Remender on PUNISHER, From FRANKEN-CASTLE to IN THE BLOOD

From FRANKEN-CASTLE to IN THE BLOOD

Rick Remender's been telling Frank Castle stories since joining Matt Fraction as a co-writer on Punisher War Journal #19 in 2008, and his run's now coming to a close with the five-part finale Punisher: In The Blood, which sees a first issue out in stores this week.

It's a mild understatement to call the last few years eventful for the character: he's tried to assassinate Norman Osborn, seen his family resurrected (and subsequently put down), and was murdered by Wolverine's son Daken, leading to Morbius the Living Vampire and the League of Monsters reviving him as a Frankenstein's monster-esque creature to help them in their fight against Hellsgaard. Yep.

In The Blood, with art by Roland Baschi, marks the return of the Jigsaw Brothers and the culmination of what Remender's been building the last couple years, in what the writer calls his "ugliest" Punisher story yet. (Preview of this week's issue #1 here.) Before that gets started, Newsarama talked with Remender for a look back at Franken-Castle, a look towards In The Blood and ruminations on the folly of “contempt prior to investigation.”

 

Newsarama: Rick, you often hear people say things like “this is a character that can be put into any type of story,” but Punisher has almost always been depicted in similar, ground-level, noir settings. Franken-Castle clearly challenged that. Now that it’s all been released, is that run something you’re especially proud of?

Rick Remender: Yeah. For sure. I think it's unattractive when people talk about the quality of their own work, but let’s do it anyway, I couldn't be more proud.

Looking at the kind of story that we entered into, it could have gone a lot of different ways, but the artists involved got so excited. Obviously Tony had a hand in it all, and designed the character. The boldness of it, in no small part, is also a tribute to Tony. In some of my initial writing, I just had Frank as regular green-skinned Frank Castle who's stitched up. As Tony and I talked, Tony thought that he had to be, like, a junkpile. He pushed me to take the idea further.

As the thing was being developed, and I started seeing pages come in — obviously Tony Moore’s contribution was the largest one, and Dan Brerton, and Roland Baschi — everything that they did was so A-list and so gorgeous, that it pushed me to polish the scripts over and over again. I feel like the fact that it was such a bold step forced all of us to beyond our A-game, and to give it everything that we had. So, to that end, I feel crazy proud of it. The hardcover omnibus ships in a month — I never go back and read my own work, but on that one, I think, given that it was like a year’s worth of work and it’ll be in that really nice hardcover collection, I might actually sit down and see what it’s like all together.

Exclusive interior art from  

Punisher: In The Blood #2.

Nrama: You definitely worked with some of the best on Franken-Castle — to start off with your Fear Agent collaborator Tony Moore, and also have someone like Dan Brerton illustrating Marvel monsters in that final issue, that has to be huge.

Remender: The origin of Hellsgaard was also Dan Brerton, so Dan had a nice piece in the middle, and then at the end got to endcap it, which felt really good. It felt good that he was involved in two really important chapters that fit him perfectly, intercutting that with the Tony Moore and the Roland Baschi.

And Roland is just incredible. Roland and I are now doing my final chapter of Punisher, In the Blood. It’s Risso meets Mignola … it’s gorgeous stuff.

Nrama: It’s fair to say that Franken-Castle was polarizing — I was in the audience at the X-Men panel at New York Comic Con this year when that guy in a Sgt. Rock costume got pretty heated in his complaints to you about it. Did that kind of negativity bother you at all along the way, or did you just chalk it up to people not being able to accept a version of a character that’s not the one they were originally introduced to?

Remender: It doesn’t bother me, because I’m really proud of what we’ve done and I’ve worked hard for a decade to build a career in comic books doing what I want to do and not pandering. When I was a fan, the things I wanted to see more of, I’m going to do those things — that’s why I have built this career, to do comics I’d like to see more of.

It would be arrogant to discount anybody’s opinion… but he didn’t express any interesting opinion. He just came up and said, “What was I thinking?” To that I want to say, “I was thinking that, ultimately, we need bigger, explosive, crazy, fun things to happen in comics.” And that means taking left turns in the middle of the story, so the unexpected hits people like a train.

I think the polarizing effect of Franken-Castle is a testament to what we did. Tony always says, “if you’re not making somebody angry, you’re not doing it right.” While I respect people’s apprehension to it, the majority of those people didn’t read it. That’s called contempt prior to investigation, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the kind of low-thinking that discounts people’s opinions. When people say, “I didn’t read it, but I’m sure it’s stupid.” OK, I don’t need to talk to you. There’s no conversation we need to have.

