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Garth Ennis’ Run on Punisher MAX – Hardcover, Vol. IV (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 don’t know. It seems like, at times, I run hot and cold to Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX run. It’s frequently cited as one of the great runs of modern comics, and there are moments when – if I squint – I can see hints of that masterpiece everybody is taking at. At other times, it seems I’m wandering in the desert, staring at a perfectly functional comic book, trying to figure out what everybody is making such a big fuss about. This penultimate collection of Ennis’ run contains two great examples of this. On one hand, the collection opens with the incredibly pedestrian Man of Stone, while it closes with the smarter-than-it-appears Widowmaker. Neither story is a masterpiece, but the latter has a lot more insight than I’ve come to expect from the series, while the former takes an interesting premise and does nothing with it.

The Punisherette?

By all accounts, Man of Stone should be gripping reading. After all, the central thesis of Ennis’ writings on Frank Castle is that the man is a by-product of the Vietnam War. Taking him out of his comfort zone and throwing him into the middle of the Afghanistan Conflict should make for compelling stuff. What happens when Frank ends up in a theatre of war too similar to his old stomping grounds for comfort. The answer, it appears, is next to nothing. Ennis portrays Afghanistan as a large empty wasteland, where nobody but Punisher MAX supporting cast members seem to wander around, randomly bumping into one another and meditating on life, the universe and stuff.

This is particularly disappointing because Man of Stone picks up where Mother Russia left off, with the eponymous “Man of Stone” hunting Frank for his actions on Russian soil. Mother Russia was one of the series’ better stories, and the General had some lovely moments – even though he never shared a panel or interacted directly with Frank. So, in theory, combining the two should set sparks flying, particularly since the pair seem to have a good read of each other based off the actions and outcomes of the events in Russia – with the General considering Frank a Russian born in America, a potent observation.

Stone-walling...

However, Man of Stone doesn’t tell us anything about the General we haven’t already guessed. Nor does it tell us anything about Frank. Anybody with evening a passing familiarity with Frank’s methods will know the man “doesn’t like loose ends.” Faced with an obvious trap, he’ll confront it.“It had to be faced,” he offers as justification, “it had to be finished.” Indeed, the closest thing to an insight about Frank comes from British soldier Yorkie, who admits that he’s often asked about Frank. What does he tell the young recruits? “I tell them there’s no explaining it.” I agree that this is the best approach to take to Frank, but it seems anti-climactic here.

The best part about the arc – and keep in mind that it’s a six-issue arc – is the foreshadowing. Ennis seems to be setting something big up down the line. O’Brien is reaching the end of her quest for revenge – something which, unlike Frank, she has decided will be defined and finite. However, given that revenge has become her whole life, what happens after she succeeds? She’s struggling with “what happens next.” As she explains, “With hubby gone I’ll have no one left I want to kill. No battles left to fight.” Can she make a life after the war? Frank obviously couldn’t – he started and never looked back.

In the desert, no one remembers your name...

O’Brien obviously needs Frank to be somebody that he can’t be, and that we know (and she should know) he can’t be. It’s interesting to note that both arcs collected here, Man of Stone and Widowmaker, offer a female counterpart to Frank (along with some male ones too). The core theme seems to be that nobody but Frank has the stomach for what he does, that nobody but Frank can endure as long as he has – and that after so long, even Frank himself is starting to wear down just a little bit.

Indeed, by the start of Widowmaker, worn out by the climax of the last story, we see hints of Frank starting to grow a little weary of his eternal war. Dealing with a ring of criminals, Frank calls back to his ridiculously violent actions in The Slavers, seemingly lacking the energy to finish this spate of killings with anything matching that vigor. “The things I did last year,” he explains, “I didn’t do.” In this case, Frank “didn’t hang his innards from a tree”, he “didn’t pulp his face and break his limbs against plate glass, then send him screaming fifty floors to street”, nor did he “douse him in gasoline and light a match.”

Unfriendly fire...

Ennis shows us that Frank is getting just a bit fatigued and worn down by it all. His experiences have made him even more cynical, as he reflects on the inevitable cyclical nature of violence – the fact that it returns like a boomerang through families. “The boys looked like the damage was done,” he remarks of the young victims of sexual abuse he found. “I had a sinking feeling– I’d be seeing them again in twenty years.” Victims become abusers – the statistical evidence bears that truism out. Indeed, as Jenny observes, Frank is facing “the poor little orphans, growing up into monsters without any father figures”, many of whom he probably killed himself. The narration becomes more introspective and retrospective, with Castle narrating lines like “I remember thinking…” as we watch events unfold in real time – creating the impression the character is reflecting on events long past.

Ennis’ Frank Castle is mostly detached, but occasionally the writer hints that some things can get through to him, especially involving children. This is the collection which gave us the infamous “sometimes I’d like to get my hands on god” line, as uttered in Punisher: WarZone. It sounds a lot less corny on the written page, and as internal observation as opposed to confession. Indeed, there’s a strong sense that the writers of the film drew pretty strongly from this arc – it gives us Budiansky, a cop here drawn to resemble Samuel L. Jackson, but an FBI agent played by Colin Salmon in the film. If only the screenplay had picked up on some of the rather clever observations about perpetual war that Ennis slips into his writing here.

The Castle endures...

Of course, it isn’t perfect. The story explores one aspect of this never-ending cycle in pitting Frank against the widows of those he has killed. It’s an interesting scenario – after all, would innocent women and children have a legitimate cause of action against Frank for taking away their husbands? Even if their husbands were criminals, it doesn’t give Frank the right to take away their husbands and fathers forever, especially without due process. Frank’s killings were sparked by the loss of his own family (even if Ennis hints there’s a deeper cause at play), so it would be a fitting question to ask.

