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Marvel Knights: Punisher by Garth Ennis Omnibus

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.

Solo act again. No Micro. No gimmicks: no fancy ammo, no battle-vans, no high-tech surveillance. Just the basics. Been gone a while. Distracted. The scum in this city need a wake-up call. And here it comes.

– Frank Castle gives us a mission statement

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how big a mess the Punisher was in before Garth Ennis got his hands on the character. The fascination with “darker and edgier” in the nineties had given the character a huge boost, but it was quickly wasted. From a character who had supported multiple books during the “boom” years, he was reduced to one core title with a radical new direction. Imagining the Punisher as some sort of avenging angel figure hadn’t worked out, so it seemed like that character was truly struggling to keep his head above water. Then Garth Ennis arrived, writing a twelve-part maxi-series that would be the first step in a long and fruitful relationship with the character. He didn’t try to radically revamp the character, opting for a back-to-basics approach with a healthy dash of black humour, realising that there was something inherently absurdist about a gun-carrying psychopathic killing machine with a skull on his chest, sharing a universe with angels and demons and superheroes.

Welcome back, Frank...

I caught a glimpse of heaven once. The angels showed me. The idea was I’d kill for them. Clean up their mistakes on Earth. Eventually redeem myself. Tried it. Didn’t like it. Told them where to stick it.

– Garth Ennis efficiently deals with the status quo he inherited

I’ll concede that I haven’t been blown away by Garth Ennis’ work on the character in Punisher MAX, something that makes me feel like a bit of a heathen among comic book fans. As such, I was as surprised as anyone when I found myself actively loving Ennis’ time on Marvel Knights: Punisher, the predecessor to the book. It’ hard to articulate why this book worked so much better for me than his later work. Being entirely honest, I suspect that different perceptions of the books affected my enjoyment. Everybody rants and raves about Punisher MAX, which meant I had higher expectations. Meanwhile, people seem to dismiss Ennis’ Marvel Knights work as inherently inferior, so I approached it with a lower sense of anticipation.

However, I think there’s something more basic than that, something that explains why I find Ennis’ work here to be far more appealing than most of his work on Punisher MAX. Here, Ennis embraces the absurdity of the Punisher as a character. I know that many people will disagree, but Frank Castle is an absurd character. After all, he inhabits “a world where pitching a criminal dwarf off a skyscraper to tell his fellow scum you’re back is a sane and reasonable act.” It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have superpowers, or that he uses regular guns. He’s still a sociopath who engages in unsanctioned acts of violence against criminals, the same as any other superhero.

The devil you know...

There are those who claim that Frank doesn’t belong in the wider Marvel Universe, either because he has no powers, or because he kills criminals, or because he’s too “realistic.” To be honest, Ennis’ Punisher MAX run is hardly any more ridiculous than most mainstream comics, with a street vigilante narrowly averting a new World War. I can understand that Frank’s tendency to kill his foes might present story-telling problems for writers wanting to use recurring villains in a shared universe, but I can’t see why a good writer can’t work around that.

I subscribe to the idea that most comic titles should be relatively self-contained, allowing the authors the maximum amount of freedom, but I don’t see why Frank is any more of an awkward fit in the Marvel Universe than Batman is in the DC Universe. Frank is a crazy man with a skull on his chest and a couple of guns in a world of super soldiers and men in armour suits. Batman is a crazy man in a suit like a bat in a world populated by aliens and super-powered beings. In fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Punisher interact with these other ridiculous story elements, which is perhaps why I am very much looking forward to the Punisher by Rick Remender Omnibusthat will be released in a few months.

Blast from the past...

