Season two of Daredevil heralded the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. Soon, the character will get his own series on Netflix and it remains to be seen if Bernthal can keep up the momentum. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, I will dedicate a new series to covering my favorite Punisher books.
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Up is Down and Black is White (2005)
Trying to emotionally shake Frank Castle is like beating on a brick wall with a whiffle bat. The man is best described as a void, a walking abyss whose singular purpose is to bring death to those that have done wrong. If he did not have his own villains, the Marvel Pantheon of Heroes would have no one left to fight. The closest anyone has ever gotten to penetrate Frank’s black exterior was Nicky Cavella in the worst way possible.
After recovering from his wounds suffered the last time he tried to kill Castle, Nicky returns home to a council of gangsters trying to salvage what is left of their business. Soldiers promoted to Capo have no clue what they are doing and call upon Cavella for advice. His solution: kill the Punisher. Having lost everything to the infamous vigilante the council is more than reluctant to devote their diminished resources to such a fruitless endeavor.
Nevertheless, they vote on the proposal while Nicky awaits their answer. Sending his partner Teresa, the sister of Pittsy to dispose of any dissenting voices, Cavella gets the gangsters to play along. In the same night Nicky and Teresa travel to the graveyard where Frank’s family is buried, exhume their skeletons, and urinate on the bones. The act is caught on camera and the footage sent to the media. At a diner the desecration is shown on television where Castle eats dinner.
Rather than bury the bodies, the NYPD confiscates the corpses as evidence in an ongoing investigation. Frank reacts to this development by travelling around town with a light machine gun and mopping up three criminal establishments in a single night. While inflicting near maximum casualties, he leaves one alive to tell the first responders to bury his family. If they do not, then he will keep going.
Watching his work play out, Cavella is visited by an old acquaintance named Rawlins, the same Rawlins that organized the failed terror attack on Moscow back in Mother Russia. The generals that planned the operation sent him to take out Castle for fear he knows too much. Seeing Nicky’s scheme as an opportunity, Rawlins convinces him to join forces via blackmail and appealing to Cavella’s repressed homosexuality.
With the mounting body count, the NYPD gives in and agrees to bury Frank’s family. Castle decides to go after Nicky, but a part of him knows it is a trap. However, he does not care about doing the deed with the same skill that made him such a formidable vigilante. A part of him, a rage greater than he had ever felt, wants to kill Cavella regardless of the danger.
Perched on a rooftop overlooking Nicky sitting outside a café, Rawlins stares through the scope of a rifle as Frank pulls up with shotgun. Before the killing blow could be struck, Cavella is hit instead. Behind the trigger stands Kathryn O’Brien, one of the CIA operatives that worked for Bethell from In the Beginning. She lays covering fire, buying her enough time to capture Rawlins and escape with Castle.
Meeting at the home of William Roth, another of Bethell’s operatives that tried to capture Frank, O’Brien interrogates Rawlins. He was one of her husbands who left her to a dreadful fate on a mission in Kabul. Rawlins brings up the incident and O’Brien leaves him alone with Castle. Meanwhile, Nicky and Teresa come upon Roth’s residence after licking their wounds. Cavella wants to wait for back up, but Teresa has a bloodlust that is exacerbated when Nicky turns down her advances.
After removing one of Rawlins’ eyes, Frank takes a breather with O’Brien. It is not long before the two are in bed together. She confesses that despite her years of wet work, she sees him as a good man. Watching Castle approach Cavella out in the open inspired her to act, fearing he was going to get himself killed. They lay with each other one last time before Frank takes a knife in the chest from Teresa. A fight ensues that leaves both him and O’Brien bloody. Castle gains the upper hand and gives her space to empty a whole pistol clip into Teresa’s face.
Before going their separate ways, Frank and O’Brien get Rawlins to confess to the Moscow terror attack among other operations. With the footage Castle will use it as evidence to go after the generals while O’Brien will use it to clear her name. On the way out, however, they stumble upon Cavella all by his lonesome trying to make a move.
After taking a little boy hostage, Frank calls him a coward who gets other people to do the killing and dying. Nicky gives in and lets the boy go, realizing his psychopath persona is a facade. O’Brien rushes back inside to warn Roth of the oncoming police and finds Rawlins gone. The story ends with Castle walking Cavella into the woods and shooting him in the stomach, saying he will die slowly from blood poisoning.
Needless to say there is a lot going on in Up is Down and Black is White. There was a lot I had leave out of the summary because we would have been here all day. With the characters working in parallel, we get Nicky’s backstory where he killed his own family and became the victim of sex abuse by his aunt. O’Brien is also more involved where she is accused of murder while in prison and escapes to New York City. Then there is Rawlins, who is connected to O’Brien and Nicky.
On top of that there is Castle’s desire for suicide that comes out of nowhere. While on his rampage, he has a reoccurring dream of all the scum dead at his feet as the innocents watch from the sidelines. Among the corpses is Frank’s family. He looks to the innocents and says, “If my world ends, so does yours,” before turning his gun on them. And after everyone is dead, his wife Maria tells him “We are still dead” before the dream ends.
It is an interesting concept that furthers Castle’s complexity. Nicky was right to target his family’s grave because that is where it all started. That was the last time the world appeared normal and once they were gone, Frank became the void. But Cavella’s simple provocation made Castle realize that there was no point. His family is still dead and watching Nicky piss on their corpses showed a faint glimmer of reality that he had been denying. No matter how many people he killed, nothing was going to change that they were gone forever.
O’Brien is very similar in this case. In the latter years of her life she became embroiled in a world not unlike Frank’s. In the nihilistic underbelly of wet work she became used to the darkness and remains content. Even after what happened to her in Kabul, she did not quit and brushed it off as another part of the job. Her story, though not as prominent, runs in tandem with Castle’s whereas she sees him as a genuinely good person despite what they have in common. The title Up is Down and Black is White is how they see the world and explains why they are the way they are.
Leonardo Fernandez returns with his pencils following Kitchen Irish. It goes to show that a having a competent colorist can make all the difference in the world because this is a decisive improvement. Every panel is rich in detail from the gruesome to the beautiful. The guns are accurate, the characters’ expressions full of life, and the scenes perfectly realized.
Though one of my favorite MAX books, Up is Down and Black is White is difficult to recommend if you have not read the last three books. It builds upon what was established beforehand while adding more details that have yet to come. If you are as big a fan as I, you will have no problem understanding what is going on. Otherwise, get caught up before you jump in.