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The Uncommon Excellence of ‘Untold Tales Of The Punisher Max’ #2 [Review]

It’s always a pleasure when a comic like this one comes along, and it’s been a while, too. With the two big superhero comics publishers doubling down on their attempts to transform the ramshackle issue-by-issue chronicles of costumed mystery men and their bizarre adventures into slick franchise-ready “IP,” it’s becoming harder and harder to invest oneself as a reader in the Marvel and DC universes if you aren’t interested in following along with the books’ overarching master narrative. I know I’m not alone in wanting to be like a skipped stone in the way I engage with superhero comics, dipping into any random old character’s world for an issue or two here and there because an artist I like is doing a fill-in or because somebody whose taste I trust recommended it or — ahem — because there’s an Adam Strange guest spot, dude. Superhero comics may be now and forever committed to being something greater than momentary, 20-odd page distractions from our boring and depressingly violence-starved lives, but that’s all a lot of people ever needed them to be.

Basically, I just wish they could all be like this week’s Untold Tales of the Punisher Max #2 (whew), drawn by Connor Wilumsen from a script by Jason Latour.

If I’m understanding things correctly, Untold Tales of the Punisher Max is the comic where Marvel blows out all their “drawer issues” of Frank Castle’s murderous mature-readers exploits, the fill-in issues that never ended up being necessary during the late, lamented Punisher Max title’s long run. Issue #2 is a single-issue story written by rising star Jason Latour, whose work I hadn’t previously been super impressed with, and illustrated by Marvel debutante Connor Willumsen, who’s done a few anthology shorts here and there but more importantly is the cartoonist behind some of the best webcomics you have ever seen in your god-damn life. Ably colored by James Campbell, Willumsen’s the reason I picked this comic (adorned, by the way, with a Kaare Andrews cover that not only has nothing to do with the story it prefaces but actively leads potential readers to believe said story is going to be pretty different than it is) off the racks full of ones that looked all too similar, and he does not disappoint.

But before we get too deep on the art (which runs awful deep, let me assure you), Latour’s story deserves a word or two. The reason the previous Latour comics I’d read had felt slightly unsatisfying, despite their obvious superiority to most other genre comics you’d care to name, is their proficiency with genre, their willingness to hit notes we’ve all heard before and will no doubt hear again, maybe even tonight if we end up turning on the TV. In this comic as in his others, Latour isn’t looking to transcend genre but to perfect it, to deliver iconic readings of classic material that makes familiar twists and turns feel new again. This is one of the very rare goals that often makes for better collaborative comics than it does auteur turns, simply because two minds are better than one when it comes to thinking your way out of a box. Untold Tales #2 is a classic Punisher story — a classic gritty crime story, as a matter of fact — you know, the one in which a stone killer’s captors believe they’ve got the upper hand on their prisoner until that illusion carries them into the grave. It’s nothing new, but in some ways that makes it better: Latour is pitching Willumsen right down the middle of the plate, and the artist doesn’t fail to knock this issue out of the park, delivering takes on old set pieces and reveals that bite with the knife-edge sharpness of the new.

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There’s a palpable intensity at play all through this comic, one that’s due in part to the taut, highly violent story Latour lays out, but mostly to the thrill of seeing a Marvel comic that’s drawn this way, by a hungry young gun finally being given the chance to play on the biggest stage comics have on offer, and sacrificing none of his artistic individuality to it. This comic is cartooned, not illustrated, with the slightly creepy photo-traced gloss of the average Marvel comic stripped away like a bad paint job, realist anatomy set aside in favor of expressive posing and figure drawing that actually tells us something about who each character is. The Punisher looms black and hunched in the corners of panels, his massive, vein-popping form never fully fitting into a single frame, as his all-too-disposable nemeses scamper around the Kentucky farmhouse the whole issue’s set in, blowing each other to smithereens as their faces twist and distort like silly putty.

Everything proceeds from the most basic of layouts, the six-panel grid, only breaking up on the first and last pages, panels widening to frame cinematic bits of action and seeming to cloister in tighter and tighter as Latour’s script ratchets up the tension. Willumsen’s gift for depicting space is uncanny: the small squares he draws everything into never seem too small for long shots that take in a whole roomful of gesticulating figures, or too small for perfectly observed close-ups in which faces are overwhelmed by sweat beads, bloodstains, tension. Each panel, too, is shot from a perfectly considered angle, Willumsen’s “camera” pivoting wildly to bring the reader into the heads of character after character, making us feel the drama from one doomed criminal’s perspective, then the next, then the next.

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As fun to take in as Willumsen’s formal play is, though, his sheer drawing skill is the real pleasure here. His style seems cobbled together from the mannerisms of a who’s who of the past decade’s best mainstream cartoonists, but somehow never comes off as derivative: Willumsen’s isn’t just picking up other people’s chops left and right, but actively incorporating the lessons on display in the masters’ work into his own. It’s obvious from the expressionistic framing and the light touch in Willumsen’s posing that the guy used to assist Paul Pope, but just as evident are the nods to Frank Quitely’s fine detailing and organic sound-effect lettering. The ultra-kinetic posing calls back to Kyle Baker, but the weight and gravity the line work carries is more in line with Richard Corben or Igor Kordey. And more esoteric bits of influence are just as easy to spot if you’re looking for them: the high-impact angles and wild foreshortening occasionally bring art-porn comics superstar Jonny Negron to mind, and it’s not too hard to tell that Willumsen is boys with Danish wunderkind Mikkel Sommer, either. But as much fun as it is to play spot-the-influence with these panels, there’s much more pure joy in looking at them as fed through Willumsen’s own, very distinct hand. Finally, we’ve got another top-flight cartoonist who’s willing to forego finer line work and just scrawl! Every mark Willumsen makes in this comic is decisive and rich in gesture, full of confidence in the marks being made. The guy draws like a badass. Is it any wonder this is a badass comic?

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So there you are: this week’s pick for the comic that won’t change your life or even make you think too hard about anything, but still earns every last penny of your money. Sometimes it’s enough when they show you a new take on something old and hackneyed, when they take you out of the room you’re sitting in and into another, more interesting one for a few minutes. Especially when they come with art by an incredibly talented young cartoonist who only seems to be moving up (raise your hand if you’re officially turnt up for Willumsen’s work on Wolverine Max this fall), drawings that have the power to take you somewhere else no matter how many times you reopen this comic for another look.

Oh yes, and this comic ends with the title character killing a scared child, which is how any Punisher comic worth its salt not only should end, but is obligated to end.

Untold Tales of the Punisher Max #2 is on sale now in finer comics shops.

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