The notion that somehow Frank is more “mature” or “realistic” because he kills is quite absurd. If he were “realistic”, he’d be horrifying. Like any other superhero, dragging the character closer to the reality raises all sorts of problems and issues, the most obvious being that you can’t portray the character as heroic if you ground him the real world. In the Marvel Universe, he’s just a player in some grand slapstick comedy routine, a pulpy character in a pulpy world. If you try to push him towards reality, he becomes something far more terrifying and evil. Regardless of the character development and motivations, Ennis’ Punisher MAX doesn’t work because it asks us to consider the actions of a violent sociopath as unambiguously heroic. My favourite stories in Ennis’ MAX run were all those that acknowledged the grim comedy and farce of it all – Barracuda, for example.

Ennis’ Marvel Knights: Punisher run understands that the Punisher works best as a straight man against an absurd world – a man who is fairly askew himself, but actually seems relatively sane when measured against the world he inhabits. As I mentioned before, the Punisher is a pulpy hero, and any “real life” version of the character would by a deranged psychopath, probably ending up killed by law enforcement a few weeks into his crusade. (If he’s lucky.)

A pick-me-up...

Ennis offers us a very surreal version of the Marvel Universe, populated with the traditional Marvel heroes as they must appear to Frank. Daredevil, drawn by Steve Dillon as a skinny wimp, is nothing but a whining hypocrite. “Dino Gnucci is a monster,” Daredevil suggest. “But when he falls it’ll be according to the law, not in mockery of it.” This is from a man wearing a devil costume who breaks countless laws every night.

Those familiar with Ennis’ work will know the writer has little time for conventional superheroes. I can’t help but wonder if it’s due an association with self-appointed “protectors” in masks. After all, Northern Ireland was full of paramilitaries wearing balaclavas dealing out their own crooked idea of justice. Or perhaps he’s simply frustrated with how the genre has so completely dominated mainstream comics, to the point where it has suffocated almost everything else. I don’t know.

Kill 'em all!

Indeed, you can see Ennis’ contempt for conventional superheroes in his very first Punisher story, collected here. The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe is a fairly brutal deconstruction of the typical Marvel superheroes, presenting them as lofty and arrogant demi-gods with little concern for the lives that they damage in their own skirmishes. Of course, Ennis’ Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe has become something of a cult hit, but it provides a handy summary of the author’s attitude towards superheroes.

Of course, the irony is that Frank belongs to this world just as much as they do, despite what some fans might protest. He’s just as pulpy and just a silly as the rest of the inhabitants of the Marvel Universe. He has a costume and a gimmick and an origin, all essential ingredients for a modern superhero. The fact that his insignia is a skull rather than a bat doesn’t necessarily make it any less silly. Indeed, Ennis taps into the fact that it’s Frank’s attitudes and his views that make him such an interesting part of this tapestry, one that is best illustrated in contrast.

Elektra-fying...

In a world full of guys prancing around in tights, Ennis’ Frank actually makes a bit of sense. That’s not to insult any of the writer’s character work, which is superb, merely to illustrate how well he exploits his setting. Spider-Man is an ineffective loser, more effective as a human shield than as any sort of partner for Frank. “We just had a team-up,” Frank deadpans to a barely-conscious Spider-Man. “You were spectacular.”

Wolverine completes the trinity of regular superheroes that Ennis contrasts with Frank, and who are all soundly outwitted by Castle in Confederacy of Dunces. If Daredevil is the costumed superhero as pretentious and self-righteous hypocrite, and Spider-Man is the hero as a vacuous and ineffective figure, then Wolverine is the superhero as absurdly self-aggrandising and arrogant. Ennis writes Wolverine as if channelling Stan Lee on speed. The character frequently monologues to himself, especially in empty tunnels, and insists on referring to himself in the third person, as if recounting his own heroic deeds or building his own legend. “Ain’t no leg-severin’ psychos on-side with th’ Wolverine!”he insists at one point, a perfect illustration of the kind of dialogue Ennis treats us to.

Putting his skulls to use...

