by Greg Rucka (writing), Marco Checchetto (art), Matt Hollingsworth (colors), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story: Frank grapples with the Vulture in a fight to the death over the skies of New York City.

The Review: Given how much of this issue is consumed by a sprawling action scene, it seems fitting to start out with a discussion of Marco Checchetto’s artwork.  Simply put, it’s really, really good and it’s becoming increasingly surprising how Checchetto has flown under the radar for so long.  Once again, Checchetto draws a dark, gritty, and mysterious New York City, but it’s the action that he shines at this month.

A long, aerial grappling session is no easy feat in comics and could have easily been disastrous.  I was fearing that we’d get an incomprehensible jumble of bodies and storytelling gone out the window, but somehow, Rucka and Checchetto manage to make it all completely understandable and, in fact, they even manage to make it beautiful, creating a fight scene that, while primal, tells a story in its own right.  It’s intense, elegant, and an experience that’s unique to the medium.

The fight’s ending also shows some serious balls on Rucka’s part and should go a long way in answering the complaints of those who question how Frank Castle can operate in the Marvel U.  Rucka shows that he has no qualms about having Frank run amok in New York and making sizable impacts.  I can’t go any further without major spoilers, unfortunately, but let’s just say that this fight doesn’t end how most superhero/villain fights end and that the conclusion is very appropriate for Frank.  There’s no equivocation here.

But it’s not only in the villain-fighting that Rucka’s Punisher impacts the Marvel Universe.  Rucka seems to want to establish Norah Winters as a major supporting character for this series, which is fine by me.  Norah is a brilliant addition to the cast, as I could not imagine a more polar opposite to Frank Castle.  I’ve always loved the character, who’s unfortunately often been thrown to the periphery due to Spider-Man’s massive cast.  Seeing her in this dark and very different context is wonderful and her mouthy, energetic character is a fantastic counterpoint.

Which leads me to the last couple of pages, which are truly brilliant.  While I can’t really call it a cliffhanger, it’s certainly the sort of ending that’ll leave you wanting the next issue as soon as freaking possible.  That said, it’s also an ending that leaves you very interested in what’s to come in the long-term, as Rucka positions two new plot-points that are both absolutely fascinating.  For starters, a possible Frank/Norah team-up?  How is this not awesome?  Given how different they are, the dynamic between the two of them is sure to be brilliant, not just because of their respective personalities, but also because seeing the myth and the reporter together is a really cool idea.

Then there’s the possible introduction of a new, female vigilante out for blood on the streets of New York, or, at least, that’s the direction Rucka’s seems to be aiming at.  As readers familiar with Rucka know, that’s the kind of thing that’s right squarely in his wheelhouse.

The only real downside to this issue is that I do wish that we got more of Bolt and Clemons and the NYPD in general.  That said, with that giant fight scene and all, there’s only so much you can do with 22 pages.

Conclusion: Looking for another Marvel book?  This one’s a prime candidate.  Man, is it great to have Greg Rucka back on the stands.

Grade: B+

-Alex Evans