When writer Nathan Edmondson first started working on his new Punisher series for Marvel, he knew that he wanted to move his title character – the glowering, torture-happy antihero Frank Castle – from New York to Los Angeles. He also started polling friends for suggestions about a base of operations that might be a good fit for a hard-boiled former solider turned vigilante looking for a cup of hot black coffee, some eggs and a low-key vibe. “A “breakfast home” is how Edmondson referred to it. Which is how the Skid Row – adjacent Nickel Diner, as well as perhaps its most beloved menu item – the maple-glazed bacon doughnut – became a backdrop in the pages of a comic book.
In honor of that, Edmondson will be at Nickel Diner on Tuesday, March 11, at 6 p.m., where he will sign copies of The Punisher. (Issue #3 of his take on the series debuted last Wednesday.) Nickel owners Monica May and Kristen Trattner (who are name-checked in the book) will be passing out free maple bacon doughnut holes.
Recently, we caught up with Edmondson to talk about everything from moving Frank to Los Angeles to where to eat in Macon, Ga., to his sharing of a wild culinary anecdote about the French and their passion for baguettes.
Squid Ink: The Punisher typically fights his battles on the streets of New York. What made you decide to move him out here?
Nathan Edmondson: When we were offered the opportunity to restart The Punisher, we wanted to offer something new to the series that gave fresh energy to the character and to us as storytellers. He has for so long been associated with New York that it felt like well-tread ground. There are also a lot of other superheroes playing around in New York in the pages of different comics. For those reasons, it made sense to bring Frank out west.
I'm also much more familiar with Los Angeles than New York and I enjoy it more. Then, finally, there's a narrative within the story, there's something that drives the Punisher from the East Coast to the West Coast. He is pursuing criminals and that pursuit has led him out West and he finds himself up against more than he bargained for.
SI: How did you come up with the idea of using Nickel Diner as Frank's go-to breakfast spot?
NE: We needed a place where we get to know his character, and that needed to be a place that was unique to Los Angeles and exhibited the spirit of both the trendy and the classic side of L.A. – it had the right balance of being iconic yet not too nice. The beginning of the story starts downtown.
SI: Before you started the project, did you do a lot of L.A. research?
NE: I think I started mostly with things I was familiar with. Then once you're there, you, along with the character, explore. You know, “Where would it make sense for there to be criminals?” “Where is an interesting industrial district where the Punisher can have a fight?” It's a mix: There's constant research, to be sure. But I'll be taking him to some of my favorite spots as well.
SI: For example?
NE: Hugo's in the Valley. That's where I spend most of my breakfasts when I'm here. It's on the corner of Riverside and Coldwater. I like the eggs Benedict and I'm kind of a sucker for the almond pancakes. As a side note, one of my favorite accomplishments in L.A. was when I tweeted that I was back in L.A. and Hugo's tweeted back, “Welcome home.”
SI: What put Hugo's on your radar?
NE: Somebody brought me there because they thought I looked like Ryan Gosling and wanted me to meet him. They said he ate breakfast there. In the dozens of times I've ever been there, I don't think I've ever seen him. But I fell in love with the food and the atmosphere, and I can go there and do work and not be distracted.
SI: When it comes to picking a restaurant, what's more important to the Punisher – the food, the service or the price point?
NE: There are places that you wouldn't find the Punisher going to eat. He's not a white-tablecloth guy. But a place where you have enough tourists mixing in and out and an occasional celebrity? That's a place where he wouldn't really stand out. He's a face that other people in the world know. His face has been on the news. People have asked us, “How is it that he sits there and the cop sitting next to him doesn't know who he is?” Well, in L.A., when you see familiar faces, you assume it's a character actor that you can't place.
SI: According to legend, the Punisher eats and trains like an Olympic athlete. How does a restaurant famous for steak, fried catfish and maple bacon doughnuts fit into the Punisher's view of his body as a temple?
NE: What happens in the book is that we replace Monica and Kristen with a cook named Lou who says they're both on vacation. And he offers a maple bacon doughnut to Frank, and Frank replies something like, “What are you trying to do? Kill me?” And Lou says, “You're doing a plenty good enough job of that on your own – I was just trying to give you something to live for.”
SI: So even Frank has trouble resisting the maple bacon doughnut?
NE: When you see him eating there, it's mostly protein and coffee for the most part. He hasn't had a doughnut yet – but that doesn't mean he won't. Part of the fun of putting Frank in an environment like that is the way he reacts to it and the way he reacts to the people there. If you have a mainstay location like Nickel Diner, then the way in which he interacts with that environment is always going to reflect what's going on internally.
If he's a little more collected – if he's got his thoughts and his mission aligned – then he's probably going to be a little more judicious about his diet. But it will be interesting when the day comes and he accepts the offer of the doughnut or a slice of pie or the red velvet cake that they're known for – because it will say something about where Frank is and how much longer he expects to live.
He wouldn't be averse to a maple bacon doughnut, but people are surprised that he isn't averse to interacting with people at all. One of our approaches to the series was to show that the Punisher is, indeed, human and he interacts with other humans. If you don't have that, what differentiates you from being a bad guy? He walks that line very closely. What's more human than eating a gourmet doughnut?
