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Garth Ennis’ Run on Punisher MAX – Born (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, this month we’re going to take a look at Northern Irish writer Garth Ennis’ run on that iconic Marvel anti-hero, The Punisher. Check back every Friday and Wednesday for a review of a particular section.

There are comic book characters that are so closely tied to one particular writer that you pity anybody trying to write them. The X-Men have Chris Claremont (although I do love Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run), Daredevil has Frank Miller (although he also has Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker), Hulk has Peter David and (I firmly believe) Green Lantern has Geoff Johns. Somehow, through some fluke, occasionally comic book characters manage to stumble across a writer who fundamentally understands them. I’d argue that this is the benefit of having these characters survive in print – none of these runs were by the original authors. Anyway, to get to the point, the Punisher has Garth Ennis.

The last Castle...

I have a lot of thoughts about the Punisher. Some of which are controversial, and some are fairly safe. Most of them I will save for an in-depth discussion of Ennis’ main Punisher MAX run. However, I will observe that I was just never especially interested in the character as he was presented. He originally appeared as a slightly-more-nuanced-than-usual Spider-Man villain, who was giving a relatively complex motivation. Comic books weren’t exactly the place to find cutting-edge narratives in the seventies, so the story of a bad guy who kills other bad guys was relatively novel, in a book about spandex-wearing superheroes.

However, the character’s popularity rose dramatically and – for a while – it seemed he was everywhere. He had three movies released – and not a single one of them was a critical or financial success. For a while it seemed like you could sell anything with the character on the cover (and indeed, at one stage, he had three on-goings). Along with Wolverine and Venom, the Punisher was one of the “darker and edgier” characters who was pushed to the forefront of Marvel in the eighties and nineties. And he never really needed a more complex characterisation than “he kills bad people.” There’s only so far you can push this idea, and it eventually led to crazy developments like Frank Castle working for angels. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, it’s not a metaphor. That’s where Garth Ennis found him and resurrected him.

Capping it all off...

As I introduced myself to comic books, the Punisher never really interested me. Occasionally (mostly outside his book), he was handled decently by writers like Ed Brubaker and Frank Miller. However, I never got the appeal. He was really just a slightly more complicated than supervillain, who was being passed off as something resembling a hero. However, then I read Civil War. Now, I realise – of course – that Ennis’ run pre-dates Mark Millar’s event miniseries, but it was Millar who first exposed me to a rather fascinating premise.

Observing the strange (and seemingly counter-intuitive) relationship between Captain America and the Punisher, Peter Parker observes thay’s the “same guy, different war.” If Captain America is the pride and optimism of a country that could win the Second World War, Frank Castle is the anger and rage of a country still wrestling with the Vietnam War. The two are kindred spirits, a contrast in America’s military history. However, that bond does not excuse this…

A potential feather in his Cap?

Anyway, Ennis wrote Born as something of an origin for Frank Castle. You might argue that the origin of the Punisher was the day he watched his family gunned down in a public park by a bunch of warring gangsters, but Ennis rejects the simplicity of that idea. Even if you lost your family, you don’t become a man like a Castle. You might argue that the character is something of a grim escape – a fantasy concerning those who have wronged us, but I don’t buy that. Those of us seeking to make right a wrong done to us might let our thoughts wander to violence against those who harmed us, but I honestly doubt anyone considers a full-scale personal war on every criminal ever – even in our wildest fantasies. That’s nuts – the whole point of a revenge fantasy is that you get payback and you stop. As Ennis has pointed out, Frank has reached a stage where he has killed everybody ever associated with the loss of his family… but he hasn’t stopped. He can’t stop.

Ennis adopts an approach to the character that is somewhat more nuanced than most, but he does accept the premise that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Frank Castle – there’s a root cause for his behaviour which lies deeper than the loss of his wife and children. Born doesn’t represent the moment that made Frank Castle the way that he is – Ennis’ one-shot Tyger explores the character’s childhood and suggests there’s something fundamentally different about Frank. However, Born does suggest that Frank found himself on the killing fields of the Vietnam conflict.