I have no problem with Ennis writing iconic characters like that. A lot of fans seem to get upset at writers handling characters in a provocative manner in a shared universe, but I don’t really mind one way or the other – as long as the writer has an interesting point to make. I love Warren Ellis’ surreal versions of familiar characters in Nextwave, for example. (“Moon-Boy tasted bad and gave me considerable rectal distress.”) Ennis is presenting the gigantic shared Marvel Universe as some sort of cosmic farce, to which Frank Castle is stuck playing the ultimate straight man.

Of course, the stronger sense of humour and the more surreal setting are the two factors that distinguish Ennis’ work on Castle here from his later Punisher MAX work. The omnibus collects his twelve-issue maxiseries (affectionately, if unofficially, known as Welcome Back Frank) and the on-going that followed. While I welcome the different tone Ennis strikes here, that’s not to suggest that this work is anymore shallow or somehow inferior to his later handling of the same character.

Nobody will catch you...

Indeed, Do Not Fall in New York City might be my favourite single chapter of Ennis’ entire Punisher saga. It’s a deeply moving one-issue story that sees Frank hunting down a friend from the war, who just flipped one day. It isn’t funny, it isn’t silly. It’s a deeply moving portrait of a generation lost to a pointless war, and the strangest places where companionship might be found. It’s the closest I think Ennis has ever managed to come to successfully making Frank Castle a sympathetic character, and it is probably one of the best single issues published in the first decade of this century.

It’s a simple little story, and one that is almost graceful. Having complained about how Punisher MAX seems to take itself too seriously, it seems ironic to single out this entry in Ennis’ Punisher canon, but I’d argue that Do Not Fall in New York City works so well because it contrasts with the insanity around it. After seeing the Punisher deal with mutants and superheroes and big-breasted Russian assassins, this provides a powerful illustration that sometimes the insanity is more subtle and more common than the ridiculous drama that otherwise surrounds Frank.

Unbearable...

Ennis gives Frank, as a character, a philosophy that has far more nuance than the hip nihilism of the nineties. “The world has gone mad” is a common refrain, one we’ve all heard (or even used) when trying to explain something beyond explanation. Like in Tigers, Ennis pitches Frank Castle as a response to that sort of chaos – how insane must the world be if Frank can delude himself into thinking that he’s the one sane man? Is he some sort of embodiment of the zeitgeist, an auto-immune response from a society gone wild? The world would have to go pretty wild to justify Frank, and I think Ennis manages to capture that sense quite well.

Yes, the villains he faces here are occasionally reduced to the status of cartoons, with the paraplegic Ma Gnucci being the most obvious example. Even when Frank visits Belfast, Ennis exaggerates the types urban terrorists involved in the struggle, but only to illustrate his point. “You’re telling me this is over a flag,”Frank deadpans at one point. There are no human sex traffickers here. When Ennis wants to tackle the military industrial complex, he resorts to a relatively shallow and simplistic caricature, rather than making nuanced and developed arguments. These villains and these evils reflect real world fears and concerns, but they are somewhat heightened. That feels somewhat appropriate given that Frank himself is an absurdly heightened response.

Fall from grace...

Still, Ennis writes Frank as perfectly here as he does in most of his other work. While I have difficulties with how Ennis seems to expect us to relate to Frank, and how he builds the world around the vigilante, there’s no denying that Ennis has an intrinsic understanding of how Frank Castle works. Having read some of the character’s earlier appearances, I think it’s fair to state that Ennis defined Castle, and his writing has impacted absolutely everything that followed, from Jason Aaron’s celebrated Punisher MAX run to Greg Rucka’s current high-profile Punisher relaunch.

While Ennis has relatively little time for conventional superheroes, he does have considerable experience writing war comics, and I think that’s integral to his understanding of Frank. Ennis writes combat in a way that makes sense – one that doesn’t conform to what comics and movies have taught us to expect, but one that seems right. Frank isn’t a combatant who values honour above reason, Ennis paints him as a combat pragmatist, something that helps the reader accept Frank as a hardened veteran, and one who could have survived sustained urban warfare for so long in a world like this. “Never look a man in the eye when you can shoot him in the back. That would be my motto.” For Frank, even sex is a weapon used to leverage information. (“Lonely people like to talk. Fact.”)

