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Bloody Saturday

So I read that Punisher: War Zone isn’t doing too well at the box office.

I’m not really surprised. To be honest, every time I read about a Punisher movie getting made, I’m reminded of a story Stan Lee told once about a meeting with movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis.

It goes like this. In the 70’s, when Stan was a recent arrival in Hollywood, he was making the rounds of all the movie people hustling the Marvel properties to anyone and everyone he could think of. So of course he approached De Laurentiis, thinking that maybe he could finally get some serious studio interest in Spider-Man or Captain America or something. Stan had sent Dino a package of comics material about the different characters that were up for grabs. Dino called Stan saying he was very interested in a couple of the books and so Stan went in for a meeting.

The first character that had caught Dino’s eye was Ghost Rider. Stan was a little surprised, thinking that was an odd choice, but, being Stan, he was totally willing to work with Dino on it.

Then Dino beamed and held up another comic, saying, “I really like thees one! Thees should be our movie!”

The book was Werewolf By Night.

Remember, this was the late 1970’s. That was about to be the early 80’s. So Hollywood had just done or was about to do Wolfman, The Howling, Wolfen, Full Moon High, An American Werewolf In London, The Company of Wolves, and Teen Wolf.

Stan was a little nonplussed. He pointed out that there wasn’t anything particularly special about Werewolf By Night, there were already lots of werewolves out there, was Dino sure he didn’t want to try something more like, say, Daredevil?

Nope. Nothing doing. Dino wanted Jack Russell.

So the deal either got made and the project stalled, or the deal fell apart, I forget which, but nothing ever came of it. It’s probably just as well. Because one more bad werewolf movie wasn’t really something the world was waiting for back then.

You see where I’m going with this?

There are some movies that may look good on paper or in a pitch meeting. But they get made and… enh.

Now, I’m aware that Punisher: War Zone was a troubled project from the get-go.

Even if this was BRILLIANT I suspect it would still have tanked pretty hard.

Rewrites, cast and crew walkouts, personnel shuffles of all kinds. Those are never good omens. But even if War Zone is brilliant — which it’s not– I have a hunch it would probably have belly-flopped anyway.

I don’t think it has anything to do with quality. This is just one of those areas where comics’ best is cinema’s mediocre.

There’s a lesson here and I will get to it, I promise, but let me give you the context for it first.

Let’s backtrack a little. First of all, it’s impossible to have any intelligent conversation about the Punisher without acknowledging where he came from.

Mack Bolan as I remember him, scowling out at me from above his logo.

Most of you reading this are probably a little too young to remember what an incredible phenomenon Don Pendleton’s Executioner series of paperback originals was when it hit spinner racks in 1969. Pendleton himself was a pulp-fiction factory, and after writing thirty-some books himself about Mack Bolan’s one-man war on crime, he franchised out the series and it became an unstoppable juggernaut.

I could easily fill my office with Executioner books, spin-offs and imitations. I am guessing this is maybe four percent of what's out there.

It’s still going today, and I think at this point there are something like six hundred Bolan novels out there. But the real heyday of the series was the seventies.

There were all sorts of imitators cashing in on the genre Pendleton created, too. The Destroyer, The Butcher, The Penetrator, Kill Squad, The Sharpshooter, The Death Merchant, Narc… there were dozens of them. All featuring a hard guy or guys, usually ex-military, who were declaring War on Organized Crime because This Time It’s Personal and they had Nothing Left To Lose.

One of the many hardcases Not Named Bolan on the racks. And another. Some of these were even good. I have a ridiculous affection for some of these also-rans.

I’m being snarky, but really I confess I have great affection for all of these weird little pulp-action paperback series. Some of them even ended up in comics, like Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter (as recounted in an earlier column here.)

So it was hardly unthinkable that Marvel would pick up on this trend sooner or later. In the seventies Marvel was all about jumping on pop-culture trends.

What made it interesting was that the success of these various paperback book series was (I think) driven largely by a slight streak of sadism, and maybe jolted upward by a vague feeling of distrust and anger toward what the world was turning into. In the late 60’s through the early 70’s, the two subjects that were on the American consciousness were the war in Vietnam and the rising youthquake of protest in reaction to it, and generally, the response from average citizens to those things was to be pissed off. (What I remember most about being a teenager walking around downtown in the 1970’s was how adults hated you on sight, especially if you had long hair.) My hunch is that these adventure novels were an outlet of sorts for all that seething macho rage, especially over how our returning soldiers were being treated. And they featured villains you didn’t have to feel sorry for or empathize with, getting offed in imaginative and exciting ways. Win-win.

But the guys working at Marvel in those days were largely hippie peacenik types…. so when Don Pendleton’s basic Executioner archetype got morphed into Marvel’s Punisher, he wasn’t presented as a hero, but as a villain.

how the Marvel guys reacted to Mack Bolan.

And to be honest that was what I always liked about the character of Frank Castle. He was a villain who thought he was a good guy. The Punisher and his single-minded pursuit of his goal makes for a great contrast with someone like Spider-Man who’s always agonizing about the rightness of what he’s doing. The outer conflict dramatizes the inner one. It’s heroic fiction 101.

Which is not to say that Marvel didn’t make a couple of attempts to get on board the macho-adventure gravy train back then. I mean, they weren’t STUPID.

They wanted that Pendleton dollar pretty bad!

But their hearts weren’t in it. This is one of those genres that you genuinely have to have a feel for and I don’t think anyone working at Marvel in the 70’s really could have pulled off that kind of unrepentant macho. The closest anyone came was Roy Thomas over on Conan, and you’ll note that Roy’s version of the mighty barbarian was quite a bit more thoughtful and poetic than Robert E. Howard’s was originally.

