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Garth Ennis’ Run on Punisher MAX – Hardcover, Vol. II (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.

There’s a dream I have from time to time. And in the dream I don’t stop. I kill the soldiers and the hitmen, the extortioners and racketeers, the dark old &%^@s who send them out to fight– I hold the trigger down until they’re all gone–

But I don’t stop.

The innocents are just watching, like always. The slack jawed thousands, gazing at the beast. My family lie red and shredded in the grass. I face the crowd and bring the weapon to my shoulder. If my world ends, I tell them, so does yours.

The recoil starts and I wake up.

It’s  just a dream, I always tell myself. It’s just a dream.

It’s just a dream.

– Frank Castle, Up is Down and Black is White

You know, I’m not entirely sold on the format of Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX. It seems a strange thing to say, given how I’m slowly starting to appreciate what the writer is doing with the character, but I’m not convinced that the rigid six-issue structure that Ennis is adopting fits the character particularly well. Don’t worry, I know it’s a very strange and irrational complaint to have – partially because there’s so much else going on that merits discussion, and also because six-issue arcs have become the industry norm (because they fit the size of a trade paperback). That said, I think may have figured out why it bothers me so.

Gun play...

A lot of authors traditionally use six-issue arcs. Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis are frequently singled out, and I think unfairly – arcs in any other their titles can run from a single issue to six issues (some arguably expanding quite a bit further). However, on titles that Bendis writes in particular, the line between arcs becomes somewhat ambiguous. Reading his Daredevil omnibus, without the chapter headings, one is frequently unable to distinguish where two stories bleed into one another – I’d argue the same is true of his later non-tie-in issues of New Avengers.

Here, however, there is a very clear and precise delineation between stories. In the last collection, you were certain where In The Beginning ended and Kitchen Irish began. Nobody could confuse Mother Russia for Up is Down and Black is White. There’s a clear continuity between the stories (Nicky Cavella returns from In the Beginning and Frank Castle’s actions in Mother Russia provoke the anger of some top brass which plays out as a subplot in Up is Down and Black is White), but it all feels very distinct and well-defined. Sort of like traditional late eighties and early nineties prime-time television: what happened before matters, but each adventure is self-contained to a large extent.

Smokin'...

In a way, it suits the Punisher as a character. After all, most of his stories are going to finish with the supporting cast deceased as Frank isn’t a character to leave too many loose ends. However, it still strikes me as a little strange. On of the best aspects of Ennis’ Frank Castle is that the character is something akin to an entire straight man, in the most morbid sense. He’s no-nonsense, tough, efficient and pretty rational for a mass murderer. However, the world around him is chaotic and uncertain and unpredictable. Castle’s doesn’t seem to be fighting against an insane world if the events in his life can all be smooth broken down into a series of six-issue (relatively episodic) adventures.

But, that’s enough of that. It’s not a major complaint, just one I noticed while flicking through this second hardcover and as I made my notes for this review. In fact, I discovered I can pretty much talk about the two story arcs contained here almost in isolation of each other, rather than in tandem or as one over-arching story or even a chapter in an over-arching story. Looking back, I did pretty much the same thing last week as well.

The last Castle...

So, let’s move on to the first story. Mother Russia. I have to admit, I actually really enjoyed it, despite (or perhaps because) of the fact it was nothing like the kind of story I might have expected. It was the Punisher in an undercover espionage thriller, with a few hints of a bloodier, more profane James Bond shining through. The virus that Frank is chasing after is ridiculous, able to reduce a body to bones within a few frames of film – it’s a crazy sci-fi MacGuffin (which really doesn’t need to be so crazy and sci-fi, but that’s grand). This “super-virus” is a nice little trashy plot device which demonstrates that Ennis isn’t taking all of this too seriously. It’s fun and crazy, and it gets the plot moving, with a nice dark “black ops espionage” sort of feeling to it.

