There are basically two different kinds of Punisher stories. One is a psychological sort of tale that tries to get into Frank Castle’s head, whether through his own eyes or those of others, and wants to figure out why he does what he does. The other is a ’90s-style shoot ’em up with enough gore, guns and profanity to make any teenager fist pump.
In The Punisher: End of the Line, writer Becky Cloonan hews more toward the second variety.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even Garth Ennis followed his stunning portrayal of the Punisher’s Vietnam origin with a ton of systematic blood and guts, without a whole lot more character insight. But at least “Kitchen Irish” went somewhere and felt real as it happened.
Cloonan’s End of the Line feels more like a deconstruction of writers’ historically worst instincts on the character — which would be great, in a Watchmen-sort of way, if wasn’t, most likely, completely unintentional.
Frank falls into that worst of all Punisher bogs, being somehow unable to kill his adversaries, as they’ve eluded him for six issues prior to this volume, and leave similarly unscathed by the time issue #12 completes. The situations the characters find themselves in are beyond fortuitous, as angry bears and stabbing skeletons show up just in time to help the punishment along. And of course Castle needed a foul-mouthed granny in a motorcycle sidecar to help him out! Why wouldn’t she; he reminds her of her husband!
Black humor to cut through the horror has always been an important part of The Punisher, but the puns and laconic dismissals from Frank are more punishing to the reader than those swinging bear traps are to the bones of his enemies. When not bombing on open-mic nights, the characters must be amateur soothsayers, too, because they end up explaining plot points that are never actually shown in the panels.
To the artists’ credit, the progression between those panels is almost universally well-done. The action thrusts forward through multiple pages, as the storytelling over-relies on the art to pick up the slack. Sadly, Matt Horak simply can’t live up to the standard set by Steve Dillon, who tragically died while on art duties for this volume of Punisher, even with the help of colorist Frank Martin. Horak’s art is kind of the funhouse, Saturday morning version of Dillon’s, who had been doing some of the best work of his legendary career up until the very end.
Add in a poor climax, a strange characterization of Frank that has him giving up on kills and diving into freezing waters Greg Louganis-sytle, and a rehash of standard “band of brothers” stuff, and you’ve got a package that’s more a caricature of Punisher stories than a new and exciting one, itself. Or maybe it’s the kind of story that fist-pumping teenager would write, while missing all the things that make the character compelling and just filling up on ass-kicking and wisecracking.
You can understand that a more cerebral look at Frank Castle’s psyche, as in Greg Rucka’s recent run, isn’t for everyone. Many probably find it boring. But it’s hard to imagine a lot of people finding The Punisher: End of the Line, with its recycled tropes, bad dialogue and tribute art, all that much more exciting. An emotional story of Dillon by editor Jake Thomas and a few variant covers, even by the likes of Marco Chechetto and Joe Jusko, aren’t enough to save it.
The Punisher: End of the Line collects Punisher (2016) #7-12.