Monday, May 28, 2018

Appendix N Review: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

In the far-flung future, the Sun has reached the end of its lifespan. Under an alien sky, strange animals and plants thrive across the world, ruined cities stand in mute testimony to all-conquering Time, squalor and luxury exist side by side in decaying and decadent civilisations, and science and technology have blurred into a unified occult art people use but no longer understand. Demons and wizards, monsters and men, all sentient creatures human or otherwise, must find meaning and purpose and life in constant awareness of the inevitable end of Earth.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Announcing PulpRev Riot


Next month will be the one-year anniversary of the launch of As our subscription was running out and our initial service providers turned out to not be that great, we've migrated the site to the Apollonian archons of This will mean greater freedom and flexibility when we do things with the site, and it also means we can fund the site relatively cheaply. This migration seems to have gone off completely without a hitch, but let us know if you find something.


When I registered last year I had just come back from a big demolition job in Kansas City and was feeling generous; the initial registration fee came out of my pocket. Since then we set up and published the PulpRev Sampler Anthology, which we initially planned to be totally free on Amazon but then we found out they wouldn't let us so we sold it for a buck. We had way more sales than we expected, giving us a war chest of about fifty USD. This is enough to fund the site as it is for a few more years, unless we implement something that uses a lot of bandwidth.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Shanghai Bleeding Part 6

