Mar 19, 2016

Spider-Man vs. The Punisher: A Time-Honored Tradition

Spider-Man vs. The Punisher: A Time-Honored Tradition
Not So Much the Versus
Ben Smith

Since the Punisher is on the tips of everyone’s fertile tongues as of late, I figured I’d share one of the more memorable Punisher stories from my youth. Full disclosure, like most Punisher stories, the reason I liked this comic had very little to do with him being in it. I’ll always have an appreciation for the character based solely on his beginnings as an occasional Spider-Man annoyance, but he’s never really been a favorite. (Annoyance might be overstating it, because as I read these early appearances again, Spider-Man generally has almost no problem working with the Punisher, despite his murderous ways.) The Punisher is one of those characters I’ll always keep trying, based on the good buzz of whatever his latest comic is, but it almost always disappoints. (Rucka’s run, and the original Zeck mini-series being the exceptions.) I’ll forever believe he works best as a guest-star in other characters books, and not as a solo character.

Let me put my grumpy old fan hat and onion belt on for a moment, and say that when I was a kid reading comics in the ‘80s, the main marketing tool comics had were the cover. Unlike comics of today, you could actually get a good idea of what was going down in the comic based on the cover. There wasn’t the internet, or even a Wizard magazine (I know there were fanzines, but I never read any) to tell you what comics to buy. As a kid, I wasn’t much of a forager in terms of expanding my comics palette, I was a nester. I found the character I liked, and stuck with him. That started with Transformers, and then Spider-Man, and then Wolverine & the X-Men. So, when I was into Spider-Man, I was looking for the best Spider-Man comics I could find, and that search mostly relied on the promise put forth by a stellar cover.

All that is to say, in my long-winded roundabout way, that there was very little chance I was going to pass up this comic once I saw that wonderful cover.

Writer/Editor: Len Wein; Illustrator: Ross Andru; Embellisher: Mike Esposito

Quick tangent: looking at Andru Spider-Man art fills me with a sense of comfort and joy. Like a soft and warm blanket for my soul. It makes me feel safe, and that the world is going to be okay. When I close my eyes, his Spider-Man is probably the Spider-Man I see. Yes, I’m old.

Why this cover was so appealing to me when I’ve never been a big fan of Nightcrawler, I can’t explain. It’s not that I hate him, but he’d probably be at the bottom of the list of my favorite All-New X-Men cast members if Colossus didn’t exist. Maybe it’s just a really dynamic-looking cover? Don’t know. Only intense therapy could determine.

Nightcrawler is reading his morning paper while his X-Men colleagues Colossus and Wolverine work out nearby. Wolverine decides to be annoying, and ends up ripping up Nightcrawler’s paper, sparking a confrontation between the two.

Nightcrawler rises above the situation and leaves. Something he saw in that paper is more deserving of his attention anyway.

Peter Parker is having a night out with Mary Jane at Coney Island, along with Harry Osborn and Liz Allen. (Liz Allen had so much potential as a supporting Spider-Man character, but they saddled her with that wet blanket Harry instead. Too bad they can’t erase the mistake that is her kid with Harry and have her strike up a romance with Peter again.)

A man riding the roller coaster is killed by a sniper shot, and Peter is forced to slink away and change into Spider-Man.

Coincidentally enough, Nightcrawler was there to pay a visit to the man that had just been murdered, an old friend from his carnival days.

Nightcrawler spots the sniper but is unable to catch him before he can get away. However, the sniper dropped his rifle, and Nightcrawler decides to keep the rifle it as uncompromised as possible for the police. Spider-Man sees Nightcrawler cradling the rifle, and assumes him to be the gunman.

Nightcrawler, based on Spider-Man’s reputation, assumes that he is the killer and has returned to collect his gun.

With the proper misunderstandings expertly concocted, it is now time for the two heroes to fight. (Nightcrawler does have the speed, agility, and teleportation powers to give Spider-Man a headache, but as a kid I thought this fight should have been way more lopsided. Then again, my opinion of Spider-Man versus the X-Men forever has, and forever will be, influenced by Secret Wars #3.)

Nightcrawler is eventually able to get the rifle into the hands of the police, and both heroes quickly determine that neither of them was the shooter. With that out of the way, they both flee the scene.

Yet, Nightcrawler spots Spider-Man grabbing his trusty camera, and decides he must get back that film. The world is not aware of the new X-Men’s existence at that point.

Spider-Man drops in on Joe Robertson to see what the scuttlebutt on the street is in regards to the shooting. Sources say that it looks to be the work of the Punisher.

Jameson spots Joe and Spider-Man talking, prompting him to monologue to himself about how he believes he has uncovered Spider-Man’s secret identity. (I don’t think I ever got the resolution to that plotline as a kid. It wasn’t until many years later that I read the issue where Peter explained away that one.)

Meanwhile, the Punisher drops in on a dice game between some gangster types, looking for some information.

