Review: The Punisher, Vol. 2 – Border Crossing by Nathan Edmondson & Mitch Gerads (Marvel)

Punisher Border CrossingNathan Edmondson’s second Punisher collection, Border Crossing, begins shortly after the conclusion of the first, Black and White: Frank Castle, wounded and on the run from the enigmatic special forces team, the Howling Commandos, has made his way to Southern Mexico. Problem is, there’s no way Frank can get the medical attention he needs without tipping off a multitude of wannabe-killers, and small and big-time crime bosses. He’s “a prize, being bought and sold,” and worth far more alive than dead. He succumbs to unconscious, prepared for hell upon awakening: and when he next opens his eyes, he’s in the custody of El Diablito, who plans to have his fun with Frank, then auction him off to Crossbones, who’s working freelance – for who?

The narrative expands from there, shifting locales, and crossing over with another Edmondson series, Black Widow, before returning to Frank’s new habitat, Los Angeles, where things have spiralled horribly since his disappearance: the Del Sols have allied rival gangs and taken control over the city. The police have been paralysed, and while Frank’s allies have done what they can to stem the inevitable, the city needs the Punisher.

Edmondson briefly partners with bestselling author Kevin Maurer for the first two issues of this volume, diluting Edmondson’s voice in the process, and revealing the prose author’s lack of experience with the comic format. The pacing is slightly off, and the dialogue relies too heavily on Special Forces acronyms and terminology. The story itself is uninspired, ending with a cliché, as Frank’s partner, the Special Forces operator also in El Diablito’s custody, thinks: “We might be in different wars, but we’re both in the same fight. I will always consider Frank part of the team. And I’ll always feel like’s he’s got my back.” The artwork in these initial issues is solid: Carmen Carnero packs a lot of action into the pages, and does his best with a stuffed script, but there’s little here to get your blood pumping.

The team-up between Frank and Black Widow is deftly handled; it helps having the same writer scripting both components of the story. It’s a fun storyline, as Frank and Natasha infiltrate a cargo ship, both seemingly operating with opposing agendas. The climax sees Frank end up in prison, where we’ve seen him before, but it’s always amusing watching Frank exist among the rats, and still dealing out his form of justice. Mitch Gerads returns as artist for the final four issues in the volume (while the Black Widow issue is handled by Phil Noto) and his art has taken on a distinct flavour, becoming increasingly reminiscent of Gorlan Parlov (who worked with Garth Ennis on the eminent Punisher Max). His style remains perfectly suited to the grounded nature of the Punisher, though it would be interesting to see him tackle a high-flying hero. The coolest moment, by far, is the volume’s final image, as Frank finally returns to LAPD. No spoilers, but it’s the kind of scene that deserves to be displayed alongside rousing kick-ass music that screams, Shit is about to go down!

Border Crossing is an enjoyable follow-up to the outstanding first volume, but doesn’t quite reach its heights. It has the distinct feel of a middle act – The Punisher gearing up for his next (and presumably final) showdown with the Del Sols – and feels overstuffed with redundant material. Plenty to like; it’s just saddled by unnecessary detours. But when the action is focused on Frank’s exploits in LA, Edmondson and Gerad’s Punisher rivals the best runs in recent years.

Review: Dancer by Nathan Edmondson & Nic Klein

DancerAs Alan Fisher sits down for a meal with Quinn, his ballerina girlfriend, he notices incongruities in the environment only a retired assassin would spot. Then the bullets starts flying, innocent bystanders taking headshots from an unidentified sniper, and Alan and Quinn are stalked through Milan, all the way to his apartment, where we catch our first glimpse of their hunter. Somehow, impossibly, it’s Fisher; a younger, fitter, deadlier version. And negotiation is clearly not an option.

You know what you’re signing up for with a Nathan Edmondson comic. Continuing his revival of the espionage genre in comics, DANCER checks off all the boxes with style, if not actual inspiration. All present and accounted for: European setting? Check. Underdog superspy facing off against a younger, better-equipped, and more lethal foe? Yes sir. His lover’s life in the balance? Yup. Vehicular chase scene? You betcha. Pulse-pounding final confrontation? Naturally. A final twist in the tale? Of course. What more could you want from a spy story? DANCER has everything espionage aficionados expect.

