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Punishing with an Iron Fist - Part 1

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This week and next see the debut of Punisher War Journal and The Immortal Iron Fist, Matt Fraction’s first Marvel Comics work. He stopped by to chat about each.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Last time we spoke , we did touch on Punisher a little bit, however, it was rather early in the stages of Civil War and you had to stay pretty tight lipped. 

MATT FRACTION: And even now the book is still just about to come out. [Laughs]

BF: Right now in the Marvel Universe, we’re starting to see more of the pieces fall into place for Frank’s return (which officially happened in Civil War #5 – ed.).  He’s shown on the cover for Civil War #5 in full battle mode.  Now, since we both agree it’ll be hard to get some definitive answers out of you, perhaps the best question to start with is what do you see the Punisher’s role as within the tapestry of the Marvel U. and towards Civil War in particular?

MF: Well, he gets back in the game here because he sees the superheroes more interested in fighting each other than in actually going after the “bad guys” and the bad guys are really taking advantage of this.  This leads to innocent lives being lost and we all know that Frank Castle hates innocent lives being lost.

“Super crime”—I’m not sure I like that term, but we’ll use it for lack of a better one—has always fallen out of the realm of the Punisher, and most of that is his choice.  But now with Civil War brewing, he feels like these guys are inadvertently planning new Stamfords each and every day and that is something that he won’t abide by.  And that is enough to get him back in the game and to start going after super villains.

BF: Based on that then, is Frank really going to be picking a side in this war, or is he going in saying, “Screw all of you, I’ll handle this myself.”

MF: More or less.  The last we saw him in the Marvel Universe he was helping Matt Murdock get out of jail.  Then Civil War started and Frank has almost been forced to expand his “mission statement.”  Because first and foremost Frank’s duty is to that mission statement.  That is his goal, to stop people who kill or hurt civilians.

BF: As he is doing this, does he almost feel obligated to “wake up” these other heroes and show them the damage that they are actually causing?  Or is it much more selfish, as if he’s doing it because he has to and doesn’t care if they actually listen to him or not?

MF: I really don’t think he cares at all.  I’ve mentioned this before but I don’t think Frank is really in this to avenge his family anymore.  He’s really synthesized that loss into his character.  But his mission now is to stop anymore Frank Castles from ever happening.  He’s never sought out to be a leader or inspire anyone.  He’s just doing his job, executing his mission, doing what he has to do to save innocents.

This is his gift—killing people.  Often in the best possible ways.

BF: But then why would he have stepped in and saved Daredevil the way he did?  Is that an extension of his statement?  A specific incident where he saw he was needed?

MF: That’s probably a question that needs to be answered by Mr. Brubaker.  I have my own interpretations of why he would do that but since I didn’t write it I don’t want to speculate or put anything like that out there.

BF: Well then, would you have written him to do something like that?

MF: Yeah, I think so.  Ed’s done it really well and I think Frank understood what was going to happen there.  He’s always had an interesting relationship with Daredevil, historically that is. 

I think the best part about that actually was how he showed up there. Like he read the paper and decided the best thing for him to do was to go to jail, so he sees a pimp smack a hooker and walked up and breaks the guy’s neck.  To me that is brilliant.

BF: One thing that has been recently brought to more light about the Punisher is that he is very detailed with his research.  This isn’t a guy who simply walks in somewhere and just opens fire without thinking.  It’s almost as if he always finds the path of least resistance but that of maximum effectiveness.  How has that been for you to write?

MF: Well, Frank is certainly all about asymmetrical warfare.  But writing that is just hilarious.  Axel Alonso is fond of saying that if Frank went outside and saw Galactus, the only thought he would have is that he needs to go get a bigger gun.  And there’s something hilarious about that single-mindedness.  That unstoppable “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” mentality.

That’s another thing too: when Frank comes back there is no one expecting it to happen.  It’s tactics that people aren’t used to.  This guy doesn’t play with the standard playbook.  He doesn’t believe in leaving a guy dangling from the street lamps for the cops to come take care of.

The entire thing is Frank playing by asymmetrical warfare and me learning to have to play that game.

BF: You mentioned the writing of the book as being “hilarious.”  One of the things that stood out about the Marvel Knights series (the last time he was “officially” within the Marvel Universe) was that Garth Ennis always tended to play up the comedy aspect of the book and character. Do you plan on continuing that or are you going to try to keep it more realistic?

MF: Well, the thing is you’re dealing with a comic about superheroes and supervillains so there isn’t a lot of “realism” to be dealt with.  Garth’s was really a lot of situational comedy.  Ours is… well, it’s really hard for me to say how mine would compare with Garth’s.

BF: Well, not necessarily a comparison of the book as a whole.

MF: The thing about Frank is that it’s hard not to laugh when you’re writing the character and at times it becomes hard not to laugh when you’re reading him as well.  But this isn’t a book written for comedy.  It’s just almost impossible to keep funny stuff from happening, the same way it’s practically impossible not to find some humor in the character and what he does.  There’s something there.

The one comparison that I can make is to the one scene in Raiders of the Lost Arc , where the guy comes out with his sword and does the whole thing swinging it around and then Indiana Jones simply takes out his gun and shoots him.  Whatever the name for that is, that’s the same type of thing you get with Frank.

Frank has a vision.  And he always goes for the shortest distance between two points and there is often some humor to be found in that.

BF: Do you plan on bringing in some guest stars with the book?  Anyone in particular?

MF: Yes.  But I can’t say anything else about that one as it’s tied pretty directly to Civil War.  But there will be a lot of folks showing up.  Lots of killing to be done, too.

BF: As you mentioned before, Frank’s motivation for getting involved here is because he sees the other heroes as letting down their obligations to society.  And as he jumps back in to take care of their mess, does this change the way some of the other heroes are going to start viewing him?  Will he become a sort of [gasp] inspiration of sorts?