Tangent: As a kid, I was pretty convinced that Spider-Man was the top series for introducing characters that went on to have an impact in the larger Marvel universe. That was clearly my personal bias, because there’s no way that title doesn’t belong to the Fantastic Four. For the Silver Surfer, Black Panther, Galactus, and the Inhumans alone. Not to mention Dr. Doom, Skrulls, and Adam Warlock. I’m not sure what prompted me to believe Spider-Man was the comic with the best debuts. There’s Jameson, the Punisher, Monica Rambeau off the top of my head. Beyond that it’s mostly his rogues gallery. Which, I guess when I was a kid, held more weight than, say, the Inhumans.

Spider-Man is taking a break by the Roosevelt Island tramway, when he’s ambushed by Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler steals his camera and pulls out the film, which is kind of a dick move on his part. Even as a kid, I could never understand when a superhero ever found time to get some sleep. On the list of reasons I could never be a superhero, of which there are many, the lack of sleep would be at the top. I love sleep too much.

They continue to fight, for no real reason that I can determine, other than they just don’t like each other, but their quarrel is interrupted by the arrival of the Punisher. Apparently, the gang member he questioned indicated that one of these two heroes should be the target he is currently after.

The gangster’s name was Snake-Eyes. The only thing that could have made this comic even better was if Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe was in it. Well, that, and if it somehow made terrorists reconsider their life choices. Or if it cured world hunger. But the Snake Eyes part would still be pretty cool.

Writer/Editor: Len Wein; Illustrator: Ross Andru; Embellisher: Mike Esposito

Snake-Eyes had told the Punisher that the killer would strike next at the Roosevelt Island tramway (which is less of a tip and more of a premonition) so of course he automatically assumes it’s either Spider-Man or Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler and Spider-Man temporarily suspend beating on each other, in an attempt to keep the Punisher from killing them.

The Punisher gets the best of Spider-Man, pinning him to the wall using two knives. (I know that expecting comics to be realistic is a slippery slope, but the Punisher regularly being a match for Spider-Man is one of my biggest pet peeves. He would get trounced.)

The three-way fight is interrupted by gunfire. Nightcrawler teleports away, but the effort of doing so leaves him drained. He is able to spot the gunman making his escape. Punisher and Spider-Man have to choice but to work together to uncover the truth. This page gives us the dual hilarity of the Punisher swinging arm and arm with Spider-Man, and Spidey sitting shotgun in a tiny van.

The next day, Peter Parker runs into Mary Jane (looking glorious in an all-white ensemble) on the campus of Empire State University.

They spot J Jonah Jameson, who is on his way to recruit Dr. Marla Madison in his latest plot against Spider-Man. (This appears to be the first meeting between Jameson and his future wife Marla. That’s some blockbuster action for the kiddos.)

Later, Spider-Man and Punisher meet up. Punisher’s information has led him to a block party organized to help save a local fire department. Spider-Man falls for the old “pretend to be in trouble” routine, and is captured and subdued embarrassingly easily (he also refers to one of the henchmen as Joyboy, which brought me much delight).

A short time later, the unconscious Spider-Man is trussed up in chains and hanging from a street sign, when the real killer reveals himself, Jigsaw. (Spider-Man wrapped in chains is a striking image and I will show it as often as possible.)

Apparently Jigsaw was just another member of a gang before the Punisher put him headfirst through a plate glass window, giving him his grotesque appearance. (It’s a star-spangled first appearance like this that made me once think Spider-Man was better at that kind of thing than the Fantastic Four.)

Jigsaw threatens to shoot Spider-Man unless the Punisher shows his face, prompting Nightcrawler to reveal himself and rejoin the fight.

With Jigsaw occupied by Nightcrawler, the Punisher starts taking out Jigsaw’s henchmen.

Spider-Man finally wakes up, just in time to see “one of the great uglies of our time” fighting with Nightcrawler. Spider-Man breaks free and joins the fray.

Jigsaw attempts to retreat using a nearby fire truck, but Spider-Man runs him down. They fight, with Spider-Man telling Jigsaw that he has a face that “could stop an hour glass!” (I don’t know what that means, but it sounds cruel.)

Jigsaw puts up a good fight, but eventually Spider-Man takes him down.

Nightcrawler and the Punisher catch up, and they’re all left feeling a little unsatisfied that all those people had to die so Jigsaw could get revenge on the Punisher. Jigsaw, a guy that the Punisher doesn’t even remember.

Nightcrawler and the Punisher beat feet before the police arrive, prompting Spider-Man to do the same.

And our tale has ended, for now.

Now that I’ve written about how comics marketing used to be much more driven by what the cover looked like back in olden times, I can see how some fans believe that modern comics rely too much on “gimmicks.” But isn’t that more a function of us being able to log online and read an interview where the writers, editors, and artists talk about the impetus of an upcoming or in-progress storyline? Comic stories have always been driven by a gimmick, it’s just that a gimmick like “Nightcrawler meets Spider-Man” used to have much more impact than it could now. When I was a kid, you looked for a comic with your favorite character first, and then you narrowed it down based on which cover looked most promising. That was all comics needed to do because they were selling a lot of them, and everyone was fat and happy. Now, the companies have to do anything and everything to try and get fans to buy a comic, or else that comic is going to go away.

In short, comics haven’t changed all that much, you have. Stop complaining.

Also, the Punisher should be limited to a maximum of 5 pages in any comic he appears in. That’s his sweet spot. He’s the Newman of comic books.

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