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

And so we’re here. We’ve reached the end of Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX run, and one of the last things the author wrote for the character (he’d go on to write the Punisher: WarZone miniseries to tie into the film of the same name). It’s frequently regarded as perhaps the definitive run on the character, one held up as an example of what the Marvel MAX imprint is capable of. So, it’s been a long, sixty-issue journey to this point. And, I have to confess, I wasn’t entirely blown away by the run, or the conclusion to it.

Firing on all cylinders?

I think part of the problem is the ending. Widowmaker, the story that concluded the last volume, explored the idea that perhaps Frank was nearing the end of the tether – that he was fatigued and worn out by his constant war. That the character wouldn’t necessarily vanquiched by a mortal foe, but just defeated by three decades of constant war. Ennis hinted that the universe was already searching for some sort of replacement to Castle, something that might maintain the volatile equilibrium, the new tyger to fulfil Castle’s role.

While the story ended with a resolute Castle vowing to continue his one-man war on crime, there was a sense of darkness hanging in the air, like a storm cloud overhead. The implication was that Frank couldn’t do this forever, regardless of his stern acceptance of the life he has. It seemed very much that Ennis’ Punisher was moving towards some sort of resolution. And the conclusion, according to Ennis, is that there is no conclusion. I don’t mind that Ennis suggests that there’s no real consensus that can be reached about what Frank is or what he does (it’s really up to the reader to make up their mind), more that there’s no ending – when the series feels like it’s moving towards an ending.

Mad road, driving men ahead…

I can understand why there isn’t an ending. After all, I don’t see Frank as the type to settle down or retire (even though Long, Cold Dark reveals that Frank has bought a nice piece of land). The only way to really wrap up Frank’s arc would be to kill him off. Ennis adopts a somewhat lax attitude to continuity, drawing in characters from as far afield as his run on Hitman for DC comics, while ignoring most of his own Marvel Knights run (save a supporting character or so) – and quite rightly, too. So I could easily accept Ennis giving us the final Punisher MAX story, in the most definitive sense… until issue #61 arrives. After all, I doubt The End is really the best send-off Ennis could give the character.

Still, Marvel were probably too antsy to allow that. Ennis’ departure probably shook up the book enough, without worrying about putting the nail in the coffin (or in Frank Castle’s head). Which is a shame, because it seemed (to me at least) that Ennis was going somewhere. Peppering the final story arc of his run, Valley Forge, Valley Forge, with extracts from a fictional history of Vietnam, juxtaposed against footage of the conflict in the Middle East, Ennis suggests war and murder are cyclical – a key theme of Widowmaker. After all, the final line of dialogue of the entire run comes from a bitter Nick Fury, holding an empty glass, “Same again.”

Fury can take some punishment…

The cycle repeats. It’s, unfortunately, the natural order. People visit violence upon one another, parents beat their kids who become parents and beat their kids. America is still recovering Vietnam and finds itself tied up in two similar wars overseas. It’s the same dance, set to a slightly different rhythm. Ennis’ Punisher has spent so long, between Tygers and The Slavers and Widowmaker, convincing us that Frank isn’t really anything special – just an arguably necessary part of the volatile equilibrium.

Frank himself will get old and be replaced. He might fight it now, but eventually he’ll have to face it. And it seems a bit of a copout for Ennis to build all these big ideas into his run, and then just leave them unaddressed – especially when the whole point of this version of Frank is that he’s ageing in real-time. Batman and Robin and Captain America and even the mainstream Frank Castle will continue in perpetuity, frozen in an eternal present, but Ennis has gone to great lengths to show us that this version of Frank ages and suffers and grows and bleeds.

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, babe…

That aside, it’s actually a fairly decent little saga contained here. The last two story arcs – Long, Cold Dark and Valley Forge, Valley Forge – sort of bleed into one another. Goran Parlov provides most of the artwork on both stories (barring a rather jarring introductory issue from Howard Chaykin – not jarring because it’s bad, but because it’s so different from what follows). I have to say, I’m not a fan of Parlov’s Castle. In a world seemingly meant to be a step away from superhero comics, his version of the Punisher has muscles upon muscles, looking more like the Hulk than any real human being. But that’s a minor complaint.

The arc notably sees the return of Barracuda, the colourful villain that Ennis introduced a few stories back. He’s one of those characters Ennis drafts in occasionally to add a bit of flair to proceedings – one with presence and a strange amount of charisma for a psychotic killing machine. He works well as an antagonist for Frank, serving as the comedian to Frank’s eternal straight man. “Because you’re a joke, in spite of it all,” Yorkie remarks, highlighting the key distinction between the two, “and he’s the most dangerous man that ever walked the planet.” Ennis suggests that Frank hides his basic human decency and warmth behind a cold and humourless exterior, while Barracuda hides his psychopathy behind a humorous grin. It’s almost like the classic Batman/Joker dynamic… almost…

Full and Frank Disclosure?

Here, Ennis develops the foe a bit more, sketching out his background and motivations. While it’s the loss of Frank’s family he loved that turned him into a killer, Barracuda is driven by an inability to track down the abusive father that abandoned him. “Never &%#$in’ found him!” he yells at one point. “Hadda take that sh!t out onna mutha&%#$in’ world!”

