X-TREME Corner: Remember when Punisher was Black?
- Published on Wednesday, 13 June 2012 13:00
- Written by Jordan
- Hits: 693
The Punisher is easily one of Marvel’s most popular characters. At one point he had 3 ongoings (all in continuity) and was a frequent guest star in a number of books. With this many titles coming out you tend to get some…weird stories. Today’s story is remember for one thing but the rest is often ignored. I am tackling the infamous “Punisher Goes Black” storyline.
This one will require some backstory. Just try to follow along. Punisher was captured and put into prison after getting set up by the Kingpin, a whole slew of issues before this arc began. While in Prison he met jigsaw and well Jigsaw cut him up, badly. Frank finally escapes from prison and meets up with a plastic surgeon to fix him so he can hide in public. She goes ahead and makes him a black man. Complete with a completely different hair style and facial structure that doesn’t make sense since he was just injected with pigment. The reasoning for making him a black man is never fully explained but I believe the writers and editors did it for one reason: To set up a Luke Cage book. I’ll elaborate on that some more in a moment but first let’s get into the comics themselves.
For the purpose of this review I am going to give the synopsis of each issue (as they are really stand alone issues in 3 part arc, if that makes any sense) then go into the review.
Punisher #60 Escape from New York
The cover is simple. We have Luke Cage’s Power Man costume along with Frank’s Punisher costume pinned up on the wall behind the duo. This symbolizes they are moving ahead of the past and that their old costumes are behind them (For Luke. at least). The cover itself is fairly nice and really works giving the reader the fact that Punisher is now black.
The plot for this comic is fairly simple. Once Frank finds out what the doctor done to him he asks to go to Chicago to lay low for a bit and get his hands on a weapons cache. He drives himself to Chicago from New York City only to find out that he probably should’ve ate something and nearly wrecks the car passing out. This attracts the attention of the police and, well, the beat the living daylights out of him cause he’s black. Yeah few pages in and we have the Punisher undergoing racial police brutality. Frank actually quips that he didn’t care for racism while he was white but now that he’s black it’s more obvious to him.
During the beat down, Luke Cage notices what the police are doing and he jumps in to save Frank. Luke tells Frank his back story and that he’s a hero for hire. Knowing he will need assistance in getting his safe house back from the neighborhood drug lords and that Cage’s special abilities will come in handy. Frank hires Luke to get into the weapons cache. He offers to pay Cage with the money in the safe. Cage agrees and joins Frank on his mission and they both storm the stronghold. The duo get to the bottom of the building only to find out the safe has been cleared out but the weapons and armor are still there. Cage not taking the lack of money lightly tells him that the only way that he’ll be cool with it is if Frank agrees to work for him to help square each other off.
The plot of the first part of the story basically sets up the three part adventure of the Punisher as a black man and his team up with Luke Cage. Outside of the rather silliness of the Black Punisher, the plot is structured quite well and moves a nice pace. Nothing drags and for the most part the comic is well written. There are some glaring art issues but those will be addressed towards the end of the review as we must talk about the second part The Punisher #61: Crackdown
The Punisher #61 Crackdown
Like with the previous issue a brief breakdown of the cover. There isn’t much to it. It’s the black Punisher and Luke Cage taking on some thugs. Simple and effective.
With the cover taken care of let’s move to the plot. Like the last issue the comic is largely self-contained but still a part of the larger arc with Punisher turning black. As we left our heroes, Punisher owes Cage a large chunk of cash for his services in helping Frank getting his gear back. Frank’s first assignment for Cage was to go in to an Apartment complex/Drug base/Gang safe-house posing as a crack head.
He cases out the joint while in there and meets the drug supplier, a White man by the name of Mr. Rudy. After learning of Rudy’s plan Frank escapes from the building with the help of Cage. Once the place is cased out, the duo begins working on a plan to take down the gang and free the building from their control. Before enacting their plan the Heroes for Hire meet up with the spokeswoman for the apartment residents and discuss the plan. The dynamic duo discovers there are some hostages in the building and that they must go in without killing to save them. This brings up a sore spot for Frank and Luke as the two don’t agree on killing.
