PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL: CIVIL WAR
This is what I remember: Axel called and gave me the job out of nowhere. I didn’t even have to ask for it.
I had been pitching Warren Simons, then Axel’s assistant, now Editor-in-Chief at Valiant, on any number of things for the last couple-few years. Barring one short story, nothing was sticking. Part of it (as I recall) was that I had a job I liked and was creatively satisfying so sometimes when Warren would come to me, I’d say no; part of it was my ideas were weird and no good; part of it is, hey, breaking in at Marvel isn’t easy. I think I wrote a few hundred pages that only Warren ever read. I said no to a lot but tried out for a whole lot more. Nothing stuck.
But I was writing pages. I got better and better and finding stories with beginnings, middles, and ends that were really just more middles; I got better at streamlining how I spoke about my ideas; I got better at the idea of Work for Hire – “servicing trademarks,” as Warren Ellis might say. I got better at thinking about what made the characters the characters and how to write into that rather than force an outside perspective or motive into that particular story shape. This very much came from my time in advertising — I came from the world of trying to please clients.
Every pitch I wrote, I got better at writing comics, because with every pitch I’d send, I always included a sample scene or two.
I thought I had to prove I at least had some understanding of what I was doing, but really it was a chance to take the idea out for a spin. It was a chance to get tone down on the page and it gave me the excuse I needed to write. To this day I’m better at showing rather than telling — at Universal, as I’ve started writing for TV, it sometimes flummoxes them as instead of going through their process it’s been easier for me to just spec a script out — meaning to just write it — rather than outline and talk it all through. There’s stuff I know I can get on the page that I can’t get in a pitch, so I try to shortcut through the development process. Sometimes that works, most of the times, it doesn’t.
So for a few years I’d been pitching Warren on stuff. Warren, bless him, had to read it all. Or at least pretended he was reading it all.
[Here’s a word of advice for folks trying to break in: less is more in a pitch. Imagine your editor on their most busiest day, on a day when all of their projects are seemingly on fire and due at the printer by lunch time, and then imagine that YOUR email is the one that comes in their inbox. A page. TWO pages at the most for a pitch. Unless they tell you otherwise.]
Anyway, the phone rang. Axel thought I was the right guy and wanted to give me a shot. The end.
Axel put me in touch with Ed Brubaker, another guy who, like I was about to do, came from the world of comics outside of the Big Two. More about that, though, in IRON FIST.
This mission brief, as it were, was “Frank in the Marvel Universe.” I believe… I think Garth’s PUNISHER MAX series was still happening. Or maybe Jason Aaron’s had started? There was a clear demarcation, either way; our mission statement was Frank Comes Gunning For Capes (with age-appropriate violence), not to put too fine a point on it.
I wrote the opening scene – not with Bridge, but with Frank in the van going after Stilt Man – as a kind of proof of concept, and to show I could write, y’know, an action scene. I figured that since it was pitch territory, there’d be no way they were gonna let me get away with shooting Stilt Man in the taint with a bazooka.
But it turns out that’s exactly what they did.
Bridge as a Muslim gave me a chance to flesh out Bridge a little bit as a character (who, after all, is named “George Washington Bridge”) and echo the clear post-9/11 reality that CIVIL WAR was stirring up. And I couldn’t remember ever seeing a Muslim man shown in a Marvel comic – the driven man of faith was basically my take on Bridge, something akin to Matt Murdock, where his job and his belief were always in opposition with one another. I called G. Willow Wilson for some help; aside from graciously and patiently allowing me to Muslim-Check the story a little, she recommended me a handful of books including Michael Muhammad Knight’s amazing THE TAQWACORES which I recommend whole-heartedly. Thank you, Willow. Thank you, Michael.
I never really got my hands around Bridge; I didn’t stick the landing. Maybe PUNISHER: WAR JOURNAL wasn’t the place and I was a baby writer.
As a reader, I love it when reach exceeds grasp. I love reading books where people aim higher than what they achieve. I love interesting failures.
As a WRITER, I fucking hate it, and hate me, because I am the worst and the things I write are the worst.