Paid in Full

Lee had made his choice. Now he had to live with it.
The moment the police released him, Lee took a complicated route home, employing aggressive turns, sudden halts and choke points to flush would-be followers. He hadn’t seen any hatchet men in his wake, but in Shanghai, hatchet men were everywhere.
He circled around his apartment block, finding no Triad killers waiting in ambush. No gunmen lurked inside his home either. Grabbing a valise, he filled it with essentials. Clothing, money, documents, keys. Everything he needed, nothing he wanted.
He set his luggage on his living room table. It was such a small bag, and it wasn’t even filled to capacity. Inside was the sum of his life. What little there was left of it.
He’d had this apartment ever since he left the police. He’d miss it. But sentimentality meant nothing when the triads were out for your blood. He’d have to disappear, lie low until the eyes of Tang Shuisheng were no longer on him, until fresh blood flowed down the streets of Shanghai and buried his deeds.
The telephone rang.
Lee startled.
The phone continued ringing. Lee blinked again, then remembered he had hands and feet, and answered the call.
“Hello,” he said warily.
“Mr Lee, we need your help,” Mrs Wong said.
“What’s wrong?”
“We can’t explain it over the phone, but Lihan says it’s urgent. Could you come by?”
The smart move would be to hang up, walk away, never come back. But debts had to be paid in full.
“Of course,” Lee said.
Lee caught a taxi to a coffee shop two blocks from Wong’s home. He covered the rest of the distance on foot, walking in ever-tightening circles, seeking signs of Triad presence. Finding none, he headed up to Wong’s doorstep.
Lee pounded the door. Wong answered, pistol in hand.
“What’s wrong?” Lee asked.
Ignoring Lee, Wong glanced both ways down the empty hall, and gestured Lee inside.
Mrs Wong was busy stuffing lingerie and dresses into a suitcase. A second one, already filled, lay next to the case.
“Tomas!” Mrs Wong cried. “I’m glad you came.”
“What’s the problem?” Lee asked.
Wong pointed at a notebook lying on the table. The notebook was open to a page filled with words.
Wu Ye and his bodyguards have been released on bail. Shen Jianhao is still in lockup, but I don’t expect this to last. The money, guns and bullets recovered from the arrest have disappeared from Evidence, and my informant told me that Wu Ye is mobilizing his killers.
Tang Shuisheng isn’t going to overlook what we did. I’ve directed my men to go underground. We’re going to stay with friends in the countryside for a while. You’re welcome to join us.
Lee held up his valise. “I appreciate your offer, but it’s harder for the triads to find us if we go separately. When this is over, I’ll come contact you.”
Wong nodded, picked up a pen, and wrote.
I thought you’d say that. When you’re ready, look for Old Gao at the coffee shop down the street. He’ll tell you where to find me.
“Got it.”
Wong tore out the page, struck a match, and committed it to the flame.
“I’ve finished packing,” Mrs Wong declared.
“Do you need help with that?” Lee asked.
“Thanks,” she said.
Lee grabbed the suitcase.
The door crashed open.
Four screaming gunmen rushed into the apartment. The closest pointed his pistol at Lee and pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened.
Wong raised his Colt and blasted away. One gunman dropped. Another. A thick dust cloud bloomed. Blood spurted from the third man’s left arm. The last one flinched.
The shooting stopped.
Wong was out of ammo.
Rising, Lee flung the suitcase at the wounded gunman. It caught him in the temple and blew him down. Lee charged the remaining shooter, screaming at the top of his lungs. The gunman aimed and—
The gunman blinked, dumbfounded. He mashed the trigger again, but nothing happened.
Lee snatched the gun with both hands. Wrenched it from the hatchet man. Pistol-whipped him in the face. Once, twice, three times and the gunman went down.
The last gunman picked himself up with a guttural roar. Lee kicked him in the groin. The man ignored the blow and snapped his weapon arm up. Lee circled his left arm, trapping the arm against his armpit.
The gun fired.
Lee rammed the butt of hispistol into the man’s throat and speared his knee into his groin.
The man went limp, coughing and gagging, scrabbling at his crushed throat. Lee dumped him on the floor, kicked him in the head, and looked for more threats.
The first two gangsters were bleeding out silently on the floor. The other two had gone still. Mrs Wong was curled up in a ball, her face frozen in mute horror. Detective Sergeant Wong stood protectively over his wife, covering the bodies with his freshly-reloaded gun.
“Are you alright?” Lee asked.
Wong nodded. Striding to the door, he peeked out the hallway again, gun in hand.
“I… I…” Mrs Wong started.
“It’s fine now,” Lee said. “It’s all over.”
Her husband returned to her and wrapped her in a tight embrace, patting her back, humming softly into her ear. Lee recovered the suitcase, dented and bloody, but otherwise intact.
“Thank… thank you,” Mrs Wong said.
“No problem,” Lee said, taking his valise with his other hand.
The detectives escorted the civilian past the bodies. Lee scooped up the last man’s gun, the one that had fired, and stuck it in his waistband. On the way down the stairs, Mrs Wong spoke softly, her voice trembling.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why didn’t their guns fire?”
“They must have taken guns and bullets from Shen Jianhao, Lee said. The same guns and bullets we sabotaged.” He paused. “Well, some of them, anyway.”
“Heaven must be looking out for you.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
No more killers awaited outside. Lee escorted the Wongs to their car, parked down the street. The men loaded the luggage into the boot while Mrs Wong kept a lookout.
Detective Sergeant Wong Lihan held out his hand.
“Thanks,” Wong croaked.
“No problem,” Lee replied.
They shook.
Sirens howled in the distance. The Wongs climbed into their car and drove off. Lee hefted his valise and headed the other way.
He had to find shelter. That was easy enough. There were plenty of places willing to offer temporary sanctuary to desperate men with hard cash. He had to hunker down, collect himself, plan his next step.
Staying in Shanghai was the last thing he should do. But all debts must be paid in full.
And there was a score he had to settle with Tang Shuisheng.
Cheah Git San Red.jpg
Previous parts: 12345
For more stories by yours truly, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Shanghai Bleeding Part 5

Players of the Game

In the evening, after a light dinner, Lee took a long and winding path through the streets of Shanghai, avoiding cop and criminal alike. His route took him through shopping districts and wet markets, ending in an apartment block not too dissimilar to his own.
On the third floor, Lee followed the corridor to the fifth unit and pounded the door. Half a minute later, the door opened to reveal the slight frame of Detective Sergeant Wong.
“Tang Shuisheng contacted me,” Lee said. “I thought you might want to know.”

