Writer: Becky Cloonan, Artist: Steve Dillon, Colourist: Frank Martin, Letterer: Cory Petit
The Punisher returns for a new series at Marvel, following the largely positive response to the character’s debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year. Interestingly enough, Marvel’s choice of creative team brings back an artist known most prominently for drawing The Punisher – with Garth Ennis and with Jason Aaron most notably – and a writer who hasn’t done any scripted work for Marvel before, as far as I can remember. It’s a pairing of the unknown and the known, which actually does make for a reliable first issue.
We have the familiarity of Steve Dillon’s artwork, which harkens straight back to his past work with the character and world, but the particular quirks of Cloonan, who is best known as an artist but has a surprising depth of range as writer also. Marvel are hoping to hook readers in with something they know and can trust, meaning it’s up to Cloonan to prove that she can offer something unexpected (or at the very least interesting and stylish) to go over the top of each new page of artwork.
And you know, more than anything, this really feels like a Steve Dillon comic. Dillon’s had some impressive runs on some of the most noteworthy comics of the last few decades, including Preacher and, well, The Punisher – but the last few years haven’t felt so kind to him. The last I remember, he was doing one-shots for Marvel along with a run on Jason Aaron’s mostly-forgotten Incredible Hulk series of a few years back. That run wasn’t great, mainly because Dillon wasn’t the right person to draw a big green smash monster. Here, asked to draw scummy humans in dank offices once more, he shows that he’s still got a singular knack for constructing interaction.
Not just in the fight scene which comes in towards the end of the issue – although it is a striking sequence, filled with black humour as at several points he leads you straight through Frank’s thought process. On one page you see him impale someone through the chest with a metal pole, before Dillon pulls away to show an aerial view which places that pole directly in-line with a electricity box. Dillon puts the box at the top of the panel, so you see it first, before showing at the bottom of the panel that Punisher is having the exact same thought we have – and is already lining up to push the pole into the voltage, and electrocute the guy.
Little touches like that show off Dillon’s ability to be bleak and brilliant in one go, but you also get to see him demonstrate this in the conversational scenes. Of course, he’s collaborating with an artist on this one, so who knows how much is Dillon and how much is Cloonan. But he also seems to have more facial references nowadays than in, say, his time on Preacher. A few women are in this one, and they have different facial structure from one another, which I see as a positive development from some of his prior comics.
One thing I really noticed this issue is that Dillon rarely leaves a blank background. Even when a panel simply shows someone standing in front of a wall, Dillon puts a cobweb in the corner, or a crack in the paintwork. He draws puddles of damp on the floor and dust and dirt. There’s something in each panel, in a way which reinforces the tone without distracting from the characters themselves.
Frank Martin’s colouring in the conversational scenes also helps to strengthen this feel of setting, using dull beiges and browns and greens to make it look like a paint chart. In contrast, the fight scene seems overly bright to me, the startling orange and yellow of the opening explosion carrying on to make the scene seem vibrant and bold – but in a way which makes the comic feel like it’s suddenly veered into being a Marvel superhero title, rather than some street-level crime series.
It’s a little too much, backing up the ridiculous hyper-violence but also making it feel less weighty, and diluting the impact of the fight itself.
Because yes, Cloonan’s script is carefully ridiculous as it continues on, with the fight taking a weird left-turn partway through where one of the combatants suddenly starts taking drugs and turns into a Fury Road-esque insano. What was heartening though was how disposable Cloonan was willing to make these enemies. Whilst Frank has returned once more to being a barely-syllabic force of nature, Cloonan’s taking the tactic of giving his enemies crazed dialogue and mental quirks that helps give the series a bit of dazzle. About ten characters get introduced, and maybe four of them are still standing by the time the issue ends, which is a good way to get the attention in a debut issue.
It’s not what I was expecting from Cloonan in terms of style, but then again I doubt that the oblique poetry of The Mire would be perhaps the best fit for The Punisher and co. What we have is the start of a promising run – one which doesn’t offer much new to the concept of The Punisher, but does at least build on established ideas which we know work and entertain. The core of the series feels very similar to past runs with the character and conceit: the entertainment will likely come from the bizarre flourishes which the creative team will bring out around the edges, as decoration.