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PunisherMAX: Better in Black & White

Some books simply demand the stark simplicity of no color, the absence of any warmth or hope. Steve Dillon’s stunningly beautiful artwork shines in black and white. Simultaneously, Jason Aaron creates an all-encompassing bleak world view for the inhabitants of the Punisher’s world. The PunisherMAX has little use for color.

I just finished reading Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s PunisherMAX volume 2: Bullseye (or issues #6-12 of the monthly comic book, for people smart enough to be buying this in single issues.) I knew I’d like it, the only reason I didn’t buy it as it came out monthly is because I started with trades, and once I start I can’t really switch. It shouldn’t matter, but it does, so I’m reading the trades. I would have expected to jump on each one as it came out, but life got on top of me, so I’d forgotten more of them were out after I read the stylish and unexpectedly heartbreaking first volume (PunisherMAX Volume 1: Kingpin.) Sounds sad that I could have let this excellent book be in the world without jumping on it as soon as possible, but sometimes life gets awfully distracting and the luxury of literary escapism just isn’t possible. Anyway, I finally got around to buying it this weekend, and read it in one sitting as soon as I got home. In fact, I went out specifically to buy it because once I realized that I had a free few hours, it was the first thing on my mind and I had to have it.

Aaron and Dillon continue their path, further examining the depressingly warped logic of the super villians of the Punisher’s world, this time focusing on Bullseye, without moving their unblinking gaze from the miserable car wreck that is the Kingpin’s developing existence. The stark, matter-of-fact storytelling reminds me of independent action movies from the mid 1960′s – late ’70′s, like the original Get CarterBonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, or Raging Bull, films loaded with atmosphere and unflinching tragedy.

The weird thing about Steve Dillon’s art is how clean and almost cartooney it is in contrast to the subject matter (please know that this is NOT intended as any kind of criticism) His approach to something as raw and heartbreakingly violent as Aaron’s writing is oddly cool and linear, which is a perfect fit for Frank Castle’s world view of detachment and ruthless judgement. Dillon’s visceral, detailed content combined with his cool, explicit style on Aaron’s PunisherMAX remind me a little of Jacen Burrows work on Alan Moore’s Neonomicon script, in that there is an almost diagrammatic approach, a total lack of titillation in the horror, which makes it that much more palatable. With each man’s art, you get the idea that they’ve deeply delved into the hideous, nightmare-filled script which the writer presented them with, and spun from these horrors intricate documentation of everything that happened, making it all that much easier for us to digest.

Now I think the coloring on the PunisherMAX is very nice. The colorist does an extremely good job, the colors are beautiful, the detail is fantastic, and everything is appropriately colored too. However, when you take a look at how harsh and raw the two black and white pages are in the back (there are two of Dillon’s own inked pages in the back of the book as part of the extra material), you know that this should be a black and white comic book. Everything about it screams black and white, from Castle’s totally inflexible view of right and wrong, to Aaron’s moody, sparse, film-noir dialogue. Everyone in this book is living in a miserable, broken version of their lives, things are as bad as they can be. There are no pretty colors for these people, not for a single character, their world view is a dismal, monochromatic half-life, wasted on seeking vengeance which can only hurt them more. Coloring the book in such clean, crisp colors is one way to limit the impact of such a horrific world-view, but mitigating the stark existence of these characters does a disservice to the authors and to the readers because it feels more like a marketing decision than a smart choice for the story itself. The idea that people need bright colors is a mistake the DC and Marvel often make, and it assumes that we need pretty colors more than we need a realistic story, that we care more about printing costs than content.

Neonomicon would also have worked without color, but the fact that it used the muddy coloring so common on horror comics made it that much less noticeable. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we use Vertigo-esque coloring on Dillion and Aaron’s PunisherMAX story, that would be completely inappropriate, but I do think that if it MUST have color (and I personally do not feel that it should, but I’m willing to entertain the idea, just for marketing purposes) it needed to have a much more aggressively monochromatic color treatment. E.g. a simple red wash over a page to indicate the badly lit interior of the Punisher’s safe house could have indicated not only the claustrophobic nature of the space, the tension and simmering rage in the scene as the characters moved through it. The current, literal color scheme makes emotional sense in a low key way throughout, but I think monochrome would have had more impact. Having said that, in the scenes where Bullseye is playing “happy families” (and for people who haven’t read it yet, I’m not going to spoil it by explaining what is happening there) the color is perfect. The spring-color palette used on those pages gives the art a spectacularly surreal quality, reminiscent of the opening scenes of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where the audience is introduced to the perfectly happy suburban homes, complete with white picket fence and Disney-esque song birds. But even in Blue Velvet, as the story devolves into madness and pain, the scenes are increasingly shot at night, with only poor reflected ambient lighting, which eventually devolves to a very basic color scheme of (logically) blue tones. (I realize that I’m making a lot of film references here, but I find that Aaron’s pacing and storytelling style lends itself as well to techniques of filmmaking as it does to comparisons with other comic books.)

