Monday, July 28, 2014

I Question My Own Opinion of Space: Punisher

Space: Punisher is campy, violent, and narratively blunt, but that's pretty much what I expected out of it. What I wanted out of it, even. It would've been great, yes, if it had managed to bring some intelligence to the proceedings along with all the pulp sci-fi blood-and-guts action, but it's simple-mindedness isn't necessarily a negative. Writer Frank Tieri isn't shooting for great literature; he's moving as quickly as he can from one fight scene to the next, so he can fit as many reimagined Marvel characters into this story as possible. And even with the lush painted artwork, Mark Texeira doesn't seem to be overly concerned with elevating this comic. He, too, goes heaviest on the violence and the character designs, having a lot of fun with rebuilding the Marvel Universe, with no loftier goals than to continuing having that fun through the end.
     A brief synopsis: In the world of Space: Punisher, Frank Castle's family was killed by an intergalactic mafia known as the Six-Fingered Hand (6FH). So Castle is determined to get revenge on the organization, despite how powerful and difficult to find they are. By the time we join him, he's already located one of their number, the Sym-Brood-Ant Queen, as well as the rest of her colony, which is a fairly badass combination of classic X-Men villain the Brood and classic Spider-Man villain the Venom symbiote. Castle steals information of the Sym-Brood-Ants about the other members of 6FH, then destroys their planet with a bomb that creates a black hole, and heads off to complete his revenge. Over the course of the next three issues, he kills the other five capos of 6FH: Doctor Octopus as a sort of alien octopus centaur with a man top half and tentacles for legs; The Green Goblin as an actual green-skinned, purple-winged space monster; Magneto, who is still just an old dude with magnetism powers but now dresses in semi-futuristic-looking robes; the Red Skull as a gaunt alien who looks kind of the same as always; and Ultron, who is also a skinny space creature, all-gray and with some nasty fangs/tusks sticking up from his lower mandible. Once these enemies have been eliminated, Castle learns that the power behind them is a group of six Watchers, so he confronts them, too. While they're too powerful for Castle to fight himself, they're evidently no match for this reality's version of The Hulk, a four-armed behemoth who flies through space freely and destroys everything in his path. Castle finds a way to call The Hulk to the Watchers' home base, where he promptly tears through them all like gore-filled tissue paper. Castle is satisfied, even as chaos begins to run rampant through a now unsupervised universe. The End.
     It's a narrow-minded tale about a narrow-minded guy, not interested in the ramifications of his actions because he's so intently focused on vengeance. Which, based on what I've seen of the character elsewhere, is exactly what The Punisher should be. Then again, that's why I tend to avoid Punisher stories. I don't mind having flawed, angry heroes, but something about Frank Castle's particular blend of arrogance and rage has always turned me off. Similarly, I'm not a big Hulk guy, because his emotional range is too limited by his fury-based superpowers. I know some writers have done some deeper stuff with both of these guys, and someday I'd like to check that out—Peter David's Hulk run in particular—but my early experiences with them always made them seem two-dimensional at best and I haven't taken the time to find books that will change my mind.
     Then again, in Space: Punisher, those two characters are boiled down to their simplest versions and tossed into outer-space, and somehow it works for me. Or at any rate, it doesn't grate on my nerves like these heroes often do. And in the last issue, when Bruce Banner's head comes out of The Hulk's chest and begs for Castle to kill's the closest thing to a truly powerful, meaningful moment in the whole series. It comes as a surprise, so close to the end, at it maybe even feels out of place, though definitely not insincere. Texeira alone packs a lot of heart into that scene, which proves that he and Tieri can create something with depth, but maybe didn't have that on that agenda with this project. Neither did I as a reader. I was looking for some easy-to-digest space opera melodrama and action, and that's what I got.
     But is it a good example of that kind of story? Just because it's as uncomplicated as I imagined it would be, does that make it a success? There are some obvious problems with it. For one thing, even with all the deep-space versions of familiar Marvel characters floating around, none of them are women. I guess arguably the Sym-Brood-Ant Queen counts, and on the second-to-last page of the final issue we see, along with several other redesigned Avengers, The Wasp and The Scarlet Witch. But they don't get lines or even anything to do other than stand next to their teammates for a single panel while Iron Man's dialogue brings things to a close. The Punisher's ship, which has some semblance of a personality, is named Marie after his murdered wife, so that's the closest thing to a fully-realized female character this book has to offer. It's a drag, because Tieri pulls characters from all corners of the traditional Marvel Universe to incorporate into this new one, so you'd think one of them could've been a woman, no sweat.
     Also, beyond giving them a slightly new look, new setting, and new alliances with each other, this series doesn't really do much with its takes on these characters. Sabretooth in space is still a violent savage, Rhino is still a thug, the Watchers are still arrogant schmucks. Being in space is not inherently cool or interesting enough of a change if nothing else interesting comes of it, and with one or two exceptions, Tieri doesn't bother to get too inventive. Even Punisher is still just a guy with a grudge against criminals and a bunch of big weapons. It all raises the questions like What's the point of this book? and Is this series actually saying anything about these people? Ultimately, I'm not convinced it is. It's more like Tieri and Texeira are kids playing with their favorite action figures, putting the heroes and villains they like most into a sci-fi environment for no other reason than wouldn't that be cool? And it is pretty cool, but is that enough?
     I find myself enjoying the hell out of Space: Punisher as I read it, but not giving a shit about it when it's done. It's memorable but not worth taking the time to remember. Mindless fun has its place, has value. It appeals to the kid in me who also played with action figures and created his own realities. But it's hard to locate just where on the mindless-fun spectrum this series resides. Here's the moment that I think most exemplifies what I mean, and everything I love-hate about the comic:

As a final thought, the colon in the title Space: Punisher is super dumb. I know that the original plan was for this to be the first in a line of books, all set in the same universe, each starring a different character. So down the line there'd be Space: Daredevil and Space: Cloak & Dagger and Space: Hit Monkey (those are not real examples, just the imagined books I'd most like to see) but not only did that not happen, it was a bad idea to start. Just call it Space Punisher and do the same with the other books. People will be able to tell they're connected even if the "Space" part isn't separated from the rest of the title by punctuation.

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