Anyway, it wasn’t just the lack of properly-suited talent available. The cultural climate had to change too. Eventually it did.

I'm not a Punisher fan but damn I love this book.

The interesting part– well, interesting to me, because I’m such a pop-culture nerd– is that the Punisher, by and large, didn’t change at all. His context did. There have been reams and reams of sociological essays written about how the eighties were about greed and consumerism and so on and so on. I’m not going to get into that part of it except to point out that the common denominator there is “guilt-free.”

The way that translated to popular entertainment was the slow realization that you really could get away with doing that stuff. It wasn’t just comics. It was everywhere: movies, TV… as though there was this giant moment of “Hey, wait a minute, who the hell cares how many bad guys get blown up? This is all just fiction! Let’s go for it! Get out there and wreck some shit!”

It begins here....

It wasn’t as sudden as I’m making it out to be. But it was pretty quick, over the course of maybe five or six years, for things like the Dirty Harry movies or the Executioner novels to become not just hits or even mega-hits, but actual genres… with their own set of tropes and rules and, eventually, cliches.

Poor Robert Ginty. He was so good in THE PAPER CHASE, too. I haven't seen this. I just love that it comes up when you Google for 'action movie.'

Today, you can call something an “action movie” and everyone knows what you mean. That wasn’t always the case.

How did this genre translate to comics? Depends who you ask. You can make a case that it was pioneered by Frank Miller in his work on Daredevil, though I think that’s maybe a little arbitrary. But he was one of the first guys to do it loud and proud.

A real turning point for the Punisher.

Certainly, Miller gave us the best Punisher anyone had seen up to that time with his controversial “Angel Dust” story in the pages of Daredevil, and you can’t discount that factor: at Marvel, the hippies had left the building. First Frank Miller in Daredevil, and then Steven Grant and Mike Zeck in their own Punisher mini-series, clearly didn’t give a good goddamn how this stuff might look to any parents out there (which had often been cited as a concern up to that time.) They didn’t care about any of that sissified crap– comics weren’t for kids any more, damn it! They were firmly in the pulp tradition of Mickey Spillane and Don Pendleton and all of those guys and they were going to get out there and wreck some shit.

At the time it was a breath of fresh air for superhero comics and sales reflected it. It wasn’t long before Mike Baron and Klaus Janson launched Frank in his own ongoing, which gave us a Punisher even more gleefully, unrepentantly violent than Miller’s or Grant’s had been before it.

So if you're going to do the Punisher, reasoned Baron, you should really COMMIT to it.

I recall vividly some comics journalist talking to Mike Baron about the level of violence in the book and Baron’s response was essentially to snort, “Are you kidding? Hello, it’s the PUNISHER!”

To me that said it all. (Baron’s laughing dismissal probably struck me harder than most readers because I remembered Byron Preiss agonizing about how to revive the pulp tradition over in Weird Heroes without condoning “violence as a solution,” just a couple of years before.)

Hell with that. Violence RULED. Peaceniks were out, hardcases were in. But debating whether this was a result of the culture changing AT Marvel or the wider culture changing AROUND Marvel is something that strikes me as not being an either-or question; I think it was probably a little of both. Whatever the reason… the bottom line is that finally, the Punisher had arrived. He was a huge success. There were spin-offs, tie-ins, the guy was everywhere in the 1990’s.

Funny that this is the writer associated with Frank's current success. FYI, this book is AWESOMELY GOOD.

So why not a movie? Isn’t that the logical next step?

not as awful as some say. But certainly not GREAT.

Now, I actually saw the first Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie, and it’s not horrible taken on its own terms. Truthfully, that’s the problem…. it’s not really much of anything. It’s just another ‘meh’ action movie.

In comics in the early 1990’s, the Punisher was doing something relatively unique. In theaters? Not so much. Not by then. Like I said before, by the 1990’s it was a genre and there really wasn’t anything new to audiences about the Punisher that they weren’t getting done better in movies like Die Hard.

This has been imitated and stolen from so much I think people forget how amazingly awesome it was. It really holds up.

And to me that’s the real problem. No matter how badly or well-done a Punisher movie might be, at the end of the day it’s still just going to be another action piece about an angry tough guy taking on the mob.

Did it do the comic justice? I guess maybe. But so what? Still just another action movie.

I rather liked the Thomas Jane effort a couple of years ago, but it suffered from essentially the same problem. On film, there’s nothing unique about Frank Castle. He’s a couple of decades too late. Today we have Dirty Harry and Death Wish and Die Hard and a zillion others. No matter how good a Punisher movie might be, it’s still going to look like it was ripped off from a bunch of other movies. No way are you going to get the same power of a movie like, say, Iron Man, where audiences were getting their first taste of something unique to Marvel Comics.

Marvel should probably be looking to their other properties for film success. Hell, it might even finally be time for someone to try Werewolf By Night. It’s been a while since anyone’s done a really bad-ass werewolf movie…

*

Ironically, Mack Bolan himself finally made it to comics in a complete story. (There had been a mini-series from Innovation a decade or so ago, but it was never finished.) But this year IDW put out a nice little five-issue mini-series (story by Doug Wojtowicz, art by S.L. Gallant) that’s just been collected in trade.

I enjoyed this a great deal, but it's not going to set the comics world on fire.

This one will please fans of the Executioner, I think, but here’s the irony; in comics, Bolan looks like a pale imitation of the Punisher.

Hard to believe, but this is more hardcore than Bolan's own comic.

The way Ennis and co. have been tearing it up on Frank’s own book in recent years, it sets a standard for this kind of story that’s hard to beat. Sadly, I don’t think the IDW book did; though it was a worthy effort, and worth picking up.

