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‘Marvel Knights Punisher: Purgatory’ review: Can we even talk about this rationally?

The most honest review of this maligned story that you’ll find.

Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegoski
Price: $21.80
Was: $24.99

If you clicked on this expecting a rib-nudging snarkfest about one of the most universally derided creative runs in the history of comics, you might want to just go ahead and navigate away right now. This is not that.

Look, yes, the Marvel Knights Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegoski-written Punisher from 1998, in which ruthless crime-annihilating vigilante Frank Castle is portrayed as a righteous tool of Heaven, is not very good. But it’s not because of the concept.

That’s the weird, unique thing about the Marvel Knights time period. The whole experimental line, masterminded by Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti in the late 1990s, came on the heels of Marvel Comics’ infamous bankruptcy. Clearly, something had to change. So the creators of this special subsection were tasked with doing intimate character studies on their assigned properties, but encouraged to push the envelope and think outside the box.

Angel Punisher was too outside the box for anyone.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

Yet Frankencastle wasn’t! Rick Remender’s batsh*t 2010 story, which featured a butchered and stitched back together Punisher (a la Frankenstein’s monster) chaingunning down Nazis while riding a dragon was arguably MORE out there than the angel version, but by then, readers had come around to not taking their comics so seriously. Hard-nosed Punisher was simply too iconic to get weird, pre-new millennium, even though this was before Garth Ennis really solidified him as stone cold, during a time when he was already fighting demons and still wearing white go-go boots. But hey, nerdrage, right?

Of course, it helps that Frankencastle was written a lot better, too. There are some great ideas hiding in the Marvel Knights Punisher. We learn that a slacker guardian angel, Gadriel, is the real reason Castle’s family was killed that fateful day, and he’s the one who saved Frank after his suicide, too, trying to gain redemption for both of them. But then an ambitious demon is the real real reason, because he chose Frank (and left him alive) so that he’d funnel him damned souls to build an army in his war with the other Hell lords.

That’s some next level sh*t; you didn’t think of it! Sadly, the devil (cough) is in the details, and great concepts need great execution, which Marvel Knights Punisher largely lacks. There’s a lot of setup, and some unnecessary sub-plots, and every climax is rushed, with a lot of personality changes out of nowhere.

The pencils on these four issues are handled by “legendary horror artist” (so it says on this new volume’s back cover) Bernie Wrightson, and the demons he conjures do look pretty striking. The people don’t really measure up, though — they always seem to be squinting, and Wrightson carries part of the burden for the confused climaxes, not really showing us the goods. The famous Punisher re-design is … goofy, but how could it not be? Still, the angelic weapons especially are uninspired and reek of ’90s excess. Why do these holy instruments look like slime Super Soakers?

It doesn’t help that the coloring is done by the committee of Brian Haberlin, Avalon, Elizabeth Lewis, Snakebite Cortez and Ben Prenevost. The whole thing could have used a little more consistency.

Ultimately, Marvel Knights Punisher could have been a great alternate universe storyline, or an abbreviated run like Frankencastle, but readers still tended to think that changes stuck back then (despite evidence to the contrary), so no one gave it a chance. You can tell because the book only made it four issues, meaning it was quite possibly canceled before the first issue even hit stands, due to low pre-orders.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

Thus the back half of the newly published Marvel Knights Punisher: Purgatory is made up of what was billed as a four-issue mini-series called Wolverine/Punisher: Revelation. A ’90s staple team-up; it has to work, right?!?!

Revelation takes a shaky start and buries it in the mud. Or, rather, under the New York City subway, because that’s where — stay with me here — a Morlock with some kind of death aura was buried in an electronic cocoon and … told she was in Heaven? Or something? It’s hard to tell, because it’s a clear stretch to somehow make her pertinent to both protagonists, with mystery technology because … Dark Beast, I guess? The opening relies on a typical Wolverine story crutch, Punisher’s motivation is again inconsistent, the new angelic antagonists are kind of neat but ultimately just a reason for Frank to be “rebellious,” and it’s hard to get excited about anyone fighting the same enemies in the sewer for four issues.

So yes, Marvel Knights Punisher: Purgatory is not good and probably not worth your time, unless you’re a completist who wants every Punisher appearance or, more manageably, each of these “MKXX” editions reliving the line. But the concept was sound, and completely undeserving of the fan backlash that preceded it. Add the fact that it couldn’t even deliver properly on its unpopular promise, and you’ve got a perfect storm of daring idea scuttled by bad execution, one that’s rightfully looked down upon, but usually for the wrong reasons. There’s a fine line between genius and madness, and the Marvel Knights Punisher just happened to fall on the wrong side of it.

Marvel Knights Punisher: Purgatory
Is it good?
It's a decent concept executed poorly and teased for a longer run that it should have gotten. The hype is overblown, and this is not an affront to all things Punisher, but it's certainly not essential. Not quite bad enough to be good.
Great concept
Some of the design choices are neat
Level of storytelling is not strong enough to carry the daring idea
Art that doesn't capture the best moments, gets characters' emotions wrong, tonally misses the mark by a wide margin
Inconsistent colors
4.5
Meh
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