The Punisher (#41 – 46) – Mike Baron, Chuck Dixon

4 out of 5

First reading through these issues, in the wake of a rather slapdash Jigsaw arc, I felt like these followed suit: Baron writing quick and loose, half-steeped in social awareness, casually racist, written without patience until they run into the last page. That’s… not untrue, but compressed down to one-shots, a lot of the wandering and plot rerouting that plagued that book is necessarily prevented by the abbreviated page-length, and while Baron doesn’t exactly world build, he hammers home this feeling that Pun’s work is never done: none of these issues conclude “cleanly.”

Where it’s sloppy – issue #41’s “Should a Gentleman Offer a Tiparillo to a Lady” is a rush of jamming in a SHIELD appearance, and turning Frank into a grumbling one-liner dropper – it’s rather joyfully silly; where Baron is sticking more to winding Castle through social issues – half-smirkingly commenting on racism in Flag Burner in issue #44 – while Mike’s hand-waiving opinions can be bothersome, the writing and structure are incredibly sharp; and then there’s Cold Cache in issue #46, which is an insane action movie epic jammed wholly into its 22-ish pages. Chuck Dixon steps in for #45’s One Way Fare, and it’s a good comparison point: Chuck writes a standard Pun issue, very quality, tracking down a killer of cabbies, but you miss the rush of Baron’s frenzied style.

The mix of artists also obviously works better with one-shots than it does with an arc. A consistent crew filters through – Bill Reinhold, Mark Texiera, Hugh Haynes – and each brings a particular flavor to Castle, but also maps well to the tone of each story.

Compared to “modern” books, these issues can initially read as rushed, and the way they run into their final panel without, sometimes, a definitive ending (and don’t pick up the thread in the next issue) can feel amateurish, but take a second pass: once you’re used to the pacing, it’s really insane how much story Baron jams in without sacrificing pacing, and I started to love those final panel stingers as a sign of Frank’s never ending war.