But maybe Bolan’s at his best in prose, the way the Punisher is at his best in comics, and maybe we should just accept that neither one of them can match what we’re seeing in the Jason Bourne or Transporter movies in terms of macho action on film. Maybe some things just shouldn’t BE adapted.

That’s the lesson. I told you we’d get there.

See you next week.

69 Comments

I look at the whole Death Wish/Punisher/Executioner thing as just another aspect of America’s swerve to the political right in the late ’70s/early ’80s. And since I’m one of those leftist neo-hippie Fake Americans, it’s hard to get too excited about any of that.

Marvel & DC (Marv Wolfman’s Vigilante, introduced about the same time as Grant’s Punisher mini got going, was basically Dirty Harry as a judge) came late to the party, of course; by the time Punisher got really going with his three books, America had already started edging back towards the middle in the Bush-Clinton years, and the cliche was well worn out. And what was going on in his books wasn’t all that unique; he was basically Rorschach with better social skills and a shitload of guns, and any attempts at social commentary (always the most laughable part of the “man alone” action genre) were pretty much stale rehashes of some of the most shallow parts of Dark Knight Returns.

By the way, you have to love The Penetrator. One wonders if they knew they were cutting right to the heart of the matter.

And since I’m one of those leftist neo-hippie Fake Americans, it’s hard to get too excited about any of that….

I am too, actually. (A school teacher who married a social worker? How could I not be?) But I still love this stuff. I can’t help myself. I’m a pulp guy; I love me some Spillane novels and low-budget action movies and hardcase Chuck Dixon comics. I suppose some psychiatrist could write a learned paper about this dichotomy, but I’m certain I’m not the only one out there that has this kind of vaguely hypocritical taste in pop culture.

Enjoyed this entry, Greg. Had no idea Mack Bolan was so popular back then.

Question, though: What differentiated the action genre from the Westerns that came before it? Both featured hardcases shooting lots of meat. Was there something more to the Western genre I on’t know about (Haven’t watched many, to be honest)?

Omar Karindu, back from an Internet Thogal ritual

December 13, 2008 at 2:35 pm

The MK take on the Punisher might work on film if the tone were maintained, something the Tom Jane movie didn’t do. Despite the use of some plot elements from the comic, like the Russian, they basically gave Jane some guns and have him say ‘I just want my kids back!” “I just want revenge!”

mainly because few action movies are (intentionally) gleefully perverse black humour extravaganzas. Of course, the MPAA would kick the crap out of it first. As it is, the only distinctive bit in the Punisher film from 2004 was the weird (in a good way) Harry Heck singing sequence.

Greg, school teacher married to another school teacher here. Liberal as well. And I love, love, love me some (Ennis) Punisher.

I’d love to read the learned paper on that dichotomy as well. Guess it’s an outlet for the negative emotions that I try not to taint my rational thoughts with. Or probably it presents a context where that easy, violent way is acceptable. Dunno.

Omar Karindu, back from an Internet Thogal ritual

December 13, 2008 at 2:39 pm

What differentiated the action genre from the Westerns that came before it?

My two cents: Westerns take place on a frontier where law and order are yet unestablished; the vigilante genre occurs in superficially civilized settings where barbarism triumphs because civilization is undefended or inherently weak by comparison.

In addition, even the Spaghetti western heroes had a kind of code of honor — they were, in whatever limited fashion, civilizing influences in a lawless region. The urban vigilante characters, on the other hand, triumph by discarding the same “civilized” restraint or weakness that the bad guys exploit. In effect, they are de-civilizing or re-militarizing figures in settings where the trappings of civilization have failed.

Omar Karindu, back from an Internet Thogal ritual

December 13, 2008 at 2:40 pm

Hm. Apparently dele and strikethrough tags don’t work here. Bummer.

Question, though: What differentiated the action genre from the Westerns that came before it? Both featured hardcases shooting lots of meat. Was there something more to the Western genre I on’t know about (Haven’t watched many, to be honest)?

I’m more of an interested onlooker than an Actual Historic Authority, but I’ll guess: Graphic violence and modern-day setting, pretty much. It gave things a visceral immediacy. Westerns have that built-in distance of “long ago,” but even those got quite a bit more violent, bloody, and even sexual in the 70’s and 80’s.

I think I saw an old movie once called The Penetrator. Premise was totally different though.

Never mind, Omar’s answer was better. THAT was the novelty. Though I still think the change of setting and more visceral portrayal helped sell it too.

For strikethrough, < del > < / del >

Ennis’ Punisher was insanely good – most likely the best book Marvel had during the time Ennis was doing it (the MAX book, that is).

They didn’t care about any of that sissified crap– comics weren’t for kids any more, damn it!

I just gotta nitpick here a little. I don’t think the creators back then had the attitude “comics aren’t for kids anymore” but rather “comics aren’t JUST for kids anymore, damn it!” Big difference. They pushed the envelope and what not, but kids were never totally abandoned, which is why I think they were so good quality and saleswise. Even the more recent 90s tacky Image-style comics over at Marvel still had teen boys in mind, I feel. I think the attitude of “comics aren’t for kids AT ALL anymore” is more of a recent phenomenon and epitomized by modern Marvel and especially Didio DC comics.

I pretty much refused to touch anything involving the Punisher during his 80s-90s heyday, so I was lucky enough to miss everything between his early appearances in Spider-Man and “Welcome Back Frank” (which I only checked out because I had enjoyed other stuff by Ennis, like Fury).
The only good Punisher movie would be something satirical that verged on super-sick black comedy, preferably a direct adaptation of one of Ennis’s loonier storylines. I know that the Thomas Jane version used plot points from “Welcome Back…”, but it left out a lot of the more out-and-out darkly-zany stuff, which was the best stuff, if you ask me.
Ennis’s recent “serious” take on the character in the MAX series, despite a few “holy shit” moments, has generally left me cold, as does much of his work whenever he decides he doesn’t want to be funny anymore.

