One Of The Best Runs In Comics: THE PUNISHER - CIRCLE OF BLOOD
Marvel Comics, 1986
Writers: Steven Grant (issues 1 -4, plot on issue 5); Jo Duffy (script on issue 5)
Penciler: Mike Zeck (issues 1 – 4)
Breakdowns: Mike Vosburg (issue 5)
Inker: John Beatty (issues 1 - 4; finished art on issue 5)
It was the first ever Punisher mini-series and it remains one of the best. If they ever wanted to make a proper Punisher movie then Hollywood should look no further than the first issue and use that as a starting point.
The first issue contains some of the most defining moments in the Punisher’s career, and the team of Grant-Zeck-Beatty was one of those magical combinations that come along only in the proverbial blue moon. Zeck and Beatty were the hot artistic team of the time, fresh from a dream run on Captain America and the (now much maligned) mini-series Secret Wars. Zeck had falled into difficulties with the Secret Wars series and several issues featured work by a host of Marvel artists, including John Byrne, Bob Layton, Jack Abel, Mike Esposito, Joe Rubenstein and others. For the most part the additional artists work was generally uncredited. In the case of Layton he was credited with pencils on two issues, done with the purpose of giving Zeck breathing time to get back on schedule with the series proper, but that’s a story for another time.
In 1985 Steven Grant was teamed with Zeck and Beatty to create the Punisher mini-series. Frank Miller had written the character into his ground breaking Daredevil series to great effect. There had been a number of guest shots in various Spider-Man titles and a few one-shot appearances along the way and as such the character’s popularity was growing.
Grant had previously worked with Zeck on an issue of Marvel Team-Up and the two had been looking for a project on which to work together again. Grant made contact with Zeck and pitched the idea of a Punisher story only to discover that Zeck and Beatty had been exploring the possibility of pitching their own Punisher related idea to Marvel. With Zeck on board editor Carl Potts gave the concept the green light. Grant and Zeck rapidly plotted the first issue, which would pick up where Miller’s previous story left off – with the Punisher in prison. Evoking the classic Clint Eastwood film, Escape From Alcatraz, the character didn’t don his trademarked costume until the end of the issue. Indeed Zeck’s Punisher owes more to Eastwood’s characters The Outlaw Josey Wales and Alcatraz's Frank Morris than Don Pendleton’s Executioner, which was the initial inspiration for Punisher creator Gerry Conway.
Grant, Zeck and Beatty worked on the first four issues. Over time confusion over the original amount of issues has set in due to the blurb on three issues, thus I've never had it clarified if the series was always intended to be a four or five issue mini-series or if it was extended once Grant's plot was submitted. I suspect it was intended to be five issues as five covers were prepared. In any case Zeck, keen to have an outlet to fully express himself, co-plotted and pencilled the first four issues, coloured the first issue and managed to turn in some of his best work in any era. Then things went sour.
Zeck began to once again fall behind his deadline. In fairness it wasn’t all his fault as Marvel had problems with their own printing schedule at the time. That Zeck was going to run late shouldn’t have come as a great surprise considering the amount of sheer detail that he was putting into his pencils. Beatty was able to keep up but only with a supreme effort. Beatty spent the bulk of his time working at Zeck’s Connecticut house, and according to his own account the pair regularly put in fourteen hour days and worked seven days a week. The goal was twofold; to erase the problems that had surrounded them on the Secret Wars series and to produce the best work of their careers to date. With such dedication speed is often the victim and it was at this point that editor Potts began to have doubts.
According to Zeck’s account he and Beatty were halfway through the fourth issue when word began to leak to them that Potts was sounding out artists with the intention of hiring someone to draw the fifth issues and thus finish the series. Faced with what he must have perceived as both a lack of faith and professionalism, Zeck withdrew from the series. Once Zeck had withdrawn Steven Grant also pulled out to be replaced by Jo Duffy. This left inker John Beatty as the last man standing. Duffy was able to script the last issue working from Grant’s plot. Mike Vosburg was tapped to finish the issue, but, ironically, due to deadline problems all he could manage were very rough breakdowns. This provided Beatty with problems and by his own admission he worked fast and hacked the job out in order for the book to arrive on time. The result is a sub-standard issue, lacking in both the finish and quality of the earlier issues. It was a sad way to finish the series.
Overall the entire series would be worthy of four and a half stars out of five, it’d easily have earned five stars if only the original creative team had been allowed to finish the series.
Sadly there’s a postscript to the series that leaves yet another bad taste in the mouth. Marvel has recently released the series, yet again, as part of its ‘Premiere’ line. The credits on the cover totally omit Beatty though, an oversight that is both tragic and cruel. Beatty was the lynchpin of the series, he’s the only person who worked on all five issues, yet his name is not included on the front cover, however Duffy, who scripted Grant’s story, and Vosburg, who provided breakdowns, both for the one issue, are considered more worthy than the man who inked the entire run. This is despite the original trade paperback having Beatty’s name on the front cover with the same emphasis, and thus importance, as Grant and Zeck.
But that's todays Marvel for you. The inker is invisible.