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Eponymous Kid

What If... The Punisher became Captain America? (Vol. 2, #51)

That's right, two updates in two days, true believers!

And, like the Spider-Man joining the Fantastic Four, which has now happened not once but twice in 616 continuity, we've got another issue that asks a question mainstream Marvel would later answer. Sort of. Confused? Well, you know how at the end of Marvel Civil War, Captain America was killed? Well, in Punisher: War Journal, which was the Punisher ongoing at the time, Frank Castle got back into the "costume" business by donning Cap-inspired duds. You might be thinking "Hey, that doesn't count", but I stand by the claim that technically he was more or less Captain America then. Hell, it's an alternate costume for Cap in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and that's good enough for me.

However, unlike that storyline, this issue is, uh, bad. I don't know what it was about the early 90s, but this is seriously some weak shazbot. Especially the art, which leaves much to be desired — I'm disappointed in artist Paris Cullins, because I consider myself a fan of his. Also, I'm incredibly surprised to discover this, this issue was written by Simon Furman, famous for his work on Marvel's Transformers comic. In fact, he still writes TF stuff to this day. Be warned that while Furman is renowned, he's, er, not especially, uh... let's just say it's become something of a game among the Transformers fandom to spot his infamous "Furmanisms", phrases he seems to fall back on no matter the situation. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find any in this issue. In any case, at least the identity of our author explains the incredibly heavy handed plotting and thick characterization ahead of us.

The cover is awful. It's just the Punisher skull symbol wearing a Captain America mask, with a burning American flag as a backdrop. The freaking corner image thing just above the price, a skull crudely, violently spray painted onto Cap's shield, is way better. And actually has the chilling quality they were no doubt going for.

I'm going to try to go easy on Cullins because I swear he's usually much better than this, but I can't ignore how terrible Capunisher looks on the first page. Wait, let me backtrack. The Watcher introduces us to another world, not like the one we know, where the Avengers are, uh, doing... something. It's really not explained. The roster stands at Cap, Iron Man, the Falcon, Beast, the Wasp, Scarlet Witch, and the Vision. Anyway, Cap looks terrible, particularly in the proportions on his face. Everyone else is varying degrees of okay-to-bad. Far be it for me to give a blue gorilla grooming advice, but I'm pretty sure sideburns aren't supposed to extend an inch from your face, Beast. Oh, and apparently the infamously varying costumes of the Wasp have run out, because she's wearing an incredibly drab greenish-grey bodysuit. She looks like a janitor, seriously.

They're assaulting some high tech fortress, looks like. Cap orders his Avengers to "hit'em hard!" because he wants their heads. Iron Man tries to bring the mood down a little by saying he hopes Cap didn't mean that literally. Everyone shows off their stuff, and there's one panel that's actually pretty good featuring the Vision, Falcon, and Beast grappling with some no-name scrubs. The Watcher narrates that this Captain America proves that high concepts like liberty and justice are greatly open to interpretation. Cap breaks from the group and goes off on his own, meeting Spider-Man baddie Hammerhead in a corridor. He says something about Dr. Octopus and Silvermane, but we haven't seen them so far. I really wish this scene had, like, any context at all.

Cap actually finishes a sentence out loud that he'd started in his head, no doubt making Hammerhead think he's a lunatic. Hammerhead smashes right into Cap's shield with his steel skull, but Cap pushes him away and pops him one right in his "pure glass" jaw. Hammerhead's reeling from that hit when Cap starts speechifying about how there's no reasoning with a maniac like him. He's a mad dog... and mad dogs get put down. Punished. When Hammerhead tries to get up, Cap tosses him back to the ground and starts pounding him wildly, as if his very life depended on murdering this man. He delivers a Punctuated Pounding, repeating "PUNISHED!" with increasing fervor.

The Watcher stops the story (and I have to say, even in the worst What If...? I feel like I can always count on the Watcher to not be horrible) to tell us where this reality branched from the one we're familiar with. Apparently, in Captain America #212, Cap escaped serious injury during a fight with the Red Skull. In this universe, he, uh, didn't. The government was then forced to come up with a replacement. Their top pick? Francis "Frank" Castle, US Marine Corps.

Okay, back to our story. Well, not "back to", because now we get a How We Got Here. Cap's too injured, says someone needs to replace him, blah blah. A special committee is called and among those present are Henry Peter Gyrich and Nick Fury. Fury interrupts to flat out ask if they've anyone in mind, and they do - Frank Castle. Multiple tours in 'Nam, two Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars, four Purple Hearts. "He is, quite simply, the best." Fury has his reservations, because he knows from 'Nam, and knows what kind of men came out of that one. I'd just like to point out that First Blood was not a documentary, no matter what Fury thinks. He objects, but the chairman tells him the decision's already been made (...so why call the meeting in the first place?) and that Castle should be signing on the dotted line right about now.

Cut to upstate New York, where Frank Castle is a drill instructor for new Marine recruits. When approached with the offer to be Captain America, he says... no. He's already served his country, he's gone above and beyond the call enough. He whines about barely seeing his wife and not knowing his own children before walking away, muttering that his war is over. Not much else to say here, except whoever inked this really needs to tone it down a notch. The Watcher tells us that after Castle refused, several other candidates were chosen for the role. And let me tell you, this has got to be the most random collection possible.

