Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Punisher Meets Archie is a Thousand Times Better than it Should Be

I don't even especially care for the Punisher or Archie as characters on their own, but I got a big kick out of The Punisher Meets Archie (a.k.a Archie Meets the Punisher, if you're reading the Archie Comics version, which is the same except for the covers). Given to me as part of a recent wedding gift (thanks, Mike!) I can confidently say this is something I'd never have gotten for myself, even as a joke. How fortunate it ended up in my possession, then, because it's actually a pretty interesting, funny, and good-looking comic.
     A drug dealer and con man on the run from his past and the Punisher decides to flee to Riverdale to set up a new operation. Trouble is, this particular villain—he has several names but mostly people call him "Red" (including the quotation marks for some reason)—looks almost exactly like Archie Andrews. A whole bunch of mistaken identity chaos and violence ensues, involving not only the Punisher and Archie but also rival criminals who want to take "Red" out themselves.
     It doesn't help that "Red" goes to the school dance with Veronica, which seems weird because he's supposed to be an adult, I think, and the fact that he resembles a teenager doesn't feel like enough for Hiram Lodge to be down with his daughter and "Red" coupling up, even for one event. Nor should Hiram have been down with it, since "Red" gets super creepy and aggressive and handsy almost immediately, and then eventually takes Veronica hostage at gunpoint in order to get away from the Punisher. He's a truly despicable bad guy, which makes you glad the Punisher is after him, but because he's only ever in scheming, perving, or running away mode, "Red" manages to fit into the world of Archie, too. He has a gun but never pulls the trigger, and we know about past evil acts, but only ever actually see him failing to do bad things. I guess he successfully kidnaps Veronica, doesn't last long, as she manages to slip in a clue about their location on the ransom message "Red" sends her father. She says he's "not full of hot air" because he took her to the warehouse where all the balloons for the Fourth of July parade are being stored—hilarious.
     By the time "Red" has Veronica, Archie and the Punisher have gone from enemies to friends. Or, not enemies, exactly...Punisher mistakes Archie for "Red" because a couple of other bad guys make the same mistake first, and Punisher spots them capturing Archie from a distance. As soon as they get close to each other, Punisher realizes he was wrong, and goes after the real crooks instead, giving Archie a chance to get away. Of course, Archie still thinks Punisher is after him, but when he goes to the cops they assume he's making it up and escort him to, you guessed it, the school dance where "Red" is with Veronica. Learning he has a lookalike helps Archie figure out what's really going on, but not soon enough to stop a bunch of local bad guys and the Punisher from descending upon the school and getting into a sprawling shooting match. Right before the fight breaks out is when "Red" nabs Veronica, and when the battle ends is when Archie and Punisher officially team up to rescue her and stop "Red" for good. Which they ultimately do by just not saving him when he gets tangled up in the ropes of a hot air balloon as it drifts into the sky through the open roof window of the warehouse. Again, hilarious.
     There's plenty of hilarity to go around in this comic. For example, a throwaway Dr. Strange joke at the dance, mixed in with a bunch of other throwaway lines coming from the crowd of high schoolers, where someone says, " I asked the doctor if the hosts of Hoggoth where really hoary..." Then there's this panel, which was simple but still made me laugh:
Best of all, there's the one page where Archie writes in was war journal, entry 00001, mimicking the style and language of the Punisher's own war journal entries from the rest of the issue, but filtered through Archie's immaturity and innocence. At the end he goes, "It's payback time. The war never ends. One on one. It's clobberin' time." I mean, come on...HILARIOUS!
     Batton Lash wrote this script, and did a wonderful job of making it appropriately funny but still something in which the Punisher naturally fits. He does have a few sappy moments, especially at the end, that feel perhaps a bit out of character, but I've certainly read Punisher stories before where he was capable of showing kindness to people who showed him genuine goodness and trustworthiness first, so it works well enough. This is meant to be a bit of a gag comic, of course, opening with letters from the editors (Archie Comics' Victor Gorelick and Marvel's Tom DeFalco) admitting that the whole thing began as a joke and always seemed like a joke to them. But as they point out in those same letters, Lash made it work with his story, finding the sweet spot between Archie antics and Punisher action.
     What pushes The Punisher Meets Archie over the edge into awesomeness, though, is the art, with John Buscema credited as "Punisher artist" and Stan Goldberg as "Archie artist." From what I can tell reading it, and backed up by what I can find online, this means Buscema and Goldberg often share art duties in a given panel, whenever Punsiher characters and Archie characters intermingle. They definitely split some pages, if not panels, but it looks like there are examples of both. Bringing it all together are inker Tom Palmer and colorist Barry Grossman, who finish all the artwork and thus add consistency to the overall look of the book. Palmer and Grossman both respect the difference in the two pencilers' styles while finding enough common ground to let the two interact comfortably. It's not just the Punisher and his sidekick Micro Chip that Buscema handles, either. He does all of the bad guys, except for "Red" who I'm pretty sure is Goldberg's responsibility, since he's supposed to look (and does in fact look) so much like Archie. So there are major and minor characters done in both styles throughout the book, meaning it's a blend from start to finish and all the mixed pages and panels fit right in.
     I don't know if diehard Punisher fans would care for this comic, in which Frank Castle works for the government, agrees not to kill his target, and kisses an old woman on the forehead when she gives him a sweater. Nor am I sure it would necessarily appeal to Archie purists, since it involves a violent psychopath being praised as a hero in Riverdale. Instead, I feel like the ideal reader is anyone who hears the name The Punisher Meets Archie and thinks to themselves, "Huh...that sounds goofy and weird and fun....assuming they didn't phone it in." Because unlike so many purely gimmick ideas, this one is packaged in solid storytelling, unusual art, and a deep appreciation for the singular strangeness of its concept.

Postscript: I finished this column a couple days ago but wanted to give myself time to edit it today before posting. In the meantime, CSBG did their own synopsis of this same comic, here. So go check that out for more details and scans.

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