We all know the story how Peter learned that fundamental lesson about power and responsibility. But, what if he decided to take it in a darker direction? What If? Punisher #1 lets us find out.
The comic is another retelling of Spider-Man’s origin story. Only this time, Peter lets his anger push him over that very lethal line our familiar hero would never cross.
After vowing to never let another innocent person die on his watch, Peter augments his standard web shooter with some pretty heavy weaponry. Hand guns, explosives, incendiary rounds…all find their way into the Punishing Spider’s arsenal. Once armed, Peter engages in a no-holds-barred war against the organized crime and costumed villains of New York. Everything leads up to an encounter with the Green Goblin, and a chance to redo one of comics’ most infamous moments.
The first thing that stands out here is our protagonist. What If? Punisher #1 follows a much more cynical Peter Parker. Rather than the wise-cracking web spinner we know, this world’s Spider-Man is serious and permanently stone-faced. It’s strange to see the character in this light, and doesn’t always read like a Spider-Man story as a result. It’s a What If? title of course, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I found it surprisingly dense for a 28-page story. We see Peter reluctant to use deadly force at first. By the mid-point of our story, though, Peter’s become someone who can kill without batting an eye. The downside isthat because the story covers so much time, most of it is told through summary. It’s like a long montage of Peter recounting his years as Spider-Man.
It would be easy to write off What If? Punisher #1 as a dark-for-the-sake-of-it edgefest, but there’s a lot of genuinely interesting ambiguity on multiple levels here. Spider-Man and the Punisher’s relationship is defined by their conflicting views on deadly force. It always has been, ever since Frank Castle debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #129.
It’s made even more interesting by the book’s ending. I won’t give it away, but we see how Peter’s action—or his inaction—causes a further cycle of suffering and death. We’re left to ask: was Peter right to be a lethal enforcer all along? Did he protect more lives than he destroyed, and did he really live up to his great responsibility?
The art of What If? Punisher #1 works alongside and compliments the darker tone of the story. A lot of the main Marvel universe is slightly more rounded these days to give it just a little bit of a cartoonish sheen, but some of that look is cast-off here.
Artist Juanan Ramirez’s inks let the image sink into the page. We’ll get an action-packed sequence, followed by several frames of static shots that let us breathe before jumping back in. It’s stylishly refined and a bit grimy, but it will still be familiar to Marvel readers.
Rachelle Rosenberg’s colors are on point here as well. We have lots of stark contrasts and interesting palettes. Muted monochromes and dark greens and blues against loud orange explosions, all help make the work “pop” and drive the mood forward.
What If? Punisher #1 is not a masterpiece. However, it’s a solid little story, backed by great and stylish artwork. I’d recommend checking it out.