Writer: Stuart Moore
Artists: C.P. Smith, Dean White (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Is it me, or is the Punisher everywhere at the moment? Sure, he's had a healthy niche fanbase thanks to his MAX title for years now, but in the last month he's also popped up in the pages of Civil War, his own new War Journal series, and now in this one-shot Christmas Special. Is he really going to be that important to the post-Civil War Marvel Universe that we need to see him in a different book every week? Or is there a new Punisher movie planned that Marvel hasn't told us about yet? Whatever the reason, Frank Castle is back with a vengeance in the Marvel Universe proper, and this issue sees the creative partnership of Stuart Moore and C.P. Smith reunite (after their excellent Wolverine one-shot story in issue #41 of that book), providing another great story which deals with morally complex and maturely written superheroics, without losing the edge of their larger-than-life central character.
Okay, so it's only just December, but seeing as we've had Christmas ads on TV since July (or at least it feels that way), I can get into the spirit easily enough to enjoy this issue as a seasonal romp - albeit an unusually dark one. This is the Punisher, after all, and writer Moore gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between Frank Castle's extreme, driven persona and the traditional lightness of the Christmas spirit, adding humourous touches with a couple of dry one-liners which work precisely because it's the Punisher speaking them, not in spite of it. The plot of the issue puts a sinister spin on the convention of Father Christmas' list of well-behaved children, with Frank putting together his own "naughty" and "nice" lists (guess which one is longer?), and a delicious final line sealing the deal, reinforcing the Punisher's role as a dark reflection of Santa Claus. Yes, he might dispense justice instead of presents, but he also shows some hints of humanity which suggest that he's been infected by the spirit of the season a little more than he might care to admit; luckily though, this element of the story is never pushed too far, with frequent reminders that Frank is particularly tortured by the loss of his family at this time of year - and with his most merciful act amounting to a criminal being put out of his misery quickly and cleanly rather than drawing the process out.
C.P. Smith's artwork is reminiscent of the work of Alex Maleev and Michael Gaydos in its dark shadows and economical linework. There's no showy detail or infinitely complex background work to be found here; there doesn't need to be. Rather, Smith puts the story before his artistic indulgences and keeps the necessarily fast-moving issue clipping along at a fair old pace, dropping some interesting hints and foreshadowing into his artwork, and giving each of the story's locations a different tone and atmosphere which makes the book easy to follow. There's a hint of Sean Phillips in there too, particularly in Smith's use of solid black areas and silhouettes, and that similarity is only reinforced by the noir-ish tone of this issue being similar to the work Phillips is doing at the moment in Criminal. Dean White's colouring is generally successful, as even if there's a slight bias towards murky darkness in some of the indoor scenes, the contrast that it provides with the washed-out whiteness of New York's winter streets or the garish pink glare of a strip club works with Smith's linework to make the scene transitions smooth and self-explanatory, so that the book doesn't get cluttered with unnecessary captions or exposition.
There's a lot packed into this issue, wtih Moore's story taking in mafia goons, scientologist crooks, a bereaved mother and a thread about the murder of a cop and an eight-year-old-boy that links them all together. I won't spoil the issue by hinting at the twists and turns that the plot eventually takes, but it's an original enough story that the writer doesn't feel like he's simply rehashing tired clichés, and it gains a subtle element of warmth from the Christmassy elements that even hardcore Punisher fans should be able to stomach. A creative team which has already shown how well they gel together in their Wolverine issue, Moore and Smith have provided another elegantly written and suitably well-illustrated one-shot here, and I can only hope that Marvel lets them loose on other characters in future. There just aren't enough of these self-contained stories around, and I'd definitely be convinced to take a chance on an issue if it had these two creators' names on the cover.
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