Colonel John Jameson, former astronaut and son of J. Jonah Jameson. Robert Diamond, actor, martial artist - one of the Sons of the Tiger. Professor Leonard "Doc" Samson. Kyle Richmond, better known in our reality as Nighthawk. Seriously, what? Not to interrupt the story or anything, but they really did replace Cap once, and the names that came up were people like the Falcon, Hawkeye, and John Walker, the Superpatriot. Did they just have a roulette wheel with lame nobodies on it? Anyway, the Watcher explains that none of them worked out in the role. Jameson became Man-Wolf... just like in 616, because God forbid anything be different. Diamond bit it fighting Count Nefaria, Samson made a judgment call that went the wrong way and resigned, and Richmond was turned into a vampire by Baron Blood. As this was going on, just as in our reality, Castle's family was killed after stumbling into a gangland execution.

This is the other divergent point that brings us back up to speed - instead of becoming the Punisher, he accepts the offer to become Captain America, vowing to bring justice to the world that killed his family. ...You know how I mentioned John Walker before? Because this happened when he was Cap. After his parents were killed by old "friends", he went insane and started going buck wild on bad guys. And that was several years before this issue, so there's really no excuse.

Back to the present, the Avengers are meeting with Nick Fury about the new Cap. I, for one, didn't know the Avengers were privvy to one another's secret identities at this point. Well, all of them, at least. The Falcon, Steve Rogers' longtime best friend, summarizes their complaints as "He's just not... Cap!" Oh, and he tried to murder Hammerhead (who is going to be fine, by the way). Iron Man says they need to do something about him before he does kill someone. And the Wasp has a new outfit now that vaguely recalls the original Wasp costume for some reason.

Fury wishes there was something he could do, but strictly speaking Cap hasn't done anything wrong yet. And his military record speaks for itself. And he's kind of getting the job done on the Avengers, too. Scarlet Witch says that she thinks he puts on a public face, one that the military will find acceptable, and hides his true self behind it. Also, her skin is a deep orange color, like she's in the cast of Jersey Shore. Above, in his room, Cap knows they're talking about them, but doesn't care. He thinks that they think this is some kind of game where you play dress up and pose for the cameras. He pulls out a skull shirt and says it's not a game... it's a ''war'.

Oh come on. As revealed on the next page, if the Punisher had become Captain America, he still would have become the Punisher. What the Hell is that about? He starts narrating via entries in his "War Journal", and goes to avenge his family by taking out Bruno Costa, the man his personal investigation has figured as their murderer. But he's going to do it slow... by taking out his underbosses first. Cut to a general's office as Henry Gyrich sweats about all this. They know it's Castle who's been doing it, and if word gets out that they let this lunatic be Captain freaking America, it's their asses. Right now, they need to cut their losses - Frank Castle isn't going to be Captain America anymore. And if he won't go without a fight... they'll just have to give him one.

Back at the Avengers mansion, the Falcon walks into the workout room and finds Castle doing one-handed chin-ups. He wants to talk about some rumors that have been flying around. Like the one where he's the Punisher. Frankly, he's worried - not about Frank, but about the uniform he wears. Falcon was Steve's best friend in the world, and he would die for that uniform and what it represents. If Castle's dragging all that through the mud, he'll have a fight on his hands. Castle says he used to believe in that stuff, too - and he isn't the one dragging that dream through the mud. It's the politicians who send young men to die in bullcrap wars!

Until that last part, I actually really liked this scene. (Original) Cap and the Falcon have one of the best friendships and partnerships in comics, and it's good to see that expressed. That said, Castle really went into That Makes Me Feel Angry, "I'm just going to say everything relevant to my character out loud" territory just there. Oh, and apparently Castle went to his room from the gym and immediately changed into the Punisher. Now that's classy, huh? He writes in his War Journal that he's abandoning the Cap identity as he prepares to get at the Costa Brothers (because, uh, there are two of them now). Castle pretty much re-enacts Commando from here on... when suddenly Captain America's shield knocks his gun out of his hands. Moreover, it actually makes it fall to pieces! His assailant gives him a kick and a karate chop to remember him by, and as he looks up, Castle sees none other than Captain America!

I have to admit, I didn't see this coming. I also have to admit that I would have guessed the new Cap to be the Falcon. But, hey, why introduce a plot thread and then resolve it, right? Cap says the Punisher has to be stopped. Castle's not hearing it and rushes Cap, but is sent flying with a crazy blow to the stomach. Cap puts Castle in some weird wrestling hold and tells him he's here to return the costume to him. Even though everything Castle's done up to now has gone against everything Captain America stands for, this mystery Cap does so even more. Captain America fights supervillains, but he does so as a man of flesh and blood. And while this Cap is the original Steve Rogers... he's a cyborg, as his mechanical arm shows. There's a decent line here about Cap symbolizing man succeeding on his own merits - "No guns, no machines. just the man!"

That's when one of the Costa brothers' lieutenants walks in on them and opens fire with a machine gun! Robo-Cap (tee hee) delivers a strange flying drop-kick that knocks the guy cold. However he's shocked to find Castle's moved on to hunt the Costas throughout their mansion, his rousing speech having fallen on deaf ears... or did it? He can't bring himself to pull the trigger. He thinks about Robo-Cap's words, about what his family would think if they saw him now. He brings Costa and his brother in alive. Robo-Cap gives him his shield, saying he's earned it. Steve Rogers thereafter returns to fighting crime as the Captain. Which also happened when John Walker was Cap - except this time he sports a really stupid costume based on Walker's Superpatriot duds but way, way more stupid. Anyway, he does this... because there's only one Captain America!

Christ, that ending was as cheesy as it was abrupt. Here we see again that Captain America has a Compelling Voice that bends people to his will, seriously. Augh, this is my new least favorite issue. I'd like to apologize for these past two installments, but I just thought these issues needed to be trotted out to show how the What If...? concept can be done wrong. Rest assured that the majority of installments to come will be either positive or neutral.