No bones about it...

Ennis writes a version of Frank who is a soldier. Like Castle never left the war. It reminds me of the closing monologue from Oliver Stone’s Platoon. “The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days.” Frank has turned his life into a battlefield so he doesn’t have to come home. “Kicked outta Rangers but… didn’t wanna stop this,” a dying soldier-turned-mercenary explains at one point. “Funny, ain’t it…? How it gets… inna blood…” War is very much in Frank’s blood, and it feels appropriate that the dying soldier recognises a kindred spirit.

Indeed, Ennis makes a wonderful logical stride in characterisation early on in his run, one that it’s easy to miss on first glance, but one that is probably the smartest thing that any Punisherwriter has ever done with the character. He effectively divorces Frank’s quest from the murder of his wife and child. frank’s tragic backstory has been a key part of the character’s mythology since the beginning, but there’s a point where logic fails. If he’s simply about revenge, surely there comes a point when he must be satisfied? Surely there’s a moment where that rage subsides and he has finally killed the last person in any way associated with the murder of his loved ones?

Crotch shot!

Just as Batman transcends the loss of his parents by becoming an ideological symbol of hope to a crumbling and decaying Gotham, so the Punisher must be something more than the guy who had a bad day. After all, people lose family quite regularly, and nobody has ever responded with the same commitment and single-minded drive of Frank Castle. Ennis is shrewd enough to realise that, to be honest, there simply has to be more. “Okay, I ain’t trynna upset you,” a mobster states at one point. “I know you suffered a painful tragedy. Nut I know you musta avenged that loss a thousand times over, the numbera mob guys you whacked. So lemme put it another why: How come you like killin’ us so much? Or does it have to be us? Will anybody do?”

It seems that, based on the evidence, anybody willdo. Frank doesn’t just kill mobsters. He kills white-collar criminals. He kills sleazy journalists. He fights paramilitaries and gun-runners. Ennis knows that his family is a flimsy excuse for such violence. That’s not to claim he didn’t love them, or that he doesn’t miss them, but it seems that their deaths merely let Frank off the lead, so to speak – free to indulge his own needs and hungers. Frank doesn’t even adhere to the law, but to his own moral compass.

He really has a thing about Wolverine's crotch, doesn't he?

Journalist Chuck Self wonders why Frank will protect the hilariously inept and ineffective Detective Soap. “Soap’s done nothing wrong,” Frank explains. “He gets to live.” It’s that simple for Frank. It’s a binary equation: either you did something wrong and deserve to die, or you get to live. “Only the bad guys die,” he remarks of the slimy journalist. “What he found out too late was — it never takes much to make that list.”

While Ennis adds nuance and depth to the character, he is careful that the character’s moral philosophy fits. “It doesn’t matter what made someone the way they are,” Frank remarks at one point, outlining his absolutist approach to morality. “Or what keeps them that way.” I won’t suggest that Ennis’ Frank is more “human” as a character than the versions that came before, but he makes more sense. Ennis has built a character here who works, who is internally consistent. Not bad for a guy who’s defining personality trait was that he liked to kill things.

Gripping stuff...

Ennis’ version of Frank Castle is a character who seems to make more sense, because we can see that he has his own internal logic. That doesn’t mean that Ennis has softened him up, or that he has tried to make Frank relatable. Indeed, some of Frank’s dialogue is downright chilling. “You could strand a man down here, alone in the dark, leave him to wander ’til he starves,” he remarks of the sewer system at one point. “Did that once. Just for variety.” You believe that he did.

