The late ’90s weren’t a great time for the comic book industry, as myriads of variant covers and other flubs along the way almost ruined the business and along with it the reputations of several characters that were either misrepresented with shoddy storylines or in some cases, forgotten about entirely.
In the case of the Punisher, he kind of falls into both of those categories.
Despite developing a huge fan base since his origin in the late ’70s, Marvel Comics’ resident non-mutant, gun-toting vigilante wasn’t nearly as hot a commodity as he once was and by 2001 was in desperate need of a Red Bull. Maybe it was due to the impending movie deals of other characters in the universe; maybe it was the fact that teenagers today find mutants cooler than Vietnam vets with tons of guns.
Either way you look at it though, Frank Castle and his alter ego were paying tribute to rock legend Jackson Browne, effectively â€œRunning on Empty.â€
That was until Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon came along and penned and drew the 12-issue mini-series â€œWelcome Back, Frank,â€ which not only revitalized the character for this generation, but inspired the Thomas Jane-powered “Punisher” flick [not to be compared to the uber crappy one that came out last year], giving the character more recognition than he’s gotten in quite some time.
Witty, bloody worthy of the name, â€œWelcome Back, Frankâ€ is a Punisher story that brings the character back to his roots. For that, it is not only a great read for dedicated fans, but it is also an excellent starting point for new ones that understand what the character is about, but haven’t seen him do his thing yet.
After a lengthy exodus from vigilante fun, Castle returns to New York City, intent on destroying Ma Gnucchi and her crime syndicate that runs rampant over the five boroughs like a plague of filth and despair. One by one, those that help the crime queen answer to Castle, meeting their maker in ways that can only be described as illustrative, interesting and intriguing. Showing off both the writing of Ennis and the storytelling power of Dillion’s brush, â€œWelcome Back, Frankâ€ is a gritty read that not only channels Ennis’ ability with dark humor and realism, it pushes the envelope and leaves little to the reader’s imagination as far as the art is concerned.
Want to see what happens to your skull after surviving an attack by a pissed off Polar Bear? Dillon’s got it for you and then some.
Adding to the overall timbre of the story are several small sub-stories that add different elements. The story of Soap and his rise to the top of the NYPD add an almost â€œNYPD Blueâ€ meets â€œSNLâ€ feel to the series, while the story of Elite and his vigilante friends is an ode to a time in comics when these characters would have been accepted as cool. With an added dash of realism and a pinch of camp from these stories, the one involving Castle’s friends in his apartment complex adds the emotion this mini-series needed to be truly memorable. Seeing Frank call on one neighbor in particular to defeat a possessed criminal is easily one of the most enjoyable parts of the collection and one you won’t soon forget.
Sure, it’s a little out of the box for him, but seeing a speck of softness inside his rugged exterior is a rare treat.
On a negative note, there is one thing that held the series back a tad – a somewhat lack of originality briefly possesses Ennis during the death scenes of a few of Gnucchi’s thugs, as they all end up calling for their mother in a way that could only be replicated by watching an episode of â€œTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.â€ Had Ennis found another way to have these faceless thugs share their final words, any other way for that matter, the writing in this collection would have been cleaner and more concise than a Castle head-shot. These small inadequacies aside however, the series is a pivotal one that still manages to brilliantly reclaim the character’s spot in the A-list of the Marvel Universe.
Aiding this process even further is the signature photo-realistic artwork of Tim Bradstreet, who creates some of the best covers in the industry’s history for the series.
Simply put, they are beautiful.
Like a cherry on top of a sundae from Cold Stone Creamery, Bradstreet’s work is the element that cements this series’ legacy in the history of the medium.
Witty, organic and wildly vengeful, â€œWelcome Back, Frankâ€ is easily the best “Punisher” series of this generation and arguably the best of all time. Despite garnering praise for their work on the â€œPreacherâ€ series before this, Ennis and Dillon are seemingly tailor-made for this character, showing the poise and genius of madmen while telling his story.
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