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Garth Ennis’ Run on Punisher MAX – Hardcover, Vol. I (Review)

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.

It’s Omaha Beach. Wounded Knee. Rorke’s Drift, The Killing Fields, the first day on The Somme. World War Three in North Jersey. And only now, pouring automatic fire into a human wall — do I feel something like peace.”

– Frank Castle, In the Beginning

I don’t like The Punisher as a concept. It’s not some out-dated “heroes don’t kill” or “I need a good guy to be morally straightforward”, it’s more that the character is extraordinarily childish. This is the very embodiment of the nineties anti-hero explosion, the bubble in the mid-nineties which say Wolverine become even more outrageously (and inexplicably) popular, turned Ghost Rider into a major player in the Marvel Universe, and saw The Punisher hold down three (yes, three) monthly comic books. This is a guy who wears a skull on his T-shirt and kills criminals… that’s his schtick. And somehow, he became “uber-kewl”.

Armed and dangerous...

Quite simply, the very concept of the character is a parody. It’s ridiculous. He’s a mentally disturbed individual who walks around killing people wearing a silly costume, all because his family died in a crime years ago. One might argue that Batman is equally ridiculous, because he does more or less the same thing (plus a bat outfit and minus – generally – the killing), but the problem is that the Punisher typically insists on being taken far more seriously, and it’s so dismissive of other (admittedly juvenile and stupid) superhero concepts. I’m not even talking about Garth Ennis, just in general. The Punisher always struck me as that kid in school who insisted that he was so much better than everyone else, because he hated them. “Yeah,” it seems to say, “I’m like all mature and stuff.”

That’s my position on the character. I just find it incredibly juvenile. He’s pretty much a flat-out super villain operating as “anti-hero”, killing large numbers of people pretty much randomly (in that he happened to stumble across this bunch of criminals this week). And yet something intrigued me about the character, as I discussed in my review of Garth Ennis’ Born. This idea that The Punisher was more than just a Vietnam veteran, he was a representative of that generation lost to the carnage and the violence. Pretty much every piece of information I could find pointed me towards Garth Ennis. Apparently, Ennis is the writer of Frank Castle, and if any writer could produce a take on Castle that would resonate me, it would by Ennis.

So?

A grave man...

So, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Ennis clearly gets the character of Frank Castle in a wonderful way, and I don’t doubt that these stories rank among the very best stories ever told using this particular character. On the other hand, they also have a great deal of difficulty with tone. Ennis seems to insist on being crass simply for the sake of being crass. One of the operatives tailing Frank asks her partner if he thinks Frank has “a big dick.” When she’s asked why she wonders that, she replies, “In case I get a chance to &%^* him. I like big dicks.” It just seems juvenile.

Don’t get me wrong. There are wonderfully morbid moments of humour to be found in here – in fact, when interviewing Danny McBride last year, I remember both of us laughing about the wonderfully off-beat scene where an IRA terrorist tries to cellotape his face back on. “Have — have you yer &%^*in’ — &%^*in’ face taped onto ye?” his colleague asks. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but it works in context. However, for ever moment like that, there are examples where Ennis just goes a little bit too far. And these weaken the whole series.

He's cornered the market...

By the way, it’s worth noting how well Ennis writes the Irish in the second storyline collected here, Kitchen Irish. Ennis himself comes from Northern Ireland, so he knows what it’s about – recognising the black comedy and the tragedy at the heart of all this. “I mean, what are we like, anyway?” one character asks. “All that misery an’ bloodshed back home an’ we come to the States an’ the best we can do is just &%^*in’ carry on with it?” There’s also a wonderful sequence where an American celebrates a Republican bomber as “a real hero”, glass raised, only for the “hero” to use him as a human shield later on. Ennis gets the disconnect between the romantic illusion that various Irish American interest groups sold of a “United Ireland” while fundraising, and the actual violence that the money made possible.

Perhaps I’m putting the cart before the horse. Kitchen Irish is a perfectly serviceable story about the Irish American criminal fraternity. However, the truly fascinating work going on here is in the opening arc, In the Beginning. Basically, Ennis had just completed a character defining run on Marvel Knights: Punisher, a slightly more-mature-than-usual Marvel comic clearly set within the confines of Marvel’s shared universe. It was well-received, and got the character firmly back on track after an editorial mistake (or three). However, Ennis felt he had done as much as he could do in the confines of the Marvel Knights book, and so opted to start writing Punisher MAX.