Ennis’ Marvel Knights run has a lot more room for a lot more stories than his Punisher MAX run. His Punisher MAX story arcs where almost rigidly six-issue story arcs, with a minimum amount of genre-shifting going on. Here, however, Ennis has the space necessary to tell any number of stories, and to tell them in any fashion he sees fit. There’s done-in-one issues, two-parters and three-parters. There’s the especially surreal Squid, or the solemn Do Not Fall in New York City, or the corrupt cop tale Brotherhood, among quite a few others. Variety is the spice of life, and I think Ennis actually demonstrates here that there’s quite a bit of flexibility to the character of the Punisher.

Toilet humour...

Still, it seems that Ennis himself would disagree. As we reach the last chapter in his run, Confederacy of Dunces, Ennis takes the opportunity to push his character out of the Marvel Universe sandbox – illustrating that he simply doesn’t play well with the rest of its inhabitants. Ennis draws together three of his Marvel Universe guest-stars (Spider-Man, Wolverine, Daredevil) and even the Incredible Hulk, in a story where he pushes Frank into a head-on collision against those iconic comic book stars. The conclusion Ennis seems to reach is that the two would be best suited to leave one another alone.

Indeed, Frank directly points out how much a square peg he is to Daredevil’s round hole sense of justice, and how Castle can never really be reconciled logically with the wider comic book universe. “You want to stop me murdering criminals by taking me off the streets,” he tells the vigilante lawyer. “That’s stupid. Send me to prison and I’ll just kill everyone I meet. There’s only one way to stop me. You know that. If you haven’t got it in you to do it, don’t waste my time.”It seems that Ennis no longer wants to waste time reflecting on Frank’s place in that silly scheme of things either.

You wouldn't like them when they're angry...

It’s a solid criticism, and it does justify Ennis’ decision to take the character out of continuity and in his new direction. However, I accept that inherent contradiction as one of the many silly things that are inherent to comic books. After all, a world with Superman in it wouldn’t look at all like the real world, but it’s a conceit that comic books make. Similarly, there’s never going to be a convincing in-universe reason why Tony Stark or Reed Richards cure cancer or solve world hunger, or why Steve Rogers doesn’t intervene on mutant rights, because these are facets of a shared universe. Either you can suspend your disbelief, or you can’t. And if those things require the greatest degree of suspension, I don’t know what to say.

However, Ennis does suggest another reason for wanting to move on as he reaches the end of his Marvel Knights: Punisher run. The world has changed. It seems so long ago that the World Trade Centre was still standing, and seems so surreal to see both towers captured so centrally in the final page of Ennis and Dillon’s very first issue. “The view was different then,” Frank remarks, returning to that particular spot in his final issue. The world changed veryquickly in the years that followed, and I can see Ennis wanting to shift his tone and his focus as a way of reflecting that.

The Quiet Man...

Perhaps the innocence was gone, and Ennis felt that the real world had become so upside-down and so absurd that he could move the character slightly closer to it. I don’t know. In fairness, though, I respect all of Ennis’ run on the character, and I enjoy quite a lot of it. I just happen to prefer this earlier stuff to some of the stories that followed once Ennis moved to Punisher MAX. I still treasure these stories, told at a wonderful time in Marvel’s history – a time that produced Brian Michael Bendis’ Daredevil, Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, Peter Milligan’s X-Factor, Mark Waid’s Fantastic Four and quite a few others.

Of course, this run wouldn’t work half as well without the work of Steve Dillon, who provides the bulk of the art for the collection. I dream that, if they ever reprint this omnibus, Dillon’s name will adorn the cover below Ennis’. While the artist doesn’t provide the complete artwork for the collection, he does set the tone and provide a sizeable chunk, as well as scripting the ‘Nuff Saidsilent issue that is collected here.

Splat's the way it is...

