Welcome to another installment of The Unspoken Decade! I hope you enjoyed Angel’s work here last week, and if you didn’t, I reckon you might ought not tell me, what with me being her brother and all!
Over at Longbox Graveyard, I recently penned an article on one of the Punisher’s appearances in the 1970’s in Marvel Preview #2. I am unsure when it will be published, but as I was writing it, I started thinking about how I needed to get to Punisher sooner rather than later in my own corner of the blogosphere here at The Unspoken Decade.
Punisher has been my favorite comic book character since I was in 4th grade, and he is arguably my favorite character in anything ever, regardless of medium. I recall the first time I stumbled upon Punisher was a Saturday morning after spending the night at my friend Carse Peel’s place. Carse was and most likely is as strange as his name suggests. He was a cool guy, but he also showed me my first porno, talked about sex all the time, showed me his dick constantly, and he told me his mom gave him hickies. He had an NES and lots of games, though, so I basically had to be his pal then; I would have been violating 4th grade Omerta otherwise. (We will hear more about a different sort of Omerta later, where the stakes are higher than just Holly Phillips not returning my “Will You Go Out With Me? Check One of the Boxes.” note.)So I tolerated the weirdest 4th grader not in a Village of the Damned movie because otherwise I would have been bereft of late nights watching USA Up All Night and playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.
He also had a big stack of comic books, and while I would not dive headfirst into the superhero swimming pool for a few years as of yet, I was already familiar with many superheroes from cartoons like Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, Super Friends, Incredible Hulk, the 1966 Batman show, and many more places of origin. Hell, I had even bought a comic book or two! I had never seen this guy in the skull though, and while I was tempted to just dismiss this as one of Carse’s weird books, I instead made the greatest decision I could, which was to open up the book at the risk of it being full of perversion. Instead, I found the violent glory of Frank Castle, The Punisher.
I asked Carse about him, and he told me he was an Australian hero who killed bad guys because his family had been killed. So, despite Punisher being my favorite character, I went around for about two years believing that Australia had provided me with Punisher. I think this misinterpretation came from the fact that the Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie was filmed in Australia, or maybe Carse was just pulling one over on me; where is a great detective like Dakota North to find this out when I need her?
I will tell you some other Carse stories later sometime if you are good, but for now, we have to get to our first gimmick cover of The Unspoken Decade…PUNISHER: WAR ZONE #1!!!
(Frank Castle would not be the only 90’s character to sport the gun, trenchcoat, and pouches combo, but no one else did so with this sort of panache.)
John Romita Jr. would be responsible for at least 80% of the panache shown here, with much of the rest filled up by the fact that having a laser sight on an Uzi is amazing. The cover is Die-Cut, in many ways the least offensive of the gimmick covers that saturated the early 90’s, and it sometimes made covers better. In this instance, I am in that club. Just take a gander at the wraparound and inside cover!
(I like to pretend that the story here is that Punisher is actually shooting those guys with a giant gun as they stand in awe of the longest teeth in the history of The Punisher skull.)
Being somewhat of a gun nut, I appreciate the realism on the cover where Punisher is holding the two Uzis. If you look, you can see the fold-up stocks on the guns. Attention to detail like this has made not just John Romita, Jr. one of my favorite artists of all time, but it has also made Chuck Dixon one of my favorite writers ever. He’s one of the more underrated writers in the business, and he certainly was one of the more underrated writers of the 90’s. I don’t think he ever wrote a masterpiece other than the first arc in Punisher: War Zone, but he did a great job on many titles dealing with street level heroes, such as Batman, Robin, and Nightwing. He somehow had an ability to make these turf wars, seedy warehouses, and mob families seem so real one could almost smell the gun grease. He was also able to maintain a rather lofty workload; it seems at almost any given point he was writing at least four monthly titles in the 90’s.
That output wasn’t hurting him anywhere here. I often hear that “no one ever got Punisher before Garth Ennis,” and while I do believe Mr. Ennis is a fine Punisher scribe, to say such a thing is to hurl a hydrogen bomb of an insult at guys like Steven Grant, Mike Baron, and my man, Chuck Dixon. There are several really good Punisher stories waaaaaay before Ennis crossed the pond and anyone who thinks otherwise is either being self-delusional or they just worship Garth Ennis, and as much as I enjoy some of Ennis’s work, the idea of him being a deity is about as pleasant to me as a rug burn to the face. If you have read his work, you know why. If you haven’t, read his Marvel Knights Punisher and his Punisher Max stuff. It’s really good.
This blog isn’t about how good Ennis is, though, but it is about how good a team Dixon/Romita Jr./Janson is here. Dixon writes Punisher as the driven psychopath he is, and Romita does a great job having Castle’s body language convey that outlook. Take a look at Punisher’s eyes as he mows down an informant who has gone nuts and shot a cop.
(The only thing emptier than Punisher’s eyes is a Sears store at the mall.)
This is the first thing you see when you open the comic book, and already the creative team has established that Punisher is a psychopath with little regard for others…or himself. Lynn Michaels is the cop that raises her gun against Punisher but doesn’t fire; she becomes an important member of Punisher’s supporting cast and eventually serves as Punisher herself for a bit following the events of Suicide Run, which I am sure I will cover at some point here at The Unspoken Decade.
This arc also explored the relationship between Punisher and his partner, Microchip. Yes, his name is really Microchip. My girlfriend did not believe me, so she certainly did not believe me when I told her that Microchip’s son is named Microchip, Jr. For real, to this moment, she does not believe me. I understand why not, but come on! Why would I lie about this? Anyhow, Microchip is like Punisher’s Alfred in a way, if Alfred was a fat, balding computer genius who didn’t mind that Batman killed folks. Microchip tries to reason with Punisher about not overdoing it, but this was as effective as kindly asking a rabid skunk to leave you alone while you enjoy a sunny day.