The Punisher is gunning for bad guys...

Punisher MAX isn’t as confined as Marvel Knights. There’s some discussion as to whether it shares continuity with Marvel Knights, or if superheroes exist here and all that nonsense. It doesn’t matter. Ennis hints at events that he has written about elsewhere – not just in Marvel Knights, but also in Hitman at DC. So he isn’t confined by standard comic book continuity. And, to be frank, I honestly don’t care whetehr a story is “in” or “out” of continuity. Good writing is good writing. Anyway, given this new book to work on, Ennis decided to radically redefine the character.

The most obvious change from standard comic books is that Frank Castle ages. He’s actually still a Vietnam Veteran, pushing sixty. He’s been active for quite a while, and has an impressive bodycount. It’s interesting that Ennis calls this arc In The Beginning, because it’s actually more about closure. We see Frank’s war with the mob enter what might be endgame, and Ennis brings back Microchip to resolve some outstanding issues that Frank has.

Putting Frank under a Micro-scope...

In many ways, Microchip is a symbol of all the mistakes Marvel made handling the Punisher in the eighties. He’s the tech-savvy sidekick who helps Frank maximise his efficiency. He also vanished from the title in one of the revamps. Ennis effectively brings the character back for closure, as a symbol of the life Frank might have led up to this point – to tell us that the standard Punisher fare is behind us, and something new is beginning. But first, Frank needs to deal with this stuff.

Along the way, we get a hint of how Ennis sees Frank. Frank isn’t deluded. He doesn’t believe he’ll ever eradicate crime. He knows he’s eventually going to lose this war. Indeed, to Ennis, Frank is like an act of god – he’s random, without mercy or pity or control. He obviously can’t punish everything, but he blows into town like a storm and will kill anybody who happens to get in his way. Ennis doesn’t portray Frank as an idealist. He seems to implicitly accept that some crime has to occur. At one point, meeting a contact, he turns a blind eye to a pimp, until he notices an underage girl. Frank kills the pimp and leaves a warning, “Tell the new guy to watch himself.” There’s something random about that violence, but also something fascinating about what it tells us.

A Punishing night...

Frank seems okay with the idea of a pimp working a corner. He accepts it will happen. He doesn’t kill on sight. Apparently prostituting women is something he can live with, to a point. However, as he sits with Microchip, he tells the story of his first act of violence following the loss of his family. He nearly beat a neighbour to death for leaving his wife – that’s a perfectly legal thing for somebody to do (and, if they were both unhappy, surely staying together would be more wrong?), but Frank can’t hold himself back. Somehow, this neighbour provoked Frank’s wraith more than a pimp prostituting over-age girls would. Frank’s justification? “He knew in his heart it was wrong. But it was what he wanted. So he went ahead and did it, and hoped everything would work out all right. That’s why he deserved to be punished.”

However, if Frank is as cold and as rational as he claims to be, there’s no way he should have been so brutal. And Microchip calls him on it. “You gave him a beating for running out on his wife, but that’s not you,” Micro states. “That has nothing to do with what you are now.” Being a soldier gives Frank a channel through which to focus his inner violence and rage, without descending to the level of a spree killer. He’s a sick man. He needs help. He’s not a hero or an anti-hero – he’s a psychotic murderer who is doing something horrible to stop himself from doing something even more horrible. “Do you go to that grave once a year to apologise to Lisa, and Maria, and Frank Junior, because you chose to use their deaths for something dreadful?”

Shooting to the top...

Ennis suggests that Frank is the eternal soldier, as explored in the miniseries Born. Indeed, Micro seems almost aware of what unfolded at Valley Forge all those years ago. “You see, I believe some… darkness… reached out to you, Frank,” he explains. “And I believe you told it yes.” And now, as Micro puts it, “you use your family as an excuse for something dreadful.” Indeed, Ennis understands that Frank feels sadistic compulsions. Even when dismantling the mob, Frank has to remind himself to focus – not to get caught up in the little pleasures of killing grunts. “Pimps, hustlers, dealers: be good to waste a few, just to remind them that pain can go both ways,” he suggests to himself, savouring the tough. “But it’s a distraction.” Frank seems to realise that he needs to stay on-mission or else lose himself completely – failing to realise that he’s already well past lost.