Monday, May 14, 2018

Shanghai Bleeding Part 4

Unpaid Debts

“Hello, Mr Lee,” Tang said.
“Hello, Mr Tang,” Lee said. “I see you’ve made yourself comfortable.”
“I make my home everywhere I go.”
“Of course. I’d offer you a drink, but I’m fresh out.”
“That’s fine. I helped myself to your tea earlier.”
Lee closed and locked the door behind him, keeping his back to a wall and an eye on Tang.
“There’s no need to be so cautious,” Tang said. “There’s no one else here with us.”
“I’m sure you won’t mind if I look around.”
“Be my guest.”
Tang ostentatiously removed a folding fan from a pocket, popped it open, and fanned himself. Lee slipped off his shoes and scoured his apartment, checking every closet, every room, every drawer, looking for signs of intrusion, theft, or explosives.
There were none. It was just Lee and Tang in this dingy, sweltering apartment.
Returning to the living room, Lee fished out a fresh pack of Double Happiness cigarettes, tapped out one out, calmly brought it to his lips, and lit it with a matchstick.
“May I have one?” Tang asked.
“That was my last one,” Lee said.
“That’s all right. I have my own.”
With slow, deliberate movements, Tang put his fan away, produced a packet of Pall Malls and an engraved silver lighter.
“Fancy,” Lee remarked.
“Thank you,” Tang said. “These are imported from Britain.”
The men smoked in silence for a minute, Tang elegantly holding his coffin nail between the index and middle fingers of his left hand, Lee pinching his between his thumb and index finger.
“It’s been a while since we last met,” Lee said, finally.
“Yes,” Tang replied. “I must admit, I can’t recall the last time someone visited me in the middle of a breakfast meeting.”
“Nor can I recall the last time a visitor let himself in when I wasn’t around.”
Tang smiled. “This is the one place I was sure to find you.”
“It sounds like you have business with me.”
“Indeed.” Tang took a short puff. “This morning, your name came across my desk.”
Tang nodded slowly. “There was a shooting in the Bund last night.”
“A completely unremarkable affair in Shanghai.”
“Indeed, but this one was different. Four criminals attempted to ambush a pair of police detectives, but the detectives killed them all. Of course, the policemen had assistance from a certain Tomas Lee Yong Ji.”
Lee shrugged. “I was nearby.”
Tang smirked. “I’m sure you were. But what interests me most is what the police detectives were doing before the gunfight.”
Lee took a long drag on his cigarette, tilted his head back and extravagantly blew a thick stream of smoke.
“I heard the detectives were attempting to arrest someone named Mr Shen Jianhao,” Tang continued. “Your presence was not coincidental.”
“I was enjoying a drink with a new friend,” Lee said, grinning.
“Of course you were,” Tang said, matching Lee’s smile. “Your new friend just happened to be a police detective on a stakeout.”
“Stranger things have happened.”
“I’m sure.”
Once more, the men smoked in silence. The summer heat stole the moisture from Lee’s mouth, but he didn’t dare get up and get a drink. All he could do was sit and smoke and stare down the triad boss. Tang savoured a puff in complete silence, a second puff, and spoke again.
“I heard the police have requested your assistance.”
“That’s what they always say during a criminal investigation,” Lee replied.
“Indeed, but I don’t mean the shooting. I mean the operation to arrest Mr Shen.”
“I don’t know anything about this Shen fellow.”
“No? Well, of course not, you’re not a part of our world.”
“I take it this Shen person is important to you?”
“Last week, the Japanese dogs began large-scale ‘military exercises’ in Manchuria. Rapid manoeuvres, urban warfare, things like that.”
“They seem to be holding exercises often, don’t they?” Lee asked.
“Indeed. Coincidentally, a few ‘wealthy businessmen’ are quietly putting out requests for information on key officials. Officials like the mayor, the Commissioner of Police, the ones who run the Shanghai International Settlement.”
“Those businessmen happen to be Japanese.”
“Not just Japanese. German and Russian too.”
