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Ask Chris #64: How To Read Everything

Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s every week, Senior Writer Chris Sims puts his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!

Q: As one of the leading Batmanologists, it’s probably safe to say you’ve read most, if not all, things Bat-related. When you read that much, do you keep notes or records for later use? I’m thinking of obtaining the dvd-rom from a few years ago collecting Captain America from the 60s to his “death”. How would you suggest tackling it? By creative teams? By year? By the times he got-crippled/into-politics/got-werewolf’d/other-bizarreness?Chris C., via emailA: Much as I hate to undermine my own credibility, I have to admit that there are huge chunks of Batman comics that I haven’t read. There’s a big section from the ’90s that I just don’t have much interest in, for instance, and it’s only been pretty recently that I’ve been able to get my hands a lot of the weird stories from the ’50s, thanks to a popular desire to rewrite Batman’s history as a Serious Character that would have you believe that dude just cold did not exist between 1941 and 1970.

Throw in the sheer number of comics — including the newspaper strips and obscure foreign stuff like Jiro Kuwata’s Bat-Manga, something else that only became available in the past few years, and even then only partially — and it’s a daunting task, even for a guy who could happily do nothing but sit around reading Batman stories all day. I mean, even if I applied myself, somebody‘s got to watch all these old Dusty Rhodes promos on YouTube. So unfortunately, while I’m pretty comfortable in saying that I’ve read more Batman comics than the average fan by a pretty huge margin, I haven’t read ‘em all.

I did, however, read every single Punisher comic in about three weeks back in 2005.

The weird thing about this is that when I made this decision, I wasn’t a particularly huge Punisher fan. I’d jumped on with the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon Marvel Knights series, and while those are still some of my favorite comics of all time, they weren’t what made me want to go digging through the character’s history. It was playing the video game that came out along with the movie starring Tom Jane that did that.

What? It was a really good game. And somewhere around the level where you popped out of a coffin with a machine gun to mow down a funeral home full of crooks, I decided that I liked this guy enough to read every comic I could find about him.

As it turned out, that was a lot of Frank Castle. At the time, the complete Punisher ouvre totaled just under 400 comics. Fortunately for me, the two biggest obstacles to getting this done, finding the comics and making the time to read them, weren’t really problems at all. I was working as a clerk in a comic book store with massive stock of back issues — at least 400 long boxes — so putting together the run into what I called The Box of Punishment was easy, and all the downtime between customers was spent reading, because I was not what you would call “a very good employee.”

The one major problem I was left with was how to put them in order. The obvious answer was to just read them chronologically in the order they came out, but with the Punisher, that’s not really an option.

Along with Spider-Man, who had been reigning as Marvel’s flagship character for 30 years, the Punisher was the most prominent character in Marvel’s boom of the early ’90s, even beating out Wolverine in terms of sheer number of comics. As a result, a lot of those 400 Punisher comics came out in a pretty small window of about five years.

For a while, Punisher, Punisher War Journal and Punisher War Zone were all coming out at the same time, sometimes twice a month, and those were just the ongoing series. Throw in the mini-series, annuals, quarterly specials (including the annual Punisher Back to School Special, a concept I always found hilarious) and prestige format books, and getting them all in chronological order would be a nightmare. Even with the information you could pull from something like the Grand Comics Database, you’d be spending way more time organizing comics than actually reading them. That’s no way to go through a box of comics, son.

In the end, I came up with a solution, and while it might not have been the best way to go about it, it worked all right for me: Organizing it based on era, format and series. This was made a little easier thanks to the fact that, while Punisher, War Journal and War Zone were coming out at the same time, there was very little overlap between the actual stories. They only really crossed over twice, once in a story called “Suicide Run” that came pretty late in the run, and again when all three titles were canceled en masse in “Countdown.”

So here’s the reading order I laid out, divided into eras:

The Boom Years:

1. Early appearances in the Spider-Man titles.

2. Punisher v.1 (the five-issue Grant/Zeck mini-series).

3. Punisher v.2 #1 – 84 (up to the first part of “Suicide Run”)

4. Punisher War Journal #1 – 60 (up to “Suicide Run”)

5. Punisher War Zone #1 – 22 (up to “Suicide Run”)

6. All of “Suicide Run” in order

7. The rest of Punisher up to “Countdown”

8. The rest of War Journal up to “Countdown”

9. The rest of War Zone up to “Countdown.”

10. All of “Countdown” in order.

12. All the annuals for Punisher, then all the annuals for War Zone.

13. All the mini-series published between 1989 and 1995, capped off with Punisher Meets Archie.

The Lean Years:

1. Cutting Edge and Double Edge (Frank goes crazy, kills Nick Fury, sets up the next series)

2. Punisher v.3 #1 – 18

3. All the mini-series released from 1995 – 1998

The We-Don’t-Talk-About-That Years:

1. Punisher v.4 #1 – 4 (Oh hell yes I read some comics about Angel Punisher!)

2. Wolverine/Punisher: Revelation #1 – 4

The Ennis Years (a.k.a. The Good Years):

1. Punisher v.5 #1 – 12 (“Welcome Back Frank”)

2. Punisher v.6 #1 – 37 (Marvel Knights Ongoing)

3. Punisher v.7 #1 – Current (Marvel MAX Ongoing)

4. All the mini-series and one-shots released between 2000 and 2005.

Dessert:

1. All the Prestige Format one-shots.

The reason I saved the Prestige Format books for last is because they tended to be bat-sh** crazy, even compared with the rest of the run. My favorite was Punisher: G-Force

…in which Frank the Tank hijacked a space shuttle so that he could kill a crook who had escaped to a space station. It is amazing, and everyone should own a copy. Everyone. Even people who only like Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes comics.

ESPECIALLY the people who only like Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes comics.

Anyway, as you can see, I wasn’t kidding when I said there were a lot of comics about the Punisher. And if you were going to attempt the same thing today, it’d be even more complex, with the split between the “MAX” version of the punisher and the Marvel Universe version, the title changes, two more volumes of Punisher (not counting Punisher: Frank Castle and PunisherMAX), one more of Punisher War Journal, and another of War Zone, and another stack of one-shots, and Franken-Castle, where the Punisher becomes an undead monster with a robot arm. Which, I would like to point out, is awesome.

But as complex as my system was (and as complex as Marvel’s schedule for releasing Punisher comics continues to be), it did lead to a pretty fun experience. For one thing, while I’d always written off those Boom Era stories as being pure, unreadable products of the ’90s — and a lot of them were exactly that — there’s a lot of genuinely enjoyable stuff in there. Mike Baron’s sixty-issue run on Punisher (v.2) in particular has this great low-fi VHS aesthetic that, when you read them all at once, is like distilling everything great about ’80s action movies and injecting it directly into your brain. There’s an issue about Frank going undercover as a substitute teacher to keep the Kingpin’s drug dealers from taking over a high school, one where he fights the Marvel Universe’s version of Charles Manson, and one where he breaks up a crooked ninja training camp in Kansas run by a dude whose dog is named “Tanto.”

I even found out that Punisher v.3, which was written by the legendary John Ostrander with the premise of “The Punisher joins the mob!” is actually not bad. Even if it does feature way more than I ever wanted to read about the X-Cutioner.

And best of all, it led me to the comic with the greatest cover blurb of all time:

Incidentally, that’s the issue where you find out that the Punisher is afraid of water, but he’s able to conquer his fear through shamanic magic. And Microchip paints himself black and pretends to be a Hawaiian death spirit.

It is unquestionably the finest work of Jim Lee’s career.

Which leads me to another unexpected result of reading the entire run of Punisher: Before I read all those comics, I liked the Punisher well enough, but somewhere in the process, even though a lot of those comics were not very good, he became one of my favorite characters. I guess when you spend that much time on one character, you really see their positive qualities, like the ability to shoot a gigantic assault rifle one-handed while jet-skiing.

But really, the rules and reading orders are just my personal preference. If there’s a character you’re curious about and you can track down a nice run — something those DVD collections are perfect for, especially when you’re dealing with a comic like Captain America or Fantastic Four, where there’s only one series to worry about for most of it — it’s something I can highly recommend doing.

As for taking notes, well, I probably should, but I usually don’t. Occasionally I’ll jot down an issue number if somthing really notable sticks out, but I generally have a good memory for what happens in what issue.

There was one attempt at taking notes that I made during the Box of Punishment, though. I thought it might be interesting to keep track of how many people the Punisher killed in each issue as I read them so that I could have Frank Castle’s official, canonical body count. I still think that’s a neat idea (if more than a little morbid), but I gave up pretty quick in the fourth issue of the ongoing series, where Baron has him mention a “career lifetime total” of 665 kills.

Do you stick with just the ones that are shown in the comics, or do you start over from there, adding each subsequent kill to that total? Does that count the war? If there are flashbacks, do you count them as new ones or assume they’re part of that total? And when it splits into the MAX and Marvel Universe books, does the number carry over, and if so, to which version?

Forget it, man. I already put enough work into reading those comics without adding in algebra.

That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just put it on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to comicsalliance@gmail.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!

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