“mainly because few action movies are (intentionally) gleefully perverse black humour extravaganzas. Of course, the MPAA would kick the crap out of it first.”

I’m not so sure about the latter point. If Sin effing City (or, I dunno, everything Tarantino’s ever made) could avoid being slapped with NC-17…

The Dirty Harry refernces make it sound like it came out in the mid-to-late eighties, but it actually predates not only the first Punny movie, the first Punny comic, but everything in this article except the Mack Bolan stories themselves. (…and Remo & Chiun rule)

No argument with jmurphy on that. Dirty Harry and Bolan were the first, and (I’m pretty sure) completely independent and unaware of one another. Someone probably could do an interesting chronological history of the ‘action/ men’sadventure’ genre; I bet there’s a book in it, and I know there’s already a couple of specialty blogs. But I’m not that guy. I’m talking more about general trends here.

What a great post. I grew up in the 80s reading every Punisher comic I could get my hand on, along with tons of superhero fare, but the Punisher books had that edge to them that drew me in, I couldn’t get enough (I think I still have all of the Punisher Armories, still). And my favorite of the 90s may be the Ennis Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe – that was genius.

I agree that the Punisher on screen might just be something of a disappointment. I haven’t seen the new one yet, but I enjoyed little bits of the Thomas Jane version, and still own (somewhere) my bootleg VHS copy of the Lundgren version (Best thing to come out of that film is the heavy rock band Biohazard sampling some of Dolph’s monologue for thier song, Punishment, back in the 90s).

But I’m still a fan, rooting for the Punisher’s corner, happy when he gets back off his ass, wiping the blood away from his face. I was hoping the Punisher’s appearace in Civil War last year would have been better. His initial appearance saving Spidy in the sewers was right on, then his flashbacks to Capt. A visiting his unit while training for Vietnam, also awesome… but then the series fizzled for me.

Last note I wanted to add, especially because I found out about this at San Diego Comic Con last year is that there will be a 2009 movie, The Wolf Man, directed by Joe Johnston starring Benecio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving. And Rick Baker is doing the make-up. Baker, Del Toro and Emily Blunt appeared off schedule – and showed some amazing footage. It looked incredible! (tentative release June 09)

Thanks again for this piece and all the history on the pulp books that influenced the Punisher. I’ve always been a big Death Wish fan, and I knew he was inspired by the Executioner novels, I just didn’t know there were so many.

Sin City would never get an NC-17 because 1.) it really wasn’t all that violent, especially in comparison to Kill Bill, and 2.) violence becomes much less disturbing when it looks like everyone is spattered with pigeon shit instead of blood.

I actually thought that War Zone did a great job of preserving the black comedy of the Ennis Marvel Knights run while balancing it out with the violence of the Max material and giving it a plot that wouldn’t have felt out of place during the Mike Baron or Chuck Dixon runs on the title, on top of which it was just an overall solid action movie. I saw Quantum of Solace and War Zone back-to-back last weekend, and I have to say, despite the fact that Quantum was arguably much more polished and had probably 3-4 times the budget of War Zone, War Zone still had the better, more exciting, more coherent action scenes of the two and arguably was better paced as well. The plot in War Zone actually seemed to escalate, whereas in Quantum felt more like a disconnected series of plot points until the writers realized they actually had to write a climax at some point.

Anyway, War Zone also contains one of the funniest moments I’ve seen in an action movie this year, and the perfect counterpoint to the parkour=invincible trend that has become increasingly prominent recently. They’ve been hyping up this meth-addicted parkour gang as some of Jigsaw’s craziest henchmen for a third of the movie and shown how they can avoid the cops in any scenario. They’re jumping along the rooftops after robbing a convenience store and killing the cashier when they start jumping across an alleyway. The second one of them is in a mid-air somersault when suddenly a missile comes flying in from offscreen and blows him to shit in mid-jump. Cut to Frank standing on the next rooftop over.

There are only two things that distinguish The Punisher from all of the other revenge/action movies:

1 – He’s not just a vengeful guy shooting bad guys, he’s a Marine MAKING WAR on the bad guys.

2 – He has a big white skull on his chest.

None of the movies have gotten that. In fact, they seem embarrassed by the big white skull. It makes me wonder why they even bother paying Marvel for the rights.

Totally agree, Mutt.
I also think Frank’s running narrative was sorely lacking from War Zone. It’s an integral part of the comics and yet, never used on film for fear of being considered “bad filmmaking”.
Apart from that, it’s clear this movie was made ESPECIALLY for us Castle freaks who were prepared to forgive the camp and the goofiness and the B-production values as long as we GOT Castle.
Well, we got Castle.
And I propose to have Lexi’s name inscribed along the greats who have contributed to the elevation of this character in the general public’s view. Hey, he started out slowly in comics; could be the same on film.
I loved War Zone. I also know I could have seen a better Castle film and so could probably all of you.
The running narrative of his life SHOWCASES all of his grief, his angst, his determination, his paranoia, his commitment, his humor and his insanity.
EXTREME depth of character. I’m shocked they don’t take advantage of this. You can talk DIRECTLY to the audience. You can TELL THEM what to think of the film.
And paint a picture of badassness that have made all badasses who’ve come before him on film look like Strawberry Shortcake.
I’m convinced of it.
Peace.

I think the only writer who has written the Punisher in a way that was at all interesting is Mike Baron. Baron included some additional unique elements in addition to the two Mutt mentions.