There’s a story I tell a lot, and maybe it’s apocryphal, about Alan Moore. Someone asked him why he left SWAMP THING, back when he left SWAMP THING, and Moore’s response was something like “I wanted to tell stories about the environment and the big muck monster kept getting in the way.” He’s absolutely right. Bridge was a lesson learned in that; I wanted to talk about the dismal American treatment of Muslim people in the era of modern asymmetrical terror, and the guy with the guns kept getting in the way, so I didn’t force it.
Frank in the van: just this page, this first page, oh lordy. Where to start.
“Di Pasquale” was the surname of family friends; my Dad got a kick out of that. There’s too many words on this page. It’s slashed in half by a river of text. Even the word balloon looks big to me (it’s not, but as time went on I became more convinced that each sentence, each sentence fragment, needs its own balloon). It is, as they say, amateur night in Dixie.
(Nobody actually says that.)
The Billy Joel bit – I had this idea that if Frank lived in the same world as us, he’d know the same crap as us, and something about that terrified me. Something about The Punisher getting a song stuck in his head as he’s shooting people made him both more real and more scary to me. A world where Frank Castle stays awake at all hours watching GILLIGAN’S ISLAND on a bad black and white TV before going out and murdering criminals terrified me in a kind of Travis Bickle way. I’m not sure it works, in retrospect, and when I get nervous I go for easy jokes and that’s how all this stuff reads to me now.
I can’t believe I got away with that Budd Dwyer reference. It’s in such bad taste I wish I could take it back. The “Mastercard” line is a reference to the very first issue of the ongoing series THE PUNISHER, back in the day, by Mike Baron and Klaus Janson (I think). The line always stuck in my head: “Mastercard, I’m bored. The friendly natives will entertain me.” I didn’t know what it meant then, I don’t know what it means now, but it’s wedged in my head. I can’t remember the names of the parents of my kids’ classmates and I cannot do math to save my life but I remember that one line from one Mike Baron comic from 1987.
I’m writing nervous, I’m writing cute. I did it then and I do it now only now I edit it out. It’s squirrely writing and I’m trying to cover my terror with jokes. There’s something that dates really badly in the tone, a kind of juvenile notion of wit. I think I was trying to badly imitate … I don’t know. The Bill-and-Joe Era of tone, I think. Which is hard to explain but there was a certain air of fuck it, go for broke in the tone of Marvel then and I think I was trying to emulate that. I hope I knock it off soon.
I love the idea of Frank calling his van a “secret hideout.”
I did a whole thing speculating on why, of all the characters in the Marvel U I could’ve gone after, I went after Stilt Man.
I confess to getting a little frisson when I got to write “The Daily Bugle.” I probably went out of my way to put it in the story.
The Smuggler’s Tunnels under Manhattan are an Urban Legend, right? I had done a bunch of research for a METAL GEAR SOLID book that ended up never happening (I wrote a short that Ash Wood drew, which was pretty bucket-list stuff) and that was part of it. There’s no such thing as wasted research.
This sequence was the first time I’d butt my head against what would be My Problem With This Series, the thing I never quite got my head around to my own detriment, and to the detriment of the book:
The CIVIL WAR storyline introduced “Cape Killers” – S.H.I.E.L.D. agents whose job it was to hunt and kill Unregistered heroes. So they come after Frank, and Frank – he can’t kill ‘em. Because they’re, what, kind of cops, kind of soldiers, they’re not criminals so they fall outside of his sanction. Which, okay, makes Frank the Road Runner instead of the Coyote for a scene or three, that’s okay, but it opened up a bigger question.
The idea of “Frank gunning for supervillains, amok in the world of capes” means capes coming after Frank, because he’s a killer, because he’s insane, because he’s dangerous – he can’t kill them BACK, they’re heroes. And he can’t kill any REAL villains because, y’know, they’re valuable characters that act as threads which weave the whole Marvel tapestry together; if you want to be crassly commercial, they’re valuable pieces of corporate IP.
So who can Frank shoot?
Because the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe are kind of the whole POINT of the Marvel Universe. You can’t just have Frank go around killing off characters (It’s bad sportsmanship, as a writer, bad partnership, if nothing else. If I’m breaking all the toys in my corner of the sandbox, nobody else can play with them…).
