Hey, everyone! (The readers of this blog really need a collective nickname, like The Unspoken. It would be more convenient for me and make you guys sound ominous and badass, a win-win scenario.) I’m sure that Dean, this wonderful blog’s proprietor, would like me to thank those of you who scoped out last week’s installment of Super Blog Team-Up and encourage those of you who haven’t to check it out as soon as you are done reading this very article. (Seriously, finish mine first.) Last week’s SBTU theme was Team Up, Tear Down, and Dean’s article examines one of the more unexpected pairings in comic book history, The Punisher and Archie. Yes, that Archie. Yes, that Punisher.
This week I will be taking a look at another of the weirder Punisher offerings, The Last Days, a story that starts out as a fairly typical Punisher plot before taking a sharp turn into the Twilight Zone when Frank Castle becomes a black man. After I wrote about Neil Gaiman’s Death and Peter Milligan’s Enigma, Dean promised me less heady subject matter, and while this comic is certainly not as cerebral as those fine works, it is no less of a mindfuck. What it most certainly isn’t is unprecedented:
While I haven’t read all of this Lois Lane comic (and am pretty sure my brain would have up and quit if I’d tried to pair it with the Punisher story), I’ve seen enough individual panels and pages to get the sense that its makers at least tried, successfully or not, to explore some weighty race issues by showing what a white person could learn from experiencing life as a black person. Yeah….not so much with The Punisher. If you are wondering if Frank Castle has any sort of epiphanies about the prejudices the black community endures or revelations about his own bigotry, I will sate your curiosity right now before we proceed any further: nope, no, not even a little.
This is a gimmick, plain and simple, produced in what this very blog’s tagline will tell you was the era of gimmicks. It’s certainly an entertaining gimmick and worth the read, if for no other reason than novelty’s sake or because you like action comics, but I don’t think I have to point out to anyone reading this in 2014 or beyond that it has the potential to veer into wildly tone deaf territory.
It’s possible that by avoiding much social commentary from Castle himself, it remains about as inoffensive as a comic about a white guy who temporarily gets turned black can get. (It’s also possible that the opposite is true and that it’s worse to turn him black and not make any real race relations critiques, but my pasty white ass wouldn’t really be the best judge of that.) But I said this would be less heady subject matter, so I won’t make the same mistake I did while reading it and try to turn it into something it’s not. What is it, then? Let’s dive in, shall we, Unspoken? (You like it, don’t you?)
Our story begins in familiar territory, with The Punisher taking out some low level thugs of a crime boss who has been giving Kingpin some competition. Kingpin’s new lackey comes up with a scheme to kidnap Punisher’s pal Microchip to persuade him to take out their enemy for them. The Punisher, bereft of safe ground to run to, goes to a stash of weapons guarded by perhaps his only other friend.
With nowhere to run and Kingpin sending him a piece of his friend (his little finger, sickos), Punisher has little choice but to go along with the plan, which he executes in the most Punisher-y way possible. No mere van will do for this mission, no sir. With so much on the line, he needs a vehicle that would put the Popemobile, the newest movies’ Batmobile, and other mobile you can think of to shame.
The Punisher gets his target, but it’s not a victory without cost. (And I’m not talking about the Punishermobile.) The fight draws the cop down on them, and unwilling to turn his gun on any of the boys in blue, Punisher must submit himself to arrest. As someone who has wholly devoted himself to taking out criminals, he is understandably underwhelmed about being locked up with a giant building of them, but Kingpin gets to his lawyer and judge, of course, so it’s off to Rikers for Punisher till he can figure out how to escape yet again.
Microchip, meanwhile, no longer a useful pawn with Punisher locked away, gets dropped off in Thailand with no way home but his wits. He manages to get a briefcase of money sent to him but must prove his identity, with no ID, to claim it. Conveniently enough, though, the store owner who holds the briefcase also happens to carry a video game Microchip has designed, setting up what would have been an amazing scene in any 80s or 90s action movie.
Back at Rikers , Punisher must fight off multiple inmates, who are themselves fighting over who gets a chance to do him in, decline an invitation to join the Aryan Brotherhood, and fret over over who will feed his dog while he’s on the inside. Punisher’s old pal Jigsaw, whose name more alludes to how his face fits together after encountering Punisher than his love of puzzles, is chief among those out for blood.
Punisher fights off the bevy of assailants as well as could be expected, but even the Punisher can only do so much without an arsenal. Eventually he gets overwhelmed, and Jigsaw takes out his own punishment on Frank Castle’s face, cutting him up beyond recognition. Punisher ends up in the infirmary, his face heavily bandaged, and through a series of events that would only happen in a comic book, has another injured inmate offer him his place in his own escape attempt.
