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“The Cane Does The Rest.” Comics! Sometimes They Are Butch!

John Kane

So I managed to get an hour and I wrote this.  So, you know, it’s hardly incisive or anything and certainly not structured but I hope it entertains. People like seeing other people fail, right? Tuck in!

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PUNISHER: BARBARIAN WITH A GUN
By John Buscema (Artist), Chuck Dixon (Writer), Tom Palmer, Klaus Janson & Art Nichols (Inkers), Kevin Tinsley (Colourist and Jim Novak (Letterer)
Collects PUNISHER: WAR ZONE #26-30
(Marvel Comics, $15.99, 2008)

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This comic features the character of The Punisher created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Snr and Ross Andru here presented in an adventure I was drawn to purchase by the title and the presence of John Buscema. Also – it was on sale at my LCS for a fiver. In fact I was initially misled by the presence of John Buscema and the title to expect Frank to be swept up by a Time-Space vortex and dumped into Hyboria where he would initially act like Conan but with a gun but upon exhausting his ammo would then turn his ‘Nam sharpened reflexes upon the populace of the stinky primitive land before being hailed King. This does not happen. However, if there is a comic where this does happen (and how could there not be?) then I am all ears.

 

What the comic delivers is, I guess, the next best thing. On the trail of a drug dealing brother-sister combo Frank is soon removed from the civilised and hygienic milieu of lovely America to the stinky and primitive land of The Caribbean jungle. No offense to my Caribbean chums but that’s how it’s presented here. This is a tale from the time before The Punisher was taken seriously (if anyone can in fact take PUNISHERMAX seriously; which it appears they can) but after the time when he wore white disco boots. The boots have been ditched by this stage which is a shame because I always believed they were his dead wife’s and he wore them as tribute to her memory. Luckily he still retains several of the goofier elements that I always enjoy about The Punisher. In several scenes Frank is pictured in a nice Hawaiian cut shirt emblazoned with his TM skull motif. This suggests that either Frank, like myself, holidays in Whitby and is partial to frequenting the make-your-own design T-Shirt shop just back from the sea front or that he spends his free time sewing and indulging his passion for crafts. Also, early on in the story Frank adopts a disguise. Now, Punisher disguises are one of my favourite things being as they are so terrible as to inspire hooting. My favourite was in the Punisher/Ghost Rider/Wolverine one-shot HEARTS OF DARKNESS written by Howard MacKie and illustrated by John Romita Jnr. In that one Frank grew a pencil tache and slicked his hair back. Luckily Wolverine’s acute smell sense pierced this quickly. I think he used his smell-sense but in all honesty he could have just used his eye-sense. In BARBARIAN WITH A GUN Frank wears a brown wig of no fixed style and another mustache. This works out pretty well until he meets a woman who had earlier seen him shoot the guy he’s disguised as and was also physically pleasured by said guy. Oh, Frank undone by sentiment!

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So. Yes, it’s one of those old timey adventures where Frank has all the moral complexity of a brick and just batters himself against the obstacles in his way until everybody who should be dead is dead and then he gets on with a nice bit of sewing. It’s pretty well done, too. Chuck Dixon is certainly a professional at this stuff. He’s certainly professional enough not to let his personality infect the work and thus Frank never spends anytime whatsoever worrying about what consenting adults of the same gender choose to do with their genitals. Dixon is also professional enough to deliver a satisfyingly violent action-adventure romp that takes itself seriously enough but never too seriously. He does a really smart job on Frank’s clipped narration which includes gems like, “Carbine goes Winchester on me.” and “He’s asking for mercy. Sorry. Fresh out.” I dig that stuff, that He-Man steak and taters stuff and it’s all over this one.

 

There’s no politics either despite the fact that the island of Porta Dulce is bursting into revolution more often than a teen’s face bursts into zits. The ruling class are corrupt and violent, the peasants are corrupt and violent, the Americans there to make a buck are corrupt and violent even the crocs are violent (but not corrupt). The nicest character is a pig that just ambles through and rescues our bunch of heroes with its unerring sense of direction. And it is a bunch by this point because Frank has called in Micro and Ice Phillips. This latter character is a new one on me but he’s obviously got some “juice” because the back of the TPB declares “Guest starring Ice Phillips from Marvel’s controversial series The ‘Nam!” (The ‘Nam was indeed controversial since (at least for a while when it was written by Doug Murray and illustrated by Michael Golden)  Marvel published it and it wasn’t awful and was in fact quite good). So one for Ice Phillips fans here! There’s a great scene between the trio where Micro almost spills the beans on why Frank does what he does to Ice (who apparently thinks Frank is just doing it for chuckles or something) and Frank says, “Don’t tell him. Don’t ever tell him. He doesn’t deserve to know.” Which is super-pissy of Frank. Then he just flounces off! Ooooh, get her!

