Rucka Returns to Marvel with 'Back to Basics' PUNISHER

C2E2 2011: Greg Rucka Returns to Marvel

There was a time when Greg Rucka writing Marvel comic books was a pretty common thing. The Queen & Country creator had stints on Wolverine and Elektra to his credits, along with miniseries including Spider-Man: Quality of Life and a couple of Black Widow titles, one co-written by Devin Grayson.

That time was nearly a decade ago, though, and the bulk of the writer's mainstream comic book output in the interim years has been with DC. Recently, he's returned to Marvel for short spurts, co-writing a few issues of Daredevil in 2008 with his Gotham Central collaborator Ed Brubaker, and authoring a Steve Rogers story in last year's anthology comic I Am An Avenger #2.

As first made public during Saturday evening's C2E2 Cup O' Joe panel, Rucka's back at Marvel in a big way with a new Punisher ongoing series. It's part of Marvel's "Big Shots" initiative and debuting this coming August, with art from Marco Checchetto (Squadron Supreme). Frank Castle has been through his own share of trials and tribulations as of late — most notably a temproary transformation into the undead monster FrankenCastle — but Rucka shared with Newsarama that his take is not "radically different than what’s been established previously."

Newsarama talked with Rucka about Punisher, the intelligence (or lack thereof) of the mob in Marvel Comics, and reuniting with his 52 editor, Steve Wacker.

Newsarama: Greg, first question is a simple one — what made you want to take on the Punisher?

Greg Rucka: The real quick version is, Steve Wacker asked me. That’s the bluntest, simplest answer — Wacker approached me and said, “Hey, you want to do Punisher?” and I was like, “You know what, yes. Yes, I would.”

There are characters that one feels an affinity for. I have a take on Frank that I don’t think is radically different than what’s been established previously. I like the character, it was a good fit, it was a good idea — and oddly, I don’t think the first one people would have thought of.

Nrama: Yeah, I think that Greg Rucka on Punisher seems like a natural choice on one level, but for whatever reason, I don’t think it’s something that people necessarily expected.

Rucka: Yeah. I think it’s more a throwback to Gotham Central-era writing for me. It’s very street-level, and it’s very human. The emotions involved are very restrained in a lot of aspects, and very real in a lot of aspects, and I always find it more comfortable for my own purposes to write “on the ground,” for lack of a better phrase.

Nrama: It’s interesting to hear you say that your take is not radically different from what’s been seen before.

Rucka: There are some characters you go to, and you’re like, “You know, lots of people have tried different approaches to them, and they work to different extents. They’re different flavors.” Frank doesn’t have that problem. There is a baseline that is very clear in this character, in my opinion, and I have no urge to f*ck with that at all. In all sincerity. It’s working, it’s dynamite for the character, it defines him well — I’m not going to go in there and mess with that, no way.

Nrama: So this definitely is a “back to basics” take on the Punisher?

Rucka: That I think is a very fair way to put it. I ain’t trying to reinvent a wheel here. He’s got a real clear agenda. His damage is clear, and everybody knows it, and he’s not carrying a whole lot of emotional baggage because of it. There’s the baggage he’s got that comes from what happened to his family and what he experienced prior, but beyond that, the agenda’s pretty clear. And I like that simplicity; I think there’s something actually rather elegant in it.

Nrama: Yeah, there are some characters who people praise for being versatile and working in a lot of different types of stories, but it seems like part of the beauty of the Punisher is that he’s the opposite; very singularly motivated.

Rucka: He’s got this very ‘80s — I wouldn’t equate him with Rambo, because I actually think he’s much more nuanced, but there is that, “here’s a guy with a gun, and get the hell out of the way.”

 

There is a piece of me that thinks the mob in the Marvel Universe is the dumbest criminal organization in the history of mankind. For years this guy has been systematically annihilating them, and yet there’s still people stepping up and saying, “Yeah, I want to be capo!” It’s like, “Dude, get a job in the post office or something, because this will not end well for you.”

Nrama: And while some Punisher stories tend to be set in kind of their own corner, it sounds like this series is firmly in the Marvel Universe.

Rucka: Well, it’s interesting. That was actually the biggest conflict I had in accepting the job; Wacker and I went back and forth on it over and over again, because he really shouldn’t exist in the mainstream Marvel U in a lot of ways. Not in a sense that he needs to be removed, but there’s a reason why the MAX stuff does so well. At a certain point, the body count gets high enough, and Spider-Man and Daredevil and those guys have to take notice. Then you find yourself having to ask questions about, how it is he’s getting away with what he does. It doesn’t say good thing about people like, Captain America, for instance. “Yeah, yeah, the Punisher’s slaughtering people. I’m worried about this over here.” You can get away with that for a certain amount of time, but eventually you run out of rope, and somebody’s going to notice him. We’re still in discussions as to what happens when he gets noticed.

It’s problematic. As has been said before, and stories have been done before, you can’t lock him up, because that’s just a playground. “We’re putting him in prison,” he’s like, “Thank you! This is great. This is a vacation for me, because everybody’s here, I don’t even have to break a sweat.” It creates some interesting questions. 

Nrama: On that same token, writing the Punisher must be different from other Marvel characters, because you can’t build up villains in the same way you would for Spider-Man or Daredevil. They can’t keep coming back, or else Punisher isn’t doing his job.

