One of the most disappointing chapters of the entire Onslaught Saga was Onslaught Book Three, which shifted its focus away from the main narrative of the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men battling Onslaught and the Sentinels on the streets of New York, and chooses instead to focus on other heroes like Spider-Man, The Green Goblin, and The Punisher and how each of them addressed the trouble caused by the Sentinel attacks. Possibly the most tedious of these chapters was Punisher #11, in which Frank Castle attempts to save the SHIELD helicarrier and ends up being a passive character in his own book, contributing nothing. He may as well have not been there.
Knowing that, I wasn’t looking forward to the Total X-Tinction arc that spun off from it, starting with issue #12 of the series and lasting until the series ended with issue #18. I’m reading it as a part of my trek through all of the X-Men related titles and, as it spins off from Onslaught and heavily features the the anti-hero X-Men character X-Cutioner, it falls into that prevue. Just knowing that the abysmal offering in issue #11 led into this though had my expectations very low.
Well let it never be said that lowered expectations were never a good thing, because Total X-Tinction may go down as one of my favorite comics I’ve read as of yet in 2015 and is definitely my favorite Punisher comic thus far. This may end up being a controversial statement for Punisher fans reading this, because as I stated above, this series ended with this storyarc. The Punisher had gone through a period of extreme over-exposure and media-saturation in the late 90s, to the point that the public became tired of it and interest in the character crashed. This title was an effort to bring a fresh take to the character, but interest couldn’t be sustained and the series ended with issue #18. As such some would blame this series for the drought of Punisher- related material that happened until Garth Ennis came on the scene with Welcome Back, Frank.
In reading this, I don’t think this series or this story were to blame: I think it was the plethora of material that came before it. I think this series was doomed to failure because of the negative view the readership had to it beforehand.
Without having read issues 1-10 (yet, I now plan to), it seems as though this series attempts to bring Castle into the Marvel Universe more than he had been. This is a polarizing statement among Punisher readers: some prefer him as a gritty street-hero with little-to-no connections to the Marvel Universe like in Punisher MAX, others prefer to see his gritty approach to vigilantism let loose on the major players of the main Marvel U. I fall firmly into the latter camp, and consider the Punisher at his best when juxtaposed with other heroes and their methods, such as in Frank Miller’s seminal run on Daredevil.
Total X-Tinction sees Castle seeking to make amends for his large (albeit unwilling) role in the murder of SHIELD patriarch Nick Fury. He tried in Onslaught Book Three by saving the helicarrier and failed, and has since been recruited by GW Bridge to aid in a joint mission between SHIELD and the FBI to protect political mutant / human rights activist Reverend Connover, who is under threat of assassination by a new branch of the MLF.
The MLF are a mutant terrorist organization (it stands for Mutant Liberation Front) and it makes perfect sense that Castle would be going up against them: the MLF are as close the “real life” villains as the regular Marvel Universe is likely to produce: terrorists with mutant powers. However things aren’t that simple. Castle is caught between the politics of SHIELD rookie agent Kymberly Taylor and FBI agent Carl Denti, who also happens to be the alter-ego of the X-Cutioner, a Punisher- inspired killer of evil mutants. As romantic tension builds between Taylor and Castle, the mystery behind this new incarnation builds and builds in a excellent, organic way which I will not spoil here. Ostrander proves his storytelling chops here in a way I haven’t seen from other examples of his fiction to date, such as The Mountjoy Crisis or X-Men: Day of Wrath. At the end of the tale Castle’s character has evolved in a way I have never seen before, to the point that he seemingly sacrifices himself in order to save Connover, Taylor, and the others from the last attack by the MLF.
The final two issues of the arc (and the series) deal with the reactions of Spider-Man, Daredevil, Agent Taylor, and even J Jonah Jameson (who at this point was in danger of becoming a Marvel Universe character as opposed to one strictly limited to Spider-Man) and how each of them deals with the threat of Castle’s demise, with most of them coming to the same conclusion: if you haven’t found the body, Castle isn’t dead. What;s really interesting here is the subtlety of the penmanship by Ostrander: these speculations on the part of the heroes don’t state whether or not they think Castle a hero or a villain or something in between. These are absolutes which Ostrander smartly doesn’t get into, leaving the ambiguity up to each reader to decide.
When we the reader do find the Punisher, he is amnesiac and has stowed himself away in an old church, demolished by the Onslaught attacks. This information is given solely through the visuals of Tom Lyle in expert fashion. I do not typically include panels from in my reviews, but this is one case when I feel it necessary:
This is one of those instances when, as cliched as it sounds, a picture is worth a thousand words. Look at all that image is saying to us: the broken church representing Castle’s broken faith, the bedrock of his entire existence broken out from under him. The technological and fantastical invading into the realm of the mundane, which this series of Punisher has been all about. The Sentinel, a hallmark of the X-Men, disrupting the binary nature of good versus evil by which Castle has lived for so long. All this is said without words and is never stated aloud. It also places the story in time in a way no caption could have so elegantly. The Sentinel is also obscured from view, while the young boy is fully captured from head to toe, indicating a shift away from the main Marvel Universe and back to the normal, street level crime that the child brings with him.
The child’s mother is the victim of abuse, and has come seeking the help of the man that lives in the church (Castle). In doing so, Castle begins to find himself again.
This brings us to literally the only bad thing about this story: it doesn’t end! The series was cancelled with issue #18, and there are clear signs that Ostrander rushed to get some story elements in that he wanted in, but did not have time for a proper conclusion. The series ends with the Punisher still amnesiac, a plotline that is brought up again and resolved (in a very bad, ham-fisted way) in the Spider-Hunt crossover of the Spider-Man titles. It’s a sad way for my current favorite run on the character to end, but I can’t fault the writer for it. The lack of a satisfying conclusion is the only thing that keeps this from being a full five-star event though.