Dillon’s figures fit the run quite well. Like Ennis’ characters they are vaguely cartoony, but also incredibly expressive and emotive. Dillon does amazing faces. Even rendering Frank Castle, perhaps the most stoic leading character in all of comic books, Dillon manages to convey so much through the panel. I don’t think any of Ennis’ collaborators on Punisher MAX ever matched Dillon’s skill, and it’s a massive shame that Marvel never released Ennis’ Punisher: War Zone miniseries in oversized hardcover. It would be nice to see Ennis’ and Dillon’s swansong on the character (a full circle from Welcome Back Frank) collected in the format. Especially since so much of Ennis’ other Punisher work has been collected in the format.

Still, I accept that I am in the minority in my appraisal of Ennis’ Punisher work. I just never seemed to take the character quite as seriously as Punisher MAX seems to. For me, the best of Ennis’ Punisher work is collected in this nice oversized volume, a collection of stories that accept it’s possible to tell interesting and well-characterised stories without taking a ridiculous concept far too seriously.

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

And perhaps some of our other Garth Ennis Punisher reviews:

13 Responses

  1. Thanks for the review! It’s very thorough and showcases nice moments from the book. I just reread Spider-Man’s team up with the Punisher in Amazing Spider-Man #577, by Zeb Wells and Paolo Rivera, and I’m beginning to be very curious about Frank Castle.

    I ordered the Punishermax vol. 6 HC from Amazon, because it was on bargain price, but this particular omnibus seems to be out of print everywhere.

    • Thanks Kevin. Yep, it’s a bit of a pain to get a hold of. Maybe they’ll reprint it, like they’re doing with Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. I have to say, I hate having to hunt down this sort of classic stuff.

  2. “Regardless of the character development and motivations, Ennis’ Punisher MAX doesn’t work because it asks us to consider the actions of a violent sociopath as unambiguously heroic.”

    I don’t see that in Garth Ennis’ Punisher.

    Ennis did not try to make Frank Castle adorable and likable to the reader. It’s the opposite. As you stated before, Castle is a sociopath. The guy is, by any measure, insane or a monster. You are not supposed to like him.

    Garth Ennis’ Punisher is more like an animal than a man (like a tiger, maybe?). The only certainty we have about the character is that he will never stop killing. The morality of his actions doesn’t really matter, because killing is his nature, he can’t control it. The morality of his actions are up to us to decide: the readers (and some coadjuvants characters).

    For example: do I agree with him killing the pedophile couple? Kind of. I agree with him killing the slavers? Yes. I agree with him killing the russian soldiers? No. It depends a lot.

    I guess the best thing about Punisher Max is that you can see some real drama in it. Because, as we know, Frank Castle still has some level of conscience. One of his biggest fears is to lose himself completely to the killing (remember his dream in “Up is Down and Black is White”?). He actually fears that someday, if he runs out of bad guys, he will start killing innocent people. So, by becoming the Punisher, Castle is not just “protecting” regular people from crime… He is avoiding hurting innocent people the best way he can. And it’s a horrible way.

    The most sad thing is that he creates excuses about killing (They murded my family!; Criminals must die!; etc), because he can’t confront himself with the truth: that he is, and has always been, a sick man.

    Ultimately, Frank Castle is a human that tried and failed to control his “evil” nature. And it’s constantly trying to not cross the last line (killing innocents), that will eventually ends his humanity permanently. That’s why I think the character is so interesting: because I can’t really relate to him as a human being, but I can relate to what’s left of his humanity.

    But I don’t get your point about the absurdity of the character. What character in comic books, especially the super-hero gender, is not absurd?

    • Fair points, but I think Castle is very clearly a superhero despite the way that Ennis seems reluctant to address him as such in MAX. I think his absurdity works better when it’s acknowledged in Marvel Knights than when Ennis tries to “ground” the character in his MAX series. I think Ennis does grant the character some measure of psychological complexity, as you note, but undermines that by seeming to refuse he’s still playing Frank as a superhero.

      Ennis’ Punisher never kills an innocent. Okay, the soldiers you give as an example are the closest we come to an exception, but nobody ever gets trapped within his crossfire, or nobody puts themselves in a situation against Frank where they are innocent and he is guilty, both of which require tremendous suspension of disbelief. Even those soldier were arguably enemy combatants to Frank, or passively complicit in experimenting on a young girl.