War journal?

Vietnam carved a scar deep into the American psyche. It left a legacy which remains to this day. It created a lost generation of army veterans who were not welcomed home as heroes, but as social outcasts and pariahs, shunned by fellow citizens and ignored by the government they fought for. As our narrator, the optimistic Goodwin remarks, “no one quite knows what to do with the predators it has bred.” War is, Ennis suggests, hell – but a hell created by some unconscious force in the human psyche, like a collective release of frustration to “feed” a “Great Beast.” “So the great beast must be fed,” Ennis tells us, “and every generation, our country goes to war to do just that. … Today is the day we feed the beast.”

It’s interesting how Ennis defines the “real America” in the context of the conflict. Our protagonist, Goodwin, is always talking about “the good America” and “the real America” in idyllic terms, like it’s a paradise – the kind of thing you can’t see in the present conflict. However, a friend calls him on this idea, identifying it as archaic. “I keep hearin’ you talkin’ ’bout this idea you got – this real America? It’s a #@$%in’ dream, man. It belongs in the thirties. The twenties. Fuck, the Wild mutha#@$%in’ West.” He advises Goodwin, “grow the #@$% up.” It’s an especially enlightening exchange given the observation that Captain America was a comic book character created in the build-up to the Second World War in the thirties, while Frank Castle was created around the end of Vietnam.

Let's be Frank...

And Frank Castle is right at home here. Although Ennis mention’s Castle’s family back home, he never discusses the life Frank led before the war. He doesn’t have anything to get back to – he’s volunteered and volunteered and volunteered to fight, when saner men would have gone home. “Since he arrived six months ago,” Goodwin informs us, “not one patrol that he has led has suffered KIA.” He’s good at his job – to the point where our lead promises to himself, “I will not fall in love with war like Captain Castle.” However, the book joins Castle as the Vietnam war is winding down. “Alas for Captain Castle, he is running out of war.”

Castle is shown to be a manipulator of people. He engineers the death of a General threatening to shut down the camp where he is stationed, so he can keep fighting. “You got your war a stay of execution,” the mysterious voice inside Frank’s head goads him. We’re never explicitly told what this voice is. Ennis’ notes at the back of the book explicitly mention “the Grim Reaper”, but I don’t buy such an explicitly supernatural explanation, especially when Ennis’ Punisher MAX run prides itself on being relatively grounded. I’d argue that it’s the primordial urges stirring in Frank’s soul, the “Great Beast” that we sacrifice entire generations to – manifesting as his subconscious. Alternatively, my favourite fan theory (which ties back to the greater Marvel Universe) is that it’s Ares (the God of War) choosing Frank as his champion.

Dead glad to see her...

The voice reasons with Frank, and tries to convince him to accept his nature as a creature of war and death. In fact, this voice recognises that the only thing tethering Frank to the notion of civilised society is the thought of his family. Ennis doesn’t suggest that Frank is merely treating his family as an excuse for his actions, or that he never loved them. In fact, one gets the sense – had Frank gone home and lived with them – he might have lived a perfectly normal life, bottling up those violent urges. “Sometimes I think they might be my last chance,” Frank confesses to Goodwin. When he returns home, he assures his wife, “I went as far as I ever want to go, this time.” He’s like a recovering addict, ashamed of the raw urges he can’t control or keep a lid on. Indeed, the voice in his head mocks him for this, pointing out that his love for his wife and child might hold him back from what he wants to be, “and that last chance sh!t – to deny what you really are, is that what you mean?”

The ending of the book is somewhat controversial – and understandably so. The voice makes an offer to Frank, and it reaches out to him. “I’ll give you what you’ve wanted all these years,” it promises. “A war that lasts forever, a war that never ends.” In return, it extracts a price from him. You don’t win a prize for guessing what that prize might be. Some would point to this promise (and its subsequent fulfilment) as evidence the voice calling to Frank is some darkness external to him – a supernatural or divine force. Ennis certain adopts a very religious approach to the character, but such direct divine interference seems… odd.