“These businessmen are willing to pay handsomely for this information, I presume?”
“Many nations are interested in Shanghai, aren’t they?”
“Not just Shanghai. The European powers are agitated. Two years ago the Italians invaded Ethiopia, and despite their claims they’re still fighting there. Spain is in the grip of civil war, and the Soviets, Germans, Italians and Portuguese are getting involved. On this side of the world, the Japanese and the Soviets have clashed at least four times at the Soviet-Manchukuo border.”
“Nothing to do with Shanghai.”
Tang shook his head. “The scent of blood is in the air, and the Japanese dogs have never disguised their designs on China. I have no doubt that the Japanese will invade China within our lifetimes. It may even come sooner than expected.”
“I’m sure a businessman like you has made preparations for that possibility.”
“Correct. As part of my preparations, I require many special materials. Mr Shen is one of my principal suppliers.”
“The increased police attention on Mr Shen must be troubling.”
“Absolutely. I don’t care to have foreigners dictating our way of life and trampling all over our home, especially not the Japanese. Mr Shen is one of the few men willing to help me with this problem.”
“Your patriotism is admirable.”
“I am, above all, a son of China.” Tang tapped out his cigarette on Lee’s overflowing ashtray. “I am also in a position to assist other sons of China should they assist me.”
“Is that so? What kind of assistance do you have in mind?”
Tang fixed Lee with a cold stare.
“I would be grateful if you could keep me abreast of Detective Wong’s investigations, and ensure Mr Shen remains free to continue his work.”
“And what if I don’t?”
Tang sucked in a deep hit of tobacco and slowly exhaled it.
“We have known each other for years, haven’t we?”
“Life is fleeting and ever-changing, and in uncertain times like this a man needs many friends. Yet, as you can imagine, I have a thousand things to concern myself with every day, and I must prioritise my time and energies. Should Mr Shen find himself on the wrong side of the law, I fear I may no longer be in a position to assist you.”
Tang was being unusually indirect today. Lee knew that if he were someone else, someone without connections to the last honest cops in Shanghai, this conversation would take on a completely different tone, and occur somewhere far less pleasant than a hot, stuffy apartment.
“That would certainly be a pity,” Lee said.
“On that, we are in agreement.” Tang stubbed out his cigarette. “I’m sure you’ll see things our way.”
“You sound confident.”
“You remember, of course, that we covered your medical expenses when you were shot, kept your involvement with the Shanghai Songbird secret, and delivered payment for services rendered. Aid us in this affair, and we will be equally generous, now and in the future.”
It wasn’t just a promise of reward. It was a reminder of unpaid debts. Without the triad’s help, Lee was certain the Japanese would have retaliated against him for slaying one of their deep-cover spies.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lee said.
Tang extracted a business card from his pocket. “If you have news for me, you can leave a message at this number.”
Lee accepted it. “Thank you.”
Tang stood, making his way to the door. Lee opened it for him.
“It’s been a pleasure speaking with you,” Tang said, slipping on his shoes.
“Same here,” Lee replied.
“I would like to have tea with you again under more auspicious circumstances.”
“I look forward to that.”
Tang left the apartment, his shoes silent against the old wood. Lee shut the door, locked it, threw on the deadbolt, returned to the sofa and examined the business card.
It was a plain white card, bearing a Shanghai phone number written in black ink. That was all.
He lit another cigarette, watching the smoke drift lazily to the ceiling, and stayed that way for a long time.
Cheah Git San Calligraphy.jpg
Previous parts: 123
If you'd like to support my long-form fiction, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Shanghai Bleeding Part 3