I’m not going to go into Ennis’ politics here. Sufficed to say, some of them are quite terrifying. At the risk of turning this into a political debate, let’s just call it “creative licence” and run with that. In fact, from here on out, you can take it as written that some of Ennis’ ideas about realpolitick terrify me – all the more because I get the sense it’s not too far from what he actually believes. So, in the name of “fantasy”, let’s go with it for the time being.

The generals buckle to Fury...

Anyway, Mother Russia gives us some nice little insights into Frank, as imagined by Garth Ennis. It’s nice to see Frank working in the context of a soldier rather than a freelance agent pursuing his own one-man war-on-crime. Asking us to accept Frank and a Delta Force officer undercover, Ennis allows us to see just how efficient Frank works as a man following orders with a clear objective (and given a bit of freedom in how to execute them). This is something Ennis has hinted at before – and will again. It’s the notion of Frank as a tactician, who can ambush goons by setting up a “kill zone” like he did in In the Beginning and recognise when somebody’s attempting the same on him, like in Up is Down and Black is White. It also provides a nice change of paces from the regular “Frank kills a lot of criminals” stories that we’ll be returning to in a moment.

Ennis generates a great deal of sympathy by teaming Frank up with a terrified little girl. I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that Ennis’ iteration of Frank is a serial (or even spree) killer trying to control his urges by imposing a structure and order on them – a soldier’s discipline. That opinion hasn’t changed much. He’s still a monster, albeit one that the audience can avoid hating due to the narrative tricks that Ennis uses. Pitting him against total monsters is a common one (which we’ll return to with The Slavers), and here giving him a small child to protect serves the same purpose.

A Frank discussion at a bar...

While Frank scores kills well into double digits, he tells his colleague to watch his language around the little girl (for a profanity as mild as “Jesus!”). Frank desperately tries to protect the child from the violence he does, asking her to cover her eyes when passing through a bloody hallway, or getting her ice cream rather than letting her see it. There’s a sense that the innocence of the little girl, who reminds him of his daughter, is holding him back – making him a decent man, allowing him to fight his darker impulses in some way. “I’m twisting his leg off like a drumstick when I realise I’m frightening the kid,” illustrates how hot his rage can burn and how the presence of the young girl serves to rein him in a bit.

It gives some weight to the theory that Ennis would propose in Born, that Frank’s family served to hold him back from the very edge of the abyss, and that their loss let this monster (mostly) off the leash. Indeed, coupled with Up is Down and Black is White, the stories suggest that the memory of his family might be the one thing that still keeps Frank even remotely tethered to reality. When Nicky Cavella exhumes their bodies, Frank can’t control himself until their remains are laid back to rest, almost like some old-fashioned horror movie monster provoked by a disturbed gravesite.

Cavella has pissed off the wrong person...

Perhaps Ennis does soften up Frank just a bit. While I can understand Frank’s “got kind of a thing about respect for the elderly” and brutally protecting an old man is his idea of “community work”, but the ending of the story (where it’s revealed that Frank smuggled a rare vodka through everything that just happened) seems just a tad too sweet for my tastes. Frank might as well have winked at the reader, with Nick Fury saying something like, “See? He’s just a big ole softie, is our Frank.”

Speaking of Nick Fury, I actually really dug Ennis’ portrayal of Fury as something of a ridiculous parody of macho excess, but with a genuine sense of human decency hiding under the hard exterior. I kinda want to read Fury MAX now, the Garth Ennis Nicky Fury story that was famously so badass and intense that it scared George Clooney off doing a Nick Fury movie (and got Avi Arid famously upset with Ennis, banning him from writing another series). Still, we ended up with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, so I reckon that’s a trade-up. At least for the role in question.

Fury-ous...

I’m more inclined to buy Fury, even bitter and jaded Fury, as a jerk with a heart of gold than I am to accept the same of Frank Castle. Fury here effortless steals every scene he appears in – to the point where I wouldn’t mind seeing him become a regular fixture. My favourite sequence has Fury awoken by a phonecall informing him that Frank Castle has just provoked a huge international incident and may start nuclear war. “Well, tell them to go to defcon four if it makes them feel any better,” he mumbles down the phone, before hanging up and rolling over in bed next to three beautiful women. “Hhh,” he mumbles to himself, nodding off. “Castle.”

