Civil War continues on in the Marvel universe. The Punisher's War Journal title has been re-launched due to his involvement with Captain America's anti- registration superheroes. Frank Castle has reemerged by rescuing Spider-Man from certain capture and has decided to help the anti-registration faction gain access to important files in the Baxter Building. Captain America and the others remain uneasy with the tenuous alliance of a known killer such as the Punisher.
Writer Matt Fraction and artist Ariel Olivetti usher in a new era for the Punisher within 616 Marvel continuity.
A flashback scene begins the proceedings. Frank Castle is at Camp Lejeune to receive some basic military training before heading off to Vietnam. Captain America takes command of the recruits. He notices the uneasy Frank. Captain America commands Frank to hit him. However, Frank refuses steadfastly. Back in the present, Frank has just been slugged by Captain America for gunning down the supervillains who wanted to be in league with the anti-registration forces (see Civil War #6 for more details). He wants Frank to get up and fight back. Captain America angrily condemns Franks and wonders why he even sought his help. The Punisher meekly replies that Captain America needed someone like him - someone that would do the dirty work.
Another flashback commences - again at Camp Lejeune. Captain America has just knocked down the bewildered Frank Castle. He says that he can't train guys like Frank if they refuse to fight back. Captain America calls Frank a chicken and embarrasses him in front of the recruits. America needs tough soldiers, not weak ones who only think about hitting back. Frank replies that he has no problem fighting the enemy, but he does have a problem hitting Captain America. Back in the present, the Punisher refuses to fight back at the urging of the now raging Captain America. It is revealed that at Camp Lejeune, Frank was ridiculed for his refusal to fight Captain America, verbally and physically.
The following day (of the flashback sequence) Frank's group act as if nothing has happened. He has paid the price for his refusal to fight Captain America. In the present, Captain America finally ceases his assault on Frank. Spider-Man pulls the bloodied and beaten Frank to his feet. Frank states he is alright and that Captain America knows that he lost the fight to the Punisher.
In the meantime, a conversation takes place between Bridge and Stuart Clarke. Bridge remarks that the Punisher will eventually come for Clark to shut him down effective immediately. Once Bridge leaves, Clarke takes motions to protect himself. Unbeknownst to Clarke, Bridge orders his men to take Clarke down. However, using a protective armor, Clarke manages to escape from the assault.
Later, the Punisher wakes up to find Clarke standing over him in an underground S.H.I.E.L.D. armory. The Punisher demands some answers from Clarke. Clarke responds that Frank has been out fro four days and that he has taken care of him during this period. Bridge is still looking for the pair. The Punisher is ready to return to his old vigilante ways.
Sometime later, we see the Punisher track down Spider-Man's old foe, the Rhino. He fires a huge gun that knocks out the befuddled super-villain. The Punisher breaks off Rhino's horns and batters him with a glove dubbed the Satan Claw. The Punisher is back and he wants the supervillain community to know and fear his re-appearance. Finally, we cut from the scene to visit Bridge again. He is praying profusely with a heavily bandaged face. Bridge asks for repentance repeatedly.
Punisher: War Journal is an odd little choice for a re-launch. The question that begs asking is: was anyone truly chomping at the bit for this re-launch? Punisher fans already have the spectacular MAX series which is unencumbered from trying to fit into 616 continuity. Secondly, the series is being re- launched immediately with cross-over status/baggage attached. Is Marvel that anxious to have every one of their books somehow tangentially related to Civil War. The answer appears to be a resounding yes as we have seen with this series and Heroes for Hire.
With suspicions already raised, is the title any good? Again, the answer is yes with one caveat that needs resolving by the time Civil War mania has died down. Writer Matt Fraction is a talented fellow. He has a nice feel for how to balance the realistic seriousness of the Punisher with the more outlandish elements of the 616 Marvel universe. After all, there's a reason why the Punisher's publishing success has been outside the world inhabited by Spider-Man and Wolverine.
The main conflict between Frank Castle and Captain America goes a long way in determining how we feel about this modern incarnation of the character. A historical context is provided by Fraction to make the reader gradually feel comfortable with the Punisher's re-emergence on the scene. Fraction seems to be subtly implying that this re-emergence is not out of left field, the Punisher has roots with some of Marvel's most iconic characters. Furthermore, the scene is just an outstanding character contrast. Spider-Man's remark that the Punisher and Captain America are just the "same men, different war" provides an interesting perspective that's never been truly explored in the comic books. Is the Punisher truly insane or has he been a product of his political and cultural environment? Surprisingly meaty questions are raised in a book that admittedly tries to be more lighthearted than its MAX counterpart.
However, the one caveat that needs some explaining by Fraction is the Punisher's exact motivation for returning. Is it really the fact that supervillains are being propped up by the government to arrest the anti-registration forces? This seems a dubious reason to me and would be a mistake by Fraction to push for. Rather, I believe that the Punisher's popularity over the decades is measured by the cultural milieu of the time. In an era of uncertainty (both in the Marvel Universe and real life), the Punisher provides a clear black and white distinction. Bad guys really are bad and good guys are really good. At least to me, this seems much more plausible with all the Civil War shenanigans surrounding the Punisher.
A second critique I had was the art. The pencils by Ariel Olivetti are certainly competent and a style that is unique. However, one can't help but compare it to the MAX renderings. For many, the MAX title has become the iconic Punisher depiction, especially the covers by Tim Bradstreet. Olivetti's art, at times, seems almost foreign to a devoted Punisher fan. A melding of Olivetti's style and the more familiar depictions of the character would've helped. At times, the Punisher's world in this issue seemed almost too bright and cheery with the luscious colorings.
There's a solid subplot going on between the Punisher and Captain America. However, the other plot elements seem too mundane. Again, did we really want the re-launch of Punisher: War Journal? At this point, readers should remain content with their MAX rendering of the Punisher and look for War Journal to gradually improve once it has a clear direction and purpose within 616 continuity. In its favor, the title has a solid writer in Matt Fraction to lean on.
Also, we're given no resolution for the Punisher's rescue of Spider- Man in Civil War #5. Is Spidey grateful? Angry? I would've liked some more context but in light of my other complaints this was a minor issue.
As mentioned in the Plot Summary section, Spider-Man is one of the shocked observers of the Punisher/Captain America fight.