Two Birds with One Stone

Sorting out the shooting took the rest of the night and most of the following morning. Sustaining themselves with coffee and cigarettes, the detectives, police and private, endured interminable interviews and waded through never-ending seas of paperwork until Wong at last pulled strings and expedited their release from the clutches of the all-consuming bureaucracy.
Inside Wong’s office, the police detectives recounted their tale once more to their boss, while the private detective remained mostly silent, save to fill in a few blanks. As the men spoke, a frown appeared on Wong’s face, and steadily grew deeper.
“We underestimated Shen,” Zhou concluded. “We should have gone in with more manpower, more firepower, more vehicles.”
“That would have just tipped him off,” Chan said. “Half the police is in the pocket of the triads. If we’d called for help outside our group, Shen would never have showed up.”
Lee folded his arms. “On the bright side, we took four of his thugs off the street. Permanently.”
Wong grunted sullenly. The gunmen were just hired hands, easily replaceable. With Shen still at large, it was a small victory.
“What’s the next step?” Lee asked.
“I’ll start hitting up my contacts and pressure them to keep an eye out for Shen,” Chan said.
“I burned the only informant I have who had a direct line to Shen,” Zhou said. “Shen would cut ties with the informant. I’m back at square one.”
Wong scribbled on a piece of paper and held it up.
Time is of the essence. We must catch him. Quickly.
“It sounds like you have a burning reason to find him,” Lee said.
Wong kept writing.
Word on the the street is that the triads are ordering guns and ammo on the black market. They may be preparing for a gang war. Shen is their primary supplier. If we don’t catch Shen, Shanghai will bleed.
“Which triad?” Lee asked. “Who’s their boss?”
“Tang Shuisheng,” Zhou said.
Lee was well-acquainted with that name. Tang owned a fifth of the city, both legit and underworld. In the days when Lee still had a badge, their ways had crossed more than a few times. Nothing good could come from Tang arming up.
“If you know all this, it means you have an informant in the triad. Maybe more than one. Correct?” Lee asked.
Wong nodded.
“Tang’s not the kind of man to get his hands dirty,” Lee mused. “He’ll delegate the purchase to one of his subordinates.”
“Correct,” Chan said. “One of our informants says that Tang’s deputy, Wu Ye, handles logistics, including purchases of firearms. Wu Ye will deal with Shen in person.”
Lee steepled his fingers. “If we can’t find the supplier, we might have better luck finding the customer.”
Wong smiled, and wrote.
I have a source close to Wu Ye. He can tell us when Wu Ye will be buying guns from Shen.
“When they do meet, we can kill two birds with one stone,” Chan declared.
“Sounds good to me,” Zhou said.
"I do not want to be ambushed like the last time," Lee said. "We need backup."
"Who can we trust not to tip off the targets?" Chan asked.
"The Reserve Unit."
The elite of the Shanghai Municipal Police, they took the war on crime to the criminals' doorstep. Rioters, kidnappers, armed robbers, they were all under the purview of the Reserve Unit. Heavily-armed gunrunners would count. Most importantly, Lee knew that William E. Fairbairn, the leader and founder of the Reserve Unit, had bled too much to sell out to the criminals.
As one, the police detectives nodded.
The sun was high in the sky when Lee finally emerged from the Central Police Station. With every step he felt like he was wading through a watery wall of heat. Sweat gathered in his armpits, his tongue dried out, and his shirt clung to his back.
Finally surrendering to the inevitable, Lee ducked into a tea house for a late breakfast, or perhaps it was an early lunch. After a fight, he usually found himself ravenous, and today was no exception. He indulged himself with plates of dim sum and cups of hot sweet tea, returning the long stares of passers-by and patrons with hard looks of his own. There was no challenge in his eyes, just a simple acknowledgment that yes, he was mixed-blood, and no, today was not a good day to trifle with him.
Now fortified, he took a long and circuitous route back home. His route spanned three trams, two trolleybuses, and a full hour on foot walking round and round in ever-tightening circles.
Old habits died hard. In his police days, whenever he arrested, fought or shot a gangster, Lee always took extra precautions on the street. The streets of Shanghai had long memories, and grudges demanded repayment in blood. Even now, as a civilian, he insisted on this routine. Paranoia, perhaps, but it was a privilege enjoyed only by the living.
Satisfied that no Triad hatchet men were hunting him, Lee returned to his apartment. The events of the last night had taken his toll, and he was no longer a young man. Between his lack of sleep and the magnificent meal, he was ready to crash into bed for the rest of the day. Already he felt tension gathering around his temples and shoulders, a sure sign he was on his last legs.
All the same, he remained vigilant. He looked both ways before entering his apartment block, and saw no suspicious strangers or vehicles. No goons waited for him in the main corridor of his floor. Fishing out his keys, he unlocked the door, stepped through—
And seated on his living room sofa was a man.
An older man, dressed in a smart red suit, arms nonchalantly sprawled all over the sofa, shoes firmly planted on the floor. A familiar man, with a familiar smile, the smile of a snake greeting a rat that crawled into its lair.
A man named Tang Shuisheng.

