Punisher / Batman: Deadly Knights
Writer: Chuck Dixon
Artists: John Romita, Jr. and Klaus Janson
By Michael David Sims
This time last week I was busy writing a review of the forgettable Batman / Punisher: Lake of Fire. And so I thought it would be appropriate to dig in knee-deep for a review of its sequel. But what's odd about this mediocre book is that when it's compared to Lake of Fire, Punisher / Batman: Deadly Knights is a fucking gem. A blindingly bright gem. However, when it's read without considering the events that transpired before, it's below average at best. Odd how that can happen sometimes.
Three things have transpired since Lake of Fire. First, Jigsaw never returned to New York City, which has forced Frank to return to Gotham City. Second, Jigsaw and The Joker have made a move against the other gangs. (Why Joker has teamed with Jigsaw is never revealed; he's simply there because the creative team needed a high profile Bat-villain.) Third, and more importantly, Bruce Wayne kicked the shit out of John Paul Valley and took back his role as the Dark Knight.
Whereas Lake of Fire was primarily published and edited by DC and felt more like a Batman book that just so happened to feature The Punisher, Deadly Knights is a Marvel production that just so happens to feature Batman. And while Batman's role in Knights is no more important than Castle's was to Lake, it feels as if it is. Maybe that's because Chuck Dixon, a longtime Punisher scribe, was already writing books in the Batman family, so he was familiar with the atmosphere the character brings to any story. Conversely, Dennis O'Neil, an accomplished writer of many Batman tales, had zero experience with The Punisher until Lake of Fire. With that in mind, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that O'Neil purposely used Castle as little as possible simply because he was more comfortable writing Batman and Azrael.
Regardless, the story just isn't that good. As has been said before, Castle's return trip to Gotham was sparked by Jigsaw's continued presence in the city. (Why he didn't just leave Jiggy there for Batman or any of his crew to take care of is beyond me. As long as he was out of New York, he was out of Castle's hair, so the need to find and kill him really doesn't make much sense when you think about it.) Once Frank arrives he begins interrogating (and shooting) the local wiseguys and finds that Jigsaw is looking to take down the other gangs so as to place himself at the top of the Gotham crime syndicate. Castle means to put a stop to that, but Batman shows up and schools The Punisher before he can go after his nemesis. The fight ends, however, when part of the roof collapses and Frank escapes Batman's grasp. From there on it's pretty much a standard early to mid 90's Punisher story with lots of mobsters, capos in white suits, whores with hair teased higher than their IQs and lots and lots of guns.
That's not to say the story lacks redeeming value, however. First there's the fact that The Joker seemingly knows why Batman is Batman. He tells Castle, "Jiggy told me your whole sad story. Your family got themselves killed. So sad." He ducks behind a corner but continues his ramblings, "Y'know, I think something like that happened to Batty. But it happened a long time ago. Do you know how I know that? The masquerade, the gadgets. He reacted just as a child would." Very perceptive on the part of the clown and something I wish they'd explore more.
Batman has a very expensive arsenal, and there are only so many Gothamites who could afford to be him. Couple that with The Joker's realization that Batman must have been struck by a childhood tragedy, and you've unraveled the secret. Through out the years it's become obvious that Jim Gordon knows who Batman is. It's never been outright said, but strongly hinted at. And while several villains have figured it out, the fact that The Joker hasn't is kind of a letdown. Fact of the matter is that he's obsessed with Batman; to not dig into his past seems contradictory to his character. Not only would it provide for some Norman Osborn/Peter Parker "I know who you are" moments, but Bruce would have to constantly worry that The Joker would tell the world simply because he thought it would be worth the laugh. That's drama right there, and the fact that it goes unexploited by DC is quite sad. But that's neither here nor there when it comes to Deadly Knights.
Second, and this is actually great for hardcore Batman fans, is how The Joker tries to weasel his way out from under Castle's looming shadow. After he slips on a conveniently placed banana peal, The Joker looks up at The Punisher and says, "Y'know it's funny... this situation. It reminds me of a joke..." Once he realizes Castle is all business, the clown mumbles, "You've probably already heard it, huh?" What makes this moment so fucking cool is the fact that this is the exact line The Joker used on Batman at the end of The Killing Joke. In that book, however, Batman took the time to listen to the joke and even laughed at it. Castle, on the other hand, is dead inside and has no sympathy for killers, so he presses his gun right into The Joker's face. Ironically, Batman saves The Joker from the bullet and tells him to run for his life. Pissed, Castle berates Batman for not letting him end the madman's life, and here's where we come upon...
The third element that makes this story somewhat bearable is the double-page spread of Castle striking Batman with a mean right hook. However, when he comes back around for a left, Batman effortlessly tosses Castle into a pile of trash. Knowing he's outclassed as a fighter, Frank licks his wounds and returns to New York City. (Considering that Frank murdered dozens of people right in front of Batman, you'd think he'd wind up in handcuffs and find himself on the way to jail. Instead, Batman just lets him walk. This can be seen three ways. First, Dixon was running out of pages and had to finish the story, meaning there was no room to show Castle's eventual escape from Blackgate or Arkham. Second and most likely, Marvel wouldn't allow for one of their characters to be imprisoned in a DC jail. Though we are to assume that's exactly what happened to Jigsaw. Third, is that though Batman doesn't like Castle's bloody ways, he sees a need for this type of vigilante and figures The Punisher isn't his concern just so long as he stays out of Gotham City. Whatever your take, by not apprehending Castle, Batman was written way out of character.)
As for the art, well, it's below average. At points Romita's pencils seem rushed and the DC characters are not only off-model but their renderings are inconsistent. (Most notably is how squarely Batman is drawn and the varying size and shape of his pointy ears.) Worse yet is Klaus Janson's inking job. Instead of filling in darker areas or skillfully crosshatching them, he creates zigzagging lines that are akin to a kindergartner's coloring book. This is nothing new, however, as it's his style. (Supposedly he used to employee a tighter brush not that dissimilar to Dick Giordano's, but that's obviously changed and, sadly, lowers the quality of the art that he as an inker is supposed to improve.)
Overall, if you were dissatisfied with the first meeting of Batman and The Punisher (and there's no way anyone could have enjoyed that piece of shit), I'd recommend grabbing Deadly Knights but only if you can find it for less than the five dollar cover price.