Before we proceed any further, we should take a look at the bizarre cover of the fifth issue of this story, which features a photograph. Why it features this I couldn’t even begin to tell you. It’s not like the whole storyline has covers with photographs. Did the artist who was supposed to draw the cover break his hand? Was every single other artist in the business out of town? Did they lose the cover drawing right before press time and all they had in the studio was some gauze? I would accept any and all of these explanations because the alternative, that they did this on purpose because it would be super awesome, seems ludicrous.
Punisher manages to escape the dudes who helped him escape from prison, but he jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire, as Kingpin and his lackey put a bounty on his head big enough to make any two-bit crook or opportunist take notice. Severely weakened from having most of his face sliced off, Punisher must go back into hiding while Microchip, who has undergone his own physical transformation to stay discreet, finds a suitable plastic surgeon to make him look less Frank Castle-y and remain less dead.
Kingpin’s lackey finds Microchip anyway and breaks into the facility guarded by Punisher’s beloved pup. (This part makes me incredibly sad because I’m sure you can tell where this is going and it isn’t any place good and no, poor puppy, I’m not crying, shut up, you’re crying.) At least before he goes, the dog gives the lackey hell and takes a chunk out of his arm, which isn’t especially relevant to the story, but it makes me narrow my eyes and whisper, “Good,” all the same. I couldn’t make myself take a screen shot of the doggy, so enjoy this page of Microchip looking completely goddamn ridiculous instead:
Punisher, despite being damn near dead, holds off his bounty hunters long enough for Microchip to find him his surgeon. That this surgeon, the only female character in the entire book, is also a junkie who loses her license for stealing meds and is literally dressed like a whore as a disguise is something I could go on and on about, but I already have a weekly radio show on which Dean and I discuss gender dynamics in dork culture (Tune in live every Thursday night at midnight!), so I’ll settle for an eye roll and move on.
I have to give Dr. Junkie Hooker credit where it’s due, though, since she manages to perform a surgery so complex no actual surgeon could achieve it while fighting off both withdrawal and two dudes who come prowling around for drugs to steal. A lot of surgeons might call it a day if they had to drag two dead bodies out of their operating theater, but she just blows them the fuck away, drags their corpses right outta there, and gets back to business.
While I was reading this comics, I couldn’t believe how far into the story I got, stealing glances at how many issues were left, before this moment, the thing that it is by far best remembered for. You might have felt the same way reading this article, noticing at how little you had left to scroll before the end and still having not reached the point in the Black Punisher comic when Punisher actually becomes black. Well, wait no more.
With a new face, a new race, but no place to go, Punisher sets out for Chicago, where he has stored a cache of guns and money. In what is, unfortunately, the most realistic thing in this comic, Punisher gets pulled over and brutalized by the cops a scant few hours after becoming a black man. He is saved by none other than Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, who takes him in while he recovers and attempts to kick him out once he’s well.
Instead, Punisher hires Cage to help him recover his guns and promises him the money as payment. Cage agrees, so long as Punisher agrees to do things his way, meaning no killing, the least Punisher-y way possible. They recover the guns but find the money missing, leaving Punisher in Cage’s debt. Cage offers to let Punisher repay that debt by helping him with a case of his own, which entails stopping some bad guys from taking over a building inhabited by Cage’s clients. Once again, Cage stipulates that Punisher kill no one in their efforts.
Castle, who is going by one of his super clever aliases (Rook), gives not killing people the ol’ college try, but ultimately Punisher gotta Punisher, and he takes a guy out trying to get some of the residents out of the building unharmed. Castle and Cage debate their ideological differences about how best to clean up the streets, and Castle tries to teach the guy who has been black longer than five minutes about race. Cage is having none of it.
Once he discovers that there might be some validity to what Cage is saying, Castle contemplates a world that no longer has a need for a Punisher. He starts to think that he might be able to carve out a life somewhere in this crazy world for Frank Castle, Regular Joe, the timing of which is perfect because his surgery is wearing off, and it would be difficult to explain to a community of black people why he is suddenly a white guy.
But before he can ride off into the sunset, he is taken captive by the Kingpin’s former lackey, who has coerced Dr. Junkie Hooker to identify him. (How he totally just figures that Punisher has become a black man I will never understand.) I say former because at some point, the Kingpin’s entire operation was apparently brought down. At first I thought I must have slept through the couple issues where this happened, but apparently it occurs in a Daredevil comic. I was all the more confused because the lackey went from being a young Asian man to looking like David Lynch with no explanation given.
Cage busts in at the last minute to save Punisher, who is turning whiter by the panel. (Seriously, he is black one panel and white the next.) Cage seems somehow unsurprised by this development and shrugs it off with a “you lost your tan” comment, and it’s back to business as usual for both. Punisher may appreciate the help, but it doesn’t stop him from warning Cage that he tows the line between do-goodery and crime, and we all know how Punisher feels about crime. Balance restored, world back to normal. Of course, if we needed any proof that he never really stopped being The Punisher, it would be this, the panels I’ll leave you with.