Which is, in part, the problem. DANCER lacks the flair of Edmondson’s testosterone-fuelled WHO IS JAKE ELLIS? and the thrillers of THE ACTIVITY. Those series brimmed with innovativeness: a sparkle that set them apart from their competition. While DANCER is stylishly executed, with Nic Klein taking full credit for the art, colors and design, there’s little in this story we haven’t read before. It’s a hodgepodge of stale and dated ideas, which benefits greatly from Klein’s simple illustrations and muted color palette. His panel-to-panel transitions are fantastic, particularly towards the story’s climax, which flits back and forth between both Fisher’s. Edmondson’s script is sparse, allowing the art to handle primary storytelling responsibilities: no caption boxes or lengthy exposition scenes here, to its credit.

Familiar and fleeting, but precision-made, DANCER is a fine addition to Edmondson’s stable of espionage comics.

Review: The Punisher: Vol 1 – Black & White – Nathan Edmondson & Mitch Gerads

The PunisherThere have been several world-class runs of “The Punisher” in recent years. Garth Ennis set the tone with his “Marvel Knights” series, then raised the bar with “Punisher Max;” Jason Aaron built on that foundation, propelling “Max” to even greater heights; and Matt Fraction, Rick Remender and Greg Rucka adeptly molded the character for Mavel’s 616 universe. “The Punisher” is now synonymous with quality. And “The Activity” creative team of Nathan Edmonson and Mitch Gerads certainly deliver that.

Punisher detractors label the character as very one-note. He is, essentially, an action hero with archaic tropes, who exists in a world of tights and capes. What purpose can he possible have in a world of superheroes? This is a point that is reiterated throughout BLACK AND WHITE, the first volume in this new series: The Punisher exists to handle the villains too dangerous for cops, but not big enough for the superheroes. He cleans up the dirt that falls between the cracks, and does it exceedingly, and brutally, well.

Edmondson and Gerads don’t reinvent the wheel; instead, they refine the elements that’ve made the character resonate for decades. The biggest change is the shifting of locales, from New York to Los Angeles – a welcome amendment, as Marvel characters are habitually based in NYC – and the introduction of a new supporting cast of characters. While Frank Castle remains a methodical killing machine, Edmonson makes the character a little less cold and stoic than what’s customary – and it’s refreshing. I can’t remember the last time I saw Castle’s lips curl upwards; but he does it a couple times here.

PUNISHER: VOL 1 – BLACK & WHITE sees Castle taking on the powerful Dos Sols gang, who have formed an allegiance with A.I.M. and have set in motion a plan to take over the city with a “secret weapon.” Meanwhile, the shadowy military unit known as the Howling Commandos have been tasked to bring Castle in – and these dual storylines coalesce with a grand finale, and of course, a cliff-hanger ending. The plotting is tight, and Gerads’ artwork is spectacular, the action scenes executed superbly; I was a big fan of this creative team from their work on their creator-owned series “The Activity” and it’s great fun seeing them adapt their style for the mainstream.

For the foreseeable future, THE PUNISHER will remain synonymous with quality. A remarkable feat for a character who, really, isn’t all that remarkable.

Review: Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell – Echoes by Nathan Edmondson & Marc Laming

EchoesKudos to the team behind TOM CLANCY’S SPLINTER CELL: ECHOES; they picked the perfect writer to adapt their mega-popular video game character into a four-issue comic book series, published as a collected edition in November 2014. Nathan Edmondson proved himself adept at translating the spy / political intrigue genre to comics with his creator-owned series THE ACTIVITY, and with SPLINTER CELL: ECHOES he does much the same, presenting readers unfamiliar with the Splinter Cell brand with a fun, action-packed thriller, while adding to the Sam Fischer mythos, thereby satisfying the desires of the passionate fan base.

ECHOES takes place between the events of the video games Splinter Cell: Convictions and Splinter Cell: Blacklist, but newcomers needn’t fear this backstory; Edmondson provides all the information required to enjoy the story for what it is. Sam Fischer was a Splinter Cell – an elite operative who worked for a clandestine, blacker-than-black wing of the National Security Agency – but he has since retired, hoping to put his life bag. But when a terrorist organization called KROWE surfaces, plotting deadly attacks around the globe with a spectacular endgame in mind, Fischer is called out of retirement.

Sure, ECHOES treads familiar territory that we’ve read before. Admittedly there is not much innovation here. Instead, it’s about execution – and the story unravels like clockwork, methodically paced, perfectly illustrated by Marc Laming, who is a no-nonsense kind of artist; simple, but effective layouts, nothing overly stylish about his work, but it gets the point of cross. Ultimately that’s what counts.

There are the usual thrills and spills in ECHOES, the close-but-no-cigar moments as Fischer hunts the terrorists, and while it feels familiar, it’s never blatantly derivative. It’s a fine thriller, and undoubtedly the best video-game-to-comic-book adaptation I’ve read.