What set Baron’s Punisher apart from so many others was the degree to which he was calm, cool, and organized. This wasn’t a guy whose life had been destroyed by tragedy and now he pursued his own bloodlust until he could find a cathartic violent release. He was the opposite. He knew the war would never end. He knew that blood wouldn’t make him feel any better. He didn’t meet innocent kids who reminded him of his lost humanity. He wasn’t troubled and tortured, he was just cold, because he had logically decided to be pretty cold in order to do what he wanted to do. Unlike other revenge-heroes, (or even most super-heroes) Frank totally understood the consequences of the lifestyle he’d chosen and he had comfortably settled in for the long term. It made for a pretty interesting read.

I will never, for the life of me, understand what anybody sees in the writing of Ennis.

What I find humorous, reading some comments here, is that I’m a conservative guy who’s never really been interested in The Punisher. More dichotomy for the subject matter…

He wasn’t troubled and tortured, he was just cold, because he had logically decided to be pretty cold in order to do what he wanted to do.

Not disputing the characterization, but I think that was really laid down by Steven Grant in the miniseries before Baron did it. I admire Mike Baron’s work a great deal and I think he’s a large part of what made the book a hit in the 80’s, but he himself often said that it was all there in what Grant and Zeck did in the mini-series.

Never cared for The Punisher, but I love me some James Bond, so I appreciate the dichotomy discussion running through this thread.

Anyway, spectacular piece– a really nice overview of the character and his social context, and larger questions of adaptation/translation. Thinking of the way so many of these vigilante comics/films (especially the films) seem to lean rightward, I wonder if Billy Jack kind of splits the difference between left and right?

Oh, and to clarify– I’m a different “Brian” than the one who just posted above me…Guess I should make my screenname more distinctive…(:

Matt, you had me then you lost me. Your description of Baron’s Punisher sounds exactly like what Ennis understood best about Frank Castle. In the Max issues, anyway. I’ll have to check out Baron’s stuff, on your recommendation. I avoided The Punisher like the plague during the 90s as part of my “Marvel sucks because they keep trying to give us psychotic murderers as heroes” boycott. I can’t recall the title, but those comics they did that were nothing but pictures and stats of The Punisher’s weapons were cringe-inducing. “Machine gun porn.” A real low for Marvel.

I really can’t decide which Ennis version of The Punisher I like better. I love the gritty “realism” of the Max issues, but how can you not love Frank using Spidey as body armor, feeding Bruce Banner C4, and parking a steamroller on Wolverine’s head?

Definitely, Greg, I agree that Baron took cues from Grant in terms of Frank’s utilitarian sang froid, but the key element Baron added was the quotidian aspect of it. Grant’s Frank went from being in jail, to being a government agent, to going rogue, all in four issues, so he definitely hadn’t found a formula that worked long term yet.

(What was the case with the new creative team on the last issue of that mini-series, anyway?)

Mutt, I recommend especially issues 1-20 and 40-50. It got a little crazy in between.

He calls himself the Penetrator? With that mustache?

As for me, I never liked the Punisher– until I read Ennis’ Punisher, as well as the writings of Chris Sims. Now I kinda get it, and want to see the new movie, if only out of morbid curiosity.

Shucks, the Penetrator’s NOTHING. You should see Eve Drum’s backlist. Believe it or not, I think Gardner Fox actually ghosted one of those.

“Guess it’s an outlet for the negative emotions that I try not to taint my rational thoughts with. Or probably it presents a context where that easy, violent way is acceptable. Dunno.”

This may have more to do with why I dislike the Punisher (and the genre he’s associated with) than politics, now that I think of it. I went through a period as a small boy where I took that easy, violent way, often. It really took its toll on me and my family, and by the time I was out of it, I wanted nothing to do with what Marvel was doing with the character.

I probably would like Ennis’s Punisher, since from what I’ve heard it’s got more of an awareness of how broken a person Frank is to do what he does, but at the same time, I don’t feel any particular need to investigate that side of humanity. I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt with the skull on.

I’m glad someone finally pointed that, WITHOUT the Marvel Universe, The Punisher’s nothing special. Well, he wears a costume, which only makes him look goofy when compared to all the other “extreme” vigilantes. :P He’s definitely better as a comic book. Now, all we need is someone to also state that, WITHIN the Marvel Universe, Puni’s no big deal. Stories like “Punisher kills the Marvel Universe” are so absurd I can only tolerate them by thinking of them as jokes. Seriously: If, say, The Avengers wanted to bag Puni for good, they would. We all know that. He’s only gotten away with his killing sprees because the superheroes are too busy saving the World. Attempts to make him important in the Marvel Universe (like his coming series, where he hunts heroes -or is it villains now?- only come across as desperate attempts to revive his 90’s popularity. Reminds me of the time they rebooted him as an angel-powered demon killer. Yikes!)

I only see one future for the character, and that’s to leave him in his little corner of the Marvel Universe, FAR away from Spider-Man and the rest, where he can engage in the utterly sadistic, complete pointless violence that some fans now like him for.

The Lady from LUST looks quite awesome. I’d forgotten that I once read The Man from ORGY. Sheer genius.

First of all, great post.

Secondly, though – I think you’re really underestimating how much of a paradigm shift Die Hard was to the action movie genre. When that happened, basically every action movie was pitched as “Die Hard in a / with a…” (EG, the awesomely horrible Van Damme movie Sudden Death was Die Hard in a Hockey Arena) and using the looser, funnier lead actor and eschewing the single-minded vengeance seeker of the Bronson / Dirty Harry / Mack Dolan archetypes. In the aftermath of Die Hard, though, a concept as limited in scope as the Punisher isn’t ever really going to work on screen. You need a tremendous hook a la Man on Fire in order to do the pure vengeance-style action movie these days and have it be successful at the box office.

Omar: “they basically gave Jane some guns and have him say ‘I just want my kids back!”

