As the year comes to a close, most fans start to look back on all the things that made 2008 great for our beloved hobby. Comic books and comic book characters seem to be more in the forefront of popular culture consciousness now, thanks in large part to huge performances from blockbuster films based on comic book properties. In a year where theaters have already been graced with arguably three of the best comic book films thus far (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight), The Punisher, the relentless Marvel Comics’ vigilante, returned to theaters for a third round of punishment with Punisher: War Zone. Though the film was heavy on fertile action movie territory like violence, blood, guts, shooting, and brutality, Frank Castle struck out with moviegoers yet again. The Punisher has definitely set out an impressive stake on an unwanted claim as Marvel’s unluckiest movie star. According to Hollywood.com, Punisher: War Zone has thus far only been able to shoot up $7.9 million dollars worth of damage at the box office. Compare that sum to the other Marvel starlets of 2008 and Punisher comes off look pathetically weak. Iron Man was invincible for Marvel, hauling a whopping $318.2 million in theaters, while The Incredible Hulk smashed up $134.5 million. Punisher is a guy who has gone toe to toe with the likes of Wolverine, Batman, and even Dr. Doom in the past. He should be able to make more than $8 million, right?
So what went wrong? What happened with this mighty Marvel movie that did not happen with Hulk or Iron Man? I am a huge Punisher fan and always will be a fan. While I actually did enjoy Punisher: War Zone on a “guilty pleasure” level, I understand how it would not click with a larger audience outside of the Frank Castle faithful. Some things worked, but much of it did not.
Both Iron Man and Incredible Hulk feature some stellar acting on the part of the primary characters. Robert Downy, Jr.’s Tony Stark and Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner were both compelling actors turning in solid portrayals of these larger than life comic characters. The same roughly holds true for Punisher: War Zone. By and large, Ray Stevenson does a bang-up job as Punisher. He was cold, ruthless, and domineering. He nailed the essence of the Punisher by embodying an unfeeling character well. Was it as good a job as what Ed Norton or Robert Downy brought to the screen this past summer? Definitely not, but Ray Stevenson deserves more kudos for doing a great job playing Frank Castle. He walked into a hard position here by walking into a role that has garnered little esteem in the past and managed to do a pretty decent job.
Does Frank Castle need a hug? Punisher: War Zone, just like the previous 2003 film, tried to humanize Punisher too much. In War Zone, we find Frank Castle accidentally killing an undercover agent, causing Punisher to rethink his war on crime. Frank decides to apologize to agent’s widow, leading to some very “touching” scenes between the slain man’s daughter and Frank. That was sarcasm. That type of civilizing just does not work for me, and I do not think it works for the big screen. I do not think the Punisher needs to be humanized. He is a cold, blunt instrument. He shoots criminals. That is as simple and complex as it needs to be. I do not think it is necessary to make Punisher a likable guy. Frank Castle is not a likable guy. At his root, he is basically a crazed murderer. His reason for being is taking out criminals. Period. Viewers do not desire or need to see Frank hand a teddy bear over to a little girl. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner can be humanized. They are moral tales with flawed, yet essentially good-natured heroes, where right triumphs over wrong. Punisher is not that kind of story. The area between right and wrong should be blurry with regards to Frank Castle. He cannot be saved, no matter how many little girls want to hug his neck at the end of the film.
The Punisher is only as good as his villain(s). This is true in both comic books and in film. One of the most compelling aspects of Garth Ennis’ long run on Punisher was his ability to bring in villains that did not seem to be caricatures or farcically deranged men in brightly colored tights. However, Jigsaw just did not cut it in this film. He was laughable at best and completely ignorable at worst. Jigsaw was so blatantly over the top and outrageous that it was hard to even believe you were watching the same movie when he came onscreen. The scenes featuring both Jigsaw and his brother were excruciating to watch. Jigsaw just never fit in with the rhythm of the rest of the film. He was an outlier occupying screen time that could have been better spent. I think I would have rather seen a movie where Punisher killed low level crack addicts for ninety-minutes than to have ever seen Dominic West’s Jigsaw for even a single frame. Dominic West is a solid actor, but this role was just brainless, especially in the face of such great villainy in Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and especially The Dark Knight. The villain should compliment the hero, not overshadow him with ineffective goofiness.
