3 out of 5
One of the interesting consequences of the way Mike Baron writes – which feels almost informed by stream-of-consciousness in terms of plotting, while, intra-issue, maintaining a very linear approach – is that very disparate pieces from his longer running titles can float in and out, often presented without much context. Rereading makes this stuff pretty rewarding, and it’s also very “naturalistic:” real-life doesn’t precede returning peoples or themes with a reminder of their relevance. However, if you’re stepping into and out of Baron’s comic worlds, or even just reading at their naturally published pace of bi-weekly or monthly or whatever, the lack of cues can be quite confusing.
See: The Brattle Gun, which winds its way through a sorta commentary on the Middle East (we have the warring “Trafia” and “Zukistan”) and the messed up politics which finds weapon manufacturers sitting happily in the middle, making the same bigger and badder guns for each side. This is good territory for Baron’s method of skipping Castle through social commentary, and he has Frank in good, offhand spirits, approaching one such manufacturer – Morris Brattle – out of an interest in the weapons he produces, and then getting instantly wrapped up in a conflict between the foreign customers to which Brattle has sold. The premise here is already a little wishy-washy, as I’m not sure if it’s clear what Frank initially wanted out of this interaction, but the story gains shape when Microchip – a Zionist, in Baron’s writing (and also a video game maker? Microchip, though a Baron creation, always felt a bit undercooked to me, half-used for half-ideas that never quite find footing) – pushes Castle to arrange a deal with Brattle to scuttle a super-weapon that’s to be used against Israel. Smoosh all of this into about 4 or 5 pages of superspeed plotting.
The trio travel to the Middle East and… And I have no idea what happens hereafter. They split up, presumably to enact some master plan, but then it feels like they’re all operating independently, with Punisher just running headfirst into blind alleys in which he gets beaten up, and eventually captured by the baddies with which Brattle is supposed to be working to subvert, while Microchip is off making his own arrangements in Zukistan, and this is all before Baron brings back in multiple characters from past issues, but without any help for readers who maybe haven’t read the past 40+ books, or skipped over to Punisher’s War Journal for supplementary story.
With Hugh Haynes solid artwork and well-directed camera angles, plus a clear-handed inking assist from Jose Marzan Jr, the story never gets cluttered visually, and my confusion with the story focus / characters aside, Baron absolutely keeps it moving. While who’s double crossing whom, and who’s pretending to be whom, and which country is plotting what against which is all quite murky, it’s never difficult to keep an eyes on Frank, and track him through being put in harm’s way, then Punisher-ing his way out. So the 2-issue arc doesn’t bore, I just wish the story hit a little harder, and didn’t constantly make me feel like I was missing whatever context I needed to keep its pieces straight.