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Of course all this is illustrated by John Buscema. Or John “The Don” Buscema. Now John Buscema wasn’t really the paterfamilias of a crime family in much the same way as Gene Colan wasn’t the head of a faculty in a school or college but Gene was still “The Dean” and John will always be “The Don”. He was also referred to as The Rembrandt of Comics which means he was frickin aces. It’s important to remember that John Buscema was frickin’ aces because the production of monthly comics didn’t do him any favours really. He was mostly relegated to pencils so they could get more of him out there but, man, he loved inking his own stuff. And if you see any you’ll love it too. BARBARIAN WITH A GUN is typically Marvel Buscema as here he provides pencils and as bare as they may seem they still display his talent for framing and generally getting the stuff that matters into the panel in a way that’s unfussy and pleasing. Oh, and he still got emough ink on his brush to draw smoking hot ladies that embody the word “fleshy”. Mind you he’s not helped by the buggers muddle of inkers, sometimes there’s more than one of them having a pop at his pencils in one issue.

 

These comics were originally published in 1994, I think, and John Buscema died in 2002 so we’re definitely looking at a Lion in Winter here or at least one that’s feeling the chill a bit. It’s all still there though, all the Buscematic bustle and muscular pop just a bit sticky with the ink of others. It’s a bit odd really because we’re talking about John Buscema here and you’d think he’d have been treated a bit better. It isn’t as though Marvel were unaware of the importance of Buscema’s work in identifying Marvel as being quite good. In fact as far back as 1978 Buscema was chosen to illustrate the book HOW TO DRAW COMICS THE MARVEL WAY. His art was chosen as the template for the sausage factory. Not Gil Kane or Jack Kirby,no, John Buscema. Mind you Jack Kirby and Gil Kane would probably have told Marvel to take a flying f*** at a rolling doughnut by that point. Or at least have pointed out that How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way was to have sound legal representation at all times, never depend on verbal promises and remember that you might need money in the future. So, John Buscema’s value was clearly acknowledged by Marvel but at the end they have him pump out some books that have to have the heavy hands of others all over them in order for them to come out on time. Kirby forbid John Buscema be given time to do some stuff the way he wanted at the end of career. Nah, just get those books out, Buscema? Never heard of him, never did anything for us. Where’s my Punisher comics?!?

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This lack of respect extends to the physical artifact itself. While the creative contents are fine, even managing to entertain despite the mish-mash of inking, the physical contents lack even cursory care and attention. The cover is a graduate of the school of Intern With Photoshop, the colouring in general is imprecise and wishy-washy and when blood is shown to fly from punctured bodies it is coloured yellow. Yellow. Maybe The Punisher fires harmless custard bullets? Maybe the people he kills are aliens? Maybe Kevin Tinsley needs biology lessons? Maybe Marvel don’t give a chuff? Which, y’know, is their prerogative and all but this costs $15.99 and I don’t think it’s whiny for someone handing over that amount of cash to expect a decent product in return. I hear your TPBs don’t sell so well, Marvel? Maybe that’s why.

 

Despite all that it is still a sound piece of hugely testicular entertainment which does its job well due to the professionalism of Dixon, Buscema et al. but the fact that it’s such a cheapjack package makes it only EH! If, however, you like John Buscema, daft violence and got it for a fiver it’s really GOOD!

 

And that’s it from me and now…back to the COMICS!

11 Responses to “ “The Cane Does The Rest.” Comics! Sometimes They Are Butch! ”

  1. Marvel put out quite a few Punisher one-shots and graphic novels in the early to mid 90s. They’re surprisingly good in exactly the way you describe this trade to be.

    Mike

  2. John, Big John was very vocal about his disdain for super hero comics (ie his ’97 “super heroes are the dumbest thing in the world” interview), yet he was working for a company who published very little else; I suppose he could’ve gone to Epic and done his own thing there, but instead he drew Punisher and Conan comics. If those were the only assignments he was interested in, who’s to blame him? Marvel’s idea of “prestige” was to put talent on an x-book and that definitely wasn’t his scene.

    I believe I heard Marvel picked up Tarzan in the 1970s just to please Big John (only to find the Burroughs estate were difficult collaborators), much as they picked up Flash Gordon in the 1990s just to please Al Williamson; at least there were some perks in being a corporate slave.

  3. Finally! I’ve been waiting all weekend for your column! YAY!

  4. Chuck Dixon did a bunch of great Punisher stories with fantastic artists, and this is one of my favorites. He also had one called River of Blood with Joe Kubert.

    For the longest time, he was the only writer who got The Punisher. Later, Garth Ennis got the character, but turned the violence too absurd to comical for my taste, but he’s clearly writing Dixon’s Punisher.

