Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Duane Swierczynski’s Grindhouse Double Bill – Punisher and Werewolf By Night

It’s been a while back now, but there was a time when Duane Swierczynski was being given the chance to tell brutal tales in the MAX imprint of Marvel, the line strictly for mature readers. He offered up a Werewolf By Night mini and took over the Punisher a few months after Garth Ennis finished his epic, and defining, run on the character. When you read the two trades together, as I did, you get a real Grindhouse double bill of bullets, blood, bad people, and bloody cool moments. Hit the jump to see how they hold up.

Sometimes you just have to sit back and see the Punisher blow away monsters and werewolves discover their true monstrous potential. You don’t go into these comics thinking you’ll find the next erudite award winner that will reinvent the medium, no, so please don’t go into this review without thinking you’ll get some schlock.

Written By Duane Swierczynski
Art by Michel Lacombe
Colours by Val Staples and Stephane Peru
Covers by Dave Johnson and Mike Deodato
Collects Punisher: Frank Castle Max 66-70 and Punisher: Force Of Nature

We open with the Punisher ventilating hole in a stack of nasty scumbags who run a child trafficking ring. He wastes no time in dominating these bastards and then he sees the kids he’s saving but knows they’re already gone. He’ll most likely see a bunch of these kids on the wrong end of a gun at some stage later in the future but what can you do? He’s just one man in a war against horror.

Castle leaves there and stumbles right into a trap, he gets gassed, and taken away and strapped to a table where some junkie shoots him up with a wonder serum. He’s got six hours to live and this group needs him to kill a man. Once the job is done he’ll be delivered the antidote. Castle decides it’s all garbage and kills the man in the lab. He doesn’t even waste time looking for the antidote, he doesn’t even believe it exists. He just figures there’s only a quarter of a day left to go and there’s plenty to be done.

It’s this characterization of the Punisher that I like. He doesn’t existentialise over his life and impending death. He just amps up his usual plan of killing bad people each day. As the initial issue ends on this note you absolutely know you’re going to get as much bloodshed as you can fit into the next four issues, and without a spoilers warning, that’s kind of what you get.

Castle decides, in true form and style, that he’ll just ascertain exactly where he is and who the worst person in his vicinity is. He’ll then set about killing him and anyone dumb enough to take the job of level entry henchman. Luring these nasties out involved keying ‘Mother Russia Sucks Balls’ into the side of a car and then taking out the Ivans that follow him. This quest for blood sees him use knifes, cars, guns, flash grenades, shovels, and his fists to extract whatever style vengeance he can manage. This is all bookended and structured with an actual plot of political intrigue in Philadelphia that slowly involves criminals, cops and feds as well. It’s an interesting tale but it’s all in service of getting Castle to his next victim.

As the streets hear of the Punisher’s predicament, everybody comes out of the woodwork to take a shot at the champ while he’s on the ropes. He’s suddenly deflecting hits from wannabe street toughs and finally the dramatic shoot out conclusion holds place in a bar in an alley. Things get blown up and more people die, what else were you expecting?

This is a very pulpy story that moves along like a runaway truck full of stolen radioactive goods and illegal immigrants. It takes place between midnight and 6am and Swierczynski makes sure he fills those hours with as much awesome as he can muster and a body count to rival most comics. Watching the Punisher work is the reason you show up to take a seat and you get plenty of variety. He knows he’s on the clock and has to do all that he can while he can. This could easily have just been an old Gold Medal paperback from the 60’s and Swierczynski knows it.

Michel Lacombe draws a solid and mean looking Frank Castle. The guy is no nonsense but everything takes its toll. There are broken noses and bruises aplenty, and that’s just for the Punisher. Other, less lucky and eponymous, men gets brains splattered and bones broken. Lacombe brings a more real life style to a Steve Dillon experience. It’s good and his Punisher looks like some sort of bulked up hybrid between Nicholas Cage and Michael Beihn, and I mean that as a complete complement.