Cheah Git San Red.jpg
Previous parts: 12
For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Shanghai Bleeding Part 2

Blood on The Bund

The world penetrated China through Shanghai, and in Shanghai the world entered through the Bund. Traditional shophouses surrendered to Western edifices of columns and arches. Peoples of all nations and none walked the streets: prosperous businessmen and Western merchants in fine suits and hats, glamorous Chinese women in cheongsams, coolies and laborers and sailors in rougher clothes.
The bar catered to the last crowd. Iron-muscled men laughed uproariously over mugs of beer, soft women with too much makeup and too little clothing served drinks and flirted with the crowd, money clinked and liquor splashed, and in a corner an Audiophone belted out a barely-audible tune.
Next to the Audiophone, Lee nursed a glass of beer. Beside Lee, a young man sipped at a cup of baiju and made a face.
“This is terrible,” his companion said. “It tastes like the Huangpu River.”
“You know what it tastes like?” Lee asked.
“Some idiot pushed me into the river once.”
“That’s a story worth listening to.”
“It might even be worth telling someday.”

Friday, May 11, 2018

Shanghai Bleeding Part 1

The Last Honest Cops

Detective Sergeant Wong Lihan was one of the last honest cops in Shanghai. His home stood in mute testimony to that fact.
There was no carpet. The wooden floors were exposed and battered, the varnish long faded to a dull brown, and here and there were small pits and blackened stubs. The bland green walls were empty, save for a single black-and-white wedding portrait of a younger Wong in a Western suit and a woman in a flattering cheongsam. A ceiling fan rotated slowly overhead, fighting a losing battle against the sweltering Shanghai summer. The one luxury was a home radio, standing lifelessly in a corner.
The man himself sat across the living room table on an ancient wooden chair, dressed in his best: a pressed white shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and flat gray pants. The stiff collar failed to conceal the bandage wrapped around his throat.
“Good to see you again,” Tomas Lee said.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A High Art

Our art is
The rending of flesh;
The breaking of bones;
The tearing of nerves;
The domination of wills.
Our art is
Steel scribing perfect arcs;
Wood smoking on impact;
Survival in a lightning shuffle;
Strength through motion.
Our art is
Eight angles of attack;
Eight million methods of combat;
Infinite ways to wrestle, crush, maim, kill;
One blinding road to life.
Come and dance.
The riddle of
Come and see
where the soul resides
at the point of the blade.
Cheah Git San Red.jpg
To see this high art in fiction, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Punisher (2014) Review

The Punisher has always held a special place in my heart. Unlike other superheroes, he has no superpowers, only his military training and experience, and a burning desire to purge the world of evil. Unlike Batman, he prefers a permanent solution to crime by slaughtering the wicked wherever he finds them. He was also my first 'proper' introduction to American comics.
When I heard of the 2014 incarnation of the Punisher, I was overjoyed. Written by Nathan Edmondson and illustrated by Mitch Gerads, it drew inspiration from real-world Special Operations Forces and promised a realistic reinterpretation of the original character. Edmonson and Gerads had previously worked together on The Activity, a military thriller series that focused on the shadowy Intelligence Support Activity, and I was confident that they would do this version of the Punisher justice.
I guess I had set my hopes too high.