(I think Punisher bought those Craftsman tools from the same Sears store at the mall I mocked earlier.)
Microchip has been going out a bit, and Punisher is bothered by it. Since they’re good friends who have been mired in a hellacious war on crime together, Punisher decided to follow Microchip rather than ask him what is going on. For a fat guy, Microchip is a subway ninja. All Punisher finds out is that Microchip has been talking to someone. Since Punisher was all sneaky about finding out where Microchip was going, perhaps he will be sneaky about letting Microchip know he has the information. OR HE IS THE GODDAMN PUNISHER.
(Punisher sounds a little like a 7th-grade girl. “Did you tell him about me? What did you guys talk about?”)
Microchip leaves, and he does not return for awhile. The way Punisher interacts with Micro and basically disregards his feelings other than how it works for Punisher is emblematic of what is so great about this character. He has no feelings for anyone. He cares not for himself, Microchip, his dead family, or the cops he saved earlier. He cares only for his war. All that matters is his war. I admire that sort of that dedication. I wish I had a sliver or two of it in my life.
The issue then jumps to what appears to be a generic banana republic, where a scared tyrant is listening to an injured solider tell him how one guy killed 101 of the best men in the tyrant’s army. As the tyrant expresses incredulity at this, the man kills both of them, lets us know his name is Shotgun, and then vocalizes that his body count is now up to 103.
Jumping back to NYC, Punisher takes out some mooks (man, I love that word) that have decided to engage in an extracurricular hit on a restaurant that doubles as a bank for Triad casinos. The mooks get in and out, but Punisher is waiting for them with more firepower than he needs.
(Jesus, if Punisher says he used too much firepower, what could he have used? A nuclear submarine?)
Punisher kills all these mooks, but he saves one. You see, Punisher has a plan to take down the Carbone mob, and all he needs is a scared wise guy to help him infiltrate the family. Mickey Fondozzi finds himself both the unluckiest and luckiest guy in the Marvel Universe at this point; he has survived a fight with Punisher, but now he must work for Punisher. That would be like Cthulhu not eating you, but instead he makes you manager of a restaurant where he eats other people. I mean, it is good to be alive, but no way could one feel secure at all.
Mickey stands his ground as best as one hanging upside down by their feet can, even dropping the Big O on Punisher.
(Buttcheeks is too nice of a term for Feds. I prefer fascist buttcheeks.)
Mickey daring to drop Omerta on Punisher is both brave and ever so funny. It becomes even funnier when Punisher has apparently gone to genealogy.com and found exactly who Mickey Fondozzi is and what he is all about.
Mickey continues to play tough guy, and so Punisher, in one of the more famous scenes from Punisher lore, decided to make Mickey cooperate the old-fashioned way by asking nicely while using a blowtorch on him.
Or does he?
(These mobsters sure talk loosely on the phone. I have known pot dealers with strict phone code, and yet here they are just openly discussing murder. Wow.)
The comic then ends with Mickey bringing Castle into the Carbone Family under the alias Johnny Tower. Punisher does a lot of cool stuff, but his aliases are never cool. He always uses some variation of his last name. I have also seen him refer to himself as Charles Fort and Charles Rook. I guess some idiosyncrasies are allowed to a psychotic vigilante though.
All in all, this is a great comic. It serves as a great comic in every which way. It is a great story with great art. It’s a great #1, and it does a great job introducing any new readers into the dark, cold, and calculating world of Frank Castle, The Punisher. When folks badmouth the 90’s in general, and 90’s Punisher in particular, as being bland crap designed just to have gimmick covers to sell books, the first arc of Punisher: War Zone is almost always my first thought to contradict such nonsense.
Of course, this issue holds a special place in my heart, as it hung on the wall of my local comic shop for months when I first got into collecting. I got heavily into comic books just after Punisher: War Zone started. The first issue I picked up was #5. Since the other Punisher titles were so deep in their numbering, I sort of clung to War Zone as “My Punisher Title” and decided to grab all of them from #1! All the other issues of Punisher: War Zone were there on the shelf back to #2 at my LCS, but #1 was sold-out, and the copy they had on the wall was five dollars. FIVE DOLLARS! I pined for that book, but could never get it b/c it would have cost me all my weekly comic book cash. One day I went in and it was gone. I was so bummed. I went home and yelled and was incorrigible because there was no way I would now ever get my hands on that comic that had A PRINT RUN IN AT LEAST THE HUNDRED THOUSANDS!
As it turned out, my mom had snagged it for me for my birthday, so thanks Mom! She didn’t even hold it against me that I threw such a large fit, and she also never knew that I found the comic under the car seat about a week before I was supposed to get it. Microchip may be a subway ninja, but I promise no one is a present ninja like me. I almost always figure out what folks are getting me before I get the actual goodies, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend!
I hope you have enjoyed a little Punisher here at The Unspoken Decade…because you are getting more next week! I will cover Punisher War Zone #2 and the rest of this arc! We will never, ever be too far away from my favorite mass murderer here at The Unspoken Decade, because hey, he was the decade in many ways! After that, though, we will hear from Angel again and finally get into some 90’s DC with Justice Society of America!!! Yes, I love both Punisher and the old WW2 superheroes! The 90’s were complex, man. Ask any Smashing Pumpkins fan! See you back here real soon!!!