Homeless Dad ruled.

I think one reason (not the only reason) why the Death Wish/Dirty Harry movies came to ascendance was because of a generational shift. When teens and twentysomethings were long-haired Boomers, it wasn’t universally acceptable to cast them as the enemy or to show them getting blown away in quantity. Once those same teens and twentysomethings were GenXers, though… no problem; kill ‘em all.

Funny, how nobody seems to have mentioned Ennis reteaming with Dillon on PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (which more or less picks up after the “Welcome back Frank – 12 issue Marvel Knights re-boot of Punisher) just last week.

The same sick humour.
The same ultra violence.
The same nasty villains.

Who says you can’t go home again?

If darkly comedic MK Punisher couldn’t appear in a theatre, how about MAX Punisher? Not making light of the violence, but portraying the violent protagonist as a dangerous nutcase instead of a hero ( and thus breaking the action movie mold by being a larger commentary on civilization and human weakness ).

Omar Karindu, back from an Internet Thogal ritual

December 13, 2008 at 10:04 pm

Homeless Dad ruled.

Yeah, it did. Junk was pretty depressing though. It was certainly no Les Cousins Dangereux.

As a kid, I thought the Punisher was lame because he was a guy with a gun in a universe of mutants and monsters. The Hulk could rip apart a mountain with his bare hands, Spider-Man could climb walls and spin webs- who cares that some guy shoots people?

I’ve never warmed to the character, but can appreciate a good Punisher story (and his costume’s cool as hell). Punisher: The End may be my favorite (still haven’t read the original mini, never read the Baron issues or Ennis’ MAX series, got sick of Ennis’ funny Punisher after it became an ongoing series). My problem is I don’t enjoy revenge stories all that much. I can’t take enjoyment in the acts of revenge when the protagonist is in so much pain. No matter how many criminals Frank Castle kills, his family’s still dead.

Well Omar and JackKing made all my Arrested Development jokes before I could get to them.

Good article Greg, and I completely agree with it.

My main problem with the Punisher movies is that, despite all the things going against it(such as the characters unoriginal status in Hollywood), I think their failure ultimately stems from being unable to just make a good movie.

The Mutt said quite succinctly: What makes the Punisher the Punisher is being a Marine with a skull on his chest. Haven’t seen War Zone, but I know the first two movies shied away from both of those. I say the failure lies in the filmmakers inability to make a movie with a coherent plot and lots of shoot outs and gritted teeth. That’s what makes Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Rambo, etc. so successful.

Granted, I can’t imagine it being to easy to make a good movie with all the problems that go on during production. 2004 Punisher’s budget was cut immensely, as I understand it, forcing lots of re-editing and cuts, such as almost completely cutting out the character of Harry Heck, which was the most original and best part of the movie.

Also, they have terrible soundtracks, which isn’t as much surprising as it is just disappointing.

Hey great article,I was just telling someone that The Punisher is the one character that should be easy to make into a good movie, but maybe thats the problem itself!

I think what makes Punisher the Punisher for me is his mental condition, or Ennis’s presentation of said psychological state. Which makes Matt Bird’s post a bit confusing to me, as what he described is exactly what hooked me on Ennis’s run in the first place. Frank’s (general) calmness with and acceptance of…madness, basically, constantly makes you question whether he’s really mad, or what’s up with you for seeing (and agreeing with) his perspective so easily.

The humor in the Max series is similar. Punisher does or says something totally outrageous that makes you burst out laughing (Ha! That’s insane!)…then you start reading again and realize the guy’s serious.
And you stop laughing (Christ. That’s insane…).

I’ll add, though, that I think Ennis’s Punisher *was* troubled and tortured, and it was the rare few glimpses of that torment showing through the cold persona that gave it such weight.

Also, I *do* think he lusted for blood. And Ennis’s subtle hints that Frank Castle is little more than a murdering psychopath with socially acceptable taste in victims added yet another disturbing and intriguing perspective to the series.

Oh yeah, I agree with Stephen regarding Die Hard.

I think the shift Die Hard presented to the genre made action movies more acceptable to less conservative sensibilities. Dirty Harry, Bronson et al were authoritative figures who took matters into their own hands, sought revenge and dismissed the law.
John McClain was an everyman in a shitty situation who somewhat reluctantly (but very ably) fought his way out. Heck, McClane’s efforts to cooperate with other police officers (and vice versa) is crucial to the first three movies.

A political comparison of those two themes speaks volumes.

Great article Greg. I think that you have to look at the difference between fans of Action movies that see the films as complete fantasies, and those that think it would be a good idea if we had more Frank Castles in the world. I think you can see this in the way that Moore wrote Watchmen to decry the violent politics of the Reagan era but some of its fans see Rorschach as some sort of perfect hero (I tend to blame everything bad the happened in the 80s on Reagan, it may be a slight exaggeration). This is one of the things that I think is most interesting (and frustrating) about Frank Miller, many of his works seem to be uncritically pushing this masculinist message, but they’re wrapped in the veneer of possible satire that makes it impossible to know whether he actually agrees with what he writes.