Operators Operating Operationally

The Punisher 2014 makes a few radical changes from the Punisher's established backstory. Once based in New York, the Punisher has now moved west to Los Angeles in pursuit of a ruthless drug cartel. There is no Microchip running backup; instead a soldier named Tugg supplies the Punisher with limitless quantities of weapons, armor and ammo. Most of all, in the original series, Frank Castle was a Vietnam veteran; here, he served in Iraq before becoming the Punisher.
I can understand the changes. The plot required a move to LA, the plot didn't require Microchip's tech skills, and Frank Castle the Vietnam vet would be too old to pull the stunts he does in this series.
The stunts is where the series falls short of my expectations.
The series is filled with real-world weapons and equipment. Every few issues you'll see references to top-end manufacturers like Crye and Noveske. Gun geeks will instantly recognize the guns and gear in play, and will appreciate some of the jargon thrown about. But an operator is more than just his guns, gear and jargon. He is defined by his mindset, training, tactics, and his ability to adapt, improvise and overcome.
I don't see much of this in the series. While there are plenty of action scenes, they are fairly generic. You see the Punisher mowing down hordes of gunmen, torturing and being tortured, and employing enough explosives for a Michael Bay film, but you rarely see him using his brain. There are few portrayals of tactics and maneuvers, deception or tradecraft, or anything that definitively says the Punisher is a bona fide operator as opposed to a random Hollywood hero.
Contrast this with the creators' previous series, The Activity. Here, the characters use a mix of creative problem-solving, quick-thinking, deception, tactics and sheer ruthlessness to achieve their goals. The creators had made their bones with a series about operators acting like operators, but there is little of this influence in The Punisher.
Granted, The Activity follows a team of operators on espionage and intelligence operations, while The Punisher is an action-oriented series focusing on a loner. There is more space for brainwork and tradecraft in the former than the latter. Even so, characters like Mitch Rapp, Jack Reacher, Court Gentry, Jason Bourne and Tim Rackley demonstrate how to combine the gritty realism of proper tradecraft and mindset with the romance and improvisation of the lone operator. In the Punisher 2014, I expected more of John Rambo, the protagonist of First Blood, and less of John Rambo, the Hollywood action hero.
The Punisher is called 'the operator of the Marvel Universe', but the only times he's seen operating operationally is when he allies with someone else. In one sequence, the Punisher teams up with a Special Forces soldier to escape captivity, and there the series finally shows the Punisher's military expertise. The rest of the time, he's simply running and gunning like Hollywood action heroes do.
Indeed, one group of antagonists, the Howling Commandos, have a better claim to being called operators than the Punisher. They display teamwork, think outside the box, aren't afraid to get their hands dirty, and make full use of everything and everyone they can get their hands on. This approach distinguishes them from the generic gunmen that populate modern movies and games.