Especially in the shadow of such a wonderful MAX title, figuring out how to write Punisher in the Marvel Universe kind of eluded me. Should it be like the A-TEAM, where somehow miraculously nobody ever dies? Wouldn’t that be a cop-out?
I’d settle for writing Frank on the edges of the Marvel U, commenting on it all. I’ll get into it more when we get to the second volume…
Stuart Clarke. This guy is an old villain called “Rampage” that was kind of like a Tony Stark but for bad guys (amongst other things which you can Bing). Or look up “Recession Raiders.” Go ahead, I dare you. Frank needed a Microchip (in the eighties series, Frank’s weapons-guy and tech-guy was called Microchip because it was the Eighties), the series needed an ultimate villain (spoilers!), and I thought the idea of a Tony Stark for bad guys, a Tony Stark with no resources, in the shape of a guy that hates Tony Stark’s guts during CIVIL WAR had a lot of meat on its bones. So in comes Clarke.
(It occurs to me now that Clarke was a rough blueprint for what would become Ezekiel Stane over in THE ORDER and IRON MAN, but more on that in a few weeks.)
I have no idea why I wrote the “Born Again” reference into the last page. Because it’s my favorite Marvel story, maybe. Reference as cheap irony, maybe. I was shaking in my boots, reaching out for anything I could.
I’ll confess – and I never ever shook this the whole goddamn time I wrote at Marvel – I was (am) worried I’d be taken for a tourist and not the tried-and-true Marvel lifer I am; I would twist myself into knots pulling out arcane characters and obscure references to continuity (watch how often I use character’s, especially villains, real names) to prove to some imaginary tribunal judging me that I really DID know my stuff, I really DO love Marvel, I really DIDN’T have to look up Stuart Clarke.
I don’t know who I thought was silently judging me or why I thought they were doing it but time and again I’d bend backwards to connect dots in my longbox that nobody (but maybe Tom Brevoort) got or cared about. All the way through writing FF, which mapped along the first year of Stan and Jack’s FANTASTIC FOUR in ways sometimes so oblique as to be… well, really, really oblique. We’ll get to that, though, down the road.
This effected me to my detriment across my whole time at Marvel, is the point.
By issue’s end we start to get into strange waters – because the gravitational pull of CIVIL WAR gets felt. A book like this, spinning out of a massive, and massively successful, crossover event, takes its cue from the mothership and by the end of my first issue I’d written Frank up to the point where he shows up in CIVIL WAR. Which is where things got tricky.
This is a first issue. Everything about it reads like a first issue. Too many words in some places, not enough in others; the pacing is all off, the characters are oblique if not outright opaque (and when you’re using first person captions, and that’s your outcome, you’re in trouble), I couldn’t separate babies from bathwater if my life depended on it. Everything about PWJ #1 not only reads like a first issue but it reads like a FIRST first issue.
Which it very much was. CASANOVA had started by this point, or at least I’d started writing it, but that’s an entirely different beast.
First issues are really hard. That’s good writing; bing “good writing” and it’ll bing up that sentence exactly. First issues are brutal. You have to find the tone and timbre of a series in a sliver of space. Sometimes it takes writing pages, more pages than just twenty, before it all comes together in your head, to find characters and their voices, their world, the premise, your whole idea, your vision and ambition, and to figure out how to follow through on it. I know writers that think it’s twenty-some issues before a team settles into their book; these days at the big two you barely have six issues to find it, let alone twenty.
Writing first issues is extraordinarily difficult to do well. Bendis does them well, almost as a rule. Warren Ellis writes maybe the best in the business. Kelly Sue kills herself over first issues. I’m hit or miss on ‘em; this one is a big miss. I read it now and see a guy that clearly has the yips and, on top of that, has a massive crossover to navigate, and that massive crossover has hit some potholes…
But more on that next time.
(I promise I’m not going to go issue to issue in detail like this; it’s just, hey, this was my first full length Marvel book. Next time we’ll wrap up PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL: CIVIL WAR, which includes one of my favorite issues from the run.)Back to Calendar