Will Punisher ever make it as a hit comic-to-film character? Maybe, but he probably will not get another chance for a long time. The Punisher’s star has faded for now, with War Zone effectively killing off the brand for the foreseeable future. It will practically take a miracle to bring Frank Castle back to life on the big screen, but it is not impossible. Many people thought batman and Robin would kill the dynamic duo for years to come, but Batman Begins helped reinvent the franchise and energize excitement in the character of Batman. Could a Punisher Begins be too far down the pike? The possibility, though unlikely, is still there and that is all we Punisher fans have to hold onto for now
Brace yourself! Panelology returns after a hiatus with an all 80s edition of Your Collection is Incomplete. The 1980s were a time of cheesy hair and tacky music, but for some, comic books were never better than in those high-water days of mysterious brooding. Most of the 30-something audience of comic book readers today fondly look back at this period as being largely responsible for grabbing our attention and bringing us into the medium. As with any decade, some of the books were better than others, but chances are that most of us probably have comics from this era that we dearly hold onto as cherished jewels of our collection. And hey, it was the 80s. Some may have literally put glitter on their boxes as kid to give them that extra jewel-like sparkle. Regardless, here are three books from that decade of darkness that still pack a punch today and should occupy a corner of your long boxes.
Elemental #’s 1-5, Comico
By Bill Willingham
Available in Elementals issues 1-5 (volume 1) or in TPB
Before Mr. Willingham wowed us with his Fables, Elementals stood out as his premiere accomplishment. Elementals follows the tale of four resurrected humans that somehow cheated death and now have superpowers. As the title suggests, these four team members were possessed with the power of the basic elements of earth. Vortex represents air, while Fathom embodies water, Monolith earth, and Morningstar fire. Pretty simple, right? Well, seeing as how all of these people had to first die to get there powers, you had to know it wouldn’t be that simple. Dying in order to get superpowers makes getting bitten by a radioactive spider seem so blasé. Yet, there it is. Willingham handled both art and writing duties on many of the issues in the initial run, although his involvement was mainly in the writing department by the end of the first series. Later incarnations would stray further and further away from the mature look at superheroes. Willingham set forth, as would his involvement. Disputes over the rights to the characters would leave the finalized story of the Elementals in limbo forever, yet these first few issues were excellent, as much of the first series is. Willingham did not shy away from handling touchy subjects such as sex and the transforming dynamic a team can have over time. This was a established look at how superheroes operate without all of the pretension that would come from later stories from other companies. The initial salvo of the Shadowspear War represented in these first few issues plays into the larger arc of just what the Elementals are. It’s too bad that Willingham never truly got to finish the story as the Elementals, but that should not deter you from giving these issues a happy home.
Strikeforce: Morituri #’s 1-12, Marvel
By Peter Gillis and Brent Anderson
Available in issues Strikeforce: Morituri 1-12
Sticking with the death theme, we have Striikeforce: Morituri as our next essential. I am surprised at how many comic book fans don’t know about this wonderful little treasure from Marvel. It is probably one of the best kept secrets of 1980s Marvel. Every cover to the book stated the ominous moniker; We Who Are About to Die! Lots of comics boasted such doomsday claims, but few have actually lived up to the chaotic promise of death that this title held. The story revolves around a group of aliens attempting to take over earth, the Hoard (I know, I know; very original). The last line of defense for earth was to use the Morituri process to give humans superpowers. The catch? The Morituri process killed you. Eventually, all that went through the process would die randomly in a violent explosion of light, their powers consuming them. That’s right, kids. Characters really did die in comics for good and in violent ways before Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Force/X-Statix. It seemed like just as you started to enjoy a character, poof, they were gone. The first twelve issues were just flipping great and consistent in their quality that it’s hard to say not just stop there. Finish the whole series out. Just buy them all. Right? I wish I could tell you that. However, the truth is that the quality of the series does peter off towards the end. Yes, I said “peter off.” The series was cancelled with issue #31, only to be replaced by a prestige format book that lasted five issues. Since then, the Strikeforce has been pretty much MIA. That’s too bad. There is a lot of potential in these characters and in this story. Maybe a reinvigorated version is just around the corner from the House of Ideas. Just think of it this way, Marvel; Wolverine could show up.
