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The End of Franken-Castle: Why We’ll Miss the Monster

With the release of “Franken-Castle” #21, the year-long saga that cast the Punisher as a movie monster is finally drawing to a close. The move back to “Normal Punisher” (if there ever was such a thing) has been pretty inevitable; there was clearly no way that Frank was going to spend too much time with an engine on his back and tubes sticking out of his chest. On the other hand, it’s a shame that we have to say goodbye to his horror-themed adventures.
While the story was probably among the longest and most seemingly ridiculous ways to bring a character back from the dead, the entire process has been entertaining and I feel pretty comfortable saying that “Franken-Castle” was one of the best things to come out of “Dark Reign.” Rick Remender, Tony Moore and other creators took the Punisher’s shocking dismemberment at the hands of Daken and turned into a pulpy monster story that pulled from decades of Marvel history.

Quite simply, the Punisher was cut into pieces, put back together by an underground community of monsters, provided with even bigger guns and sent to war against an army of monster-hunting samurai led by a skeleton in steampunk armor. That last sentence contains phrases that embody much of what’s awesome about comics these days, and that was just the first arc.

You’d never expect that a character like the Punisher would make any sense in a premise that reaches Kafkaesque levels of absurdity, but Remender and company align its plot and characterization together perfectly.

Here’s a few examples of how:

Action!

The entirety of “Franken-Castle” is filled with awesome fight scenes. The first half of the run is non-stop monster war and the second half features Frank and Daken tearing each other to pieces with Wolverine caught in the middle. In between, Frank takes down a whole mess of ninja led by Lady Gorgon and uses moving vehicles as weapons on no less than four separate occasions.

When you have this kind of action, you’ve gotta have great people to be illustrating it, and at turns you’re getting Tony Moore, Jefte Palo, Roland Boschi and Dan Brereton on art duties, each of whom brings their own delicious brand of special sauce to the page. Honestly, I could go on about this aspect of the book forever, or I could just show you this:

Yep. That’s Franken-Castle flying a dragon while shooting up a bunch of armored bad guys with a gatling gun. I would be more than satisfied if this panel showed up in every comic that I read for the rest of my life, and that includes the occasional issue of “Optic Nerve.”

History!

Marvel Comics has a long tradition of great monster characters, and Remender draws on it pretty heavily in order to bring this story together. Franken-Castle is brought to life by Morbius and The Living Mummy, and his other allies include Werewolf by Night and the Manphibian, with several appearances by Man-Thing. The bulk of the action throughout the series is focused on fighting over the Bloodstone, the original source of powers for old-school monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone. In a fantastic twist, Ulysses Bloodstone also happens to be directly involved in the origin of Robert Hellsgaard, the villain leading the charge against the Legion of Monsters.

But “Franken-Castle” doesn’t just call back to the Marvel monsters of years past. The comic evokes the glory days of horror comics like “Creepy” and “Eerie” and is another great example of today’s creators updating a classic aesthetic with contemporary storytelling. Moore’s depictions of Monster Metropolis draw the reader into a world where it seems like the characters from a whole mess of classic monster movies coexist in one society, and it’s the kind of thing that begs to be explored further at some point. Brereton’s painted origin of Robert Hellsgaard would fit right into an old EC collection, to say little of his Monster Island in this week’s issue #21. All told, it’s great to see a comic honoring the pulpy influences of the medium in this way.

Reluctant Hero

The Punisher is a guy whose primary purpose in the Marvel Universe is to kill as many criminals as he possibly can. When he’s revived by the Legion of Monsters and forced into the role of savior, his trajectory shifts from shooting mobsters to defending the ultimate rejects of society. On the face of it, Frank claims to go to war on behalf of the monsters to avenge the murder of innocents, and that’s certainly true, but if you go a little bit deeper, it’s pretty clear that he identifies with them. Obviously he sort of has to, because he’s been turned into a monster himself, but he also shares the common bond of being a perpetual outsider. It’s one of the many ways that Remender manages to bring the character down to earth throughout the series.

The other interesting thing about this part of the story is that it sort of reads like a western mashed up with a monster movie. Remender plays Franken-Castle as the classic Lone Gunslinger who rolls into town (or in this case, has his remains plucked from the sewer and put back together) and stands with the defenseless townspeople against a mustache-twirling villain. Sort of like “Attack of the Living Shane,” or “Unforgiven: Monster Style”.

The Perfect Villain

Robert Hellsgaard was a man whose family was murdered by werewolves, leading him to conduct his own war on all of monsterdom, ironically turning himself into a monster in the process. His origin is a mirror image of the Punisher’s in so many ways. They’re both driven by the loss of their families. They’ve both functionally sacrificed their humanity in order to conduct their personal wars. Hellsgaard uses his expertise as an engineer to go after monsters, while Frank draws on his military background to take down criminals. However, there’s one crucial difference: Hellsgaard sees all monsters as the same and crosses the line of killing innocents, which is exactly what brings him into conflict with Franken-Castle. Putting the Punisher up against an enemy whose motivations are so similar to his own allows us to recognize that he isn’t just driven by revenge, but the preservation of innocent life.

I’ve been touching on this all along, but “Franken-Castle” really benefits from its strong character work. In turning the Punisher into a literal monster, Remender also humanizes him in a way we haven’t really seen before. Despite his imposing new body, he’s imbued with physical weaknesses and forced to rely on others far more than he’s used to. In the process, he ends up letting down his guard and actually connecting with folks just a little bit. He even smiles once or twice.

It’s not just Frank, though. Characters demonstrate clear depth and sensitivity, especially the Legion of Monsters. Morbius struggles with the responsibility of holding onto the Bloodstone, while Manphibian is also tortured by the loss of his family. Moore in particular excels at bringing these characters to life. It’s doesn’t matter that they’re hideous and inhuman in appearance; facial expressions and body language make their humanity shine through.

If you don’t want to give those monsters a hug right now, I’m just going to assume that you’re completely heartless (or just got out of the shower).

“Franken-Castle” has been a storyline unlike any other, subverting character types and blending genres while layering one ludicrous scenario on top of another. Despite its uniqueness, it still fits into the rest of the Marvel universe quite seamlessly and it felt like it should have been there all along. It’s a funny thing about the Punisher: about 10 years ago, he was brought back from the dead as some sort of avenging angel in a story so outlandish that most have just pretended it never happened. This time the story was that much crazier, but I think we’ll all be talking about it for years to come.

Check out Marvel’s preview of “Franken-Castle” #21 below for a taste of the finale:

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