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Garth Ennis’ Run on Punisher MAX – From First to Last (Tyger, The Cell, The End) 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 interesting. Collecting three one-shots from writer Garth Ennis involving the Punisher, this collection manages to skilfully capture everything I love and loathe about the Northern Irish writer’s take on the Marvel character. The three stories collected here – The Tyger, The Cell, The End – run the full range from the early years of Frank’s life, to his early career as the Punisher, through to the end of humanity itself. That’s a pretty huge scope for a writer, and it’s telling that Ennis can cover all that range in so few pages, so smoothly. There’s a lot of good clever stuff here, but there’s also the insanely juvenile stuff that so often seems to knock me out of Ennis’ Punisher just when it looks like I might start enjoying it.

To the ends of the Earth...

Note: This review is going to contain spoilers. In each case, it’s probably best you know as little as possible about these three stories heading into them. So, if I had to offer a quick recommendation, I’d suggest that they are essential for fans of Ennis’ take on the character, and capture and expand on his core ideas well. However, if you aren’t familiar with the character, there are better places to start (ironic, given two of these three are origins, after a fashion). If you can’t stand the Punisher… well, this won’t convince you.

That out of the way, what’s immediately striking on reading these three stories is just how much Ennis allows Frank to say. Throughout his run on Punisher MAX, Ennis has shrewdly played Castle as something of a cross between a force of nature and an eternal soldier. Neither of those two influences are prone to long internal monologues or verbose attempts at self-justification and, as such, Ennis’ first person narrative for Frank has always been a little cold, remote and under-played. It allows us a glimpse of what is going on underneath the surface, but never the complete picture. Frank is, as a rule, pretty stoic and more than a little buttoned-down.

A walk in the park...

Here, however, Ennis lets his audience into Frank’s mind for three issues. In particular, the bookends which open and close the collection – The Tyger and The End – see Frank expand quite a bit on his own perspective as well as attempting, in some roundabout way, to explain himself. It’s fascinating that, in The Tyger, Ennis reveals that Frank loved poetry as a young boy, and you can almost hear it in the narrative captions for the issue. Of course, this is before he really “became” the Punisher – Ennis strongly implies that we’re witnessing Frank’s first kill(s) in the persona. He realises that the police and the papers will identify him, and try to boil down his motivations, looking no deeper than his service in Vietnam and the loss of his family. Despite the fact that the comics have always focused on these two factors, Ennis suggests that there’s more at play – although we’ve never cared to look deeper. “The rest,” Frank observes, “belongs to me.” Immediately we know he’s sharing something personal.

As I mentioned in my review of Born, those looking for a deeper explanation of Frank’s particular brand of psychosis will often point to Vietnam – suggesting that Frank’s violent urges stem in some way from the conflict that left a scar on the face of the American nation. Ennis rejects this notion as simplistic, while admitting Vietnam played a role. “They’ll blame it all on Vietnam,” Frank observes. “And they’ll be right. And they’ll be wrong.” Instead, there has always been something wrong with Frank, something strange. Indeed, it’s quite notable how many members of the cast of The Tyger, which takes place in the early years of Frank’s life (“when the world was still worth fighting for,” which sounds like something from Hemmingway), feel distinctly uncomfortable around the boy – even if they don’t know why.

He's a strange little kid, to be Frank...

I’ve always detected something of a biblical theme amongst Ennis’ writing of the Punisher, as filtered through the perspective of a lapsed Catholic. There’s a curious overlap of imagery and, although Ennis wrote off the version of the character who served as a vengeful angel, there’s something distinctly Old Testament about Frank Castle as a character (The End even sees him walk through an apocalyptic wasteland which calls to mind the Book of Revelations). Here, as the title alludes, Frank wrestles with a poem written by Edward Blake, another conflicted Catholic if ever there was one. In The Tyger, the sister poem to The Lamb (and which gave us the expression “fearful symmetry”), Blake considers how there can be such darkness in a world supposedly created to be filled with beauty.

“Did he who made the lamb… make thee?” Blake asks of his immortal predator. In reading the poem, Frank suggests that perhaps the eponymous beast was not created by God, but by “someone who don’t make things like lambs.” The imagery of The Tyger informs Ennis’ Punisher MAX run (and even shows up again in The End). In each case, Frank Castle is compared to the monster. Indeed, in The End, a guard remarks that a judge had decided that “sendin’ a man to Sing-Sing was like feedin’ a tiger meat”, because Frank was waiting for them. Once you grasp The Tyger, you understand a lot about Frank Castle, as he embarks on his killing “and I show the world a face not made by god.”

Tough Cell...

