Rucka Keeps Things in Balance for "The Punisher"

Most of Marvel Comics' crime fighters take an immediate approach to their battle, foiling a criminal or super villain's latest scheme and leaving punishment for the criminal justice system to decide. Frank Castle, however, takes a more extreme and permanent approach, eliminating the need for the criminal justice system all together. Better known as the gun toting vigilante the Punisher, when Castle's done fighting crime, the perpetrators aren't sent to jail -- they're sent to the morgue.

This utterly ruthless approach has earned the Punisher a number of enemies in the criminal world, but it also means that the non-powered vigilante has to keep his activities from coming under close scrutiny by members of the Marvel U's super powered hero community, many of whom view him as no better than the killers he executes. For the Punisher, waging war against crime in the Marvel U is a tricky thing and sometimes, as in the recent "Omega Effect" crossover by writers Greg Rucka and Mark Waid, Castle is forced to work with other heroes. CBR News spoke with Rucka, writer of the monthly "Punisher" book, about balancing things for Frank Castle, the relationships the Punisher has with Daredevil and Spider-Man and what's next for Frank now that "Omega Effect" has concluded.

As a non-powered soldier fighting crime in a world full of super-humans, the most important thing Frank Castle has to contend with is making sure he's confronting his opponents at the right time and place. Rucka demonstrated this in his initial "Punisher" arc where Frank was forced into a surprise confrontation with the new Vulture. The Punisher slew the Vulture, but the wounds the villain inflicted upon him were so grievous that he had to spend 100 days recovering from the fight. In fact, he's still recovering from an injury he received in the battle.

"He's had the eye patch for a while, but what we have to remember is, it's comic book time. So it's only been about two and a half weeks since "Punisher" #5, where he went back into action after recuperating from the Vulture fight," Rucka told CBR News. "With that fight, I wanted to show that he needed to be real careful and precise. The new mutate Vulture was what? A C-List villain? And he messed Frank up badly. I firmly believe, with enough resources and time to put together a battle plan, Frank could probably cause someone like Doctor Doom some real physical pain. That's going to take him a lot of time and effort, though. There's a reason why he's not going out and shooting the big marquee villains. When that power balance goes askew, things get real dangerous for him and really dicey."

Things also become dangerous for the Punisher if he attracts the attention of heroes at the wrong time, which is why Rucka's initial storylines deliberately kept his protagonist apart from Marvel's heroes. In fact, part of the draw of the recent "Omega Effect" crossover which ran through the pages of "Avenging Spider-Man," "The Punisher," and "Daredevil," was that it allowed Rucka to work with his friend and former "52" collaborator, Mark Waid, while presenting the opportunity to have the Punisher encounter Marvel's two premier street level heroes in a way that made sense and didn't disrupt the character's larger narrative.

"For Frank to exist in the 616 and do what he does, he's got to stay below the radar. That makes for an internal logic problem because you have somebody like Spider-Man who's pretty much dead-set against anybody dying, and he knows that Frank is out there running around. So the immediate question is, why the heck isn't he doing something about it? The answer has to be that there are other more pressing things occupying him," Rucka said. "The Punisher, while pursuing what Matt Murdock and Pete Parker would call an evil, is pursuing a relatively smaller evil. It's not that they're granting it permission, but they have other things on their plate. I think for Frank to survive, he's got to know that. He's got to know that if he keeps his profile low, Thor is less likely to come and hit him on the head with his hammer because Thor is going to be busy hitting other people with his hammer who are trying to eat the Earth. That was one of the first things my editor Steve Wacker and I had some serious discussion about."

In "The Omega Effect," the Punisher's re-entry into Spider-Man and Daredevil's worlds came via the Omega Drive, a computer hard drive containing intelligence and information on most of the Marvel Universe's major mega-crime organizations. The device had recently come into Daredevil's possession, and when the Punisher approached the blind hero about it, he was asked to team with both DD and Spider-Man to keep the drive out of the hands of all those gunning for it. In order for the two heroes to accept Frank's help, the Punisher agreed to use non-lethal rubber ammunition while he was working with Spider-Man and Daredevil.

"The Omega Drive gave us the opportunity to justify him being in the same room as people who see him as a huge problem that in many ways is unsolvable. Because what do you do with him? You're not going to kill him. It was great to put these characters together in an immediate and justifiable way that doesn't force Daredevil or Spider-Man to say, 'I've got to bring you in.' For all the good that's going to do, because arresting Frank does nobody any favors," Rucka remarked. "If you arrest Frank, that's a holiday for him, because you're locking him in where everybody that he wants to kill already is. So to be able to work around that and finally be able to show how Frank exists in this much larger environment was nice."

While he may have a very different perspective on crime and crime fighting, the Punisher was very comfortable working with Daredevil and Spider-Man. In fact, he felt no need during "The Omega Effect" to explain his perspective to the two heroes or lecture them for being naïve in their approach to crime fighting.