Sijo,
That angel-killer thing is basically what killed the series, and not, in my opinion, the psycho-generational shift in Society that a lot of folks are making it out to be.
Mike Loughlin,
The very questions you have about the character is what is explored in depth by the writers’ NARRATION, which is what we DON’T have in film.
But let’s face facts: the comic’s appeal is that it’s about a big, badass mother-lover walkin’ around and doing to criminals what most law-abiding citizens only dream about. It’s a visceral pleasure that is perfectly understandable.
A thousand years ago, it was the threat of Hell. That threat wore off as less and less people believed in Hell to begin with. An ex-marine assassin with Spec Ops training going around torturing and executing criminals is MUCH more believable as a modern day Angel of Death.
This isn’t Inspector Callahan or Charles Bronson; this is Frank Castle, a whole different LEAGUE of character. At its “comic” extreme, you could say. He’s the most dangerous man to ever walk the earth. That’s who’s supposed to be walkin’ onscreen. Which is why I’m happy that Marvel at REALIZES, that if done correctly, Castle CAN sell at the theatres. Cuz he’s the baddest of’em all.
Peace

I find these series fascinating, partly because the most of the series have gone for dozens and sin some cases, hundred of books. When you describe the plot to someone else these books all sound the same, but the execution is usually surprisingly good. Like most pulp, you shouldn’t overthink circumstances or coincidences, but rather just go along and enjoy the ride.
I still think some of these series would make for a great ‘Story-telling Engine’.

What really cracks me up is that Gerry Conway claims to this day that he’d never heard of, let alone read, Don Pendleton’s Executioner books at the time he created the Punisher. I have a lot of respect for Conway but this stretches credulity to the breaking point. CYA at its boldest.

Now, all we need is someone to also state that, WITHIN the Marvel Universe, Puni’s no big deal. Stories like “Punisher kills the Marvel Universe” are so absurd I can only tolerate them by thinking of them as jokes. Seriously: If, say, The Avengers wanted to bag Puni for good, they would. We all know that.

That’s true, but it doesn’t bother me so much because it’s usually occurs in a rare story or a What If? But this concept bothers me more at DC with Batman, this idea that he could singlehandedly stop the whole DC Universe at will, even all at once, with just a little “prep time.” This concept bothers me more because it’s a conceit they indulge in almost monthly and has now become a given. I miss the old days where it was pretty much a given that if Batman and Superman ever went at it, Batman would pretty much not stand a chance.

Omar Karindu, back from an Internet Thogal ritual

December 14, 2008 at 11:46 am

You know I agree with you on the Batman/Superman thing, T. Hell, as I’ve said elsewhere, the source of that fan assumption portrays Batman defeating Superman as requiring far more than just “prep time.”

What really cracks me up is that Gerry Conway claims to this day that he’d never heard of, let alone read, Don Pendleton’s Executioner books at the time he created the Punisher. I have a lot of respect for Conway but this stretches credulity to the breaking point. CYA at its boldest.

I’ve never understood that either… especially since you literally could not pass a paperback spinner rack in the early 70’s without seeing DOZENS of those books. If Gerry Conway bought a paperback book at any venue other than a specialty bookstore in those years he’d have seen a half-dozen Executioners, Destroyers, etc. “Never read one” I can believe, but “Never heard of”?

It seems a little odd considering how many OTHER tribute/homage/whatever things Marvel has done over the years. The Squadron Supreme was a lot closer to home and everyone was always upfront about where THEY got stolen from…. not to mention all the various things Chris Claremont appropriated for the X-Men over the years (The Hellfire Club, Alien, etc., etc.)

Although I will admit that judging from what I found on the late Don Pendleton’s own official website, his family is extremely litigious. No quotes or images, not even for “other web sites,” so I was careful not to get any of my images from there. I was annoyed at not being able to quote Pendleton though. The things he had to say about his creation makes one wonder if he’s talking about the same Mack Bolan we all know, despite being the primary source on the stuff.

How come no one’s mentioned Taxi Driver yet?

Anyone else find the pug-ugly palooka Punisher that was in Spider-Man recently as amusing as Skeevy Namor?

Great article, and some great posts too.
I’m a big Punisher fan, always have been, and I think the major problem that the films have had is that they treat the premise as revenge, when they should be thinking along the same lines as the comics, which is an ongoing mission to kill ALL criminals not just particular ones that have pissed him off.
The Dolph Lundgren version had this at the start but then degenerated into a pedestrian story about rescuing some small kid.

And the cover to issue 1 of the ongoing series has always been one of my favorites, the sheer OTT-ness of hanging by a rope outside an upper floor window pointing a bazooka at someone sets the stage for every decent Punisher story that followed.

I haven’t seen the movie yet so I reserve judgment on it, but the arguments made here in the article and posts make it clear that dark and gritty Punisher doesn’t work in film. How about if they made a movie based on the current Punisher War Journal series where Frank has a high-tech wielding accomplice. I’d imagine it would at least be more visually appealing and would allow for Frank to reasonably take on tougher foes than the typical mob soldier. Alas nobody even mentions this series and I’m left wondering if I’m the only that likes it.

One thing I feel certain about is that the timing was horrible… following Iron Man and Dark Knight is a tough enough spot for a Punisher movie but with the holidays around the corner what did they really expect?
“Just finished up our x-mas shopping babe, what say we go watch Frank kill a bunch of folks?”

The penetrator really…
Kung fu Fighter; I guess he was Kung Fu fighting
and Exterminator the guy who got a beef with cockroach..
The genre is lot of fun.

I cheer every time I see that the new Punisher movie is doing poorly? Why? Because it is bloody awful and I hate seeing crap like that beeing rewarded.

I saw it for free and felt like it wasn’t worth the money… well, that’s not quite true. There were a couple of chuckle moments that made it not a complete waste of time.

That tells you something, though. If the best part of a Punisher movie is the humor, they are missing the point. The action was all shock and no substance. The dialogue was BRUTAL and none of the acting was good enough to overcome it (if that were even possible).

The Thomas Jane version was just not very good. This one is insultingly bad.

I think Crash-Man’s take on the Punisher’s mindset is about right, and oddly, it’s most interesting in a serial format.