      What would Frank do if a decent uncorrupted, hard working cop came after him and didn’t either end up so wildly incompetent he couldn’t stop Frank or ultimately decide to let him continue on? Or, in Widowmaker, what if the wives of those gangsters had merely wanted to avenge their husbands, without becoming explicitly complicit in their crimes? I know you can make the case that they were living off the profits of their husbands’ labours, but Frank didn’t kill them for that back at the start, so at least that would have added a shade of grey.

      So if he were forced to kill somebody who only wanted him dead because of what he had done? Given that Ennis’ Frank seems to concede that his actions are wrong (in The End, the last person he punishes is himself), would he take an innocent life for wanting to end his?

      These are all scenarios that break the suspension of disbelief for any comic book character. And there are rules you can’t really break without irreparably damaging the character – what would happen if Batman tried his scare routine on a mook with a heart condition, killing him? For the Punisher, it’s the idea that he can continue to do what he does for so long without ever encountering an innocent character willing to stand up to him, or even that nobody gets caught in the crossfire between him and criminals. I concede it’s a necessary suspension of disbelief, but I think it works infinitely better when the story isn’t trying to offer a more nuanced portrayal of Frank.

      Frank is portrayed as morally a shade of dark grey, but he’s only pitted against morally black – in contrast, he might as well be white. It’s like a moral Simultaneous Contrast Illusion. I think that works when the book embraces the absurdity of the character – he does, after all, wear a giant white skull on his chest – but that it feels somewhat shallow and manipulative when Ennis tries to ground the character during the MAX lines.

      • “Ennis’ Punisher never kills an innocent.”

        Not just Ennis’, but almost any version of the Punisher. It’s the definition of the character: he only kills the “bad” guys. This is one of the rules of the character. If you make the Punisher kill innocent people, well… It’s no longer a Punisher story anymore, is it? It’s a Crazy Killer story.

        That’s why Ennis’ Punisher is different. He doesn’t just kill mobsters, gangsters and drug dealers. He kills russian soldiers, white collar criminals and even Micro, his old buddy. And I don’t see these people guilty enough to deserve that kind of punishment.

        And sometimes it’s just a bloodbath. Ennis’ Punisher makes killers and cold soldiers looks like pussies. Hell, even the mafia hitmen look like sheep in his hands. Most of the time it’s not like Frank Castle is killing the bad guys. Most of the time we have the Punisher being sadistic and cruel with people that never had a chance against him. It’s a story of a mass murderer killing criminals for fun.

        That’s why I don’t see the character being in the white side of anything. He just put himself in the grey area so he can’t became completely dark. As a stated before: if he kills an innocent, it’s goodbye humanity and sanity.

        But what happens when innocent people try to kill the Punisher? I think this was well responded in “The Widowmaker” and “Valley Forge”. The cop, in Widowmaker, could just shoot Frank in the face, but let him go. Otherwise, he would be probably dead. And Frank tried to escape from those Delta Force soldiers (before get captured) instead of kill them. So, yeah, I think that, against innocent people, Frank can be captured and killed. I don’t know what kind of innocent people can do that to the Punisher (without militar training and luck), but it’s possible.

        About the absurdity: I don’t think it’s valid. All the comic books, especially in the superhero gender, suffer from this. Damn, if the Punisher is absurd (and it is), in what level of absurdity is the Batman, Spiderman or Superman? We don’t have this characters stopping every 5 pages to think “my god, I look ridiculous” or “my superpowers don’t make any sense”.I agree with you: Punisher Max is absurd and doens’t admit it. But what superhero comic book actually does it?