MF: He is a wildcard that nobody wants in the game.  But no one is going to be inspired by him.  I don’t think any superhero can be inspired by watching the Punisher blow someone’s head off.  He’s still a lawbreaker, vigilante, murder, even a serial killer.  But he is a violent, unpleasant person to be around and no one wants him around—let alone as an ally.

And Frank doesn’t want to hang around with a bunch of candyass posers anyway, so it’s a mutual disgust. [Laughs]  They run a little slower than he likes to roll.  And I think that’s the root of the character conflict that will set up the Civil War arc in War Journal.

BF: Now, with Frank killing characters, do you feel any obligation towards those characters?

MF: It’s almost impossible not to.  But at the same time, this is superhero comics.  No one stays dead—not even Bucky!  I don’t think it’s appropriate to use these books to handle realistic depictions of rape, murder, and degradation.  Ultimately I think that’s a misuse of power of the form.  I don’t think a children’s medium is the right places to do stories about murder.

Yet, at the same time, stuff blows up.   So yeah, some characters die, but this is superhero fiction, nothing is permanent.  We’re really just having a good time.  I’m not trying to tell serious stories about death. 

Lighten up.  Have fun.

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BF: Do you think that adds some difficulty to your character, considering he’s a murderer?

MF: Yes and no.  But ultimately, what I’m writing is superhero fights.  Yes, characters die, but it isn’t as if someone can’t later take up the mantle of “Whatever Dude” and become the new “Whatever Dude”.

In comparison to Garth’s book.  He’s doing a serious book about violence.  He’s got some really awful people doing some really awful things there with this guy who is raging against them.  And that is wholly appropriate for Garth’s book. 

Meanwhile, our book has Stiltman.  Stiltman isn’t the character you want to use to do a serious story about the white slave trade.  [Laughs]

BF: Speaking of Garth’s book, do you see that as the same character as the one you’re writing?  Is there a line of continuity demarcation there somewhere?

MF: No, I think we’ve done our best to keep them separate.  Garth’s book is supposed to be taking place in the “real world” while ours is in the Marvel U., but I won’t be directly referencing anything that he’s done.

I think they are both really consistent with who the character is.  It’s hard enough trying to work through Civil War, let alone reconciling the 4+ years of what Garth has been doing and making it work in this book.

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BF: What about Garth’s origin tale of Born? In a way that can be read that Frank seems to make a deal with a demon, as if he’s so driven to punish people that he needs this.

MF: It’s funny that you say it that way.  I bet if you gave that book to anyone in the mental health profession they would clearly see that as the disassociative personality of a serial killer.  Comic book people see that and see a deal with a demon.

I guess one man’s schizophrenic is the next man’s superhero.

But Born is a MAX book, and in the MAX books Frank Castle is a 60 year-old man.

BF: Speaking of making things work, because of the unique position that the Vietnam War still has within American history, a number of writers have made use of Frank being a veteran of that war.  Do you have any intention of bringing that to the forefront or addressing his military history at all?

MF: Time and history is a tricky, fluid thing in the Marvel Universe—like, you don't want to get too pinned down in the Real World or things get stale and dated very quickly, to say nothing of VERRRRY OLD and just... improbable and impossible.  Or more impossible, I should say, and any time you sweat that stuff instead of just losing yourself in the story, somebody's dropped a ball somewhere.  

So, the specifics may be kept vague, Frank Castle is at his very core a military man and it's an impossibly huge part of his character.  That he finds himself drawn into a Civil War between superheroes is key—he's a soldier, and he's found himself surrounded by a certain kind of war far different than he's used to fighting.  There's a lot of conflict there and we explore it quite a lot in our third issue, specifically, to the point of even seeing a young Frank Castle in basic training...

BF: For War Journal you’ll be working with Ariel Olivetti.  I saw that Marvel had recently released a bit more of his artwork and I can say it does look fantastic.

MF: Yeah, Ariel and Dean White (our colorist) have made a great art team.

BF: Visually, this is a bit different from the look that you’ve got with David Aja on Iron Fist.

MF: Ariel has a much broader, more caricature style.  It reminds me a little bit of some of Simon Bisley’s work.  So it is a different color palette, but he’s a very different artist.

BF: Do you find yourself writing more towards his strengths as you get further along on the book?

MF: Absolutely.  I am custom-tailoring this one to Ariel’s strengths.  I’m trying to anyway.

BF: How much back and forth goes on between yourself and Ariel on the book?

MF: Not much actually.  We really hit into a groove once we met for the first time in San Diego and have been having a real blast with this book.  I think I remember having maybe 2 notes for him so far.  We’ve just really clicked in this partnership.

BF: On a personal note, Punisher: War Journal and The Immortal Iron Fist will be your first at Marvel.  How was the process of going from creator-owned to the “big time” (in the comics world)?

MF: Well, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.  It’s been a lot of fun though.  It’s been this weird learning experience.  A 22-page Marvel comic is a lot different from a 16 page Cassanova comic.  But it’s been really gratifying and creatively stimulating and satisfying—just a weird crazy adventure that I am enjoying.

BF: Any instance where you’ve been told you can’t do something with a character?

MF: Of course, there’s been a ton of stuff I’ve been told I can’t do.  But it isn’t as if I’m being censored.  It’s more because someone else has plans for them.  I know that all the toys are in the sandbox, I just don’t know who’s playing with what. 

I’ve come up with some really berserk ideas and Axel Alonso would always simply talk me through it.

Check back later this week for the continuation of our interview with Matt Fraction, as we drop the guns and clench our fists… in the meantime, be sure to pick up your copy of Punisher War Journal #1 tomorrow.

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