*52 Dept: By cracky, this is a full-length issue. It’s a Thanksgiving feast of two additional pages!

And luckily, the book’s also regaining some energy from last issue’s mild torpor. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the Lex Luthor/Steel subplot, but it does manage to spark halfway to life when it decides to operate on the level of pure metaphor, so this issue’s focus manages to entertain. The whole old vs. young thing gets maybe a bit too Kingdom Come at times, but it’s sprinkled with a little more cynicism; it’s not just old-school characters concerned about those irresponsible youths, but established veterans blanching over the flexibility of identity and corporate branding in an oversaturated superhero market. It’s a pretty effective irony that so many of the new characters here are revealed to have built-in expiration dates on their effectiveness as heroes - how many aborted twelve-issue ‘ongoing’ series are out there, with so many more waiting for the axe? A curious moments of self-criticism, though maybe as much a critique of the market and readership as well (see also: that subtext of Infinite Crisis I’m assured exists).

Not that any of this will help DC with allegations that their big series aren’t really about much other than the contours and philosophy of, well, DC comics, while Marvel’s monster Event at least tries to engage with the political world at large, but it does loan 52 a certain intermittent pulse of purpose beyond the nitty-gritty of showing us how Gotham City managed to get by without Batman (and speaking of which: I do believe next issue is the all-Morrison, all-Batman installment).

Plus: Egg-Fu, madness, thanksgiving via chainsaw, and pulse-pounding climax involving Wildcat pounding down alcoholic beverages alone in dark and silence. Yes.

Punisher War Journal #1

The first thing I did was check the legal indicia. Ah, no ‘The’ in front of the title. Good. Good. I washed my hands five times, touched the light switch twice with both arms, and got down to reading.

Speaking as someone who hasn’t actually been reading the core Civil War miniseries (preferring to flip through on the stands and live vicariously through the internet), I couldn’t tell you in good faith exactly how well this variant-powered Event tie-in/property revival debut issue actually synchs up. And mother what a fine recipe for sales a variant-powered Event tie-in/property revival debut issue is in 2006. There’s even a Spidey guest appearance! I’d have liked to see the Civil War logo emblazoned in gleaming foil, personally, perhaps polybagged with trading cards and a sample issue of Dirt. Frank Castle, you are truly the Son of Sassy!

But getting back to the comic, I can certainly appreciate its virtues as a tie-in, if taken in the abstract. It greatly expands on Frank’s role in Civil War #5, stretching back in time to cover what he’s been up to beforehand and subsequently coloring the events of the main book from his unique point of view. It’s as sure an approach as any, allowing for any number of little jabs at the core crossover -- buckle up for throwaway lines about established characters acting unbelievably, or jokes about Spider-Man’s new costume -- along with cute little nods toward the title character’s history, references ranging from The Punisher Armory to Microchip. If Frank’s gonna shoot up the Marvel U again, he might as well be aware of his history in it as he participates in this lucrative alleged turning point.

Really, Civil War may prove to be a blessing in disguise for this book; the general upheaval of the crossover does provide a fairly sturdy platform for relaunching Marvel U Frank, an instantly catchy motivation and direction served up without much fuss. Basically, Frank thinks this whole Civil War business is counterproductive nonsense, and decides to embark on a quest to discover who’s been equipping supervillains with dangerous technology. Shootings ensue. Nothing more efficiently encapsulates the book’s direction than Frank’s first two pages, which see him plotting a real-world menace’s death in true Garth Ennis MAX style, only to have his stakeout interrupted by Stilt-Man tromping through town. Can’t avoid that stuff in 616.

Ennis proved long ago that the Marvel-reading world has the appetite for both a serious(ish) and non-serious Punisher book, so it seems natural that one of each could exist at once. Writer Matt Fraction does a good job of maintaining a bit of the familiar flavor of the character that Ennis has spent years building up, while throwing in some of his own particular interests and flourishes - interesting that both this book and Casanova would feature a giant robot attack on the same day. But the book’s sense of play is augmented a bit by a few skillful bits of character work, like Stilt-Man momentarily pausing to reflect on the niceties of vigilante behavior while Frank steams ahead in a Golgo 13-like state of amoral zen. Ariel Olivetti’s line art and Dean White’s color art emphasize this tone with painterly realist visuals that make certain to occasionally morph into comic exaggeration, or toss up a background gag or two. The character work can be stiff (Captain America on the last page stands out particularly), but it seems like a cohesive enough approach.

Maybe it’s just my draft-dodging side kicking up, but I’m already looking forward to how this book plans to pull its Civil War themes into an ongoing concern; it already feels pretty organic, considering how can’t miss it appears as a contemporary Marvel marketing concept, and I’d like to watch it exist in a postwar world, one where enlisted men will have to melt in to the societies (and superhero universes) they once left behind.

Casanova #6

Meanwhile, writer Fraction’s creator-owned Image book sees the penultimate issue of its first storyline, and everything’s going really well. By this point, artist Gabriel Bá has established enough of a cozy visual signature that he and Fraction can play simple tricks like switching up the book’s single color from green to purple and make it seem kind of searing. This is nothing if not a vivid book on several levels, hellbent on wringing every last drop of possible effect out of its 16 pages so as to demonstrate the authority of its format; there are many things to say about Casanova, but nobody’s complaining that it gives too little in terms of base content.

This is one of those nearing-the-end-of-the-storyline issues where what seemed to be disconnected one-off adventures suddenly begin to attach to one another to form a grander plot, and Casanova has plenty of room to work with: there’s both a six-paragraph text recap on the inside-front cover and a page 2 reminder of past plot points from Image Comics Executive Director Eric Stephenson (who’s become an amusing recurring semi-character), though some readers might still feel like flipping through their back-issues to get the most out of it. Meanwhile, the issue’s modular plot involves Casanova going undercover (again) to locate a secret map to a hidden stash of money, though everything is quickly interrupted by the machinations of a megaplot that just won’t sit still any longer. Even the issue’s big fight sequence takes place off-panel, all the better for mysteries to tumble into one another.

It’s good. You can forget about picking up the book starting with this one, since it’s going to be way too tied up in its own initial endgame to welcome much of anyone, though the past five issues have all been fairly good with the self-contained plots and the continuing enigmas. I say you should start from the beginning; it’s late enough that I can promise you that this one does not run low on steam approaching its hiatus, and the concept is firm enough that one can imagine all sorts of future possibilities lurking beyond the horizon of next issue’s wrap-up. I would like you to become enveloped in this.