Every Single Artist Agrees

Posted by on December 5th, 2009 at 8:17 PM

I’ve been reading Punisher stories for longer than I care to admit. I have a particular weakness for vigilante tales, especially those set in New York City. This may be partly because I look like Bernhard Goetz, the 1984 subway shooter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernhard_Goetz). Weirdly enough, I was mistaken for Bernie Goetz numerous times during the mid-1980s. On two separate occasions bartenders gave me free drinks, insisting my denials proved I was Goetz. I also received a free cab ride. I offered to pay but the cabbie turned me down. I am not kidding.

One Friday night a teenager on the Number 1 train shouted at me, “You are a dead man, you are a dead man,” as he exited the train. I had been listening to a tape of Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking on my crappy Walkman. It was around this time that a group of photographers rushed to take my picture, assuming I was near the Court House for something other than a traffic violation. For several years strangers would stop to tell me, as if I was hearing these words for the very first time, that I resembled Goetz. Let’s just say my interest in the vigilante trope was piqued by the real-world subway shooter incident.

Reading Punisher stories over the years has been a trip. I hope to write – for this blog – on the Punisher and what his adventures might tell us about contemporary political and ideological battles over justice, vengeance, and the law. It sounds a little heavy, I know. Yet part of the attraction for me so far as the Punisher is concerned is that his implications are entirely social. He’s not exactly where you go if you want to know what comics can do qua comics. The character is on a permanent murder spree, and how you think about that, and how we talk about that, and what Marvel decides to do about that, speaks volumes about the law, the entertainment industry, and the ideas in our heads.

The character has on occasion been skillfully written. Mike Baron achieved some priceless moments in the 1980s, and Garth Ennis enjoyed a successful run in the middle of this decade. The current Punisher series is a bit of a mess, however. Despite having read literally hundreds of Punisher stories over the years, I can barely tell what’s going on. Half the time I have the vague sense that something meaningful is happening but I don’t have a clue as to what it might be. (And please don’t even ask me about Franken-Castle – as any Marvelite can tell you, that’s an entirely different series. Another time, perhaps. At least it can’t be as bad as that piteous avenging-angel-from-the-grave storyline that Marvel pushed on easy marks like me in the late 1990s. Can it?)

These days, every time I pick up a copy of Punisher I shudder. Tan Eng Huat’s pencils are not the problem. His pages are bombastic in a Judge Dread sort of way, but that’s kinda the point. My beef is with Rick Remender’s prose, which manages to be simultaneously confusing and annoying. I don’t mean to pick on somebody who is probably half my age, and just grateful for landing a job in today’s economy. But the lack of any sort of wit, subtly, or style is grating. “C’mon – I’ll make it painless,” intones one supervillain. “Now she’s dead, and for what?” screams another. Okay, I get it – Frank is in another tough scrape. It’s the fight of his life. Again. But there’s a lot of unexplained angst, and endless Marvel universe references, and I can’t quite picture new readers lapping this stuff up. Who knows? I don’t read sales figures. It might be Marvel’s best-selling title. But I somehow doubt it.

Last week I looked through the November issue, number nine, which had been sitting on a pile of unread comics. It was a “meh” kind of experience. Perhaps the whole thing would make more sense if I dug out the relevant back issues and started over from the beginning. But why bother? A light bulb went off when I read the editor’s comments at the end of the letters page:

“Let’s face it, I don’t care what anyone says to the contrary, comic books success is entirely dependent on the artist. Naturally there needs to be a well-crafted and visually excited script to work from but a comic artist is all of the actions, the director, and the cinematographer – if the artist sucks the comic will suck. A comic artist has to tell a clean and immediately understandable visual interpretation of a story the same as a storyboard artist but the comic artist also has to make each page a well-refined illustration. Comic book art is the hardest form of art in the world. Every single artist I know agrees.”

Whoa. What a head banger!

Frankly, these remarks sound over-rehearsed, in a barroom-philosopher-on-a-tear sort of way. I especially like how there needs to be a “visually excited script” – after all, who enjoys spending time with a bored piece of paper? Not only should there be stimulated words, but visually excited periods and commas and stuff. Well-crafted and everything. At the same time, it’s the artist who must turn “each page a well-refined illustration.”

Well-refined? To my ears – and, let’s face it, I don’t care what anyone says to the contrary, about practically anything, and please get the hell off my property – it sounds as if Mr. Tough Guy Editor wants to invite us to tea.

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