SI: Let's talk about what would happen after he ate it: Would someone as fitness-obsessed as the Punisher allow himself to enjoy a deep-fried breakfast pastry? Or, after the last bite, would he throw himself into a sweat-flying frenzy of sit-ups and push-ups to burn off the extra calories and carbohydrates?
NE: Frank is a guy who is always on the move, always up against it. On one hand, he has to keep that edge. Mitch Gerads, the artist, and I were invited into this series because of the work we did on a book called The Activity. Our work on that series led us into relationships working with guys from Delta Force and Seal Team Six. We got to understand their psyche, their physical regimen and things like that pretty well. So we draw as much as possible from reality in writing and illustrating The Punisher.
SI: Frank is a newcomer to L.A. Does he know Nickel Diner's self-acknowledged history as a heroin hot spot? To quote Monica May, “You'd come in, order the No. 4 plate, and you'd get fried chicken and a dime bag of dope.”
NE: I heard some stories. But that was one of the interests in using that location – that it was in an area that had recently been gentrified. Frank is in L.A. to punish the criminals, and in that area and in that restaurant there is a subtextual nod to his overall mission in Los Angeles. Which is to kill the criminals.
But it would be fun to incorporate some real details. What would happen if someone came in to get their fix and they don't realize it's changed? What if the Punisher is there at a table and in comes somebody to stick the place up?
SI: Moving past Nickel Diner's past and into yours: When you were a junior in high school, you dropped out of school and moved to France, correct?
NE: Yes, in my junior year, I moved to Europe to take a job.
SI: Talk to us about being a teenager miles and miles from home and discovering the joys of wonderful French food.
NE: My memories are of moving around and always being excited and delighted and hungry. Every meal seemed like a treat. I wasn't eating five-star meals, but one of the things I loved about my food experience then was the simplicity. The simplicity of good local wine and good local beer and sandwiches that are just salami, cheese or anchovies with some butter on a piece of bread.
SI: Share an anecdote about the French and their love of a great, chewy baguette.
NE: I lived at a castle once. A number of people lived there, and one night I tried to go into town and it was a holiday and everything was closed. I literally had nowhere to get food. So I went back to the castle, and they had a kitchen, and I went in there, and in the freezer they had a whole bunch of baguettes, a whole stack of them. So I ended up taking one of them. I had no other option that night.
The next morning I woke up and all of the staff were gathered very seriously around the freezer as the chef de cuisine was explaining that they were short one baguette. One baguette had gone missing. It was almost as if Tom Cruise had dropped in on wires and stole a baguette. That was the day I learned how seriously the French take their bread.
SI: You live in Macon, Ga. Some restaurant tips, please.
NE: It depends on what you're looking for. The nicest restaurant in town, the one with the most elegant presentation and cuisine, is a place called the Dove Tail. They serve a Southern-inspired, game-based cuisine. It's unique to the South and to Georgia. One place that is closed [for remodeling] is called the H and H Restaurant.
SI: Is it one of those fried chicken, baked ham, collard greens and black-eyed peas sorts of places?
NE: The Allman Brothers used to eat there. The walls are dripping with grease, but the same woman has been cooking there and making her eggs and bacon there every morning since the Allman Brothers were eating there. If you lived here, you'd just need to go there once.
SI: You are currently the writer on Black Widow. You've said that one of your missions is to show what onetime Russian spy and current Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Natasha Romanoff does in her downtime, correct?
NE: More like what she does when she is not with the Avengers or with S.H.I.E.L.D. However, she's a mercenary. We do go out of our way to show her at home, to show her in her neighborhood, to show her out to eat. Little peeks into her social life. But the majority of the book is her on missions that she takes by herself. We haven't had the same opportunities to explore her relationship with cuisine.
But in the last issue she is at a restaurant with her attorney. Her relationship with her attorney I drew from my relationship with my attorney, who is much more of a foodie than I. He's always going to the nicest spots and always being very generous about it. The point is that [Natasha] is somebody who makes a lot of money but uses most of it to pay for her past sins. The only time we really show her eating is when he takes her somewhere that she thinks is too expensive.
SI: So like the Punisher, where you eat isn't strictly about the food.
NE: But unlike the Punisher, she is somebody who, in working with clients, she will go to any of the finest or most exclusive places. Even if it is just an act for her. Of course, there's a difference between too expensive and overpriced. Any plate that she is paying for that is over $25 she would think is too expensive – but that doesn't mean it's overpriced. Her money is not for her, that's part of the way she thinks.
SI: Beside your March 11 appearance at Nickel Diner, what else brings you to L.A.?
NE: I have a film at Fox that is based on one of my books called Who Is Jake Ellis? David Yates is directing and Peter Chernin is producing. I have several other books that are in various stages of development. But one of the other things I'm out here this time is that I have a walk-on on Rizzoli & Isles.
SI: Pardon? Did you just say you have a walk-on on Rizzoli & Isles? How in the world did that happen?
NE: I was at a TCA event at the Beverly Hilton and I happened to be with some actors and was asked repeatedly what show I was on. So I started telling people that I played the character “Chip” on Rizzoli & Isles, and this joke took off. I created a fake Twitter account for him. Angie Harmon sent me a package with a little note and a blanket, a Kindle Fire and slippers from the show. It has basically led to me having a walk-on as Chip. Fun night!