Punisher, Welcome Home, Frank
Since last week in Graphic Reviews I looked at one of the best Daredevil runs in preparation for the new season of the Netflix series, this week I’ll be handling the other side and talking about one of my favorite Punisher stories. Like many antiheroes, Punisher can be difficult to write well. Fortunately, Garth Ennis is the man for the job. In the limited, twelve issue series Welcome Back, Frank, Ennis as writer and Steve Dillon as illustrator brought Frank Castle back to his roots. Instead of deep contemplation on the line that Castle walks between hero and villain, Ennis and Dillon have Frank return from semi-retirement to go to war once again with the mafia families of New York City. First published in 2001, Welcome Back, Frank is the Punisher series that brought the character back to life by pitting Frank Castle against age old enemies in a battle that seems never-ending at best and yet is exactly the task for which the Punisher has always been meant.
Frank Castle is not what you’d call the retiring type. So it’s hardly a surprise that when given a choice between becoming a heavenly dispenser of justice or wading his own way through the filth of the streets, he would pick the latter. Upon his return to New York City, Frank finds that the city has returned to its old corrupt ways. Even worse, the Gnucchi mafia family now controls both the Mayor and the Commissioner and has free reign to do as it pleases through the city. And what pleases the Gnucchis most certainly does not please Frank Castle. Thus begins Frank’s war on the Gnucchi family and in particular, its matriarch, Ma Gnucchi. As Frank wades through mafia goons by the dozens, cops are left trying to pretend to be stopping him in some fashion while also being perfectly content to let him do their work for them and those inspired by Frank begin their copy-cat vigilante careers in the various neighborhoods of the city. The abiding question throughout the series is: who will come out on top, the Gnucchis or the man determined to hunt them to extinction?
I will admit that I have not particularly been a fan of Garth Ennis in the past. Ennis hates superheroes and loves violence and puerile humor so much that he often goes from edgy to over the top in the space of a heartbeat. While I like my comics dark, I get a little weary of the constant sex jokes, mayhem for the sake of mayhem and Ennis’ inability to understand any form of subtlety. However, in Welcome Back, Frank, Ennis gets it right. While Ennis’ trademark edgy humor is present, it never quite reaches overbearing. As Frank is mowing through criminals and mafia families, he still remains Punisher: a man dedicated to eliminating corruption but unwilling to kill innocents. He’s unapologetically vicious towards his enemies but manages to be remarkable human and sympathetic towards those caught in the crossfire. In contrast to his treatment of the corrupt, Frank has a tolerance for the quirks of the neighbors in his run-down apartment complex while still trying to deflect their curiosity about him. He maintains a wary truce with the police in New York City which the latter maintain by putting only their worst cop, Detective Marty Soap and his assistant Bud Plugg (not sure Ennis would recognize subtlety if it slapped him in the face), on the task force dedicated to finding and arresting the Punisher. While there are a lot of moments in the series that make fun of past, more cerebral interpretations of the Punisher mythos, Ennis never makes Frank into a caricature. He strips the Punisher down to his essentials and leads the reader through a violent, ridiculous and yet highly entertaining journey of gunfire and slaughter.
There’s a reason that Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon have so often teamed up: they’re just perfect for each other. Dillon easily matches the hardcore violence, gore and brutality of Ennis’ writing while simultaneously making some of the more humorous characters match Ennis’ tone. The style isn’t exactly beautiful but then, no one reads Punisher for beautiful. We read it for gunfire and unrelenting mayhem and Dillon and Ennis deliver very well on both.
Welcome Back, Frank is one of those stories that I would unhesitatingly recommend to anyone who enjoys movies like The Expendables. Both exist largely to give audiences all the mayhem and violence that they could possibly want with some cheesy humor thrown in there for good measure. What makes this Punisher story stand out however is Ennis’ and Dillon’s understanding of both sides of the character: the hard boiled but still human part that is Frank Castle and the one man army of vengeance that is the Punisher. The snide derision of past portrayals of the Punisher is humorous without reaching Ennis’ normal extreme levels and therefore never becomes overbearing. It’s not the kind of story I’d recommend to anyone who likes subtlety or elegance in their comics but if that’s what you’re looking for, you might want to find a different superhero. If you read just one Punisher story, make it Welcome Back, Frank.