    The guy has a forum I’ve read sometimes, and his personality isn’t what you’d expect from what you hear. I think that’s why I see so much pushback agaist anti-Dixon stuff now. Bleeding Cool’s forum was deluged with people sticking up for him not too long back. He’s an affable guy, and one of the few people who talks honestly (and critically) about the industry. It’s always interesting to hear from the guys who are person non grata at the not-so-big two.

  5. Although I loved the Ennis MAX run as a breathe of fresh air, I despair that the book still goes, now with Kingpin and Elektra shagging in it.
    I’m going into old man Lipman mode here, but I still remember being in the playground at eleven, when we were all new to comics, laughing at the faux-pas of one of the lads, who had declared “I’ve got a comic where The Punisher kills someone!” We laughed because he’d sounded so excited about it, we laughed because he wasn’t as hip as we were – he’d only learned about Punisher in Secret Defenders, he wasn’t cool enough to know that Marvel had a book so hardcore it starred a dude so harsh that he wasn’t afraid to kill the bad dudes.
    When I was eleven it was the cool kids book – it’s just weird to see it desperately try to be that for me still.

    Moving on to other Frank Castle related matters, I must quibble with the claim that there was a time Frank Castle wasn’t taken seriously, or that The Punisher’s disguises are so terrible as to inspire hooting – it’s a claim you couldn’t make if you’d read Punisher #93 as a young’un, a year older than in that last story. The issue was titled ‘The Killing Streets’.
    In this tour de force from Chuck Dixon and Todd Fox, behind a Sienkiewicz cover, a child – of a relatable age to the audience? – has put up a bunch of flyers requesting The Punisher’s help. His street has had some drug dealers move in, and they are making life hell. Through the kids eyes, we see his neighborhood deteriorate and get more dangerous, as the thugs get bolder and hope gets dimmer, all whilst he patiently waits for The Punisher to come save them.
    Just when he’s about to give up hope, a new shopkeeper appears on the streets – a tall, muscly guy, with black hair, and a mustache! – and he’s not afraid to talk back to the thugs. The kid, and me, figured the score – The Punisher is here! BUT, the shopkeeper lays a beating on a thug for littering, and another gangbanger shoots him in the back of the head. WHAT?
    Turns out, he wasn’t The Punisher at all! Frank arrived on the scene later that night to kick ass! He had such a good disguise, not disguising, that he tricked the reader into thinking he was someone else!
    Blew my mind. I didn’t realize at the time it was a play on his regular disguise, last time I’d seen him dress up was as a bear in the arctic, I’d just felt clever for spotting The Punisher, and thinking I knew where the story was going. As far as I was concerned, after that story, anything could happen in Punisher comics. I recommended it to my mother, who smiled and then went back to her book.
    Comics wouldn’t play me like that again, until the next one I read, straight after, X-Men #35 “Sunset Grace”. Tear jerker that one was.
    (Now that was what four bucks, a weeks allowance, used to get you in comics).

    Sorry for that detour into pro-90′s nostalgia, but whilst I laughed and nodded in agreement throughout your review, I couldn’t help but think I’d have probably loved ‘Barbarian With A Gun’ if I read it when it was coming out.

  6. @MBunge: They are good aren’t they? Glad that came across. Thanks to you, sir.

    @Michael Hoskin: As for “super heroes are the dumbest thing in the world”, that’s a bit harsh! Big John hadn’t even read NEW AVENGERS! I don’t blame him for drawing what he did; I like what he drew just fine. I even like his AVENGERS and FANTASTIC FOUR, which I guess he didn’t? Yeah, I guess he was wrong for the market he was trapped in, a man out of time; a Barbarian With A Brush! I didn’t know about the TARZAN thing being just for Big John, I haven’t read them. If he was enjoying it I might seek them out. A great artist that John Buscema. Tres informative, sir, cheers!

    @Chris Hero: Sometimes the anticipation is better than the experience!

    @Zory: River of Blood sure is good and that TPB he did with John Romita Jnr (I think it’s just called ‘War Zone’?) is neat too. Yeah, Chuck Dixon is a man who knows how to write a punishing good time alright! Okay, maybe I was just a tad out of line up there but if I hadn’t mentioned it other people would have. I think I was quite gentle. I don’t know Chuck Dixon but I know he writes good comics and the Big Two could do with someone with his storytelling skills. Lord, could they just.

    @Ben Lipman: Old Man Lipman sure does spin a good yarn!
    PUNISHERMAX isn’t that bad! It’s just really dumb, even dumber than people think Punisher comics usually are. Bits of it are good but then other bits are just dumb. Not good dumb either.

    Sounds like you’ve got more of a handle on Frank than me; I don’t even know what Secret Defenders is/was. I haven’t read it but from what you say I like the way ‘The Killing Streets’ played with reader expectations, that’s neat. Don’t worry, your Mum understood, Mum’s always understand. Time to let it go, Ben Lipman!

