Graphic Novel Review: The Punisher: On the Road

The Punisher: On the Road

The Punisher: On the Road - Credit: Archant

A by-the-numbers drug bust is about to take Frank Castle by surprise... and he hates surprises. The horrible fallout threatens to send The Punisher into the heart of darkness, but Castle won’t make that journey alone: A DEA agent is on his trail and attempting to get into his head... but what horrors will she find there and will she survive the experience?

(Panini Books)

When you have what largely amounts to a one-note protagonist like The Punisher, the best comics creators have realised that it is better to focus on peripheral characters who become caught up in his world, as it’s a lot easier than trying to add depth to someone whose raison d’etre is pretty much eat, sleep, kill bad guys, repeat.

This approach is adopted by Becky Cloonan for this latest volume, which also features some of the last Punisher artwork by celebrated illustrator Steve Dillon, as she explores the impact that Frank Castle has upon the life and career of the DEA’s Agent Ortiz.

There are no shades of grey in Frank’s headspace, no moral ambiguities or room for negotiation. His crusade is a relentless, never-ending kill-spree, a far cry from the noble missions of other costumed crusaders. But then apart from the ever-present skull motif, today’s Punisher has very little in common with his anti-hero origins, as today he’s little more than a cold-blooded vigilante who won’t shy away from collateral damage if it gets the job done.

Cloonan’s story takes Castle out of his usual urban environs and into the backwaters of middle America in search of the source of the deadly new drug EMC, capable of turning ordinary people into crazed superhumans. Picking off mercenaries and hillbillies with reckless abandon, he joins forces with Ortiz to take down Condor, a private military contractor that has recently ventured into drug trafficking, leaving behind a trail of bodies in his wake…

The Punisher has already won a new legion of fans following his appearance in the Netflix series Daredevil, and with his own TV show already in production this is a perfect introduction to Frank Castle’s world, with a neat flashback retconning his military background to the Iraq War instead of Vietnam.

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But for any Punisher ongoing series to succeed in the long-term it is going to need both character development (whether that is Castle or his associates) and a structured story arc, as even the most ardent of admirers is going to tire of meaningless and endless gun battles after a while. Cloonan is a relatively new writer better known for her artistic talents, but she makes an auspicious debut here which bodes well for the future. Definitely a book to keep an eye on, as long as it’s not from down the barrel of a sniper rifle…