      • It’s a fair point about the innocent people in Widowmaker and Valley Forge, but it still feels like a narrative copout that every time an innocent pursuing Frank comes up against him that they compromise so he doesn’t have to. Then again, they kill him and the story ends, but it never seems like Frank faces that sort of dilemma. Which is grand in the sort of suspension of disbelief that regular comics have, but MAX just seemed so serious about everything, even when Frank was single-handedly invading Russia or what-have-you. I concede it’s a matter of taste.

        And on the innocent thing, I don’t mean intentionally. I mean in the crossfire, or accidentally. I know that it has been sort of covered when bad guys tried to set him up, but again it feels like a copout that works with the same suspension of disbelief you afford Batman, Superman or Spider-Man. I know he plans well, but it takes the “Batman with prep” school of thought to assume Frank’ll never accidentally kill somebody who didn’t have it coming. I actually quite liked that about the Warzone film, the idea he’d kill an undercover cop. Of course, the movie awkwardly fumbles that idea, but it’s a fascinating concept.

        I know none of these require any more or any less suspension of disbelief than Superman catching Lois without shredding her, or Batman never giving a mook a heart attack or breaking the wrong bone or blood vessel, but I just feel that that sort of suspension of disbelief works much better inside the sort of Marvel Knights book than it does inside the far more serious and dour MAX books.

        That’s not to say that I don’t like the MAX books – Ennis gets Frank, and I love his Fury and I can admit that it’s well written throughout – but I prefer the Marvel Knights book because I think the character works far better within that sort of absurd framework. I think that Marvel Knights does a better job of embracing that than MAX does. As for examples from mainstream comics, writers like Moore or Morrison or Whedon or Ellis tend to work best embracing the absurdity of the superhero genre. I think Marvel Knights fits more comfortably with stuff like Whedon’s X-Men or Morrison’s Batman, as far as stuff from mainstream publishers goes. (Which, to be honest, would probably offend Ennis, though I mean it as a complement.) I don’t think his MAX stuff fits comfortably with either that superhero stuff or other non-superhero like 100 Bullets, for example.

        And of course, this is all entirely subjective. You make very solid arguments, and I hope I’ve explained how I feel, or why I feel the way that I do.

  3. I understand, you make yourself very clear. Thank you for the responses.

    By the way, your site is very good. I like the way you analyze comics. Especially Morrison’s stuff.

    • Thanks, much appreciated. I know I’m in the minority on this, and apologise if I seemed overly defensive.

  4. About the only pre-Ennis Punisher stories worth reading are the ones by Chuck Dixon (who Ennis liked, the feeling being mutual) and the occasional standalone effort like the graphic novel Return to Big Nothing (which I think was the first story to explore Frank’s time in Vietnam) and maybe the five-issue Circle of Blood miniseries.

    • I kinda liked his Acts of Vengeance tie-in. But yep, that’s the only Punisher story before Ennis that stands out for me. Unless you count his guest appearances in Miller’s Daredevil.

      • Acts of Vengeance was fun, especially considering it was by Mike Baron, whose Punisher was all over the flipping place in terms of quality (that two-parter where Frank teams up with Luke Cage after being temporarily turned black…)

        Turns out the aforementioned Return to Big Nothing and Circle of Blood were by the same writer, a fellow named Steven Grant. So yeah, him and Dixon are the best bets when it comes to pre-Ennis.

        Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of collected editions when it comes to that era. Oh well.

      • Oh, and in case your curious, the stories that weren’t included in this omnibus included a standalone one about Frank having a dream about going back in time to kill Al Capone, and an arc that had Frank taking on weaponized taxis being built by a man with a wrench for a hand at the behest of his morbidly obese boss, whose other employees included parodies of Mulder and Scully.

        Apologies if it seems like I’m invading your comments sections; Punisher’s tied with Spidey as my favorite comic character, so I can get a bit rambly.

      • Nonsense!

        I love comments! Comment away!

        (And I also like trivia. It’s good to be informed – and, perhaps even corrected. Engagement is flattering.)

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