In the MAX Universe, this of course couldn’t have happened, and shouldn’t. There’s no magic in that universe. There’s no monsters. There’s no radioactive spider-men. In that universe, with the rules that are established, I don’t think anybody wants to see the MAX Punisher all of a sudden grow spider-arms or something. But Punisher in the 616, when everything is all about fantasy and science fiction — which is what superhero comic books are — this is a fitting story, and we made sure, everyone involved, that it was an important Punisher story, and that it spoke to illustrating certain aspects of Frank’s personality. Frank had just killed his own family, the question there obviously being, “did he do it because they were resurrected through unnatural means, or because he likes himself better, likes his life better, now than when he was a family man?” And would Maria ever accept him back, anyway? “Oh, hey, I’m back to life! Oh my god, you’ve turned into a monster who murders!” There’s so many interesting questions that are brought about by the certain scenarios.

Franken-Castle was another one, in terms of a character like Hellsgaard, who was a reflection of Frank. He had his family killed by werewolves, so he spent his life hunting monsters. Something that is a nice parable, and then you put Frank in the situation where he’s had to witness the ramifications of Hellsgaard’s retribution upon the monsters. He watched a young Moloid shot in the chest, and all of these nice monsters who helped him and fed him and kept him alive were being slaughtered. When you put Frank up against Hellsgaard, you kind of exploit some obvious hypocrisies in his mission statement.

As far as people’s criticisms, I haven’t had a debate with anybody who has presented me with any evidence that I did anything wrong or separate from the character. I think there are people who don’t like the aesthetic, and they find it silly, but for me, something that tries to be cool is the least cool thing possible. In Fear Agent, we borrow aesthetically from Wally Wood and Frank Frazetta and all the EC guys doing science fiction in the ‘50s. In Franken-Castle, I had been writing Doctor Voodoo, so I had read all the Dr. Strange, and the Monster of Frankenstein, and the Man Thing, and the Marvel horror anthologies. I was really immersed in that part of the Marvel Universe — you can go out and buy 20 Essential volumes of this stuff, it was a big part of the Marvel Universe in the ‘70s that’s been sort of forgotten and left behind. So for me, it’s a hell of a lot more fun to delve into that and tell an interesting story with these forgotten characters, and polish them up and make them potentially relevant again. But not give them goatees and leather jackets… you know, what everybody did in the ‘90s.

Exclusive interior art from  

Punisher: In The Blood #2.

Nrama: Modernizing. Or, attempting to.

Rememnder: 50-year-old men — “let’s make Superman relevant. A pony tail, please! Leather jacket and Oakley blades!’ I don’t think the characters need to be redesigned. Manphibian is a terrific, classic design. There’s no need to rethink them — the characters are classic Marvel characters.

Nrama: And as far as detractors go, if someone’s not at least curious about the prospect of Punisher becoming a Frankenstein and teaming up with monsters to fight samurais, one wonders what they’re looking to get out of superhero comics in the first place.

Remender: The pulpy sensibility, aesthetically, it reminds me of what I grew up with. It might remind me of the Universal Monsters, it might remind me of a Saturday morning cartoon about giant robots. To take that aesthetic, and hopefully tell a story with real characters and depth and foundation to where you’re captivated by a modern story — I’ve done that time and time again, between Gigantic, between The End League, between Fear Agent, between Franken-Castle. I like to take those classic aesthetics and update them, story-wise and character-wise, but not necessarily change the aesthetic to something that tries to be more modern.

Nrama: So was one of the main motivations, then, for doing Franken-Castle simply to take the Punisher out of his usual comfort zone and do something drastically different with the character?

Remender: When you’re writing this character in the 616, it’s problematic. What can Frank actually do? That was why it was interesting when Norman Osborn took power and we relaunched the thing with Dark Reign, and I was on the phone with Axel [Alonso] and Fraction and we were talking about ideas, him trying to assassinate Osborn — “oh, that’s exciting!” Then you have a huge story about the repercussions of that.

So when you’re writing the character in the 616, my first instinct was to just give him an armament of all of these found relics and weapons left behind from the many decades of Avengers battling it out and X-Men battling it out on the streets and leaving things behind.

When I was looking for relics that would work as a sort of MacGuffin in the story itself, as well as something that would heal Frank and get him back to normal, I found in the Bloodstone that there’s a Marvel relic that grants power based on the owner’s desire for revenge. That just blew my head off. You give Frank Castle the Bloodstone, and he’s eventually just going to go bat-house crazy and become super-powerful. And that worked really well in that we wanted him to have a power-up, because it only made sense if he was going to go up against Daken who had just killed him, that he needed to have a little bit of an advantage this time.