Batman: The Killing Joke, DC Comics
By Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
Available in TPB and HC
I know I promised that I would try to steer clear of the big guns like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, but it’s very hard not to talk about the Joker now. With the recent release of Dark Knight on DVD and the buzz surrounding a potential Oscar for the late Heath ledger, it’s impossible to not turn our attention to the character, especially his finest moment. To many fans, the Killing Joke is the best Joker story ever published It’s hard to argue against that, especially since the book has been in-print ever since it was first published in 1988. The Joker has always been a nifty character and an iconic rogue for Batman, but Alan Moore brought a psychotic quality to clown prince of crime. The Joker seemed like a slapstick comedian in many of the old Bat-efforts in previous decades. In the 80s, writers started to take him a bit more seriously. Part of this had to do with the natural progression of following the story, but part of it was the changing tone of comics. The Joker became darker because comic books became darker. The caper portrayed isn’t Joker slapping a pie in anyone’s face. No, Joker decides to shoot Jim Gordon’s daughter, forcing Gordon to watch, torturing him with images of the deed. This is something a psycho would do! While this might seem a bit tame compared to Heath Ledger’s brilliant interpretation of Joker, I would argue that the move towards the lunacy of that portrayal started right here in this very comic. The Joker was suddenly a serious threat. Once this book came out, writers couldn’t bring back the more jester-like version of Joker. The character was in a darker place now and there was no going back.
Comic books aren’t just about super heroes, there is a lot out there that transcends this genre, and some books published by the big two might contain super heroes, but are so far from the norm. These books are often so detached from the usual super hero beat’em up that the often fall under the radar of most comic book buyers. great books such as these really deserve wider recognition and thankfully in this case I’m not fighting against the flow as Silver Surfer: Requiem by J Michael Straczynski and Esad Ribic has already garnered a lot of critical praise and commercial success.
This book shows the depth of material available, even from a publisher like Marvel Comics that is so often seen just as purveyor of mindless, or even intelligent, super heroics. They sell the big guns, the high octane crash bang comics, good guys against the bad, even their imprints, though not traditional super hero books, are still based on the concept of the good guy versus the bad guy.
But this book is a departure from all of that; this is a personal book, an introspective of an alien, of an outsider that could so easily be one of us. A man who thought he would live forever has just found out that he is about to die, that his time has finally come to an end. He reacts just as we might. Though he is a man covered in silver, a man who can fly through the cold of space and do battle with beings with power beyond our comprehension, he is still a man.
The art of the book captures the mood of the story very well. At time it is immense, the sense of grandeur really comes through each page. The immensity of space, the power of the Surfer and the fragility of life, Ribic has captured the smaller moments with the same majesty and magic as he has the larger, and this is where the book really comes into its own, where it sets itself apart from the rest.
The combination of JMS’s writing and Ribic’s art bring to life the emotions felt by the people that the Silver Surfer interacts with, and each person has their own unique voice, unique view of life and each is impacted differently. JMS really is a brilliant character writer, he is able to tell this vast tale through so many small moments. Each moment slowly unfolds to show the bigger picture and though, at times, the message wasn’t subtle, the book didn’t bludgeon you with rhetoric and clichés. There was a poetry to the words written by Straczynski, a magic to the art by Ribic that did justice to the underlying tale being told.
We should take each day as it comes, we as a race need to look over the minor differences between us, we live an amazing life in an amazing world and we need to count ourselves lucky. When we know that the end is near, we all rush to do the things that we have always wanted, that we have been too scared to do or too stupid not to do. We don’t realise how much of our lives we have wasted until it is too late,