Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Punisher Noir, with script by Frank Tieri and art by Paul Azaceta, is the fifth in Marvel’s series of Marvel Noir comics. The story begins with a series of cuts in time, beginning in 1935 with an introduction of the Punisher, to which we will soon return. Next, the story jumps to Frank Castelione Sr. on a European battlefield in WWI, and then to the Bronx in 1928, where Frank Castelione Jr. is getting into trouble with other kids from the neighborhood. From there, events pick up speed when Frank, Sr. antagonizes “Dutch” Schultz, a real-life figure who would become one of New York’s most notorious gangsters by the early 1930s. Soon, on Frank Castelione is dead while the other sets out on a crusade of vengeance, but I will not reveal which of them it to avoid spoilers and keep the mystery going for future readers. This jumping in time, well-used for the most part, serves to build suspense, to set up important aspects of the story, and as a means of narrative misdirection.
The introduction betrays Punisher Noir’s debt to pulp-style masked avenger adventures from the very beginning. As the titular protagonist readies himself to head out on the street, a radio announcer’s voice provides a sort of double-narration for both the comics series and a fictional radio show within that series’ world:
Can you hear it, loyal listeners? The trembling of the very heart of the underworld. You know who’s coming. He feels no pain. Mere bullets do not even faze the likes of him. His arsenal is far deadlier than anything Uncle Sam can muster. His pistols… legendary throughout all of gangsterland. Their aim is ever true. Who is this mysterious champion of the innocent? All that is known is he will never stop. He will never give in. Bang! Bang! Bang! Oh no. It’s already too late for criminals, loyal listeners. He’s here. So all you evil-doers and ne’er-do-wells out there had best beware! The Punisher is upon us!
In addition to this connection with 1930s radio serials like The Shadow or The Green Hornet, there is a healthy heaping of gangster movie thrown in, a genre that was still popular in American cinemas at the period represented. Since it’s a Punisher story, influences of the 1970s vigilante movies (think Charles Bronson in Death Wish) that originally inspired the character can also be keenly felt.
That said, there are some good twists in the story and in relation to a few of the central characters, a great deal of sensitivity to historical detail, and an interesting twist on “Dutch” Schultz’s famous last words. Between scenes of masculine blustering and creative pugilism, Tieri and Azaceta manage to paint a picture of the Bronx’s street life in the 1930s, warts and all. The city and its history thus find their way into the story in a deeper manner than in most other Noir titles, feeling not as an anonymous backdrop but as a place where people actually lived and where things happened that shaped those lives (albeit in a slightly idiosyncratic way, given the introduction of am ultraviolent vigilante into the mix).
Again, some of the cast from the standard version of the character makes the jump into the Noir world. This time it is bit players like Mr. Bumpo, Detective Soap, the Russian, Barracuda, and Jigsaw, all more or less tranposed without too much adaptation to the period (doubtless in part because they don’t need much). Readers familiar with Garth Ennis’ runs on the Punisher comics will recognize a pattern in who gets to make the jump into the Noir continuity. Tieri’s writing seems to have borrowed more from that run than just characters, however; as the Punisher sets out to do what he does best, and the violence escalates, the shootings and the stabbings and the executions and the uses of grenades take on the air of creativity and absurdity that Ennis’ work relishes in (albeit with a less graphic nature, given that Noir is not as allowing as the MAX imprint when it comes to mature subject matter).
Thus, on the whole Punisher Noir reads like much other material featuring the character, but there is nothing in it that really makes the “noir” label stick; perhaps more than anything, it’s Ennis’ Frank Castle in the thirties, with a nice Tieri twist. This, to me, in itself makes it more than worth the read (but I am biased, since the two have given me so much reading pleasure over the years). If someone asked me which Noir comic someone who wanted to read only one should pick up, this would be it, hands down.