Dave Johnson also provides the covers for the mini and does what might just be one of my favourite sets of covers ever. Each one is absolute gold, there isn't a weak moment amongst the group. I like Johnson's placement and design elements but also his sneaky use of the skull and crossbones motif in the strangest of places in each cover. He presents death in so many ways across these covers and I really love the tone it sets before the pages are even opened. I'd happily have these as a set of art prints on my wall, no doubt about it, and it's rare that I like a complete run of covers. Though., Johnson does have a very good way about his work, as he's knocking it out of the park right now on Aaron and Dillon's PunisherMAX.

The collection is bookended by a one-shot the creative team had also done about the Punisher tracking down three men who go out for a boat ride, called Force Of Nature. It opens with Castle teaching us how to harpoon a man and then drag him behind a speed boat. But that’s getting in front of the story as well see he has set the boat up to fail and then goes about stalking them in their life boat for a few hours. Swierczynski shows us that Castle thinks of every little detail in his plan to execute these men. It’s an impressive game he plays.

Before the Punisher can even work his fatal magic, we watch cabin fever set in and the men turn on each other. Castle swoops in on the last remaining man, with the harpoon from our intro, and gets the information and evidence he needs. He also manages to hit a very large mammalian water force of nature, in a moment that feels kind of strange and unnecessary, but he wins in the end. It’s a cool little one-shot and I am glad they collected it here.

Verdict – Buy It. Swierczynski is a man who knows how to write hard crime, and set it at the speed of sound. He sets up some interesting and nasty bad guys but makes sure the Punisher has some creative ways to deal with his situations. This might not have been exactly what people wanted six months after Garth Ennis left the field wide open but looking at the trade now, it’s a damn fine Punisher story, and I’ll take one when I can get it. As far a s Punisher stories go, I think this one is pretty top shelf.

Written by Duane Swierczynski, and Marv Wolfman
Art by Mico Suayan, and Gene Colan and Mike Ploog
Colours by Ian Hannin, and Linda Lessman and Petra Goldberg

Swierczynski was also cut loose on another MAX tale as he got to tinker with the Werewolf By Night, Jack Russell. Swierczynski has labeled himself as a man who has read Fangoria in the past and so I trust in him to provide a pretty gruesome tale that makes this werewolf a little more of a threat to deal with.

We briefly glimpse a flashback moment as we see a family decimated by a ravenous creature and as the SWAT team comes in to save whoever might have survived they are attacked by a werewolf, something they were not expecting. We then jump into Jack in the present day and we see the happy life that he lives as a lie. He has a wife, and a child on the way. It should be all a man could desire except he’s worried that the killer inside him will ruin it all so he’s had a massive lock box constructed where he can retire for those special days of the month and get his ‘wolf on within hurting innocent bystanders. It’s an interesting status quo and one that grabs your attention, even if it is a little loony.

We get some flashbacks of Jack killing a homeless guy, and how he slayed his parents, and it feels pretty by the numbers because at this stage the set up is relatively full of exposition and if the story hasn’t made with the gore yet then the flashbacks keep us sated. It’s fun to watch Mico Suayan really get crazy with his drawing of the beast and what it can do. When Jack awakens at the end of his spell within the lock box he always finds a message written in blood for him from the beast. It’s a scary thought that the thing can write but he never replies, no matter how much he might like to.

The end of the first issue is a real seat clincher as Jack returns home to find his pregnant wife dead and it’s not a pretty crime scene. It looks like the sort of thing his alter-ego would do, and there’s a message written in blood on the wall for him. It would have been a girl. Considering that we only see the wife in a handful of panels we don’t actually care too much about her, but the fact that she’s pregnant sort of crosses one of those taboos that any horror story is reticent to violate. Swierczynski uses it as a cheap throwaway moment which is meant to thrill; you’ll either see it as a brutal ploy that will turn you off, or you’ll see it for the 80’s schlock it is meant to be. Being the Fangoria fan myself, I saw it as the moment where $#!+ gets real.

