Monday, September 16, 2013

Opening Contract - Punisher:Tyger

This week’s Opening Contract is perhaps one of the starkest opening panels I’ve dealt with since this columns inception. The panel comes from Punisher: Tyger, a one shot set in the MAX universe, with a script by Garth Ennis, art by John Severin, colours by Paul Mounts and letters by Randy Gentile.

This panel has the distinction of being one of my favourite opening panels of all time in what’s perhaps my favourite one shot of all time.

No pressure then.

Punisher: Tyger details elements of Frank Castle’s childhood growing up in Brooklyn, circa 1960. The story itself concerns Frank’s neighbourhood cowering in fear in the wake of a girl’s death, all of them scared to act or speak out against the teenage boy who set the horrible events in motion. Why? Because the boy is connected, his father being a much feared criminal in the area. Along the way we see Frank meet the elder brother of a friend, a Marine on leave. This is coupled with a subplot where Frank comes to understand the concept of monsters and perhaps why the world needs them. This part of the narrative uses William Blake’s poem The Tyger as a vehicle to explore these concepts. All of the above strands weave together masterfully at the issue’s conclusion, giving us our first real glimpse at the moment when the concept of vengeance took root in Frank Castle’s soul.

This central narrative is bookended by a sequence of Frank lying in wait on a New York rooftop. It’s here, wrapped in a coat and carrying a high powered sniper rifle, that the man formerly known as Frank Castle is about to claim his first blood in his war on crime as The Punisher.

The opening panel is a wide establishing shot of that familiar New York skyline (fast becoming a staple of this column) as snow falls. In the foreground of the panel, on the left, is a rooftop and the bottom of a water tower. Crouched beneath it, barely visible, is the hunched figure of Frank Castle. A single caption reads:
“They’ll blame it all on Vietnam.”
The panel is beautifully rendered by the legendary John Severin with Paul Mount’s colours giving the scene a cool, wintery hue. Randy Gentile’s letters also play their part to a tee. Gentile sets white text inside a black caption box, a nice bit of visual kung-fu that immediately tells the reader we’re hearing The Punisher’s thoughts.

Backing up a bit, Ennis of course is perhaps best known for his lengthy run on the Punisher MAX title. This run began in 2004, but was preceded by another series, Born in 2003 (also under the MAX imprint). In this earlier series, we see the beginnings of Ennis' take on the character. The series details Frank’s time at Valley Forge Firebase on the Cambodian border in the waning days of the Vietnam War in 1971.

The initial issue of this series is narrated by Stevie Goodwin, a soldier with thirty nine days left until he can go home. Frank is talked about with a sense of reverence and fear. He’s a man who has done horrible things in the name of the good ol’ USA, an assassin. A damn good one. But, like Goodwin says, Frank is running out of war. Things are coming to a close.

At the end of the first issue Frank purposefully puts a General who’s been trying to close the firebase into harms way, with fatal consequences. In the wake of this we cut to a large panel of Castle sitting in the shadows, an M16 rifle resting against some sandbags nearby, as Hueys fly through the dusk-filled sky. Imagery-wise it’s reminiscent of the opening panel from Tyger. Frank is on the left side of the panel, again hunched down, a weapon nearby. Darkness has begun to cloud the sky, a mere suggestion of the madness and horror to come, snowflakes replaced by attack helicopters.

But this isn’t all. The panel is also accompanied by two captions written in a familiar white text inside a black box, the first time they appear in this series in fact:
“Very clever, Frank.” “You got your war, a stay of execution.”
Who, or what, this ‘voice’ belongs to is left open to interpretation– vengeance, God, or just a voice in Frank’s head. It could be any of them, It could be none of them. This voice pops up a few times throughout the narrative. But, more importantly, it arrives at a crucial decision point, a matter of life and death for Frank in the last issue of the series. Frank’s choice in this moment is the point at which The Punisher as we come to know him is truly born.

When we see that single caption then in the first panel of Tyger, it isn’t just a man wondering about what the press and the public will pin his actions on, but a callback to Born. It’s showing us that Frank Castle is gone. This is The Punisher’s thoughts we’re hearing. Frank Castle is dead. Whatever that voice represented back in the jungles of Vietnam it’s part of Frank now, body and soul. It has consumed him.

Punisher as a character had his roots in a post Death Wish America, a country reeling from the horrors of Vietnam and Watergate, a country who could only sit and watch as drugs and crime flooded its major cities. Punisher was a response to all of these things. But, as the first page says:
“They’ll blame it all on Vietnam.”
“And they’ll be right. And they’ll be wrong.”
Punisher’s continuing popularity suggests he remains so because he hooks into something more primal than the politics surrounding his creative birth. Vengeance, single-mindedness, a life lived outside the rules and regulations of society. He remains popular because of any number of these things.

But it all comes down to that voice. The reason Punisher remains so popular is because we’ve all heard that voice from time to time. A person barges past us on the way to catch a train, paperwork and bills wrap us in red tape and unfairness, we suffer whilst people we see as ‘bad’ seem to excel. We’ve all heard that voice, lingering at the back of our mind. The reasons don’t matter. It’s whether we choose to act on that voice that matters, few of us rarely giving into it.

This is perhaps best summed up by an interview with writer Steven Grant when talking about how he saw The Punisher as a character:
Heidegger, who took Kierkegaard’s philosophy further, comes even closer to describing the Punisher: ‘Since we can never hope to understand why we’re here, if there’s even anything to understand, the individual should choose a goal and pursue it wholeheartedly, despite the certainty of death and the meaninglessness of action.’ That’s sure the Punisher as I conceived him: a man who knows he’s going to die and who knows in the big picture his actions will count for nothing, but who pursues his course because this is what he has chosen to do.”
I like this opening panel because of its simplicity, the way it looks and the way it echoes what has come before. But, more than that, I like it because it’s a promise, a taste of things to come. This is the calm before the storm. At this point the world knows nothing of Frank Castle, The Punisher, that voice or the perfect engine of destruction, carnage and revenge it heralds.

But they will.

They will.

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