Thursday, December 27, 2018

"The End" Week: Punisher: Countdown!


This took me a couple years to complete, during which I couldn't even look at the first parts! But we've finally got the conclusion to the Punisher's first three series, from 1995, Punisher: War Zone #41, "Dead and Deader" Written Chuck Dixon, pencils by Rod Whigham, inks by Mike Witherby; Punisher #104, "The Murder Men" Written by Chuck Dixon, pencils by Rod Whigham, inks by Enrique Villagran; and Punisher War Journal #80, "The Last Bad Man" Written by Chuck Dixon, pencils by Doug Wheatley, inks by Steve Moncuse. (It bothers me slightly that this didn't end with the main title, Punisher!) For good measure here, we've got the start of "Countdown," Punisher #103, "The Butcher's Block" Written by Chuck Dixon, pencils by Rod Whigham, inks by Enrique Villagran.

We had checked out a couple issues leading up to this; but at this point Frank was on the outs with his long-term tech support Microchip, to the point of wanting to kill him, although the nature of their rift didn't seem to warrant death. For his part, Micro has a new Punisher, Carlos "C.C." Cruz, who, at the start of this storyline, was still trying to finish off mob boss Rosalie Carbone. Cruz has the bulletproof-armored Phalanx on his side; but Rosalie has Bullseye on hers! The expression is "like bringing a knife to a gunfight," but in Bullseye's case the knife is deadlier: Phalanx catches one in the eye; going into shock, he throws himself on a grenade to save Cruz, and the concussion kills him. The suit held up fine, though...! (I had thought Phalanx was a throwaway character for the 1993 annuals and hadn't realized he appeared again. He may have gotten killed, though, since the name was going to the Borg-like aliens in the X-Books.) While Rosalie has Phalanx's body--and suit--taken, Bullseye and Cruz have to team up against an army of mob goons, and are out of ammo when they turn on each other. Still, Bullseye knows full well Cruz isn't Frank.

I'm still missing the second chapter here, counter-intuitively numbered "3" since they were counting down; but the Frank/Microchip showdown is interrupted before Frank can kill him, as Micro is killed by Stone Cold! This would be the most devastating heel-turn of the Texas Rattlesnake...no, not Steve Austin! But it would be a couple issues before we would see his deal. The next chapter, Frank is seemingly back to work wacking druglords like nothing had changed, but is interrupted by Cruz. Frank drops him like a bad habit, and didn't think he had what it took, but is surprised when Cruz nearly kills them both with a grenade! Frank is forced to upgrade his opinion of Cruz from useless to dangerous, and is set on killing him as well, but they are separated during the firefight and Stone Cold kills Cruz as well!

Now, I would've thought Stone Cold was a bit of a narrative cheat: a way to kill off Micro and Cruz, returning the Punisher mantle exclusively to Frank, without Frank having to be the bad guy and kill them. Except, as the shootout continues, Frank apparently accidentally guns down a pair of innocent bystanders in Central Park! (Later, it's implied he killed an entire family; here it looks like he got a couple and a stuffed Stimpy doll, which is possibly the most dated reference in the entire series!) Finishing off the druglords, Stone Cold lets Frank walk, since he knows he broke him. In a dingy hotel room, Frank puts his gun to his head...but opts to turn himself in, instead.

"The Murder Men" opens with Frank, unarmed but with his Punisher shirt, marching himself into the police station, where several cops fail to notice him strolling over. (I've long maintained, in the Marvel Universe, wearing a trenchcoat makes you functionally invisible!) The cops also miss Frank being stopped and taken by Jules and Vincent, to the Kingpin! (It's entirely conceivable some portion of the cops present are on the take.)

Having "fallen" himself, Kingpin offers Frank a chance at redemption, "Valhalla." He leaves Frank a ton of guns, as well as info on the big crime bosses in the city. Even though the Punisher had been killing crime bosses by the dozen for years now, the Kingpin tells him these are the big guys: Frank knows he's being used in the Kingpin's latest power grab, but can't really pass up the chance, and plans on going after the Kingpin if he finishes the others.

