Saturday, December 16, 2006

Punisher: Xmas Special

Punisher: Xmas Special, January 2007, Marvel Comics
writer: Stuart Moore
artist: CP Smith
colorist: Dean White
letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna
assistant editor: Michael O’Connor
editor: Axel Alonso
EIC: Joe Quesada

Different people have different holiday traditions. Every Christmas morning, for example, after opening our gifts, my mother and I enjoy a breakfast of cold shrimp from the previous evening’s dinner, a tradition she and her father began decades ago, and that also included cookies, until my grandmother quit baking her dozens of varieties a few years back. The Punisher, on the other hand, makes a naughty list and spends the waking hours of Christmas Day executing the figureheads of New York’s criminal underworld. Yeah, it’s a little different.

In this Christmas special, the Punisher is depressed because many of his “naughty” targets have innocent family visiting for the holidays, so his initial plans for punishment are aborted by thoughts of unnecessary collateral damage. Instead, Mr. Castle decides to pursue a few small fish before they get any bigger. At the top of his list, Jimmy Nouveau, an oddly religious crook running a small crime-cult in the back of a strip club, connected to a cop’s murder just the night before. A majority of this issue is spent in pursuit of Nouveau, and when the Punisher finds him, a mystery unfolds that I didn’t expect, and that almost got the better of me. Indeed, writer Stuart Moore slips a clever twist into this tale that I won’t spoil here, other than to note that I was pleased with the literary Christmas treat. Any Punisher story with an extra level of sophistication is a-okay by me.

Smith’s artwork is befitting the tale, and the Punisher is so often obscured by shadow that he actually rarely appears in the story. Between his stark silhouette and Moore’s weighty monologue the Punisher is more of a force of nature in this context, an anti-Santa that befriends both the naughty and the nice and does his work quickly, in the cloak of darkness. Although I don’t collect the Punisher series anymore, I have followed it enough to know that many artists are approaching the material with similar results: strikingly dark foregrounds, with finely detailed urban backgrounds, creating a ghost-like essence for stories that usually feature soon-to-be dead men anyway. Christmas may be about lights and hope, but for the Punisher, his hope comes from dwelling in those corners where light doesn’t always reach. His is a kind of coal you don’t want in your stocking.

What makes for a good Christmas comic book? Surely, I won’t be reading this one to the kids, but at the same time, I was left with a satisfying feeling, having experienced the holiday through a familiar character’s eyes. For mainstream superhero/vigilante books especially, this is perhaps the best outcome. A Spider-man or a Batman Christmas story, no matter how optimistic, would never rank up there with the Burt Ives Rudolph saga, that’s for sure, but if we as fans understand the holiday just a little better thanks to our heroes’ input, that may be enough. I get how the Punisher feels on Christmas night, now. Fortunately, after years of miring the Punisher in multi-title story arcs, of “cameoing” the character to death, we’re in an era that knows how to use him right, through simple stories with seasonal significance. True to the character and true to the holiday, in this issue’s case. ‘Nuff said.

I spoke to my mother earlier today. She’s made some of the cookies she and her father used to eat those many Christmas mornings ago. I know we can never recreate the childhood experiences she had, but we can try. Christmas is, after all, about doing what you know. Tradition. In this case, the Punisher hit the bull’s eye.

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