The order I wrote these PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL issues went 1, 4, 5, 3, then 2.

Read that again: 1, 4, 5, 3, 2.

It was great.

I’m not being sarcastic; learning to work like that felt insane and counter-intuitive and great, like being thrown into the deep-end on day one, like your old man making you smoke a carton of cigarettes so you’d never smoke again. Writing like that, learning to work like that, felt than, and now, like a fantastic way to learn how to smoke and swim at the same time.

If a better metaphor for working in tandem with a great big superhero crossover exists, I can’t think of it.

It happened as a result of CIVIL WAR, by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, Dexter Vines, Morry Hollowell, edited by Tom Brevoort. The experience served as the best boot camp introduction to working in the trenches at Marvel as you could ever hope to have, because I learned how to go with the flow of a shared universe being tended to by many hands at once, to navigate editors and their overflowing inboxes, and to do my best to deliver good, fast (Not that I did but, y’know. That’s the goal.).

I hope I never have to go through it again (watch how, as my time continued, how the only event I’d ever tie into again was my own, even when it meant the book getting cancelled).

A short story short: during the production of the first CIVIL WAR miniseries, its writer Mark Millar got sick. He got so sick he had to stop writing CIVIL WAR for a while. This caused, as you could imagine, some complications. When a big story like CIVIL WAR comes along, it’s kind of like an aircraft carrier. It’s a great big centerpiece and everything else plays off of it. It’s the dog; everything else is the tail. So what happens when the dog gets sick?

At first, it meant just skipping ahead beyond the event to write issues 4 and 5 in anticipation of Mark’s, and thus Mark’s scripts, and thus the blueprint for CIVIL WAR, to return.

Ariel Olivetti, my partner on the majority of the first year, would need a break after three issues anyway. So I skipped ahead to write PWJ #4 which remains, at least in memory, one of my favorite things I did.

Rereading it now, it’s not too bad. I even managed to make myself laugh a couple times. Like, if I had to put together a book of stuff from this first ten years, this would be the first one in the collection.

Taking a cue from one of my favorite Spider-Man stories (Called “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” by J.M. DeMatties and Mike Zeck), in which Spidey shows up in a dive bar to toss money into the hat of a dead thug being eulogized, and probably that episode of THE WIRE from season 3 with the cop wake in the cop bar, I set out not to bury Stilt Man but to praise him.

Rereading it now, PWJ goes very meta very fast. A story about wake for the way comics used to be takes the shape in this volume of an entire comic with that at its thematic center — a love letter to when gibbons and rhinos and guys on stilts made for great villains.

If I’m being honest, and, y’know, sure, I see it landing as a lament for the dark and deadly reality in which I found myself writing. Already fallen in the trap of writing Frank in a world a Capes, I tried writing the Punisher book that WASN’T Max, of trying to figure out just who, exactly, he was gonna punish, and how, without him actually, y’know, Punishing people.

Maybe I overthought all of it. I do that, if you’ve not noticed.

Maybe I never fit well with Frank. Maybe I got miscast and couldn’t rise up to the thing as I read this now and see a guy struggling to figure out who Frank should kill in a PG-13 comic book.

Y’know it occurs to me now that “Kraven’s Last Hunt” ends with a quite insane Kraven the Hunter blowing his brains out. Maybe my lament here landed fifteen years out of date. Maybe that act of Spidey kicking in towards the widow of a dead hood was the last heroic thing ever to happen anywhere by anyone at any time in recorded human fiction.

Maybe I exaggerate a little bit.

Anyway I read this now — PWJ #4 being my second full-length Marvel comic — and feel like everything I missed in #1, or almost everything, I got here. This issue reads so much more self-assured and fearless than the first. In my mind, though — and I lost about twelve years of data a few years back, all my scripts and notes and email archives gone, so I can’t go back and check the dates on which the scripts were written — they came maybe weeks apart. Not even a full month, if I had to bet.

There’s a thing Bendis said once, describing the IMMORTAL IRON FIST that Ed Brubaker and I were writing at the time, about what made that book stand out not just to him but to the editorial folk at Marvel at the time — “You write it like you own it.” It stuck with me as a virtue for those of us working on work-for-hire comics, featuring characters we didn’t make but grew up with and love all the same.

I never understood creators that saved ideas for work they owned versus work they’d been hired to write; not that I didn’t understand why they did what they did but rather I didn’t understand that kind of preciousness. Ideas were never my problem — at least as I saw it — but rather execution, clarity, TIME, etc. Maybe because at the time, CASANOVA was running and CASANOVA is built in such a way that we can do whatever the fuck kind of stories we want whenever and however, and has run constantly since then, that I don’t feel that way? Maybe since I had that outlet, that venue, that pressure valve, I never wanted to hold anything back since I didn’t need to?

If you’re reading these for advice on writing, there’s two tips: I always tried to write this stuff like I owned it. And I always wrote something I DID own and could do whatever I wanted with, however and whenever. I can tell stories in CASANOVA that would never work in something like PWJ or THOR or whatever. I can tell stories in SEX CRIMINALS or ODY-C that would never past editorial muster elsewhere, let alone stand as stories appropriate for PWJ or THOR or whatever.