Ennis has a flair for this sort of thing...

I do quite like the idea, hinted at during Jason Aaron’s run on Punisher MAX, that Frank was planning to leave his family when they died (Bullseye (possibly) suggesting the last words to Frank’s family were, “I want a divorce”). If this is the case, it perhaps indicates that his subconscious was speaking to him in Born – channelling through the centuries of human violence and rage, manifesting itself in the back of the mind of one Frank Castle. Perhaps it was just bad luck his family died that day. Perhaps Frank would have divorced his wife and become a killer anyway.

It’s interesting how Ennis portrays the base at Valley Forge, as Frank Castle seems to be the only person you can see its impending fall to the Viet Cong. It’s an institution on the verge of collapse – it’s in a state decay. It is, as a visiting general observes, “heroin capital of I Corps.” Castle can only find less than thirty officers fit to mount a patrol, and he roams the jungles like some form of predator. One wonders if this how Castle sees our society, a modern day Roman Empire before the fall – so bloated and apathetic that it can’t even mount a last-ditch defense. It’s corrupt and staffed by inept officers – even the men he takes with him on patrol think little of raping a prisoner of war – and yet he prowls out in the jungles, fighting to keep them safe. He puts a bullet through the brain of a captive enemy combatant, considering it an act of mercy (Goodwin concedes “what he did to that girl was his idea of helping her out”). That’s how messed up the world he lives in happens to be.

This origin holds water...

Frank Castle’s campaign against crime has always been compared to a “war”, perhaps because the word sounds cool. For example, he used to have an on-going called The Punisher: War Journal. That said, it was seldom developed more than that. However, Ennis – who has a noted dislike of superhero comics – came to the table with his own perspective. Frank was a soldier in a one-man army launching a campaign against crime. That was perhaps the key to Ennis’ Frank Castle, at the most superficial level – to give him a military mindset. In a way, Castle has been fighting the battle at Valley Forge over and over and over again.

Personally, I think the most fascinating aspect that Ennis brings to the Punisher as a character is this sort of almost Old Testament approach to notions of justice. The character runs on the premise of “an eye for an eye” and Ennis has been clear in certain cases (beating up a man who left his wife for a younger woman) that the character’s morality is divorced from any sort of legal construct – operating on a more primal basis of right and wrong. Ennis is a noted atheist, but it’s hard to believe that his upbringing in the highly religious surroundings of Northern Ireland don’t heavily influence his attitude towards Frank. I’m not talking about a particular set of beliefs or values. I don’t know if Frank believes in God (even if he’s been an angel). I am talking about that stark moral perspective that one associates with religious fanaticism – that outlook which condemns the world for being merely mortal, with concepts like “original sin.” I’ll talk more about this when I discuss Tyger, a one-shot built around a poem by a noted theological scholar based on similar ideas.

Certainly not a limp miniseries...

Born is a powerful little miniseries. It keeps Castle mysterious and ambiguous, which is really for the best. The ending is something to be thought over and considered – the initial “Frank sells his family to death to become the Punisher” reading seems perhaps too shallow an interpretation, but it’s to Ennis’ credit that there are any number of ways to view that conversation. Still, it’s more interesting to see a Frank Castle who has tasted war, and decided that he likes it. It’s an effective introduction to Ennis’ iteration of the title character, one which at least suggests the core ideas Ennis would explore with him.

You might enjoy our complete reviews of Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX run:

And perhaps some of our other Garth Ennis Punisher reviews:

4 Responses

  1. Or the voice was the demon from The Punisher: Purgatory.

    It’s seriously weird how well it and Born can be tied together, to the point that part of me wonders, against all rational thought, that it may have been intentional on Ennis’s part.


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