Frank takes the “Whatever it takes” position and Luke is more about doing it as clean as possible for public image sake (as his business depends on it). The pair eventually takes down the gang with some struggle. Frank kills off Rudy and the other members of the guard but the information of his location makes it all the way to Kingpin’s assassin and the crime leader of Chicago. The issue ends on the two plotting to take down Cage and The Punisher.
So the issue is about Frank paying the Hero for Hire back through helping on several small jobs and one large job: Clearing out an apartment complex’s gang headquarters. Throughout the issue we learn more about Frank and Luke’s rocky partnership. Frank’s whatever it takes (including death) attitude goes directly against Luke’s no killing policy. This raises tension between the two as the big job comes along and Frank wants to go in and kill them all, but Cage prevents him for the most part. The plot continues the fast paced style from the first issue and resolves the debt that Frank owes Cage. Also sets up the final issue of the arc- The Punisher #62: Fade to white
Punisher #62 Fade to White
JoeyQ and Williamson delivers a great cover and a personal favorite of mine. Instead of breaking down this cover I would like to point out the name of the story in this issue: FADE TO WHITE! Yeah it’s self explanatory but by Odin’s Beard does it sound dumb. Why in the world would you call this story Fade to white?! How about “Back to normal”, “The Punisher Returns”, or “He’s back”? Actually He’s back is the name of the story on the cover. You think that would’ve worked. Oh well, let’s get into the plot of this comic.
We open to find the Kingpin’s assassin and the Chicago crime Lord planning to take out both Luke and Frank whilst the dysfunctional duo are fighting over their styles and how it’s not good for Luke’s image to have people dying all over their place.
The bickering couple are hailed down by the civilians and praised for their work but Cage snaps back and says He’s only in it for the money. Frank is forced to calm him down and the two reluctantly return to their HQ. There Frank is packing up and about to head out but not before Luke stops him and tells him not to run away from the problems and Frank snaps back telling Cage to essentially go screw himself. Frank storms out of the HQ and goes to save a woman from a group of gang members. This turns out to be a trap and Frank is captured by the Assassin and the crime lord with Luke looking on. While captured, Frank learns it was the same doctor that gave him his skin modification that sold him out to the Kingpin. Before the doctor and Frank are taken out Luke jumps in the room ala Kool-aid man and saves the day drawing fire and allowing Frank to set himself free.
Cage and the Punisher quickly dispatch the goons and killers in their own brand of justice. Cage tells The Punisher that he owes him one for saving him but Frank says he’ll pay him back but will do it at a later time, instead moving off to continue fighting in the War.
This was the weakest comic of the arc. The plot is almost nonexistent and only serves to tie up all the loose ends. We see the Punisher return to his white features and rocking the skull and guns and we see more to Cage’s personality but the personality shown goes against the attitude he had earlier in the arc. He seems to be more extreme with his violent outbursts about running from the truth. Maybe its growth considering the main reason Luke is in Chicago is because he ran away from the Hero business in New York City. Who knows but the plot was lacking and was too fast paced for me to experience any enjoyment from it.
At first, I wasn’t sure what they were trying to do with this whole The Punisher goes Black arc. Was it an anti-drug message? This has some support in the second issue as there is an extended scene where the writer goes on about crack and its effects on the mind and body.
Also the comic goes into an extensive look into the social effect of Crack and gangs within a low income neighborhood, but I wasn’t sure why it had to be done with Punisher as a black man. The drugs do add an extra grit level to the story. After struggling with the Black Punisher angle I decided to rule out the whole angle and instead focus what the book does: Promote Luke Cage and try to sell him to a new audience. Luke Cage was a C-level hero before this comic and was Blacksplotation at its finest. Still this was the 90’s. Marvel couldn’t package Luke in a tiara and yellow leisure suit. So enter The Punisher. Like I said earlier The Punisher was (and to an effect, is) one of Marvel’s biggest sellers. He had multiple series and was featured in a lot of comics to help increase sales. The rule today is to include Spider-man, Wolverine, or Deadpool in a comic and sales will be high. Back then it was Punisher. So Marvel was basically using the three issue arc as a massive pitch for Luke Cage and a spin-off series that came out during the run of this arc. This is supported by 1) the obvious fact that they are trying to pitch Cage with a large focus on him and 2) The second issue of the arc has an ad for Cage #1 on the final page.