If you think about it, a *lot* of movies have the format of the Thomas Jane Punisher movie: “Hero’s family murdered, hero seeks and achieves revenge by killing lots of bad guys.” And that’s pretty much the end of the story. What’s strange and interesting about Frank is that he *keeps going* after that. By this point, he’s presumably killed every single person who had even a tangential connection to killing his family. And he’s smart enough to know he’s not really “eliminating crime” or anything. And yet he keeps going, and *that* is pretty interesting!

The Mutt: “None of the movies have gotten that. In fact, they seem embarrassed by the big white skull. It makes me wonder why they even bother paying Marvel for the rights.”

Huh? The Tom Jane film had a big white skull that was pretty prominent. They even explain why he’s wearing it, even if it wasn’t really necessary. I can agree with you if you’re talking War Zone (where it was so faded that you probably wouldn’t notice it) and the Dolph Punisher (which cut out the skull motif entirely). But in the Thomas Jane film the design was pretty much exactly the same as one of Tim Bradstreet’s covers.

But then I liked the Jane film for the most part. It certainly had some fairly noteworthy flaws. The biggest being John Travolta as the villian, not that he was bad, per se, it just seemed that they wanted a big star to be in their movie but didn’t actually stop to think any further then that. He was just generic mob boss guy. The other flaw was that Tampa Florida is not really fitting with the Punisher universe. The rest of it I thought was rather enjoyable. Not great, but a decent flick, and better then I expected. I would have liked to have seen what the same crew as Jane film could have done with a bigger budget, a better filming location and an R rating.

“But their hearts weren’t in it. This is one of those genres that you genuinely have to have a feel for and I don’t think anyone working at Marvel in the 70’s really could have pulled off that kind of unrepentant macho. The closest anyone came was Roy Thomas over on Conan, and you’ll note that Roy’s version of the mighty barbarian was quite a bit more thoughtful and poetic than Robert E. Howard’s was originally.”

More poetic than REH? I suggest you read some of his verses.

Life is a lamp with the glimmer gone,
A dank and a darkened cave;
Yet still I swear by the light of dawn,
And not by the grip of the grave.

– “Hope Empty of Meaning”

http://woldnewton.blogspot.com/2009/04/serial-vigilantes-of-paperback-fiction.html
Check out Brad Mengel’s upcoming (in June) book Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction for an encyclopedia of paperback original series. It seems he will put together a comprehensive overview.

Regarding R-rated adventure films: it seems that the tide has turned against R-rated adventure films.
R-rated films, in theaters, outside of the independent studios, in general have become somewhat more scarce of late. I posted a thread on a board about this, but it seems that the seeds of Star Wars (never R-rated) have started pushing out other genres. It seems that Star Wars desensitized people for a Superman movie; as Ken Begg wrote “if people could believe in Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, why not Superman?”. I remember reading your interview in Amazing Heroes#119 where Max Allan Collins said that he did not expect too many epic science fiction or fantasy adventure films would do well. While at the time this seemed an accurate prognosis (AH#119 came out the same year as Superman IV: The
Quest For Peace and three years after the David Lynch version of Dune), in the years since
many stars of R-rated adventure films have entered tough times, and few new players have replaced them._________________________________________________________________________
http://www.jabootu.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=3880

Steven Seagal: not longer as fit and agile
Chuck Norris: eleven years the senior of Seagal, and while still fit for a man
of his age, has seemed to focus more on his family life
JCVD: well publicized substance abuse and family problems
Charles Bronson: deceased
Clint Eastwood: has moved on to other projects and directing
Stallone: substance abuse HGH, noticeably aged and weathered (actually,
Stallone’s Rocky films never received R-ratings)
Schwarzenegger: exit strategy of moving on to politics
Bruce Willis: actually moved on to other genres; note that the last Die Hard
went PG-13

Other than Mengel’s book, two other books also took an overiew of the PBO phenomenon.
Saint With a Gun came out in the 1970’s, and the last chapter covers the Marksman, the Assasin, the Lone Wolf, etc. Warrior Dreams by Gibson came out in 1994.

In Amazing Heroes#119, Max Allan Collins noted that Dick Tracy voted for Reagan, but he did not. So, political views do not always correlate with one’s work. By the way, perhaps a case of he who laughs last, in the book Warrior Dreams by Gibson (excerpt below in another book, available on books.google), we find this quote from Don Pendleton. Guns in America: a reader- Google Books Result
by Jan E. Dizard, Robert M. Muth, Stephen P. Andrews – 1999 – History – 517 pages
For example, Pendleton’s guidebook to writers for The Executioner series says, “Bolan is not Flash Gordon. He is an idealized man, yes, but such men are found outside of comic strips.Several other editors also mentioned their disdain for the older comic book heroes.” The irony here? While many of the comic book heroes who predated the PBO series of the 1960’s to 1980’s still run, yet most PBO series have faded from the scene. Also, few such PBO series ever made it into other media-while George Lucas unabashedly based Star Wars on Flash Gordon.

http://books.google.com/books?id=ygcO6WyqrYkC&pg=PA257&lpg=PA257&dq=bolan+not+flash+gordon&source=bl&ots=L1jD6iVG19&sig=F2i5flYkwnnYhIJOYsFOVB9GoEY&hl=en&ei=NwLxSfCGIoTgyQWa1ZDIDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2

I would find it interesting to see if anyone reprints any of those PBOS in another ten or twenty years. After all, the Shadow, the Spider, the Phantom (of Phantom Detective) and Doc Savage have received reprints as late as 75 years since their respective debuts (from Adventure Hourse, Baen, and elsewhere).
http://www.audiobooksonline.com/Penetrator-Book-1-The-Target-is-H-Chet-Cunningham-unabridged-retail-mp3-compact-disc-Books-in-Motion.html
You can order audiobooks of the Penetrator online, though.
http://www.booksinmotion.com/category_s/136.htm

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