Writer: Matt Fraction
Artists: Ariel Olivetti, Dean White (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
This second issue of War Journal delves into the Punisher's role in Captain America's Civil War resistance movement. Taking place in-between the lines of issues #5 and #6 of the main title, writer Matt Fraction shows us how the alliance between the two heroes was forged in more detail than those issues could provide and adds depth to Frank Castle's involvement in the crossover event. Ariel Olivetti's fairly realistic, ink-wash style of illustration benefits from Dean White's soft, delicate colouring to keep things looking pretty enough, and even if the static art style isn't particularly to my taste, it at least manages to be consistent and clear in terms of storytelling. With respect to the artists, however, the reason that many readers will be picking this book up is for further insight into Castle's activities as part of the "Secret Avengers," and although Fraction's story is compelling enough when it comes to the action scenes and character interaction, it doesn't quite make the most of the conflict of ideals that should be at the heart of this Captain America/Punisher team-up.
Yes, the issue does provide some fairly entertaining scenes which flesh out the Punisher's involvement with Cap quite satisfyingly, not least the opening exchange which gets a lot of mileage out of Fraction's decision to treat Captain America and the Punisher as two soldiers, separated by 25 years of change in the nation's attitude to war. Steve Rogers can't see past Frank Castle's cold, heartless and indiscriminate punishment of his enemies; The Punisher feels that he's the only one seeing things clearly, and that Captain America's old-fashioned ways have no place in modern warfare. Crucially, neither of the characters is painted as completely in the right, as Captain America's slightly hypocritical attitudes are acknowledged through Fraction's dialogue. This fits in well with the overall Civil War picture (after all, we've already seen Cap make deals with the Kingpin elsewhere), and there's some very strong character work that comes out of Frank Castle's military deference to his Captain, even when he fundamentally disagrees with his handling of the "Civil War." However, considering Fraction's determination to keep Castle's monochrome ideals unwavering even as the world of superheroes is turned upside-down, it's disappointing to see that the concept that half the country's heroes are now technically criminals themselves is glossed over with only a sentence or two, rather than putting some pressure on the Punisher to grapple with some slightly more complex issues of right and wrong. Then again, maybe this level of character exploration would leave too little space for the workmanlike action sequences and editorially-mandated plot developments necessary to keep the book relevant to the events of Civil War. Indeed, it's only the subplot involving G.W. Bridge that doesn't seem to have much to do with Civil War so far, but it's probably being set up for future, post-crossover issues of the series.
Despite his enjoyable take on the Cap/Punisher relationship, other elements of Fraction's writing don't hold up quite so well. Like Watchmen's Rorschach, The Punisher is a "hero" whose black-and-white view of morality has to be played absolutely straight if the audience is to buy it. Whilst Fraction hasn't gone so far as to turn his PG-13 version of Frank Castle into a light, knockabout character, he has introduced shades of grey into the character's worldview (such as his non-lethal handling of the Tinkerer in issue #1, or his continuing collaboration with a villain who escaped the Raft) which make his cut-and-dried approach to his climactic killing of the super-villains who try to collaborate with Cap's group slightly more difficult to accept. This is doubly damaging considering that it's a major plot point of Civil War #6, and there's no real attempt to get inside Frank's head and explain exactly why he turned against Captain America when he did, which might make up for such apparent inconsistency.
What's more, events from that issue have been rearranged chronologically: this book seems to have the Punisher take his stand against Cap on the way back from acquiring the techno-suit that he needs in order to break into the Baxter Building, whereas Civil War #6 places the act of insubordination quite some time after Frank's mission. It's not a big distraction - indeed, it's possible to get around with some creative thinking (if we assume that Frank's mission took place on his way back to Cap's hideout... err, in the same space of time that it takes Bridge to climb a staircase...), and it certainly doesn't ruin the impact of the big moment which ends this issue, but it's the latest in a long list of editorial hiccups in depicting the same scenes from different points of view. With the weekly volume of Civil War tie-ins reaching a critical level as the series approaches its finale, the crossovers between titles have become tighter and tighter, and readers could have expected such shared events and timelines to be far better co-ordinated by this point.
Like Civil War: Front Line, this book seems to exist more as a companion to the core series than a particularly compelling story in its own right, and seeing as the Punisher's role in the crossover seems likely to end soon (even if the events of this issue don't put him out of the picture for good, the core title only has one more issue to go) it's difficult to predict whether they'll be much reason for Civil War readers to pick up the next issue of this title. Nevertheless, this issue stands as a decent expansion of Frank Castle's appearance in Mark Millar's overall story, albeit one which is marred by a couple of missed opportunities character-wise and an undynamic visual approach.
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