanboy. But this is a different Chaykin now, with a more grizzled style, and although he still has that lascivious streak, his figures lack the sleek sexiness they once had. His female assassins look like they're trying to sex it up, but they look weathered and trashy, rather than sexy. And that approach fits the world of the Punisher perfectly. These are scary-sexy women -- ugly, actually, when you see them up close, and that's the kind of late-night, back-alley sexuality that fills Frank Castle's world. It's dark and dirty and deadly. And Chaykin captures it like none other.

This issue is really just a step toward a greater confrontation, and the main threat, Jigsaw, doesn't even appear in "Punisher War Journal" #21, but Fraction, Remender, and Chaykin do a good job in keeping things moving along and making each page count. It's Act Two stuff, it's a big fight scene, and it's all leading toward a climax, but there are enough little bits to entertain along the way. One of the assassins is linked to Frank Castle's mind, which creates a few interesting scenarios in the issue, not the least of which is the moment when the Punisher's thoughts and actions fail to correspond, and Castle says, "When I'm up against it, what I think and what I do are never the same thing." Of course, there's some trigger pulling involved after that line. What else would you expect from a guy with a giant skull on his chest?

"Punisher War Journal" is a good Marvel book, every month. And with Chaykin on board as the artist, it's now reaching its peak -- aesthetically and dramatically. I can't imagine anyone deciding to start buying this comic now, during part four of a six part arc, but if you've skipped this series before and find yourself liking the work Matt Fraction has done elsewhere, I think you might want to check out some back issues, or pick up a collected edition or two. I think you'll find a lot to like.

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