The Punisher: Force of Nature:
This is a 48-page MAX one-shot (34 without ads), although it's interesting to note that Marvel seems to be drawing a visual distinction between the Ennis-written MAX continuity and separate Explicit Content projects like this (or last year's Annual); the Frank Castle we see here is a bit younger, and decked out in a more costume-like black outfit, although he still seems to be running around in his own discreet modern world. It makes sense not to unnecessarily tie the character down to Ennis' world specifics, if Marvel does intend to continue the series with another writer, although it also brings to my mind the character's implied prayer at the end of the Ennis-written The Punisher: The End, that the next time he's revived he'll be able to avert his own origin; truly, Hell is an ongoing franchise.
The writer here is Duane Swierczynski (soon to head the revived Cable), and his story is exactly the type of stock plot that could have filled a gap in any prior run of the series: Frank is stalking a bunch of villains, but needs to collect some information too, so he observes/antagonizes them with unparalleled cunning until they crack up on each other. I guess the twist is that the seaborne Frank winds up facing down a literal whale in the last four pages while cleaning up his mess, although building the title character up as totally fucking unstoppable for the rest of the issue doesn't allow the finale to register as much more than an odd joke.
Even then, it sort of fits; Swierczynski augments the usual narration with a cheesy, VHS action hero sense of humor, spiked with extra thuggish sadism, and artist Michel Lacombe (with the late Stéphane Peru on colors) gives the character a rattish snarl that suggests even Frank isn't taking his mission very seriously. Granted, that doesn't make such uninspired material any less EH, and I could see a renewed Punisher of this sort getting tired awfully quickly, but we'll have to wait and see. The strength of Ennis' run, after all, was more in accumulation than great single issues.
Punisher War Journal #16:
Meanwhile, back in the Marvel U proper, writer Matt Fraction offers up a sequel of sorts to my favorite story of his 'Frank as supervillian hunter' run, the barroom massacre saga of issue #4, in which gaudily costumed crooks shot the breeze and reveled in absurdity until the cruel, detached 'hero' of the piece burned them all down. It was both a prickly take on contemporary superhero tone, and a clever homage to Mark Gruenwald's famous Bar With No Name story from Captain America; perhaps not coincidentally, Fraction's Punisher would later take up the Cap mantle itself. And while some of Fraction's stories have lapsed into tedium (the Cap one, for instance), his take on the character retains a unique bitterness in its best moments.
This issue sees bar survivor The Gibbon -- no longer terribly gibbonesque due to third-degree burns -- plotting his revenge on Frank, against the wishes of his now-blind now-wife, Princess Python. Again, Fraction spends time building up the camaraderie among cheesy supervillain concepts; the difference here is that the mild villain feels melancholic over not being as hard as the authoritarian bastard of the comic's title, who gets things done like the ultimate stern father ("And behave.") of a childish world. It's not an easy mix, but neither is the worldview Fraction has built.
He's also developed the best-yet superhero forum for Howard Chaykin's divisive latter-day visual style, airy and grizzled and texture-mad, with colors (as always) by Edward Delgado. It's great for presenting conversations between odd-looking people and tense wanderings through city streets - exactly what the script requires. The more off-kilter attributes of the approach seem perfect for filling out the specifics of Fraction's viewpoint, clenched expressions and garish hues and all. The team's going to be sticking around for a bunch of issues, and I'll want to see how they operate as more typical Punisher-centric action inevitably takes over. GOOD for now.