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

I think I’m finally getting the hang of Ennis’ run on Punisher MAX. It seems that it’s pretty much positioned between two extremes: bleak nihilistic cynicism and depressing absurdist black comedy. I don’t think that any collection of Ennis’ work illustrates these two extremes quite as well as this one, collecting both The Slavers and Barracuda – the former undoubtedly Ennis’ darkest work on the title and the former probably the most ridiculously cynical comedy the writer has drafted for the character (at least on the MAXline). It certainly makes for one weird cocktail.

Frankly my dear...

The Slavers is pretty highly regarded as Punisher stories go, to the extent that many would consider the six-issue story to be perhaps the highlight of Ennis’ work with Frank Castle. I’m not entirely sure I agree. The story is essentially your average Punisher story, in which the author serves to make our lead character seem heroic in comparison to some of the worst scumbags on the planet. It’s really hard to find a bunch of villains that are less sympathetic than human traffickers, so the audience almost encourages Frank to lash out violently and to brutally torture and kill them – to punish them in a way that the law simply isn’t able to.

In fairness, Ennis is a smart enough writer to admit what he’s doing. He knows in writing The Slavers that this is about as close as he will ever come to getting us to cheer for the murderous vigilante, and he calls us on that. We’ve all heard suggestions that lethal violence should be used against organised criminals, when the criminal justice system is impotent to contain them, but Ennis is shrewdly aware that the sort of violence people are suggesting won’t accomplish much in the grand scheme of things – and Ennis suggests that we know it too. So, even if we don’t believe that violence and murder will accomplish anything, why on earth do we want it?

All at sea...

When a police officer discovers that it was a social worker who tipped Frank off to the routines of the group, the cop points out, “You know it does no good, don’t you? The way he works? It never solves the problem, it never really ends anything…” The social worker concedes that she knew this, but she told Castle what he needed to know anyway. Even Frank himself concedes that he can’t singlehandedly stop these kinds of people. “I knew from the start I’d never put an end to it. No more than I could stop the trade in heroin, or keep a tide from coming in. The most I could do, I figured, was give them pause for thought.”

Ennis suggests that, even though we know that this sort of violence and death will ultimate accomplish less than nothing (Frank observes that the girls freed from the prostitution ring will likely be picked up again if they are sent home), we like to read about Frank because we like the suffering for the sake of it. Ennis takes great pride in forcing several members of the establishment (including cops and the social worker) to compromise their morals and person beliefs for what they know will amount to nothing. Indeed, Ennis goes so far as to suggest that these people, who are so outraged and angry, use Castle to do the sort of dirty work that they are afraid to themselves.

Frank never misses a window of opportunity...

Somehow, Ennis suggests, this validates the Punisher as a social function – much like in Tygers, Ennis suggests that the Punisher is something of a necessary evil which exists outside the system to protect it. And we are all, he suggests, complicit in Frank’s cycle of violence and revenge – we’re effectively feeding raw meat to the tiger, pushing him on and hoping to see him kill the kinds of people who we might argue would otherwise escape any form of retribution. There’s a brief moment in Barracuda where the eponymous hitman reflects on how hard it is to look away from sharks feeding on human flesh – in a way, this is a reflection of that. The social worker is appalled at what she’s done, vomiting into the toilet, but she used Frank as a means to see her own twisted version of justice done, and that makes her at least in someway responsible. “What in the name of god have I done…?”

Not that Frank as a character minds being used. Time and again, I have a hard time seeing the character in as sympathetic a light as most would paint him. He’s effectively a high-functioning sociopath who channels his aggressive urges into criminals. He’s not a very well man, but he’s perfectly aware of this. He’s smart, as Ennis’ narration assures us – and he’s shrewdly manipulative. He does whatever he can in order to continue doing what it is that he enjoys doing. He’s sort of like television’s Dexter, only a lot less charming. It’s odd that one might seem more sympathetic than the other, but at least Dexter seems aware that there is something fundamentally wrong with him – he seems more fundamentally human (which, incidentally, probably makes him a less realistic sociopath – unless he’s faking emotional attachment). I get the impression that Frank’s subconscious has focused his rage and simmering violence into a form where he believes it is almost constructive (or at least not actively destructive).

Speak Frank...

Because Frank clearly sees himself as something that exists to protect society, even if he can never be part of it – I think that’s why there’s such a tendency to romanticise the character in a sort of a “he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard!” sort of a way. Frank is immensely disturbed (and quite rightly) by the eponymous Slavers, but there’s somehting telling in his last words to Vera, one of the ringleaders. “All that counts is that you can’t stop me,” he mockingly informs her, clearly serving a helping of poetic justice. “I’m stronger than you, so I can do anything I want.” The fact that Frank articulates this with such biting sarcasm suggests that this truly and fundamentally offends him – this idea of “might makes right” or the idea that the strong have the right to do whatever they want to the weak. The idea that restraints and constraints on such strength exist is the very heart of a democratic society and civilisation, and it seems clear that Frank respects this and believes in it, despite all his nihilism. He genuinely believes that he functions to protect society, by killing those who stray outside it.