As in Tygers, Ennis alludes to the possibility that Frank is something basic and animal and primordial – “a tiger in the zoo.” It makes it okay for us to look at him impartially, because if he’s acting on instinct, surely he can’t be judged? Tigers hunt, it’s what they do. Natural instinct and all that. It’s a nice trick that prevents the audience from truly loathing Frank (just like pitting him against the worst of the worst), but I found it hard to engage at times. I felt like Brian’s mother, proclaiming, “He’s not a tyger, he’s a very naughty boy!” The trick would allow Ennis to explore Frank without sensationalising him, but Ennis seems to insist on sensationalising him anyway.

He's good at improvising on the fly...

I could do without the incredibly juvenile politics, which seem to suggest that Frank, who has repeatedly volunteered for service in Vietnam, would suddenly refuse the opportunity to go overseas and “punish” those dealing huge amounts of death. They want him to go after Osama. Frank correctly points out that the money for the operation comes from selling drugs. However, I honestly don’t see why the character couldn’t go overseas on the CIA’s buck, hunt down and kill some terrorists and then fly home and waste the drug traffickers. Ennis has made it clear that Frank will appropriate money and guns from those he killed, so why would this be any different? The End also revealed that Frank would gleefully keep a criminal company until the opportune moment to “waste” him (as it were) presented itself. Instead, we see Frank adopt the political stance of a freshman college student (albeit with far more murder), which seems a little at odds with the perpetual soldier.

In fairness, it does give us an idea of the absolutist terms that Frank thinks in, but these aren’t necessarily consistent. If one crime is as bad as another, if laundering drugs is as bad as international terrorism, and is so bad that Frank can’t control his desires to distribute justice, how come he can leave a drug dealer or a pimp alive on a street corner? If Frank is so absolutely certain in his moral values, so much so that he can’t bend them for any pragmatic reason (even the possibility of holding out to do more punishing), how come he can hold back the urge to kill a random thug or dealer or pimp? It doesn’t hold up, and it’s a shame – because I think Ennis wants it to. As much as Ennis might except Frank is a nutjob, I believe the writer intends for the Punisher to stick to his own internal logic, by which this makes sense. However, I can’t see it.

Still, some good work with the character.

Cashing in...

The second arc collected, Kitchen Irish, is perhaps a better example of a typical Punisher MAX story. Frank stumbles across bad people doing bad stuff and decides to punish them, as the script is more interest in the absurd characters populating the drama than it is with the lead character. Which is fine, because Frank plays some sort of eternal straight man, the one constant, anchor and rock. Well, at least I think he’s meant to.

So Kitchen Irish is decently entertaining, if only because Ennis knows the source material well. The Troubles are a uniquely Irish situation, and Ennis perfectly captures the jaded cynicism that the terrorist conflict has descended into. Ideologies are worn down, and it simply becomes petty, angry and greedy. I saw the resolution to the arc coming a mile off, but it was nice how we got there. Kitchen Irish is the kind of story which might be entertaining once in a while. I’m going to be disappointed if there are four more volumes of this kind of story ahead of me. By the way, I love the incredibly vulgar and offensive shoutout to the “Irish are the blacks of Europe” speech from The Commitments. I know I shouldn’t, but I do.

Firing all rounds?

So, we’re off to a start. I’m not quite feeling it yet, but it took me a while to warm to series like Starman, so you never know. Ennis seems to have a clear idea of how he imagines Frank to be, but I’m not sure I can fully grasp it from how he’s written. On the upside, at least he never tries to be uber-kewl. Well, mostly, anyway.

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

And perhaps some of our other Garth Ennis Punisher reviews:

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2 Responses

  1. We have different enjoyment of the character. Personally I love the Punisher character and concept, though he has been saddled with bad writing. Though, Ennis, Aaron, and Rucka have given him some great stories. The Punisher you know what your gonna get. The fact that he is so morally imbalanced and human is what makes me enjoy the character so much.

    • No worries Matt. I think that’s fair. If everybody liked everything, it would be boring, after all. I just don’t like the seriousness with which Ennis writes the character, because he’s essentially a very angry teenage revenge fantasy brought to life. I prefer the ridiculousness of Ennis’ Marvel Knights run.

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