Although this Punisher wasn't as much of an operator as I thought he might be, I thought I could at least enjoy the story. That almost happened.
To its credit, the series started well. The Punisher is hunting down the Del Sol drug cartel, which has nefarious designs on LA. The Howling Commandos, in turn, have been tasked to hunt down the Punisher. The story unfolds at a steady pace, with other Marvel superheroes and supervillains making cameo appearances across multiple issues, touching on the intersection of crime, politics and war.
Three-quarters of the way through, the story falls apart.
(Spoilers ahead!)
The mastermind of the series, the one pulling the strings and supplying the cartel, is a high-ranking government official. In collaboration with a rogue general, he aims to instigate a crisis to force US military intervention at home. His reasoning?
The U.S. has lost control of its own cities. White-caped maniacs, blind Halloween heroes, the public is lured into false security. They believe they're protected by a handful of freaks in costumes. Or freaks with PTSD. They have to be reminded why they need the government. Of why they need the infrastructure. We are a democratic republic with a >system of justice. We are not an oligarchy of vigilantes.
As bad guy motivations go, this one is not totally insane. But why target Frank Castle--and only Frank Castle?
Castle, in his own monologues, says he specialises in a specific kind of criminal: too vicious for the cops, too small-time for the true superheroes. Among Marvel superheroes, Castle is an underdog distinguished only by his hardware, his enormous body count, and sociopathy. There are many more superheroes more prominent than he is.
If the antagonist wants to discredit and/or destroy superheroes, going after a single non-mutant non-superpowered costumed vigilante won't be enough. He has to show that superheroes are inadequate, that they will fail and the government is the solution to crime and disorder. For this plot to be believable, the MCU superheroes must be set up to fail in Los Angeles, with the Punisher alongside them.
Yet throughout the series, only Frank Castle is singled out. Other superheroes, like the Avengers, are left alone -- and they don't even respond to the manufactured crisis. The two-minute hate in the series is aimed squarely at the Punisher; other superheroes are completely ignored. The antagonist's actions do not match his words.
If the antagonist simply said he has held a grudge against Frank Castle since his military days, or if the Punisher were disrupting some mundane criminal scheme and needed to be disposed of, it would be far more believable.
The story quickly goes off the wire. The Punisher hands off incriminating evidence to Captain America, but the main bad guy and his partner simply disappears. There is no mention of him being brought to justice. The Del Sol cartel is quickly dismantled. The Punisher is stabbed and left to die.
In Issue 19 the Punisher is suddenly up and on his feet again. The world is coming to an end and the Howling Commandos recruit the Punisher for one last mission: to punish a terrorist cell in the Middle East and rescue American hostages.
Wait, what?
It turns out that The Punisher 2014 was actually concurrent with the Marvel Secret Wars timeline, and in the conclusion of the Secret Wars arc, the multiverse collapses. The incursion of Earth 616 and Earth-1610 promises to destroy the world. When the Kingpin organises a viewing party to watch the incursion, the Punisher massacres them all.
None of this is mentioned.
The reader is simply thrown into the deep end. No explanations are provided; you'll have to read other Marvel titles, or look up Infogalactic, to make sense of this arc.
Further, the Howling Commandos appear because reasons (they don't aid the Punisher at all), the Punisher agrees because reasons (maybe there are no supervillains to kill), and the Black Dawn shows up because reasons (the story needs one last bunch of disposable mooks to kill).
In Japan, when a manga is axed, the creators do their best to wrap things up. The story is rushed through, sure, but at least they try to create a satisfying ending. Here, the creators aren't even trying. The last two issues are just Frank Castle running and gunning through the dusty streets of Tikrit, accompanied by edgy monologue.
The conclusion feels tacked on to the main story arc as a way for Castle to go out with a bang with the rest of the world. It ignores everything prior to the arc, as though there was no drug cartel in Los Angeles, no disillusioned police officer turned vigilante, no madcap conspiracy to discredit superheroes. There is no sense of closure, just outright abandonment.
Instead of trying to force a link to the Secret Wars timeline, I'd rather the series spend those two issues wrapping up the main arc. The Punisher has to come to grips with the people he's alienated; he fights the remnants of the Del Sol cartel and their allied gangs; he allies with the superheroes and the military to restore order in Los Angeles, demonstrating that the people need both superheroes and mundane authority; and he teams up with the Howling Commandos to inflict a final punishment on the true enemy. That would have been more satisfying and thematically appropriate than a sudden trip to Tikrit to slaughter enemies who have heretofore been off the radar.
As is, I can just about hear the Marvel editor calling up Edmundson and Gerads to say, "We want you to complete your current series by tying it in with the Secret Wars timeline." That call might have come in around issue #17 or #18, explaining the abruptness of the final two issues. And since in Secret Wars the Punisher has already slaughtered all the surviving supervillains, the creators had to pull a whole new two-parter out of thin air.
The whole reading experience left me with a bitter taste in the mouth. The Punisher is still the vengeance-driven Marine of my youth, updated to reflect the story necessities. However, I was promised a military special operator and I got a generic Hollywood gunman. The first half of the series suggested a complex mix of violence and politics in a world populated by superheroes and supervillains, but the story ended sloppily.
In the end, the Punisher (2014) didn't just punish criminals -- he punished the reader.
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If you like stories about operators operating operationally in a world filled with magic and demons, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.