The murder of Frank Castle's family is spared much mockery in superhero comics for being overshadowed by Martha Wayne's falling pearls, but it remains an eyeball dislocating cliche of imagery in Punisher comics. This makes Paul Azaceta's depiction of their slaughter all the more impressive for its compelling use of a limited perspective. Over the first three pages of Punisher #1 he depicts Frank Castle looking for his dying and deceased family members as overheard paramedics provide the gruesome context of his surroundings. The slow transition from a bloodstained picnic lunch to a corpse is excruciating and this is what leads readers to a spread collage of highlights from the Punisher's subsequent career in an impressive introduction to the character's newest series.
This collage emphasizes a specific reading of Frank Castle – one many fans are likely to appreciate. It is the man dedicated to a never-ending war in which all murder is justified against those he deems criminals. Amongst more than 30 cropped covers and panels, Frank Castle is always engaged in rage and violence typically wielding a deadly weapon. Superheroes only appear in a few and when they do appear it's typically as an obstacle. Despite many sci-fi and supernatural iterations, there is a total absence of Frankencastle, the angelic Punisher, Punisher 2099 or anything else that might undermine the gritty and grounded nature of this character.
That is what makes everything that follows—drawn now by Jesús Saiz—even more inexplicably strange.
The scene that follows involves men in suits with Spartan helmets discussing fantastical weapons filled with superhero trivia before being dispatched in the dark in a sequence most aptly compared to shonen manga. Everything about it screams superhero comics with such ridiculously elevated levels of violence that it ceases to have any impact. Yet in the middle of gamma-powered machine guns and instantaneous sword fights, there stands Frank Castle.
This is a Punisher elevated from a grisly mass murderer colored with shades of Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood's violent anti-heroes to the realm of the superhero. Throughout the rest of the comic a mysterious member of the millennia-old, Ninja organization The Hand coos over him as an individual uniquely suited to murder. In this telling the death of Castle's family seems to have gifted him with superpowers—the ability to murder seemingly any man with any weapon and endure unending punishment. It is appropriate to describe this as a superpower as an action sequence in which Frank battles dozens of ninjas surpasses the suspension of disbelief required when reading The Amazing Spider-Man. The violence is simply cartoonish in nature.
This isn't to state that the action is poorly depicted; it's quite the opposite. Saiz delivers outstanding sequences in which every action has consequences and following both halves of the equation is a thrill. The moments in which Saiz is depicting a superpowered mass murder carving through unending swaths of men delivers an American twist on the aforementioned Shonen style and it's fun to behold in a vacuum. However, the story surrounding these sequences only serves to undermine them with a tone that never matches the story being told.
Punisher #1 purports itself to be another in a long line of Punisher comics displaying a tortured soul enacting violence upon a violent world. There is no place in this tale for supernatural deities or colorful saviors; it's tangentially related to the superhero genre at most. And the opening of the story says just as much.
However, the story inside of Punisher #1 is the most banal form of superhero story imaginable. It features ancient conspiracies, sci-fi weaponry, impossible physical feats, and miraculous resurrections. There is a dark tinge to all of this, but the facts of the story make comparisons to the goofiest forms of the Punisher the most appropriate. Its insistence on taking itself so seriously ensures that no fun can even be found in the reading of this preposterous plot as with other reimaginings. Punisher #1 is a joyless slog that only serves to encourage readers to seek out Saiz and Azaceta's work elsewhere.
Published by Marvel Comics
On March 9, 2022
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jesús Saiz and Paul Azaceta
Colors by Dave Stewart
Letters by Cory Petit
Cover by Jesús Saiz