"My take on Frank is that he doesn't have a lot to say and is absolutely apolitical. This isn't political for him. It's entirely personal. He's not going to look at Matt and say, 'You're wrong.' He's going to say, 'I can't do what you do and the reason I can't is, I don't believe in what you do.' He doesn't feel the need to say that though," Rucka explained. "It's like Wolverine saying, 'I'm the best there is at what I do and what I do isn't very pretty.' People who are the best at what they do and what they do isn't pretty don't brag about it. They don't advertise it.

"A friend of mine in the State Department told me a story about some military guys that he had met in Washington DC. He had drinks with one of them, and while they were talking, he says to this soldier, 'I see you're specced as a medic.' And the soldier says, 'I am.' My friend said, 'You're not a medic, though.' The soldier's response was, 'We're all specced as medics.' So my friend asked, 'Well, what is it that you do?' The soldier took a very long pause and said, 'Let's just say I can do it from about a mile away if there's no wind.' That says, to me, that you walk the walk, but you don't talk about it," Rucka said. "Frank has nothing to prove to anybody. He doesn't stay up at night thinking, 'Oh my God, Daredevil doesn't like me.' If something is keeping him up at night, it ain't that."

The Punisher has a different relationship with both Daredevil and Spider-Man. The wall-crawler's crime fighting philosophy of "Nobody Dies" means he is especially uncomfortable working with the ruthless vigilante, while Daredevil is equally uncomfortable with what Frank Castle does he sees him as someone who could be do a lot of good if he could be reached.

"One of the things that makes Daredevil a super hero and Frank an anti-hero is that Daredevil is never going to give up on Frank. This is not to disparage Spider-Man, who, if I'm brutally honest, I never really felt like I had a good handle on until 'The Omega Effect.' I think that Frank and Murdock's relationship is a more mature one," Rucka said. "Technically they haven't known each other longer, but I do think there's a maturity in how they approach each other. Spider-Man's objections to Frank are justified, but they're also emotionally-driven. I think Frank and Murdock's opposition is more of an intellectual one.

"What Frank does is absolutely abhorrent to Matt. He believes in a criminal justice system, which should be allowed its opportunity to work," Rucka continued. "Frank has no interest in that whatsoever, and frankly he wouldn't care if it worked perfectly. He wouldn't care if he knew with 100 percent certainty that everyone who was guilty would be caught and punished. He would still continue on his mission."

Daredevil and Spider-Man may not agree with the Punisher's mission, but Rucka feels that Frank Castle has nothing but respect for the two heroes, but for very different reasons. "He'll never let him know it, but I think, of the two he sees more in Spider-Man that he wishes he could retain. Because Spider-Man, despite a very tragic legacy, is a very hopeful and optimistic character," Rucka said. "Frank would not call himself a cynic. He would call himself a realist, but his experience of the world is that one day Peter is going to get hit really hard with the reality stick and when he does he's going to collapse. Frank doesn't know that Peter has been hit by that stick multiple times and still continues.

"I also feel that Frank has incredible respect for those people who are heroes," Rucka continued. "He absolutely doesn't see himself as one. He knows exactly what he's doing and he knows the price of it. He's acknowledged those things, but at the same time, he's going to admire the fact that these are guys who are going to be out there doing what they can to protect the innocent. He looks at them and thinks, 'While they're protecting the innocent, I'm going to punish the hell out of the guilty.'"

Art by Marco Checchetto

The Punisher wasn't the only gun-toting vigilante involved in "The Omega Effect," as Frank Castle's new accomplice was also present. Former Marine Rachel Cole-Alves, whose husband was killed on their wedding day when the criminal organization known as the Exchange shot it out with another gang, has become an important figure in Frank's life. Rachel's anger and desire for vengeance led to her encountering the Punisher who was also after the Exchange and the two agreed to join forces. Daredevil found their partnership distressing, and in the climax of "The Omega Effect," he tried to get her to abandon her newfound path of vengeance.

"Rachel is at a crossroads after her talk with Daredevil. Unfortunately for her, though, Frank provides a map reading the next time they come together in issue #12. Like Frank, she is in a place where the decision to let go of her pain is a very difficult one," Rucka explained. "One of the things I think both Spider-Man and Daredevil represent is that they both have taken their substantial tragedies and reframed them as a motivation for doing better. Frank perhaps has a more selfish interpretation. He can dress up what he's doing however he likes, but the fact of the matter is that he's still killing these people because he wants to kill them.

