The Punisher once again returns to the 616 Marvel universe with the re-launch of War Journal. This title is immediately impacted due to the Punisher's actions during the Marvel Civil War. The Punisher has chosen to side with the Anti-Registration superheroes because the Pro-Registration side has begun using villains in order to achieve their ends. Up until now, the Punisher had been working behind the scenes, usually depicted with a ski mask on to conceal his identity. Spider-Man's switching sides has accelerated the motivations of the Punisher.
Writer Matt Fraction and artist Ariel Olivetti are the debut team for War Journal.
Our issue starts with S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell meeting with G.W. Bridge. The agency apparently requires the services of Bridge. We then cut to the Punisher on a stakeout mission. He is watching a child pornographer attempt to get immunity in exchange for information helpful to a judicial case. Surprisingly, the villain Stilt-Man appears on the scene in order to extract the pornographer from appearing on the case. The Punisher feels that Stilt-Man is owed the ultimate punishment for his years of crime. A quick rocket blast cuts down Stilt-Man's mechanical legs. It is up to the Punisher to finish the job others won't do for society. He promptly puts a bullet in Stilt-Man's head. The child pornographer gets a similar treatment.
We then shift to G.W. Bridge reading a newspaper that takes a pro-Punisher slant. The Punisher is extolled for hunting down the real criminals while the heroes bicker and fight in their misguided civil war. Bridge orders his S.H.I.E.L.D. team underground in order to track down the Punisher. At roughly the same time, we see the Punisher in his underground tunnels. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agents stand no chance and are dispatched easily by the Punisher. Bridge becomes displeased with the result.
Later, the Punisher attends a rally in Stamford, CT (site of the New Warriors tragedy which spearheaded the Civil War between heroes). He is displeased with the marketing behind the tragedy. The Punisher is there because of a hunch that the Tinkerer is present. The Tinkerer, it is believed, has something to do with the now deceased Stilt- Man's upgraded battle-suit. The Punisher spots the beleaguered villain and ruthlessly ties him up to a car. The Tinkerer ruefully remarks that his grandson died in the Stamford tragedy. When Stilt-Man came to him, the Tinkerer's motives were only to get the "right" people killed, including Stilt- Man. However, the Tinkerer comments that Stuart Clarke must be the one supplying villains with their technology. The Punisher rewards the Tinkerer with a stabbing between the fourth and fifth vertebrae.
Next, the Punisher enter Clarke's lab to confront miniaturized Iron Man bots. The Punisher yells out that he knows what Clarke has been up to. Clarke rebuts the Punisher by stating that Tony Stark has been behind all the recent supervillain assistance. Stark plays both sides for selfish ends. Clarke will help the Punisher to verify his claims by examining a captured supervillain's technology. Meanwhile, Bridge finds out that Stilt-Man and the Tinkerer are dead at the Punisher's hands.
The device given to the Punisher by Clarke starts to work in the sewers of New York City. It will detect technology made by Stark Industries. Shockingly, the Punisher finds that the device has led him to the villains Jack O' Lantern and the Jester. The two villains are gleefully chasing the fugitive Spider-Man (who left the Pro-Registration faction officially in Civil War #5). The Punisher decides to kill the two villains and help Spider-Man. His decision proves to be successful. The Punisher runs off with Spider-Man in his arms, content with the sound of silence emending from the downed supervillains.
The last scene in issue #1 depicts G.W. Bridge quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. Bridge deduces that the law impedes his hunt of the Punisher. S.H.I.E.L.D. will hire Bridge as an independent entity specializing in cases pertaining to the Punisher.
Civil War has effectively changed the status quo at Marvel. Many changes have been wrought by the events in the main book. One of the most peculiar decisions was to re-introduce the Punisher to 616 continuity with a title all his own. As a result, the Punisher's immediate future is tied to his involvement in Civil War, good or bad. Some interesting plot threads definitely are ripe for pursuing here. Issue #1 is a mixed bag.
Writer Fraction obviously feels the need to distinguish the Punisher from the events of Civil War. Thus, we see the Punisher's actions before his fateful encounter with Spider-Man. In particular, Fraction immediately stresses the fact that the Punisher kills. Nothing over the intervening years has changed the fact that the Punisher is a ruthless killer of those he deems worthy of punishment. The core values of the character are being respected, no matter where Civil War leads the Punisher. Rightly or wrongly, Marvel has been criticized for having characters in Civil War act out of character (in particular Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, and to a lesser extent Spider-Man). So for the continuity buffs, it is refreshing to see the Punisher remain that stark symbol of right and wrong.
Stilt-Man and the Tinkerer's deaths are certainly gruesome, but not really by Punisher standards. Because the Punisher's title is firmly entrenched in 616 continuity, Fraction does not have as much free reign with the violence as Garth Ennis does on the MAX title. The events depicted remain slightly "cartoony" and not exactly realistic. Olivetti's pencils are a unique take on the Punisher but I feel as if they don't fit the character to a T. A slight revision is needed in this area.
Furthermore, one of the Punisher's main obstacles in this issue was miniaturized Iron Man bots. Really??? You can do a lot better than that Mr. Fraction. For a minute, I was suffering through flashbacks of the campy 1960s Batman TV show. All the Punisher needed to do was pull out his trusty Shark Repellant Skull Spray to complete the image. What was more encouraging was how Olivetti depicted the Punisher's battles with foes traditionally not in his forte. Excluding the fact this is an imaginary superhero title, you could really believe a man with no superpowers could defeat adversaries with much more of a technological advantage.
The issue takes a curious left turn when the Punisher finally rescues Spider-Man. Up until this point, the issue did not deserves its moniker as a Civil War tie-in. Despite Fraction's best efforts, the Punisher's discovery of Spider-Man seems entirely far-fetched. New York City is huge as well as its sewer system. The chances of Spider-Man and the Punisher colliding into each other at that exact moment are slim to none. However, if you can get past that oversight, the little interactions and nods to continuity with Spider-Man were enjoyable. Fraction did not ignore the rich history between the two characters (astute comic book historians will note that the Punisher first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man # 129 - 1974).
Crunch up all the storytelling elements and artistic depictions and we get an average 3 webs. Not too bad, especially for a debut issue, confined to a Civil War event that casts a huge shadow, not to mention restricting where the writer can go with his story. Less campy elements are needed in order for War Journal to distinguish itself as a monthly must-read.