Welcome to Comics Past, where I take a look at comics from the past (hence the name) that you and I might have overlooked, but which, it turns out, are surprisingly great. The first comic I’m looking at: Punisher War Journal #6.
Punisher War Journal had two unfortunate things going against it: it was spinning out of Civil War (with the first few issues intrinsically tied to the crossover) and it wasn’t being written by Garth Ennis. Ennis was writing Punisher MAX, which was more bloody and less tied to the Marvel universe, which is why Marvel wanted another book that was tied to the rest of the Marvel universe.
Punisher War Journal, however, did have one thing going for it: it was the first ongoing series at Marvel to be written by Matt Fraction, who would later gain fame for Invincible Iron Man, Immortal Iron Fist, and Hawkeye, as well as the Image comic Sex Criminals. Fraction’s work on Punisher War Journal ranges from simply okay...to simply awesome.
And the first issue to hit that mark is Punisher War Journal #6, “Small Wake for a Tall Man,” written by Fraction and illustrated by Mike Deodato Jr. Previously, during the Superhero Civil War, the Punisher took a rocket launcher to the supervillain Stilt Man and killed him. So now a bunch of his friends are showing up at a bar for his wake.
Much like Neil Gaiman’s Riddler story “When is a Door,” the supervillains at Stilt Man’s wake reminisce about the past when robbing banks and fighting superheroes was simply a game, a game where nobody died. A nostalgic look back at the Silver Age of Marvel, an age that was “sweetness and light.”
But this isn’t the Silver Age anymore. We’re reminded repeatedly that these supervillains are, above all, human. They suffer from depression and mental illness and have to take care of their families. It’s all they can do just to “stave off the darkness.”
The supervillains get drunk and tell stories and start a bar brawl just to release the tension. Because they all know that these days aren’t like the old days; these days, you can die. These days, there’s the Punisher.
I won’t say how the Punisher appears in this issue, because it’s a great surprise, but just watching all these supervillains mourning their friend and acting like real humans makes this issue a great one. And, surprisingly, Stilt-Man stayed dead for a long while — at least until The Clone Conspiracy, where the Jackal cloned him. Perhaps it was because of his goofy outfit that reminded readers of a lighter age. Perhaps it was simply because nobody cared enough to bring him back until now.
But villains like Stilt-Man and the Shocker and the Armadillo and Grizzly and the Eel and Princess Python and even Lady Stilt-Man have their place in the Marvel Universe. Even as the things become darker, they can still look back at when things were light and laugh at how things used to be.