I was pretty hard on End of the Line, the previous volume of Becky Cloonan’s recently-ended tenure on The Punisher. With its bad jokes, convenient plot developments and strange decisions by Frank Castle, it seemed more a botched tribute to old Punisher stories than original work itself.
The Punisher Vol. 3: King of the New York Streets rectifies most of those problems, creating an atmosphere more in line with what I’d guess the creators are going for — unique work inspired by what’s come before, not just referential of it.
Okay, there are still a couple head-shaking things, like a car with the skull logo on the hood, or a fairly ridiculous premise in the volume’s first issue, #13, in which a teenager somehow lucks his way into one of the Punisher’s bunkers and walks off with a gun. If Frank were so careless, he would’ve been taken out shortly after the Jackal introduced him to us.
Here’s something else ridiculous — Kris Anka draws this issue. But this time, it’s ridiculous in a good way! The stylistic artist who helped establish Captain Marvel’s (admittedly awesome) current look drawing Punisher sounds like a train wreck, but it works just fine here, showing that there truly are a million ways to tell a Punisher story. Despite starting his career drawing covers, Anka’s action scenes flow remarkably well, and Matthew Wilson’s colors complement his style, often vibrant but washed out when called for.
The art is one of the main reasons The Punisher Vol. 3: King of the New York Streets works as well as it does, tragically proving the old truism that writers need to write for their artists — that is, to consider their strengths and weaknesses when creating a script for them to illustrate. Matt Horak sadly had to take over on scripts meant for Steve Dillon after his death, and his attempt to ape the legend’s particular style simply did not work. He returns for issues 14-17 here, with stories suited to him, and it’s all gravy.
Issues 14 and 15 are more standalone stories, which is a nice break from the drug cartel saga that this run of Punisher had been bogged down in. Horak is able to tell several stories concurrently in #14, with the use of a nine-panel grid and — would you believe it — a 16-panel grid. Colorist Lee Loughridge joins him here and for the rest of the volume, using a more pastel palette for the differences in light and dark throughout this museum heist story, again showing continuity and understanding of the skills of each team member.
Issue #15 might hit a little too close to home, as it focuses on Frank tracking down someone who habitually pushes unsuspecting people in front of oncoming subway trains. But then again, Punisher stories have never shied away from addressing the fear du jour, if all those drug stories from the early ’90s are any indication. As someone who’s actually been in the New York City subway tunnels, my biggest gripe with this story is the impossible, almost palatial catacombs where all the town’s transients gather, unbeknownst to anyone.
The final two issues of King of the New York Streets do revisit Face, the main antagonist from Cloonan’s first issues, as we finally look to be through with him. But not before a weird transformation that recalls past Punisher stories of just slightly superhuman criminals posing serious challenges for all-too-mortal Frank. It’s a drastic change in tone from the story in which Face is introduced, keeping with the newly established gory goofiness, but it mostly works. The two-dimensional supporting characters from the theater scene complete the package.
The Punisher Vol. 3: King of the New York Streets is still more shoot ’em up than psychology, but it does it much better than the previous volume does. Thanks in large part to the unconventional Punisher artists, this volume feels like it genuinely moves the genre forward, rather than just drowning in its tropes. It probably still won’t sit well with more contemplative Punisher readers, but the creative team mostly succeeds in what they set out to do.