However, Ennis rejects the moral ambiguity that this potential scenario offers, instead giving us a rather straightforward bunch of villains:

In the end then whether or not these women deserve their revenge too is a bit of a straw man argument, because these widows are equally as criminal as their husbands (or in Jenny’s case are actually grateful at being “rescued” by Frank). It would have been interesting to have seen a real conflict here instead, for Ennis to have Frank come in contact with someone who is wholly innocent, a widow he made who is a good person but hates him for killing her family. Would she be justified in wanting to kill him? Would Frank fight back? Good questions worth exploring, I think. Instead, however, these women are all awful human beings, particularly Annabella who is willing to submit her own sister to rape and torture at the hands of her husband in order to keep the family business going.

Strange bedfellows...

I think this perhaps hits on one of the elements I’ve found quite disappointing during Ennis’ run. While Ennis acknowledges that Castle is not one to be romanticised (“wait a minute, hold on, he beats a woman for a &$%#in’ half-hour an’ you think he’s some kinda knight in shining armour?” one of the widows from Widowmaker observes), Frank Castle always holds the moral high ground in the stories that Ennis tells. He’s always justified in his murders, and those trying to catch and stop him are always either guilty or corrupt. On the few occasions that a morally righteous character confronts Frank, Ennis has them cave almost instantly – accepting that Frank’s methods are completely and undoubtedly suited to the situation at hand. In short, Frank is always right (or, at least, “the least wrong”) – which undermines a lot of the moral ambiguity that Ennis seems to want to imbue in his protagonist.

Still, complaint aside, I like the hints that Ennis is dropping about Frank – and whether he can do this forever. Born suggested that some non-corporeal entity gave Frank his mission, gave him a purpose. Tygers suggested that people like Frank serve a social function – wolves protecting sheep, so to speak. Frank wasn’t the first to fulfil the role (learning it from a friend’s older sibling in Tygers), so it stands that he won’t be the last.

Taking his punishment...

I’m not sure if Ennis’ Punisher is meant to be in some way supernatural – death or war’s champion – or whether he’s just some by-product of the American Dream, but here the author drops hints that the world is ready to replace Frank, should he ever prove unable to continue in his role. We’re introduced to Detective Budiansky, a hero cop who has a history of rebelling against the rules in order to save lives – killing a teenager who had taken hostages in his school gym. Asked to justify taking the shot, Budiansky makes it clear that he takes no joy in what he had to do. “My judgment was not — only I can do this. It was someone has to. And no one else will.” It’s not too hard to image Frank justifying his actions the same way.

Indeed, the detective is something of a kindred spirit. As the media pick apart his excessive use of force on a gang member who wounded his wife, Castle is sympathetic. “Try being there,” Castle remarks to himself. The universe pushes Budiansky very close to the role of Punisher, critically wounding his wife, putting him on a quest for revenge. Indeed, the first person he confronts is Castle himself, who has already beaten him to the punch. Castle is aghast at the detective, holding his gun in the rain. “You want to be me?” Frank asks, horrified.

To the MAX...

In the end, Budiansky backs down and Frank resumes his own mission. It’s a telling moment. One would assume, in a world as bleak as the one Ennis presents to us, the new Punisher’s first act would be to punish Frank Castle. It’s the cycle of violence – even Frank himself can’t believe that he will escape some sort of consequence for his actions. It’s a powerful moment, and one which hits a lot of the great themes that Ennis is hinting it. It’s a giant machine, perpetually growing and consuming, living and dying, rising and falling.

The series goes to great lengths to stress again and again that Frank is the only person who has the strength to fill this role and keep going. O’Brien is spent, Yorkie is retiring, Jenny doesn’t have the energy to keep to going and Budiansky has too much to hold on to. However, I find it hard to believe that Frank isn’t showing signs of stress, after all he’s endured (at least emotionally) since Ennis started writing. Indeed, the collection closes with a rather nihilistic remark from Frank, speaking about the damaged Jenny, “If I could, I’d kill every single one of them. I’d wipe them out. And you’d never have had to exist at all.”

Frank is deserted...

It’s interesting to wonder a bit about that. Is it an affirmation of what he’s doing? A reminder that he seeks to wipe out scum who would hurt innocent people like Jenny? If it is, it seems a like optimistic for the character, especially since he readily concedes that he ultimately make little real difference. He cuts down gangsters, and there’s always new ones to take their place. Is it something darker than that? Is it an anger Ennis has hinted at before, one aimed squarely at society at large?

In an earlier volume, Frank confessed to dreaming of gunning down civilians, and it has been argued that Frank is a psychotic essentially self-medicating by venting his aggression on criminals. Does he resent mankind for even existing? Are pain and hurt and suffering and cruelty parts of the human condition that could only be wiped out through mass murder? Did Jenny touch a part of Frank he thought was dead, and has that made him colder and harder – does he believe that if everybody was dead he’d never feel loss? It’s interesting, and I think it hints at more to come than simply Frank getting himself “back on mission.”

Home movies...

It’s a nice little touch, and one that illustrates Ennis has a wonderful holistic view of Frank and his environment, a fully-realised version of the character formed in his imagination. Still, I can’t find myself falling madly in love with Punisher MAX, despite occasional moments of brilliance. Perhaps the ending – which Ennis seems to be building towards – will prove me wrong.

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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