Frank Castle doesn't say a word in the first issue of his new series. He really doesn't need to. At the height of his popularity in the 1980s, the Punisher's war on crime was shown in stories that were almost exclusively narrated by the lead character. Frank Castle would tersely describe his worldview and methodology in internal monologues shot through with dark, sardonic humour. It was possible to feel like you knew the Punisher intimately back then. But things have changed in his newest series, which debuts tomorrow.
The first issue of the new Punisher series reminded me a little bit of Gotham Central. The early 2000s Batman series focused on the Major Crimes Unit in the Dark Knight's hometown and found its dramatic engine from the tense symbiosis between the cops and the Caped Crusader. Batman was presented as an inscrutable force of nature in that series and Frank Castle gets the same treatment here. Written by Becky Cloonan with art by Steve Dillon, Frank Martin and Cory Petit, The Punisher also sports police procedural elements in the vein of TV shows like Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire. We see DEA agents staking out dealers, debriefing what they know to colleagues and prepping for a career-making bust.
On the flip side, readers also get a feel for the criminal organisation the DEA is targeting. The crooks here are peddling a super-drug called EMC, which gives users heightened strength, durability and resistance to pain. Cloonan, Dillon and company deliver a great set of antagonists and foils for the Punisher in this first issue.
Everyone from the rabid low-level flunkies to the swaggering cocksure lieutenants are stylishly presented, full of the dangerous idiosyncratic quirks that characterise the best Punisher villains, but not quite as broadly comedic as in previous series. The pacing feels snappier, too, as things get complicated right away for Frank.
Dillon's drawn the Punisher before, in a memorable run with frequent partner Garth Ennis. But the linework here doesn't feel like a retread of past glories. Frank wears a close-cropped buzzcut and looks a little less weathered and leaner here, with an outfit that feels more real-world than superhero costume. That change may be a nod to corporate synchronicity, since the character was a major part of Daredevil's second season on Netflix. However, unlike the new Daredevil title, this new Punisher series doesn't feel like it's being tweaked to align with the Netflix iteration of the character. It's a strong start that maintains the street-level context for Frank Castle but that raises the stakes and level of opposition that he'll have to face in his one-man crusade.