Frank is one of these timeless beasts that exists as a natural predator. He serves a function, of a sort, but he knows that he is not in any way noble or touched by God. In a moment which makes an impression on the young Castle, he visits a natural history museum. “That day I realised there had always been tygers. Living in the darkness of our dreams, no less alive for being gone from the physical world. emerging as it suited them, to stalk, to terrify, to overwhelm completely: to keep the planet in their thrall. Bigger. Badder. Deadlier. Somehow I knew we needed them.” At the same time, Ennis justifies the character of the Punisher as an expression of this primal thought in the collective unconsciousness. It’s a wonderfully nuanced approach to the character.

And, of course, Ennis acknowledges that it’s up to each reader to make of the character what they will. He has the local priest eschew Frank’s reading of the poem, only to have Lauren observe that people can read things however they want. I choose to read that as freedom to interpret Ennis’ writing as I see fit, which I will when we get down to The End.

Frank smokes 'em out...

The Tyger and The Cell almost completely eschew the black humour that Ennis associated with the character. You might argue that this makes them stronger reads, but it also makes them as grim as anything. Soul-destroyingly bleak. However, The Tyger is an effective origin of Frank Castle, and it explains how the quiet kid who listened to everything could end up the perspective of the hardened Punisher. Ennis hints that the challenge of organised crime is like a bigger, nastier conflict for the end of the twentieth century – “I was more scared than I was on the Iwo,” Frank’s father remarks of his attempts to confront local organised crime, which is something coming from a man with “the purple hearts and the bronze star.”

The Cell, on the other hand, is just bleak rather than especially insightful. It somewhat undermines the pathos of Frank by painting him as a man who really enjoys what it is that he’s doing. Locked in prison with a bunch of mobsters with whom he has a very special grudge, Castle manipulates and toys with all the parties in the prison in order to get what he wants. The prisoners locked away inside know that he could have killed them at any time, but yet he organises a riot. “He wants us,” one of the men muses, “he can get us anytime. He don’t have to send the place to hell for a distraction.” Another one pipes in, “Unless he wants to take his time with us.”

Dead set on revenge?

See, if Castle’s grim compulsion were simply to fight a war or to execute prisoners, it wouldn’t matter. It would be about killing these guys. Instead, he ends up staging a grandiose spectacle which would make Jigsaw (the killer from the Saw films) proud. Maybe “enjoy” is a strong word, but he “wants” to torture these men, to make them suffer in incredibly brutal terms. That, for me, is what makes Castle a villain – as much as Ennis and other writers and fans might want to make him an anti-hero or something crazy like that. In fact, his death trap reminds me of a sort of comic book super-villain gambit – without seeming as hokey, it must be conceded. You could argue, tying into The Tyger, that Castle’s manipulations are ultimately poetic, but I don’t buy it.

That’s where the concept of the Punisher breaks for me. There’s no audience, no need to set an example. He doesn’t take his time with these for men for anyone other than himself. And, on some level, he enjoys it. You might argue that an anti-hero (or even a straight-up hero) may be able to kill without veering into becoming a villain, but I think deriving this sort of pleasure pushes it over the line. It seems strange that the point at which I dismiss any hint of ambiguity in the character is so arbitrary, but it’s the moment at which Ennis makes Castle more (or less) than the predator he suggests. Slow, exacting, cold-blooded torture.

A grave matter...

It’s interesting how Ennis presents this as a turning of a page. “The war goes on,” Frank muses as he finishes his grim business, and we get the sense that Frank wasn’t even doing this for some form of closure. I put the spoiler warning above, so I guess I’m safe, but Ennis allows Frank to kill all of those responsible for the death of his family, thus firmly removing the “revenge” aspect of the character. I quite like the idea that Frank has (and knows he has) avenged the loss of his loved ones, but keeps killing anyway. This is pretty much the point at which Ennis’ Punisher MAX run begins, with frank cut completely loose, both from his own past and from continuity in general. Ironically, those men in that cell were probably the last thing tying Frank to his family. I do like this idea.

Of course, The End pushes this idea to its logical extreme. The dark humour which defined Ennis’ Marvel Knights run is back in full force here. as is quite a lot of nihilism (which suits the character) and a very under-developed sense of college freshman political frustration (which doesn’t). I believe that Punisher MAX: The End played into Marvel’s line-wide “The End” initiative which saw iconic writers effectively closing the book on particular characters. So, for example, Peter David wrote Hulk: The End and Chris Claremont wrote a whole slew of X-Men: The End books as well. each of these endings stood apart from one another and was an attempt to afford a particular character (or set of characters) an appropriate ending.

He's going to be Frank...

So you get a lot of Ennis’ distinctive take on the character here, and his world – ravaged by a nuclear war. There’s a bleak sense that it’s all truly over, and there’s not a note of optimism to be found in the entire bleak world. “Paris mentions something I’d forgotten,” Frank explains, “we’ve seen nothing living since we left the shelter. He was expecting continuity, humanity learning to adapt and overcome. A settlement. A sign. Instead there’s not even a rat or a bug. You don’t adapt or overcome. You don’t built a stockade to keep away the mutants, any more than you find yourself reborn with superpowers.”

