I haven't counted, so I can't be absolutely sure. But it sure feels like Punisher has had more titles than any other characters in the Marvel Universe. He's one of those guys that keeps getting picked up and played with for a bit, before being put back in the box for another year or two.
Here he is in Punisher War Journal (Vol. 2), a rather off-the-cuff, casual sort of title written by Matt Fraction. Basic background for this issue - the Rhino has taken a few lumps at the hands of Frank Castle, aka Punishy-Man. Now, Rhino's back in the robbery game, but if he happens to bump into Frank, he owes him something in return.
What are the chances, do you think?
Rhino and a couple of non-powered friends are doing an "old school" bank robbery. Smash in through the front door, grab the cash and run. Unfortunately, a middle-aged nice-guy security guard gets skewered by the rubble and subtracts one from the count of "people in the room who are doing something worthwhile with oxygen".
The bad guys get away with the cash, and hole up in a crack house. The Rhino is freaked out 'cos he didn't mean to kill anybody. He thinks somebody is watching them, and he's right. The Punisher has tracked them down. Frank long-range snipers the first guy, then crashes the window and handgun headshots the second guy. As a punchline, he pulls out some high tech weaponry, melts the Rhino's chest armour, and fires a bunch of mini-missiles...
...but Spider-Man was just a block away, and his Spidey-Sense goes off. Pete's in his black costume, and is chatting with some coffee vendor. This immediately gives continuity problems. Punisher War Journal (Vol. 2) #4 happens after Civil War, which sets us in regular continuity after Peter becomes a fugitive. But Peter's in the black costume, so this can't be during the recent reboot because he reverts to red and blue then.
All I can suggest is that this is after Civil War, while Peter is technically a fugitive, but was still trying to keep up his duties as a guardian of New York. Presumably the coffee vendor is pro-Spidey and anti-registration. It's a real stretch, but that's all I can offer in terms of placing.
Spidey turns up and grabs Rhino out of harms way just before the missiles turn him into grey lasagna. And... cut to Morocco.
Domino is wounded on the run from a bunch of local killers. She snaps an ankle, the killers catch her and... she is rescued by a bunch of guys who are dressed like S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives. They're lead by some big brown-skinned guy with not much white hair. He's "putting the band back together to take down Punisher", and he wants Dominio's luck. Ah... she has a luck power? OK, I haven't really been following mutant spin-offs for at least a decade.
The Punisher finally catches up with Spidey and Rhino as they fight on a rooftop. Spidey webs up the Punisher, and the Rhino a standing eight-count - he's looking pretty much out of the fight. The web-head is totally in control until... "FIP!" A dart hits Spider-Man in the neck, no warning. Hmm... that sounds like... Alyosha Kravinoff, aka Kraven II.
Yeah, it's Al. He's gone crazy mad, probably because he's downing jungle potions like soda pop. He doesn't say much except "Silence Insect!" So much for his much-vaulted eloquence. Kravinoff grabs the Rhino, as Spider-Man struggles to throw off the effects of the drug surging through his bloodstream. By the time he get's back, Kraven has picked up the Rhino and run off into the sunset. I guess that makes him pretty damn strong.
Spider-Man mostly recovers, and tells the still-webbed up Punisher to "stay out of it", as he swings off in search of Kraven and Rhino. And where has the Rhino gone? He wakes up in a cell, wearing a dangerous looking explosive collar device. He's surrounded by Vulture, Frog-Man, what appears to be Tiger Shark, and a couple of other animal-themed super-villains. Kraven the Hunter is building a very special private zoo.
This whole comics has a real fresh, don't-give-a-damn feel to it. The language is hip and relaxed, continuity is treated perhaps a little lightly, but the storyline is certainly original. And when you're dealing with long-serving characters like Peter and Frank, originality is one of the hardest things to achieve.
Spider-Man has a major role in this issue, and almost certainly in next month's issue too. He's in fine wise-cracking form (despite continuity saying that at this time in his career he's actually totally bummed out). Still, writer Matt Fraction clearly has a sense of what he wants to do with War Journal, and he's getting on with it. The Domino segment clearly shows that his assembling his plots well in advance, and that's a great sign.
Marvel clearly trusts Matt enough to let him revive Kraven - a villain whose career was somewhat mixed up and mangled by past treatments. In fact, I think Kraven spent the last few years in the "too hard basket". This is the third re-invention of the second Kraven, and it will be very interesting to see what Kraven 2.3 turns into. I sure hope that the regular Spidey title picks up and runs with the same approach if they use Kraven, we don't need a 2.4.
Cory Walker's art is over-stylistic for my tastes, and the fuzzy interaction with Spider-Man's post-Civil War continuity is a shame. But the story itself is fascinating, and the writing is refreshing.
I'll be curious to see if part 2 of this story can keep up the fun, but for now I'm giving it four solid webs.