When the Batman Became the Punisher

In 1988 Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson teamed up with colourist Bill Wray and gave the comic book world possibly the best Batman story in many years, certainly one that holds it's own against Frank Miller's Dark Night Returns, both in terms of story and visually. As for the latter, I think even Frank would agree that not many could complete with Bernie Wrightson when it came to drawing anything, let alone Batman.

"Bernie and I wanted to work together on something and we came in and pitched that," Starlin told me about ten years ago now. "At first they loved the idea but they wanted me off the project because I was writing the regular book and they said “If we’re going to have a special project with Bernie then we have to have a different writer on it.” So I said “Oh screw that, I’ll quit the regular book.” They went along with me being on it and it worked out well. It was like their best-selling book that year."

Not wanting to give away the plot for anyone who hasn't read it, but this was one of the first, if not the first, such story that showed the Dark Knight completely broken down and shattered, and how he managed to get himself back to being who he is. It's a template that, like Miller's work, has been used over and over since, but never as powerful or as good as this.

What people might not be aware is that the team of Starlin, Wrightson and Wray began work on a follow-up mini-series, titled Batman: P.O.V. However it wasn't to be. DC passed on the job, so the trio promptly pitched the idea to Marvel who couldn't say yes fast enough.

"The first Punisher job was really the sequel to (Batman) The Cult," says Starlin. "That whole story was a Batman story to begin with, and if you go back and look through it you’ll see that some of the characters from The Cult got converted over almost wholesale. We presented that to DC and said “Here, do you want a sequel to this, it was your best-selling book that year” and they said “No, we want Bernie to do Swamp Thing instead”. So Bernie and I wanted to do this story so we took it over to Marvel instead. And they never did get the Swamp Thing story out of him."

Wrightson began drawing a new Swamp Thing, as written by the late Len Wein, but, halfway through the job, he began to have second thoughts about revisiting the character so he simply stopped and never finished the job. DC, if they'd taken the P.O.V. story might well have had both.

Gotham Federal Bank in downtown New York...
Jim Starlin is right. There are clues in the Punisher mini-series. Some shopfronts are named 'Gotham', despite the story being set in New York, and the character Holiday, who acts as a liaison of sorts to the Punisher talks and, in long shots looks, suspicious like a certain Gotham City police commissioner, complete with a cigar that turns into a pipe and back again, depending on the scene. Not to mention how the Punisher himself often talks and acts like a certain Caped Crusader.

What Starlin and Wrightson did isn't anything ground breaking, not by a long shot. There's plenty of examples of creators having stories rejected and then re-purposing them later for other characters, notably Norm Breyfogle's first Marvel story in Marvel Fanfare, a Captain America story that started out as a fully drawn Batman story, Frank Miller taking the bare bones of a Daredevil story and turning it, also, into a Captain America story for Marvel Fanfare, or Alan Moore taking all his Superman stories and re-jigging them for Rob Liefeld's Supreme. But none have ever been so blatant, and yet so neatly done, as this one. Once you begin to read it, knowing that it's a Batman story, it all suddenly makes sense. The familiar settings, the way characters act and talk and why some characters cross over from the two mini-series.

The Punisher appears on a rooftop, talks to Holiday and vanishes without a sound. Familiar?
You'd do worse to hunt down and get a copy of Punisher P.O.V. and read it back to back with Batman: The Cult. It's well worth the effort as the story and, especially, the artwork, are amazing. This isn't your typical Punisher story, not by a long shot.

Punisher and associated characters copyright Marvel Comics
Batman and associated characters copyright DC Comics


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