    I don’t know “Sunset Grace”. Feel free to tell me about its heartbreaking qualities. I can’t stand the X-Men unless Ice Man looks like he’s made of snow, they all wear boiler suits and Prof. X puts his hands to his temples until little jaggedy lines come out and he calls with his mind, ”To me my X-Men! To Me!” What was that 1964? Always on the cutting edge, me.

    I can’t believe there’s a comic with The Punisher disguised as a bear. Was it a bear with a moustache? If The Punisher was a bear he’d be SHAKO! Which comic is it?

    My thanks to all as ever!

  7. I stopped reading PUNISHERMAX after Ennis left. I was tempted to see what Aaron did, but after reading they had to drag Kingpin and Bullseye into the MaxUniverse I lost interest in a hurry. The one selling point of the last Max title. To be apart from the Marvel U. And they have to ditch it. (And I don´t care if they were re-imaginings or whatever, they were still Kp + Be) Ah, well. water under the bridge.

    Count me in on the pro-Dixon camp. He wrote some damn good comics in his time, his Punisher books were very entertaining, and he wrote hands down some of the best Conan comics ever published. Compared to the current Dark Horse Conan output which has reached a low point these titles were more then good, they were spectacular.

    I read a lot more entertaining Dixon comics then by Lobdell or Mackie, that is for sure.

  8. Great, just great stuff. Thanks JohnK!

    Did you see the pull quote from Stephenson’s keynote at Image Expo?

    “One of the things I love about [Chaykin] is that he really doesn’t give a shit what anybody thinks about him. He does pretty much what he wants and says what he wants, regardless. I also love that he’s willing to challenge his audience. ‘Black Kiss 2′ is kind of dark and goes to some pretty uncomfortable places.”

    First, no shit, Eric.

    Second, Awesome.

  9. @AndyD: Chuck “Buzz” Dixon did Conan comics? Now that’s something to look into. I thought folks liked the Dark Horse Conan? read the Busiek stuff and that was good. I guess that was a while a go now though.

    @J_Smitty: Cheers! My, you’ve been quiet lately. I liked all your suggestions for how to get comics made without selling your soul. Nice work!

    Yup, I did see the Image Chaykin solicit stuff. Haw! To savage the tag line to Dirty Harry:”You Don’t Assign A Man Like Chaykin To A Comic…You Just Turn Him LOOSE!!” That fine man entertains me no end. Here’s hoping BLACK KISS 2 does too!

    My thanks to you both!

  10. John – PunisherMAX could be the bees knees, but it just feels wrong to me have Frank interacting with superhero characters in a way that’s not for kids. (And yeah, it’s kinda weird that it’s the guy who runs around killing people that sets off my ‘it was created for kids!’ reflexes).

    As for Sunset Grace, by Fabian Nicieza and Liam Sharpe… it was a heart breaker, but quite possibly in a way that only twelve years olds would recognize.
    Cyclops (my main man at the time) and Jean Grey returned to our time after a trip to the future (which was in a mini, but without access to a direct market store, wasn’t a book I could read).
    They arrive near, or are quickly picked up by Nick Fury, who needs their help. After giving them new uniforms for the issue, he tells about some weird stuff going on, where there’s some kind of reality distortion that’s getting bigger, and threatening to swallow a whole bunch of people.
    Scott and Jean charge in, but instead of a vicious threat, they find an old lady, who tells her life story.
    Her mutant powers were that she could create a land in her head/other reality, and hang out there – her mind bringing to life anything she wanted. She loved it as a teen, but once she met a fella, went there less. Her and her fella had a great life, and had a kid. But tragedy had struck, and her husband and son died, leaving her alone.
    She was so sad and lonely, her mutant power had gone out of control and was taking over the world around it. Scott and Jean have a chat, and impart some powerful advice. She sucks all the rift energy back in, and at the end we see her living in her rift, having now used her powers to recreate her husband and son, and they live happily ever after.

    Much like with The Punisher issue, long gone from my possession, and both comics I don’t ever want to read again – much like Sunset Grace, I’d prefer them to live on in idealized versions in my head, then track them down and try them again.
    I once did that with the first 30 Spawn issues, thinking ‘They can’t be that bad if I remember them as being so awesome’. Turns out they can be, and that I was very forgiving in my pre-pubescent/pubescent reading.

  11. @Ben Lipman: I don’t know, pal, as vicious threats go old ladies are amongst the worst! Nah, Sunset Grace sounds awesome and, yes, I totally get that whole “I know it probably wasn’t that good but in my head it was” thing. It’s the magic of Comics! I never *got* Spawn, I was too old when it came out so I always thought it was sucky. Which, no joke, is kind of my loss.

    I thank you for your misty watercolour memories as ever!

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