Again, it’s the Alan Moore story about the environment, the muck monster, and why he stopped writing SWAMP THING that I parrot all the time. (I just tried Binging up the quote and found mostly interviews with me where I parrot the line, making me wonder where I read it and when. A similar quote, not about Swamp Thing, hides somewhere in ALAN MOORE: PORTRAIT OF AN EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMAN [or was it ALAN MOORE: STORYTELLER?]but I can’t find it right now…)

Everything about PWJ #1 reads to me, now, as audition material. A young writer, unsteady on his pins, trying everything he can to fit in at the table, to sound like what worked in comics at that moment, to DO what I thought — er, what HE thought — the Client, the Editors, the Readers, wanted. Moments squeak through, hints of what my take would be, but that first issue feels frozen in headlights, paralyzed, stiff.

PWJ #4 feels like I have stolen the entire Spider-Man Rogues’ Gallery to make them Do Weird Shit because I love them and no one can stop me.

I got away with The Shocker learning about “the shocker” on panel; Princess Python throwing up on Spider-Man (who shows up to put cash in the hat for the Widow Day), and Hobie Brown called Daredevil a ‘cracker.’ The Rhino, who I very clearly realized I would write forever if given the chance (at one point I even pitched a Rhino-and-Vulture road trip book. Hard to believe they passed on THAT little bit of box office dynamite…)

I remember feeling like, oh, okay, I can do this. I know how to do this. Rereading it today, I can see why I didn’t get fired after issue 6. What I see here now, if nothing else, looks something like potential.

And it was the first time I’d work with Mike Deodato, who is a real gentleman and hasn’t flinched either time he’s gotten a script from me featuring two dozen characters. I’ve promised him the next time we work together, it’ll be about the Invisible Woman in a snowstorm.

In my head, at this point, I knew roughly what my first year was and decided that year TWO on the book would follow up on the people in the bar. Who lived, who didn’t, who got hurt, what it did to them. I knew I wanted to write a support group for Survivors of Frank. A Sinister Sixteen. And I knew I wanted there to be hell to pay from a gaggle of goofballs nobody, especially the Punisher, ever would have taken seriously.

That was the PLAN, anyway; more on that, though, when we get to year two.

When Mark DID come back, I knew there were a few scenes he needed Punisher for in the main CIVIL WAR, but until they were written, I couldn’t write around those. I knew what my out point was, so I picked up issue 3 from there. Then when the CIVIL WAR issue in question was done, I went back and did 2 to conform to its scenes and requirements.

It was a great exercise in parallel thinking, in improvising, in patience, and in practice. It was also a chance to watch Tom Brevoort conduct an orchestra as only he can. I worked out two stories that pushed us along (but not too far, because of the big shock at the end of CIVIL WAR meant we had to wait for CIVIL WAR to happen in its own time) but were, functionally, evergreen. Ariel got started on 5 (the plan was to give him a break on 4, since it was looking like he’d have to produce 2 and 3 almost at the same time once Mark was back in the saddle), Mike started on 4, Mark got better and got back to work, CIVIL WAR got written, Frank got in and Frank got out, and all was right with the world.

There was one scene in 2 I think poor Ariel had to redraw like four times because the characters in the scene kept changing because the vagaries of a crossover event that big can keep changing all the way until publication.

Like I said, it was a great way to cut my teeth. Being a part of such a large thing taught me to remove preciousness and ego from my process quickly.

The big mistake: I took the idea of a tie-in to an uncomfortably close, uncomfortably tight, degree. Like, I read it now and have NO idea why I decided to tie in THAT close. Rather than use the chaos and weirdness of CIVIL WAR as a backdrop and telling my own story with that as its axis, I, for whatever reason, decided that my shit would weave in and out of Mark’s story to create, I don’t know, a more… tightly conceived experience? To the point where there’s literally some of Mark’s dialogue from CIVIL WAR in some of these scenes?

That goes beyond continuity and becomes a trap, it becomes writing by algebra, and I let thinking I needed to write like that get in my way for a long time.

I don’t mean that continuity is a trap in and of itself but rather to become THAT worried about it doesn’t actually GET you anything other than proof that I read CIVIL WAR before you did, I suppose, or that I read that one scene really close, because I had to figure out what happened in the moments before and after that you DIDN’T see. Rather than write a story true to the character or true to his situation, I wrote a puzzle piece to fill in negative space that didn’t need filling in. I don’t know WHAT WE GOT out of it in the end, and in terms of practical advice, if I can’t answer WHAT DO WE GET out of a story, then I don’t have a story.

I loved Mark’s take on Frank – that he wouldn’t hit Captain America and would instead endure a beating. It unlocked the character for me in a lot of ways. The Soldier. I understood the Soldier, so I wrote into that. I understood the morality of the guy and how he’d make the calls he makes in his life. I read a lot about vets and their experiences in war and after war. I read about duty and fealty and the men that chose to live by that code.

And then I realized that Frank could kill people that need killing.

The real gift Mark left me was that, at the end of CIVIL WAR and after the assassination of Captain America, it’d be Frank we’d see picking up Cap’s mask. That led to Ariel’s insane “Captain Punisher” design and our next collection, GOIN’ OUT WEST, in which the Punisher, in a costume mash-up, fights insane white supremacists along the US/Mexico border.

A week after PWJ #1 came out, my second Marvel title would hit the stands. This was entirely unplanned and coincidental – like FIVE FISTS and CASANOVA showing up a month apart, right before PWJ got announced — the dumb luck and timing playing out in my favor and looking like a plan. The truth was, Mark was sick and CIVIL WAR would return alongside his health.

The dumb luck was that Robert Kirkman would tell Ed Brubaker “no” and so Ed would call me to join him on THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST.

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