Rucka: Yes, and he’s not who he is. I was talking to Axel [Alonso], who said, the joy of the Punisher is putting him up against someone who’s so horrifically vile that you can’t wait for [The Punisher] to kill him. That is, I think, the heart of a good Punisher story in many ways. The adversary needs to be somebody that, for the reader, viscerally, you want them to pay. You want them to be punished.

Part of the reason I think we read Punisher is because we want him to kick the ass that we’re not going to kick. In that way, he’s a very different character. I hate the phrase, but people who malign our passion and art form are very prone to flipping out,“adolescent power fantasy.” But in his own way, Frank is the perfect power fantasy. He really may be the only one who really is, and that’s not adolescent, that’s a universal power fantasy. If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic, you’ve wanted to whip out a machine gun on more than one occasion. [Laughs.] But you don’t.

 

Like I said, I love the purity of, “Here’s a guy who’s going to kick the ass of people whose asses need kicking.”


Nrama: So it’s obviously early and you don’t want to give anything away, but can you talk at all about what kind of threats the Punisher is facing in the first part of the new series?

Rucka: Especially after Fear Itself and that Mafia problem I referenced earlier, there are different criminal groups. And there is a sort of new-approach group in New York that he’s going to go up against. We start with a pretty horrific event — there’s a wedding reception that gets caught in the crossover, and the body count by the end of it is so high, that it’s a political problem, it’s a problem for the police, and it certainly gets Frank’s attention.

One of the things that I’m interested in doing is showing the procedure leading up to Frank cutting loose, and the way he approaches each mission. I think that, for him, it’s very military. There’s a war that he’s fighting, and in that war, there are mission objectives. If there’s a new objective, he’s got to gather intel on the objective, he’s got to isolate the objective, and then he’s got to make a plan to go after it. In the broader Marvel Universe, that gives him all sorts of tools he can use. I was talking to a friend about this, and he threw out a particular item that exists in the Marvel Universe, that one wonders why Frank has never tried to acquire, because the things he could do with it are devastating. And he doesn’t need much — here’s a guy who rarely misses anyway.

He’s not surrounded by people. This is not a guy who talks. I wanted to get away, just stylistically, from the War Journal. I’m not really interested in giving you a long, first-person narration with Punisher. He doesn’t have a lot to say, to anybody. We’re kind of playing a game in these first few issues to see how long he can go without having to speak. Ever. [Laughs.] People talk around him, you see what he’s doing, you hear what he’s hearing, but what’s he going to say? He doesn’t have a lot to say.


At the end of our first issue, he does something that I think ostensibly people are going to look at and go, “Well, that’s out of character.” But in the second issue you see it’s very deliberate. It’s entirely in character, because it’s objective-driven. Frank works his way up the ladder. That is the way it works.  You’ve got to start with a rung, and climb to the next. We’re looking at different ways he does that.

Nrama: It seems in the past writers have gotten around the fact that the Punisher isn’t very chatty by giving him an assistant or some supporting characters to play off of, but it sounds like you’re fully embracing the taciturn nature of the character.

Rucka: Yeah. I think speech, like every thing else for him, is a tool. He’ll use his voice when his voice is going to serve him. There are certain characters I think do much better when seen by others as opposed to riding along with them the whole time. We’ve got at least one cop, who’s got a very sort of tortured relationship with Frank. The first issue has the root story, and then there’s an eight-page companion story, and that eight-page companion story sort of tells about this cop, and how he’s got into this really, really problematic relationship with Frank.

One of the things I’ve liked about Frank is, y’know, no cops, no women and children. He’ll shoot the women who are shooting at him [laughs], but he’s got his rules of engagement. He’s always been fair to cops. I’m not sure that he particularly likes them. That’s another thing that we’re toying with.

Nrama: Punisher has had a lot of great writers working on the character in recent years, but for the last dozen years or so, he’s been most strongly associated with one: Garth Ennis. Does his take on the character influence yours at all?

Rucka: You’re looking at [Rick] Remender, you’re looking at [Matt] Fraction, you’re looking at Jason Aaron, and you’re looking at Garth — Garth’s MAX run, I think “definitive” is not a bad word for it. It’s so well constructed as an entirety. Even if you’re going to say, “Well, it’s MAX, so it’s not the same world” — it is. It’s not, but it is. I’m trying to be very respectful to all of that.

By the same token, though, this is a #1. And it’s a #1 in the Marvel U. I think that allows us a certain leeway to say, we can sort of come at him fresh here. I was asked in another interview if I was going into the origin, and my answer was no. There’s no need. You get everything you need to know about this guy on the recap page. He’s never going to get “better.” If I tried to sell a reader on  a story where Frank has ended his war, they’re not going to believe it for in an instant. They’re going to sit there waiting for, “He builds his house, and he starts an orphanage, and then somebody comes along and burns it all down.” You can’t ever take him there, and it seems to me that’s a waste of my time and the reader’s time. It goes back to that purity point I was making earlier: He is so beautifully simple, and in that simplicity there’s a lot of room for nuance and complexity.

Nrama: For this series, you’re paired with artist Marco Checchetto. It’s the first time you guys have worked together — how has that been thus far?

Rucka: So far it’s been excellent. Very early on we were exchanging e-mails, and we hadn’t even had a chance to discuss anything, and he sent me an e-mail going, “Just so you know, this is what I was thinking about my take, and here are some images that are influencing me.” They were, to the last — every single one of them — things I had been talking to Steve about. We were on the same wavelength without having communicated yet. I couldn’t be happier.

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