Elsewhere, longtime mob snitch and unwilling Punisher associate Mickey Fondozzi, survives an encounter with Bulleye, who is wearing the Phalanx suit; then another with Stone Cold. Fondozzi had been introduced in Punisher War Zone #1 and displayed a remarkable ability to not get killed by virtue of just seeming super pathetic. Bullseye takes up with some "lucky mooks" since he realizes Frank had got "insider information" and thinks he'll be there soon enough; but instead Frank hits the Carbones with a rocket launcher. Rosalie, however, was on vacation, and would live to die another day.

Stone Cold is enjoying the chase, and figures Frank is almost to the end of his line, but is surrounded by S.H.I.E.L.D. He escapes, and Mickey is rescued from his trunk. Nick Fury gets a briefing on "Stone Cold" from three stooges--I mean, agents. He had been trained and placed as a contingency, against a "runaway government agency," but had gone rogue and expanded his targets to include vigilantes.

Awake for 76 hours now, Frank is on the last name on the Kingpin's list, and plans on crossing it out and going on to the Kingpin himself. While he's shooting up a lab on a Coney Island pier, Stone Cold shows up in a stolen Fed Ex truck, just to set up a joke; but Frank runs into Bullseye first. From prior experience, Frank knows he needs a .50 cal to knock down the Phalanx armor, so he's hoping for a headshot and not getting one. S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually already on the scene, although Fury has no intention of sending men "into that meat grinder? No way." He does hint someone who could go in was on his way, though.

Toying with Frank, Bullseye teases him with the names of the tourist family he killed, now four members. Bullseye may regret discarding the uncomfortable helmet here as Frank pistolwhips him a bit, but then Stone Cold shoots Bullseye with a .50 cal, blowing him off the pier, presumably to drown escape super easily. Stone Cold gets real talky here, explaining how he took out anti-vigilante task force V.I.G.I.L., the Trust from the first Punisher mini-series, and then Frank's "organization." Great, but why, exactly? No real reason, except he had been trained as a "contingency plan" and just decided to go ahead and do it. And then get murdered by Shotgun.

Shotgun had been introduced during Ann Nocenti's Daredevil run, but is credited as created by John Romita Jr, and was little more than a gun-psycho there, but JR JR brought him with him to Punisher: War Zone, where he had been more of a hero. Frank sees him as a friend, but still dives for Stone Cold's gun, so he can shoot the pier out from Bullseye, seemingly dropping him into the water again! No one seems to follow up on this, as Shotgun brings Frank in to S.H.I.E.L.D. Frank muses that the Kingpin had been right after all, and he was going to Valhalla, "a place ruled by a god with one eye."

While he seems okay up to here, Frank pretty much checks out at this point, and goes largely catatonic in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody. Fury wants the docs to bring him back. Why? Ah, they'll figure out what to do with him later. Considering there's an ad for Double Edge: Alpha here, that wasn't a great plan, Nick. Looking back at that old post, that issue featured "Spook," a shifty CIA-type that convinces an addled Frank that Fury had killed his family in Central Park. (Which Doc Samson notes as happening April 17, 1990; which seems far too late a date for Frank to be a Vietnam vet; but also far too early in the year for a picnic in Central Park!) Spook just struck me as being very similar to Stone Cold, as in, a really obvious narrative cog to try and move the plot in a new direction.

I don't think the family Frank killed was necessarily walked back, although it very easily could have been: the mob or Stone Cold could have shot the family instead of Frank, and why were they in Central Park in the middle of the night, especially when they should have heard the gunfight? In continuity Frank has killed innocents by accident or while mind-controlled; and it's tough for me to imagine him not eating his gun immediately after something like that. Partially because it breaks the character for me: in-story the Punisher works as wish-fulfillment, the good guy with a gun fantasy. Regular people getting shot knocks me right out of that.

1 comment:

Dale Bagwell said...

Ha! "Stone Cold"....I'd like to think the other badass black guy Frank might know, Barracuda knew Stone Cold from the back in the day. Has to have happened right?