My love of books like Love & Rockets, Optic Nerve, Guy Delisle‘s travelogues, and The Courtyard (to name just a few) isn’t simply based on quality, but also on the impact and sensitive treatment of the art. I’m happy to buy black and white comic books and it seems to me that I cannot be the only person who feels this way. This year’s Oscar winning film was not only black and white, but silent too. Surely it is time for comic book publishers to accept that there is a market for black and white comic books, particularly when the subject matter is a single-minded, judgmental, brutally violent, adult-targeted comic, which lends itself so perfectly to a monochromatic treatment.

19 Comments

I picked it up monthly from the beginning, and I agree that black and white would work well to enhance the content of the book. I found the coloring, while beautifully done, a bit out of sync with what was happening on the page.

It got me thinking about Ennis’ and Dillon’s “Welcome Back Frank” that also had color, though I think it was a better fit in that context. There is a wide variety of coloring styles throughout the Punisher “MAX” imprint, I’ll have to go back and check it out.

Also, though a different beast, one of the reasons I love “the Walking Dead” is the B&W and believe it wouldn’t be the same book with color. The lack of coloring seems to make the bleakness and violence that much more real.

Now that you mentioned Vertigo coloring, I can’t help but think of “Preacher” and Matt Hollingsworth’s color job. It’d be interesting to see something like that with Aaron’s script and of course, Dillon’s art.

Good point, and I’m inclined to agree based on the images above. On an even more basic level, since the Punisher’s aesthetic is already black and white, down to his skin and hair color, stopping at inks would cost little in the way of visual appeal, something that cannot be said of a Superman or Flash comic, for example.

It’s interesting, because the Punisher does not have a huge following, and I suspect most of his current readers are fans of pulp/noir (certainly, his current writer is). I think Marvel could draw a lot of eyeballs to the title if they would experiment a bit with price and production; I’m thinking $1.99, black and white on cheap paper stock. God knows, there are only so many Punisher stories in the world (don’t tell Frank Tieri), and if the “new” stories will essentially be retellings, then Marvel can at least vary the reading experience by packaging them differently.

I’m sorry, but just….*ugh*. Comic book violence ramped up to this level of intensity–and yes, I know this is in an imprint that allows this kind of material–is another reason why I hate modern comics.

Oh come on, Acer, this is the Punisher. ferchrissakes. If it were in a Spider-Man or Superman book, you might have a legitimate beef.

And not all modern comics are ultraviolent–I know that most of the ones I read aren’t. It’s not fair to condemn all modern comics just because some are intensely violent. But those violent books are out there for people who like that kind of thing (and if someone didn’t, would she really be reading Punisher?). Everybody wins.

@sgt pepper
I know it’s the Punisher, but I’ve seen stuff of him drawn by Mike Zeck, JR Jr., and others–at least they had their boundaries. I guess I’m more used to the kind of violence they showed on stuff like Batman: The Animated Series.

I’ve always loved Steve Dillon’s art in black and white, having first encountered it on Judge Dredd many, many years ago during the City of the Damned storyline.

I’m absolutely not saying he’s a bad artist, but I just can’t get into Steve Dillon’s art. In fact it’s the reason in not reading Aaron’s Punisher despite hearing good things about it and the fact Ennis’s Punisher Max was my favourite book of the 00s.

I kind of wish they’d get Goran Parlov to do a cover version of this series just for me, but then I’m egocentric like that.

@Acer Correct me if I’m wrong, but on B:TAS they weren’t allowed to show guns firing bullets right? How would that work for the Punisher

Actually the no guns thing was a longstanding rule that the Batman cartoon was the first to break. That’s why cops etc have laser guns in Transformers and the 90s X-Men cartoon.

@Danny
Gavin’s right. Real guns were in BTAS–actual bullet sound effects. Look it up.

Annoyed Grunt

May 17, 2012 at 5:27 pm

To be fair, BTAS did have some restrictions that would make it tough to do a Punisher comic. He could use real guns but never actually kill anyone. Or break glass.

@Annoyed Grunt
They broke glass all the time in BTAS!!!

I’ve recently been re-reading Judge Dredd and the quality of Dillon’s work goes down once the series dips to B&W.

John Byrne looks better in B&W too to my eye.

@Annoyed Grunt
They broke glass all the time in BTAS!!!

Yeah, BtAS wasn’t the show with the restrictions, it was the show that led to the OTHER show (Spider-Man) having restrictions in response to BtAS (like the gun and broken glass ban).

Yeah I will add to the list of things that need to be reprinted in black and white Cable/Soldier X by Igor Kordey, Saffino’s and Kubert’s Punisher minis, everything Writen by chuck dixon for that matter. Greg Rucka’s Wolverine and Hulk, the list goes on.

I’m forever grateful for Terry Moore doing b&w.

I don’t read Punisher, but the art does look better here colorless. Marvel would do well to see how a project like this would sell in black and white, like the Batman: Black & White project over at DC.

Annoyed Grunt

May 18, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Okay, my mistake. I was thinking of this old picture Bruce Timm did featuring all the restrictions they had in one image. A window was broken in that one so I assumed that was on the list.

Ugh, this art is terrible it has no detail or weight. Decolorizing panels intended to be colored is like listening to hard rock songs unplugged. You would hope with passing of Tony DeZuniga and Ernie Chan recently, people would take a moment to appreciate what REAL black and white art is.

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