Meanwhile, there is a secret squad that have been tracking Jack Russell very closely. They’re a shadowy group and the lead female has the requisite werewolf paw scar down her face. They have kept tabs on Jack’s usual behaviors but they had lost him, until he turned up in Philadelphia (where else would he be in a Swierczynski story?). Jack goes on the run to avoid the blame for the death of his wife, even though he’s not certain that it wasn’t him. It becomes a race to find the real killer and to not become captured by this group that have been toying with him for years.

There’s a strong current of uncertainty throughout the tale as you are never sure of who is good and who is bad. Motivations are unsure, beastly instincts have to be followed and to get any deeper into the story would only be adding a depth of pontification that no good horror story needs so I won’t preach from the mountaintop.

The story involves Jack learning some scary truths about his origin and having to come to grips with a new world in which he is not alone. We can see a larger concern involving Jack, werewolves, and this strange and elusive group. There is one great scene where Swierczynski puts the band back together by having the werewolf square off against a vampire and a Frankenstein-type monster. It’s over the top and completely awesome in equal doses and by this stage if you haven’t learned to take the tale as a nice rotten slab of gore then you haven’t been paying attention.

The story ends effectively and while adding something to the Jack Russell story it also doesn’t impinge too much on what we already have. It simply leaves something open that another writer could tie in or come back to at any stage. Not that Jack Russell really gets that much play in any titles. Ever.

The art is pretty spot on for the sort of story being told. Suayan’s people seem a little too stocky, they just don’t feel real but the horror elements are very cool. The ability to make it look like blood and gore are dripping off the page is pretty effectively done, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after. I felt that Suayan told the tale well but could have made it a little smoother, though by doing so might have made it also more cartoony and this story definitely didn’t need that.

In the back, there is also a one page redesign image of the character by Marko Djurdjevic. It’s a very interesting piece and comes with numbered notes on what he thinks of the design matching the functionality of the character. It makes me wonder, how is it that Djurdjevic’s mind seems to work that much more different than other artists and if given enough time will Marvel eventually have him set up designs for all the characters within their universe? I love his work and so have no problem seeing him continue to get plenty of cover work across various titles.

The two old school back up issues are a delight to read. Tomb Of Dracula was one of the first comics I can remember buying and it feels anachronistic to see the old Colan and Ploog work on such glossy pages. I like it as much as I don’t. We get the crossover tale that Wolfman wrote between Tomb and the werewolf By Night title. Much like old superhero comics are a different breed so are old horror comics. There’s really nothing gruesome, and having just sat through 4 issues of Swierczynski and Suayan finding all sorts of ways to gross people out this comes across as tame, but very stately. It’s the Hammer horror approach, and I was always a fan of those old flicks too. It’s Dracula and Jack Russell duking it out behind plenty of text boxes and speech bubbles. Just having these included as an extra is a pretty cool thing for Marvel to do so I won’t complain, nor do I need to.

Verdict – Check It. Swierczynski’s Werewolf By Night feels like it would have been a late-80’s-early-90’s horror flick. A little too much gore as substance rather than complete character work but in the end it’s an enjoyable ride for what it is. I could see this being a fantastic Joe Dante film. Others might just see it as a flimsy horror-trope filled flatliner. I’d say you should know which camp you’ll fall in well before picking it up. If you think you’re the type of person to like this then you probably are. Just check your hat at the door and soak up some of the gore.

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Ivan said...

I resent the use of my name in that manner. :(

Ryan K Lindsay said...

You should wear it with pride there, Ivan. It's one of those terms of endearment we use in Aussie pubs all the time, not that we have many Russians getting around down here...what a shame...

Nathan Aaron said...

I had picked up those Punisher issues a while back, and JUST finished reading them a couple days ago (coincidentally!) I thought it was excellent! Wonderful artwork, too. A bit brutal and harsh, but I guess it DOES say MAX, so I should expect that. But I loved it. So many great writing details. "I'm gonna count to three. One..." classic!

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