"In issue #12, Rachel and Frank have the conversation that's been building for a really long time. He lays things out for her and one of the things he says is, 'You can absolutely get over this if you want. That is a decision you need to make.' It is sort of the counter-argument to what Daredevil was saying," Rucka continued. "Revenge stories end one way, but Frank still continues. He's long since exacted his revenge. What he's doing now isn't revenge -- it's his mission. For him to be there and do that is one of the things that makes him such an amazing character. Think about what's required to live a life where he does what he's doing and he isn't insane. He's doing it with malice aforethought and consideration and care. One of the main reasons Cole is in this story is to illustrate that not everyone can be Frank. In fact, I might argue that nobody can be what Frank is."

With "The Omega Effect" now concluded, The Punisher and Rachel Cole-Alves will turn their attention back to The Exchange, the organized crime ring composed of ex-super spies and former high tech terrorists. "Cole wants to kill their leader, Stephanie Gerard, and then she wants to burn their whole building down to the ground and pee on the ashes," Rucka said with a chuckle. "That's what she wants. In theory, Frank has no problems with this. So that's where they're at. Right now I'm writing the start of their campaign. They had been maneuvering to acquire the assets, which are now in hand. So Frank and Rachel are going to war. There will be a cyclical nature in the narrative that is going to come into effect. Things are going to get really ugly, complicated and bloody."

The carnage begins in the latest issue, "Punisher" #11, as Rucka and guest artist Mirko Colak pit Frank Castle against a horde of hungry zombies. "In the first issue of my run, there was an eight-page back-up that was an interview with at the time then-Officer Walter Bolt who has since become Detective Walter Bolt. In that story, Bolt is telling one version of the events, and Marco Checchetto's art shows what really happened. What really happened was that Bolt took credit for killing a bunch of bad guys in a shootout and saving a bunch of innocents when it was the Punisher who did it. Issue #11 is the book end to that," Rucka said. "There are zombies. Bolt explains to his superiors why the Punisher is shooting them. Then things get more complicated for Bolt as a result of that."

Bolt, his partner Detective Ozzy Clemmons and "Daily Bugle" reporter Norah Winters will all play important supporting roles in the Punisher's campaign against the Exchange. "We have discussed the things that Frank has to balance, like staying below the radar of super heroes and picking his battles very carefully to avoid getting really hurt. The other thing is, you don't want to do anything that forces the NYPD to come after you," Rucka remarked. "If the NYPD really wanted to bring Frank in, they'd put the time, money and manpower in to do it. Right now it's Ozzy who has the biggest problem with Frank, and his problem with Frank isn't, 'I need to arrest him.' Ozzy's issue right now, more than everything else is, 'I cannot serve the law because everybody I'm trying to go to in order to build this case ends up killed by the Punisher.' So things are going to happen that will force the NYPD's hand."

The Punisher and Rachel Cole-Alves' war against the Exchange will come to a close in issue #16, and their relationship just might as well. "When I began this run, I wanted to isolate Frank and conversely show that's a self-imposed isolation. Thus, when somebody invades it, ie: Cole, it kind of jeopardizes the balance he has achieved. To do what he does, he's made some huge sacrifices and some very deliberate choices. One of those things is that he's eschewed human contact. He doesn't want friends. He doesn't want to do those things that people who have normal lives do. He is on mission. The problem is, if somebody else enters the mission, it forces an interaction, and when you don't kill the person you're aiding immediately, it's an ongoing interaction," Rucka said. "It creates a relationship. I always get leery of using the word 'relationship' when I talk about Frank and Rachel, because I'm afraid people are going to go to think I'm planning on them hooking up. That's never going to happen. Never in a million years are these two going to hug, kiss or make nice. That said, they have a relationship. How that relationship works and doesn't work is going to become more evident as things unfold."

Joining Rucka in chronicling the Punisher's battle against the Exchange are regular series artist, Marco Checchetto and artists Mirko Colak ("Red Skull") and Mico Suayan who will fill in on a couple of upcoming issues. "Mirko does two issues, then Mico is coming in for a couple of issues as well because we don't want to burn Marco out. I adore Marco. He's a terrific guy and an amazing artist. Frankly, it's just a matter of time before somebody at Marvel looks over and says, 'Hey! He's pretty good! Let's put him on an X-Title!' 'No! Not yet! Let me hold on to him for a little longer please!'" Rucka said with a laugh. "As I get older, my career might be on a downward slide, but Marco is unquestionably a rising star. He's a great collaborator, a genuinely nice human being and he is an incredible professional. That combination is rarer than you would think in comics. I can't praise him enough. He's a delight to work with in every way."

Enjoyable collaborations are part of the reason Rucka works in comics, and the recent announcement of writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja's upcoming "Hawkeye" series, which is also a street level book edited by Steve Wacker, has the writer looking forward to another potential working partnership.

"I would write a story with Matt in a nanosecond. It doesn't have to be Frank and Hawkeye. Hell, it could be Power Pack and Hawkeye," the writer joked. "I would love to work with Matt. He is amazing, and on top of that, I like him! We get along great. Opportunities like that are rare."

Tags: marvel comics, greg rucka, punisher, marco checchetto

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