The argument a lot people want to make is, “well, Frank’s a great soldier, and he’s fought Wolverine in the past.” It’s true, he is a great soldier. But in my mind, he’s still just a human being with absolutely no magic, or super-soldier serum or anything. Which makes him interesting. You’ve got the Batman argument, but even Batman has billions of dollars to create all kinds of crazy weapons and vehicles with. I’ve been doing a little bit of that with Frank, and giving him certain toys that Henry’s been making for him, but it doesn’t meet the same criteria.

There was a whole list of criteria and things I wanted to see happen, and one of them was, when Frank went back out after Daken, that Frank had an upper hand. If Wolverine hadn’t intervened, Frank would have killed Daken. No question about it. He had it thought out. He was going to throw the guy in a giant pool of wet cement, and at that point Daken’s guts had been cut out and he was a mess.

Exclusive interior art from

Punisher: In The Blood #2.

Nrama: After the colorful craziness of Franken-Castle, is it valid to call In the Blood a deliberate shift back to basics?

Remender: It is back to basics-ish, but it's still playing off of all of the things in the first two volumes of my run, as well as Franken-Castle. My Punisher run, from issue #1, even some of the War Journal stuff I did with Matt, when we turned Stuart Clarke into the second Jigsaw — it all forms one big story, and the end result is In the Blood. Fortunately, I had all this stuff outlined, and basic beats planned, from the very beginning two years ago. We're finally getting to the end of my list of ideas.

With what happens in In the Blood, dealing with Microchip, and Henry, and the mysterious leather-clad burn victim, there's stuff there that only works because it's been built up in the previous 28 issues I've written. But it’s also new reader friendly and explains what's happened.

I love seeding things early on, so when people see it come to fruition they can say, "Oh, it's been there all along." This has a definite core cast of characters: every assistant Frank's ever had, the Jigsaw brothers, the mysterious woman. The plot that the Jigsaw Brothers unleashes on Frank is much uglier than what happened to him in Franken-Castle, even uglier than what the Hood did to him. It's the next elevation of that. It might not have the distinct element of that other stuff, but it's the ugliest Punisher story I've ever written.

Nrama: When  In the Blood begins, will Frank still be adjusting to no longer having the Bloodstone — and being back to relative normality?

Remender: Yeah, and we deal with that a little bit. Frank has to re-learn how to fight. He's in a rejuvenated younger, body. He has to focus on his speed again as opposed to the brute force that the Bloodstone offered him. It takes some adjusting, and he obviously gets his ass kicked a little bit because of it.

Exclusive cover image for

Punisher: In The Blood #4.

Nrama: With your finale on Punisher starting this week, are you at the point where you have said pretty much all you want to say on the character, or are there maybe more stories you’d like to tell down the road if you get that chance?

Remender: I go back and forth. It’s the same thing with Fear Agent. I’m doing the final dialogue on the last issue of Fear Agent, and I’m doing the final script or two of Punisher. Those are characters that I’ve inhabited for a long time — Fear Agent going on five, six years, and Punisher going on three. When you spend that much time writing a character, they become a natural part of your life. Those two characters usually eat up half of my average work month. It’s hard to say I don’t have any more stories for them, but I will say that the stories I cooked up that got me super-excited are coming to a close, and there’s something so satisfying about hitting the end of an intended story, and there’s something so exciting about having the chance to do exactly what you wanted and end it the way you wanted, and feel as proud of the work as you do, I could be OK if I didn’t return to the character.

That said, Jason Aaron and I have cooked up a story involving the character that we would like to do at some point, so I wouldn’t rule it out. For a good long while, I’m probably off.

Nrama: That’s an enticing bit to slip in there. So with Fear Agent and Punisher both ending for you, what else are you working on besides Uncanny X-Force?

Remender: There is an unannounced project at Marvel that I’m pretty excited about. It’s a big character that has been cooled off for a while. Marvel has a great strategy in terms of a lot of the time they’ll cool a character off so people are clamoring for it, and then they’ll re-launch. I’m fortunate enough to be entrusted with that, so I’m currently working on the outline for that with some very exciting classic Marvel characters.

I think that between all of the things that are going on with those two books and the shipping schedules, I think I’m just going to stick to those two books for a little while. I just want to be able to focus on two titles and give them everything I’ve got, and not run myself ragged to do so any more.

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