MARVEL UNIVERSE VS THE PUNISHER Art by Goran Parlov Written by Jonathan Maberry Coloured by Lee Loughridge Lettered by VC's Cory Petit Originally published as MARVEL UNIVERSE VS THE PUNISHER #1-4 Marvel, (£4.99, Digital), (2010) The Punisher created by John Romita Snr, Ross Andru & Gerry Conway
“The Last Man Alive Is Not Alone!” hooted the tagline for The Omega Man (1971) and such remains the case in Parlov & Maberry’s spiritual cousin set in the Marvel U. This time out the last man alive isn’t the brawny melancholic Charlton Heston but comics’ favourite armed meltdown Frank Castle, and he has all the ordnance in the world. This is good for Frank because his opponents aren’t a bunch of disgruntled anaemics with flaky faces and frightwigs but your very own childhood favourite superheroes gone cannibal and crazy. The appetites of these long pig crazy super mentals are vast but probably not as vast as the modern appetite for seeing our four colour chums degraded and subjected to the basest of instincts. Which is fine, as long as it’s done well. Mostly it isn’t, that’s my beef. This stuff appeals to the misanthropic adolescent within us all, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s little point railing against the inevitable and inarguable components of human nature. Particularly the shitty bits. After all, if I may mangle Voltaire for a moment, if the misanthropic adolescent within us all didn’t exist then Mark Millar would have had to invent it. We all like to get a little nasty is what I’m getting at. But you’ve got have standards. Because, well, if we don’t have standards, then where are we? Hmm? Hmm? At this point having begun sounding like Richard Liberty losing his mind in Day of The Dead (1985) it can only mean it’s time to segue silkily into the next paragraph. MARVEL UNIVERSE VS THE PUNISHER by Parlov, Maberry, Loughridge & Petit
The crux then, as ever, is whatever the comic is, is it done well? Oh, I’m supposed to tell you? Well, okay then, if I must. We all know The Punisher (the man who is to picnics as Thomas Wayne is to shortcuts; comic book dads are a feckless bunch are they not?) and I know I’m familiar enough with the work of Goran Parlov (the master of the Alex Toth and landscape panel one-two punch) for his work to be the reason I bought this book, but I know not of this Jonathan Maberry. So I had a look, and it turns out Jonathan Maberry writes books I don’t read. In a somewhat grudging and definitely perfunctory spirit of fairness I looked at some of the covers. These prominently featured sweaty men with shaved heads and muscles like subcutaneous melons grimacing as they clutched big guns like someone was going to snatch them away and also, zombies. Lots of zombies. The titles were peppered with words such as ghost, blues, dead, moon, bad, kittens, plague, patient, zero etc. like so much butch literary buckshot. It’s a genre unto itself it seems and it’s called Military Horror apparently, and its heavy balls swing deep and low. Or so I’d guess having not read any of it. It’s probably pretty fun stuff; everyone likes reading about ball swingers killing the shit out of shit as the clock ticks down. Even effete old berks like me. And he’s won a few Bram Stoker Awards this Maberry fellow, so, you know, we probably aren’t talking about some ungodly toxic male trash the rapists keep stealing from the prison library. No, that’s the Hugo Awards.
What I’m getting at is I wasn’t expecting much, something for my eyes at least; I can always depend on the pared down but still beefy stylings of Goran Parlov to give me my money’s worth. But as you’ve probably guessed by now, turns out this book’s premise is well within the quarantine area of Jonathan Maberry’s sweet spot of Sweaty Cock Gun Horror. The end result being that not only were my eyes entertained by Parlov’s thrillingly sparse art but Maberry’s darkly fun mangasm of violence engaged my adrenal glands throughout. Which is obvious in retrospect, given his literary oeuvre and the fact that this comic is about comics’ foremost swinger of balls killing the shit out of shit while the clock ticks. And there’s a lot of shit to kill the shit out of this time out. Someone, probably not Voltaire, once said that when seeking revenge one should first dig two graves; in MARVEL UNIVERSE VS PUNISHER they may have underestimated that by about six billion.