It is fair to assume that was the entire point to this arc.
Did it succeed in attracting attention to Cage?
Well did it make me interested in Cage to go out and buy a copy of the series? Not really and it seems to hold true for everyone else as Cage only lasted from 1992-1993. Of course this came during the great Burst of the 90’s and many titles were canned, but it is safe to assume that sales were too low to sustain the book. Meaning the book failed to generate a lasting interest in the character. Cage wouldn’t get the real A-list treatment until Brian Bendis came to Marvel and made him a star. Now did this arc succeed in its other attempts? Mostly yes. The comic did show a gritty side of Urban life and wasn’t too over the top stereotypical about it. The drug stuff was handled a lot better than most pieces of the same intent that were around the same time.
You know, I must say this about the arc: It wasn’t that bad. It was actually entertaining and outside of the third part- the comic was well written. The pacing was well down and kept me interested throughout the reading. Which considering the comics I read for these articles that is something amazing.
Outside of the entertainment value was it technically good? That is a big no. Well the writing was good but I am talking more about the art. I should point out this comic was Bi-monthly and more often than not the art will show this with a drop in quality. The first two issues were put together decently outside of some really bad moments like confusing Frank for Cage which happens several times in the entire arc. There is no excuse for this, the two have distinct looks and should not be confused for one another.
Now the worst art of the arc comes in the third part where nothing looks right! Several faces are skewed, the sequential art is questionable at some points, and the worst part of it all is that the panels are bare.
The first two parts include some decent background work but in this comic the backgrounds are sparse. You can visually see the rushed art of the comic and it really brings down the comic. I still say the comic is worthwhile but prepare to look at some bad art during the final part.
Now before I give my final word, I must address the elephant in the room: that is the Punisher as a black man. The reasons behind the Punisher becoming black for a short span of time sort of make sense in the story. Frank is already scarred beyond all belief and must undergo plastic surgery. So he has the surgeon fix him but also make him different so he can hide from his killers while in public. The doctor makes him black and gives him features of a black man. He encounters racism and sees a side of the world he never thought about. The weirdest part though is that once he became white again (after killing the assassin after him, thus no longer needing to hide) he looks just like Frank Castle. You might be saying, “Well…yeah” but think about it. He has physical features often associated with someone of African descent. Things that just don’t revert back to normal over time. Considering all Frank received was pigment injections, him gaining black features is a little over the top and crazy for a comic that is grounded in reality as much as it is. The worst part of the Punisher in what essentially extensive Blackface is that it is not crucial to the story in any way. The race swap was a pointless maneuver and one that just makes me question the editors, “Why did you let this happen?!” What’s weird is that this only last a month and a half so it couldn’t be a big publicity stunt like Death of Superman or Knightfall, this was a few issues of a Punisher comic in a sea of billions. Why they went this route is ultimately beyond me and I will leave it for you all to decide.
In conclusion, The Punisher #60-62 was an enjoyable but if not forgettable arc to a character that has been in a lot of comics. The only true memorable thing about this comic is that the Punisher is black and that’s about it. Maybe that was the point to it all? Maybe they went with the Blackface route because they wanted this comic to be slightly memorable and talked about for years to come? Who really knows. This comic might be forgettable but it is a fun ride to the end. Great Action and excellent pace work makes this arc fun.
Comics are about the journey, not the destination. The journey is often more enjoyable than the actual destination. So keep that in mind next time you’re at the bin and you see a crazy promo stunt. Read it even if the stunt doesn’t stick around. If you stopped reading a series because of the pointless you should go back and read the series as a whole and enjoy the ride.
Until next time, Keep living life to the X-TREME
Jordan is a child of the 90's and as such is an avid fan of the dark age of comics. He parlays this into writing reviews related to this era in addtion to any new reviews. Is currently writing articles for the X-treme Corner, co-host of the Comic Book Revolution podcast, Image Revolution with Andrenn. He is enganged to be Wed soon to an amazingly supportive woman.
Can be found muttering about on Twitter at