Fury makes a great supporting character here because Ennis writes him as an old soldier fighting his own eternal war. Indeed, it’s not too hard to imagine that this is the same Fury from the regular Marvel Universe, even if there’s some debate on the matter. Like Castle, he’s old and out-dated, but he’s still got some fight left in him. He respects Frank, perhaps more than anybody else we’ve seen so far, even trusting him with the top-secret details of the mission. The generals who hired Fury are much less humane and sympathetic, referring to Frank as “Fury’s creature” and a “hired savage.”  Fury is human enough to be appauled by their “distraction.”

Frank is gunning for the bad guys...

I like the recurring joke about Fury being unable to light up due to modern regulations (“You believe this no smoking bullsh!t?” he asks Frank, “In New York City?”). It’s great because it instantly points Fury as an out-dated old warhorse out of touch with the modern world (and perhaps the better for it). However, it also seems like a none-too-subtle jab at the editorial policy introduced at Marvel banning smoking in their magazines, even for long-term smokers like Fury or Wolverine. Political correctness gone mad, I say!

Up is Down and Black is White isn’t quite as much fun, mainly because it’s back in the style of a traditional Punisher story, despite the fact that it has the great hook of a gangster trying to make things “personal” between himself and Frank (or, as you and I would call it, “suicide by proxy”). Ennis gives us a nice little insight into Frank, and allows him to come to terms with his loss – to the point were you can contrast the death that Nicky Cavella receives here to the deaths that the murderers of his family received elsewhere; the latter is clearly more aggressive and cathartic to Frank, while the latter is almost business as usual. “You made it personal, Cavella,” Frank explains, “But all that buys you is a little more pain than most.” It’s hard to be personal when there’s not too much of a person left, isn’t it?

Stone cold Russian...

Frank accepts that his family are dead and buried. Although he’s driven into a rage by Cavella’s action, he comes to realise that his family are no longer here and can no longer be harmed by men like Cavella. It’s interesting to reflect on the Frank’s religious beliefs. Obviously, in mainstream continuity, before Ennis wrote him, he actually worked for the angels for a while – so he’d obviously accept the idea of heaven and hell. However, we’re not sure if Ennis’ stories here share continuity and, even if they do, I have no problem ignoring what came before.

Still, Frank does talk about “Hell” in this volume, although I’m not sure if he’s referring to the religious concept or a more existentialist idea. In Tygers, Ennis tied Frank to William Blake, the famous conflicted Catholic poet – one who doubted the existence of the divine based on the evil in the world. Truth be told, I’m not convinced Frank believes in any of the Catholic dogma – but I do see religious elements to his crusade. Of course, he’s a fundamentalist, so that might explain the similarities, but it’s something more basic than that.

No smoking in the cinema!

Frank’s desire to punish doesn’t stem from any legal ideal – he has killed those unconvicted and acquitted and those never even arrested – but from some absolute moral integrity, a belief system of some kind.It’s fascinating to think about, and it’s something that this storyline suggests. Does Frank believe his family or gone, or does he believe they might have gone to heaven? Either way, he knows he won’t see them again, because he’s not so deluded that he believes he could go to heaven (even if he believed in it).

Other than that, Up is Down and Black is White is fairly paint-by-numbers. There’s crazy sex suff thrown in (because all villains need to be sexually dysfunctional) and a whole host of returning supporting cast members from In the Beginning, even though the storyline has little to do with that one (save Nicky taking his second shot at the Punisher). It’s a little disappointing, because I get the sense that the latter is more likely to be an example of a “typical” Garth Ennis Punisher story than the former.

Ah well, almost half way there, and I am almost warming to it. Being honest, I’ve really enjoyed about 50% of the comic, but I’ve also been disappointed with the remaining half. Let’s see if that ratio can increase as we continue into the run.

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. The first six-issue MAX run of Fury is skip-able, but the thirteen-issue second run is highly recommended, being one of the best things Ennis has ever written. It’s subtitled My War Gone By.

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