Because, right, because thanks to some dude exercising his right to bear arms a little too enthusiastically (Guess who. Go on.) in close proximity to some chemical weapon smugglers the world is now populated for the most part by deranged cannibals, and that includes the super folk. Faced with a world gone wrong Frank decides to kill it. He’s a simple man. Cue up scenes of Frank murderalising all the old favourites, who are now hunched over and drooling with a malignant savagery that seemingly seeks to pander to the worst conceptions of mature super-hero storytelling, but due to an undercurrent of intelligence actually serves to poke deadpan fun at such edgey larks. The danger with such edgey stuff is that it may swiftly misstep into mean-spirited sadism, and the book fails to dodge this danger on a couple of occasions. The worst is when The Invisible Woman suffocates her kids with her force field. Personally (call me old fashioned) but I’m not super into seeing kids killed (that bit took me right out of the trash classic Planet Terror (2007)). I think your work needs to be pretty weighty to pull that stuff off, and I’m pretty certain MARVEL UNIVERSE VS THE PUNISHER isn’t in that weight class. Sure, it’s about stuff like redemption, and the price of peace in such a wronged-up world, and contains Frank’s final frank acceptance of his own bleak nature, but that’s genre stuff; the book’s not about enough real stuff or even about genre stuff robust enough to carry a double infanticide.
It’s just a slip though, and all of one panel of a slip at that. But, you know, it really put me off my stroke. In most other places the older-sibling-breaking-all-the-toys vibe works fine, as when The Thing sits on a pile of skulls while super-ladies caress his shingly thighs. That avoids being crass or misogynistic in and of itself because it’s riffing on an image central to a predominantly crass and misogynistic genre. The visual call-back to crass misogyny applied to a big orange lug in the 21st Century is funny, and that humour carries you past the bad taste. I’m not sure who could get real humour out of a woman suffocating her two kids, Todd Solondz maybe, but it isn’t Jonathan Maberry (and it’s a comics challenge I’m content to leave hanging, thanks). In fairness though, Mayberry’s dealing here with tonally tricky stuff; it has to be horrific but humorous, yet one can’t swamp the other. So, I guess the odd slip’s okay. He sure gets Iron Man’s demise just right though. It’s truly horrible and also sickly amusing. A fate worse than death indeed, but probably not a fate worse than having to appear in two books a month written by Brian Bendis. Death would be a kindness. A few stumbles then, but Maberry manages to avoid Millar Syndrome for the most part to provide a playfully appalling take on the Marvel Universe.
It might be catty but I can’t help but suggest it could have done with a tighter editorial rein though, as some of the book seems oddly contradictory. The identity of Patient Zero is played out over more than one issue as being some kind of big deal Mystery Reveal, while in fact the comic has already clearly shown Patient Zero in the first issue. So that’s a bit odd. And I’m pretty sure I’d already seen the head of the actual Real Mystery Reveal sat atop a stake in Frank’s garden. It could have been someone else, I guess, what with the uniqueness of that character kicking in below the neck, so that might be me getting confused. Last week I almost poured milk into the kettle, so anything goes! Just little niggles; on the whole the terse and gruffly streamlined approach works a treat. The spread of the contagion is portrayed in a dismayingly convincing manner and the smackdowns are brutal and inventive. Even Deadpool, who capers about on many of these pages, failed to make me wretch. But it wouldn’t be such a treat without Parlov’s art; his storytelling remains a thrilling enough reason for purchase in and of itself. The staging of the Frank vs. The Hulk sequence is perfection, with the reveal of what Frank’s firing a perfect punchline to the preceding sequence of set-up. The basically ridiculous nonsense is all grounded in an overgrown and rubbly New York confidently evoked by Parlov’s use of familiar landmarks with his noteworthy ability to convey a sense of both space and scale. Although clearly doffing his cap to the disgruntled Master Alex Toth, Parlov seems to push past Toth in one respect at least; his daring quest to see how few lines he can put on the page without them buckling under the weight of the visual information they have to carry. However, as much as I fawn over his work, I do take issue with Parlov’s decision to give Frank a pony tail which undermines him a little, because as we all know under every pony tail is a horse’s ass. Just joking, it was getting a bit dry with all that art stuff. But if you are grown man with a pony tail do feel free to take that seriously. The ‘60s are gone and you blew it, Chester.
Christ, that’s far too many words for what is essentially THE PUNISHER SHOOTS THE MARVEL UNIVERSE IN THE FACE AND DOESN’T TAKE HIS FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNTIL HE JUST HEARS DRY CLICKS. Jonathan Maberry does a good job and Goran Parlov does a better one, so if we add that up, turn around three times, and say the magic word “spangdangler!” we get VERY GOOD! (in terms of craft and entertainment, I stress).
NEXT TIME: Maybe I’ll turn my
PENNANCE CRITICAL STARE on Ghost Rider! Maybe I won’t! It’s what’s called a cliff-hanger. They used to have ‘em in – COMICS!!!