He’s smart enough to manipulate people into helping him feed his obsession and habit. he claims he had to ask the social worker for assistance in finding the file, but I doubt that was the real reason – I believe Frank wanted her to admit to herself that she wanted him to kill those people. Later on, when it seems she’s falling apart, he tries to shield her from the carnage he has caused. “You’ve got some stupid idea that you need to confront anything,” he instructs her, “get rid of it. All you’ll do is give yourself a headful of nightmares. What happened here was down to me.” This isn’t Frank being altruistic. He isn’t trying to spare her conscience. He just wants her in a position to do what he tells her. And she calls him on it, “And I’m no good to you if I’m so guilty I go crazy, am I? No, I’m only supposed to feel sh!tty enough to help you out with these four.” He manipulates people into doing what he wants, which is something that’s very easy to miss behind his gruff, no-nonsense exterior.

Barracuda is armed to the teeth...

And what he wants is violence. It’s an urge and an addiction. It’s not a noble calling. It’s not one man taking a weight upon his shoulder. As calm and detached as Frank tries to sound, Ennis makes it clear that killing has a strong allure to him, strong enough to even overwhelm his own better judgment and military training. “I should have been more patient,” he explains after opening fire on a group of traffickers, “but my number one target was barely twenty yards away. What can I say? I’m only human.” The character just described an urge to kill another human being as a temptation he couldn’t resist because he is “only human.”

The Slavers is undoubtedly dark stuff, but it doesn’t really tell us too much about Frank Castle, save what we already knew of him. I actually appreciate the complexity that Ennis gives the character, even if it’s hard to accept Frank as a protagonist most of the time. I still maintain, though, that the world Ennis paints isn’t grey or dark enough to make Frank Castle an anti-hero, or even an anti-villain. He’s still a psychopathic mass-murderer, regardless of the fact that he doesn’t kill cops, and he’s still fighting a very strong addiction to murder. He’s just exceptionally good at justifying it – like most sociopaths are.

Time for a "warm up"?

Anyway, Barracuda makes for a rather sudden change of pace. In fairness, given how Ennis handles geo-politics in Mother Russia, I was worried about how the writer would tackle white collar crime here. Instead of a heavy-handed after-school special, Ennis instead indulges some of his most profane and absurd violent whims, giving us what is as close as a Punisher story can come to a comedy of errors. The basic plot is that our boy Frank is pretty much completely out of his depth when dealing with a large energy conglomerate, and things get so messed up so fast that Frank is barely able to stumble through the story alive as the criminals pretty much wipe themselves out,

It’s refreshing because there’s a genuine sense that Frank is completely out of his depth in dealing with this sort of thing. “It wasn’t ’til later I figured out just how far behind the times I was,” Frank remarks as he finally arrives, amid a whole host of set-ups and double-crosses. Given how ridiculously well-organised the character typically is, it’s fantastic fun to see him play well outside his element, to the point where – despite the fact he’s setting off ready for a rampage – he ends up pretty much playing spectator. While other characters are leaking stuff to the press and playing sides off one another, frank for once can only come up with a relatively straightforward plan, “Motor over to Miami, find them, kill them, then go home. Nothing clever. Nothing subtle.”

Swimming with sharks...

The story also does well to feature another of Ennis’ larger-than-life characters. Nick Fury is perhaps my favourite supporting character from this series, showing up and chewing scenery while looking badass and puffing a cigar, but the mercenary Barracuda is almost as fascinating. Again, like Frank, a much more complex character than he seems, he’s manipulative and cheeky – hiding his sociopathy under a relatively upbeat demeanour, while playing to others’ expectations and insecurities. There’s little doubt that (if Frank had not arrived), regardless of all the rich folks stabbing each other in the back, Barracuda would have come out on top.

On the other hand, I do think that there’s something very wrong with Castle’s solution to the plan to black out Florida. He essentially plans to sink a yacht filled with shareholders into shark-infested waters. However, this seems more than a little out of character for the “noble”Frank Castle that Ennis seems to tease us with – suggesting that, while violent, Frank is a fundamentally decent human being. He’s usually careful not to harm innocent by-standers. Even if the board voted unanimously to support the plan, there were still spouses (and possibly children) on board, as well as the crew of the boat itself. Even if they were, as the dialogue suggests, loyal company employees, it’s a bit much to assume they all knew what was going on and – even if they did – it’s a bit much to assume Frank could be reasonably aware of that fact, given how behind the times he spends most of the arc.

Seeing double...

It is moments like this which exist to remind the reader that Frank isn’t an anti-hero or any nonsense like that. He’s a psychopath – and here he has been pushed to the edge by Barracuda. This sort of mass murder is akin to the lashing out he did at his friend for leaving his wife, way back after the loss of Frank’s family. It’s a reminder that Castle is a fundamentally sick human being, and one who might be channelling his efforts into killing criminals as a means of controlling his violent urges. We see something similar in The End, where Frank takes his philosophy to its logical conclusion and kills every living person on the planet (as far as we’re aware).

It’s interesting the role that Ennis casts the Punisher in during this little adventure. He’s the ultimate straight man in this absurdist comedy, the irony being that only in this situation could a man with ambitions as straightforward as Frank Castle serve as a “wild card.” Frank is just doing what he does, what he has always done, and somehow sets in motion this huge chain reaction. It’s a rather wonderful illustration of how messed up the world must be.

Ennis never beats us us over the head with anything...

So, I think it’s starting to grow on me. Slowly. Perhaps by the end of this, I’ll finally see what everybody’s been raving about when it comes to Ennis’ Punisher. So far, it’s good, but not great.

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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