A lot of characters find themselves wondering what the point of living through the apocalypse might be. “Captain,” a young soldier asks, “what the hell’s the point? I mean of surviving this?” When Frank suggests that his travelling companion eat something, Paris is skeptical. “Seriously, what for? why are you keepin’ goin’?” Frank’s reply is, of course, “Work still to be done.” That says both a lot about Frank and a lot about the kind of world that he lives in – although some might argue, given what a nuclear war would look like, there is little point indulging the romantic notion of “humanity after the end.”

Caught in the headlights...

Here, again, we venture into spoiler territory. You see, Frank plans to live long enough to wipe out a bunker built under the World Trade Centre, populated with rich people who made billions ruling the world. Yes, Frank is literally staying alive long enough to kill a few more people – which actually fits the character quite well. Their crime? Frank succinctly explains, “they made the world a cruel and terrible place.” And this holocaust happened when “they pushed the planet’s luck too far.”

I’ll talk about this a bit more in discussing Ennis’ Punisher MAX series proper, but I don’t mind the way that the writer has developed Frank Castle’s frustrations, shifting his attention away from juvenile focus points of hatred (like robbers and killers) towards more adolescent targets (“the man” and other such clichés). I think it suits the character well – I imagine that as he reaches the “adulthood” stage of rage, he becomes the lead from Falling Down. Anyway, I generally like the way that Frank acknowledges, when written by Ennis, that crime doesn’t just happen on the street.

Sticking it to the man...

I also like, again, the almost religiously absolutist morality Frank claims to stand for. Frank has slaughtered pretty much all the other prisoners who survived with him, despite the fact that there is no society that exists anymore to enforce concepts like laws. He killed two inmates, Young and Leary, because “they tried to eat Kenning”, another inmate he’d killed. That’s a strange offense, given that Frank killed Kenning and the group were undoubtedly starving. “But why would it have mattered?” Paris asks, unable to grasp the quite frankly absurd position of Frank, who can kill bad people with impunity, but it’s not okay to eat dead bad people, even when you’re starving. This is a great illustration of how hypocritical and contradictory Frank’s code is.

However, at the climax of the issue, as he wipes out the human race, I just found it a little bit too much. It is of course, an illustration of the fact that Frank’s moral code is so tightly wound and inconsistent that nobody can survive it, and that – as a race – we’re a pretty crap bunch. “The human race,” Frank contemplates like a poetry class dropout, as he commits genocide, “You’ve seen what that leads to.” However, what Ennis has always told us is that Frank has always kept himself from going too far. He’s pulled back before he goes too far and only kills those who “deserve” it (as much as one can deserve it without a fair trial).

As the world burns...

Here he doesn’t just slaughter those he holds responsible, but he kills all the medical staff and the service staff too (you could justify killing the soldiers, as they tried to kill him). If these people were guilty by association, how come Frank doesn’t firebomb office blocks in New York, staffed by people who work for the kind of tycoons he was trying to kill here? Why does he care about people caught in the crossfire of anything he does if he can rationalise their association to some faceless and nebulous evil?

I’m fairly certain that all the medical staff had ever done was work hard to get good grades at Med School. Hell, Paris seems convinced that Frank won’t kill a “short-con operator” (at least until Frank figures out he’s not), but he’ll kill some poor person who probably graduated top of their class and just wants to save lives (especially when Frank has been shown to respect the emergency services before)? I’m sure this is supposed to seem grand and epic, but it just reads like bad fan fiction written by a very angry thirteen-year-old who flunked political science.

Down among the dead men...

You could argue that The End is what happens when Frank finally loses it and goes completely insane, and that it’s a story about what happens when you let Frank off the lead, but I don’t buy it. He’s still methodical, and he’s still careful and he’s still thinking in (what for him is) the long-term. Although he does let go at the end, I don’t believe that Frank is losing it (or has lost it) as he sets out to kill his final target.

So, this collection has it all, the best and the worst. The understated and the excess. It’s wildly inconsistent, but there are quite a few gems scattered along the way. In particular, The Tyger is a great little story, and it’s a shame neither The Cell nor The End can quite live up to it. It’s strange that Ennis can manage to make the character of Frank so ambiguously amoral (like a storm or a bolt of lightning) one minute, before pushing him solidly into the role of villain the next. It’s difficult to write a villain protagonist, and it’s entirely different from writing an anti-hero or an anti-villain. At times, Ennis swerves wildly across all three categories, and thus ends up throwing the audience off a bit. still, you have to take the good with the bad.

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

And perhaps some of our other Garth Ennis Punisher reviews:

2 Responses

  1. I’m totally going to pick this up based on this rcdemmoneation. I’ve kind of been keeping an eye out for an entry point to reading punisher again (haven’t since I was a kid, mostly in crossovers) and this sounds like it.

    • Worth a look. I’d suggest Ennis’ Marvel Knights work is his strongest, but I think I’m in the minority on that.

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