Much like Frank, Barracuda served in the war – but was broken and corrupted by it in another way. It’s more than likely he discovered his own taste for combat, like Frank has, and he indulges it in his own sick and twisted way. Frank keeps himself in check with his own rules and his conscience, while Barracuda just lets himself go completely wild. Both were damaged in the conflict that (Ennis suggested) gave America its own lost generation, and they’re two sides to the same coin.

Getting Frank all fired up…

I’ve argued before that Ennis sees this world of Punisher MAX as some sort of grim absurdist joke, a place upside down and inside out, against which Frank is juxtaposed as the eternal stoic – the straight man. He’s a person who isn’t taken in by the crazy sideshows and the bright lights and the insanity of it all. In contrast, Barracuda just rolls with it – he embraces the chaos and the irrationality. Ennis portrays Frank as the man who plans and plots, while Barracuda improvises. From their first chance encounter at the airport, Barracuda has been pure, uncontrollable chaos – sometimes helping Frank (as at the end of his eponymous story), often hurting Frank long after he should have been taken off the board.

Ennis does offer us a relatively decent sense of closure, even if he doesn’t really give his readers a strong conclusion. Frank’s narration captions in particular seem to get just a little bit more worn out, a little nostalgic even. He talks of the “familiar killing places” as he wanders on to the large open estate he has bought himself. Ennis hints at the only possible ending the character might have by giving him a little piece of family that he lost in a daughter he didn’t know he had. “It was when I picked her up that I stopped being the Punisher,” he remarks at one point, and the audience gets the sense that maybe… just maybe… there might be something resembling hope for Frank. Of course, we know it’s an illusion, but it’s a comforting one.

Fury and Castle see eye-to-eye…

The opening issue gives us a look at frank’s dreams, and nightmares. He dreams of a world where his family didn’t die, where he stayed with them and they love him. That’s “the worst dream of all”, because it’s so different from the life that he has now. It’s interesting that – in this fantasy – Frank is a perfectly well-rounded individual with friends and life advice. There’s a phantom of what he really is amongst these dreams, but it’s “something circling, without ever seizing hold.” So, to drown out the pain, Frank wanders out into the middle of a field planted with the bodies of dead gangsters, and fires round after round after round – focusing on the guns so that he can ignore the loss of his family, drown it out with gunfire.

Ennis brings Frank a full circle, tying us back to his miniseries Born. The eponymous novel in Valley Forge, Valley Forge is written by the brother of the lead character from that miniseries, and there are countless references thrown in to supporting characters and events of the miniseries. Ennis has a fascination with war, and a bibliography packed with war comics, so his work on the excerpts from the novel ring true. In a way, from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, Ennis has brough Castle on quite a journey.

Ennis manages to avoid crashing and burning…

And yet Ennis concedes that Frank isn’t a hero or an anti-hero. Those seeking to kill him brand him as a terrorist to the press. Of course, it’s just an effort to deflect attention away from the tactical squad they’ve assigned to hunt Castle down, but the glove fits. They can effectively disguise their raids on his weapons caches as part of the “War on Terror”, branding one of his armories “an Al Qaeda base.” He faces down a cabal of hugely powerful generals, with the military might of the United States to back them up. “None of which we can even dream of employing,” one remarks. “In case you were thinking of launching a B-52 strike on Brooklyn.” Frank is an urban terrorist, striking on targets he considers to be justified, with no regard for the rules of engagement.

I’ve admired that Ennis generally keeps a relatively open mind on Frank Castle. Ennis doesn’t take the easy option of portraying Frank as “a good thing.” The extracts from the book hint at the ambiguity surrounding him. On one hand, “all the horror that our men brought back from Vietnam – the ones that came back anyway – the Punisher is all of it, gathered together into one disgusting monster”, while we’re assured that Frank is “not an outright psychopath.” I still tend to think of Frank as a villain with his own particular brand of psychopathy – Ennis’ arguments for moral relativity are not convincing enough to change that – but it’s a smart decision not to portray him as some sort of conflicted anti-hero.

Anything’s on the table at this point of the game…

On the other hand, I find it a bit much that everybody compromises around Frank. Ennis is able to present Frank as the no-nonsense protagonist of the tale simply because everything bends to him – he might be a killer, but he’s never a hypocrite like most of the supporting cast, and Ennis uses this to make him seem like a better person. Here, for instance, we have a doctor (who has sworn a Hippocratic Oath) explain that Frank deserves everything that’s coming to him… but then effectively concedes that Frank’s methods are the only way to save lives. Similarly, Howe is a by-the-book officer who sees Frank as a perversion of everything the Marines stand for, and yet he also embraces Frank’s actions as the lesser of two evils.

It’s a trick Ennis has used before, forcing characters of high moral character to effectively “endorse”Frank even though they criticise and reject his philosophy in every way. This inherently weakens their position to the point of collapse, while strengthening Frank’s. It’s hard to think of a single honest character from the series who dared to stand up to Frank and to call him out on what he was doing, without giving him some kind of hall pass later on. It tends to slightly weight the deck that Ennis is dealing from.

It’s been a punishing run…

So, as I reach the end of this run, I find myself a little underwhelmed. It was a decent set of comics, but I don’t really feel too convinced by anything I’ve read. Maybe Frank Castle simply isn’t for me – maybe I’m too grounded in social norms to really embrace the murdering vigilante, despite my best efforts. I have tried, though. And, to be fair, Ennis was a consistently entertaining writer when he stopped being so incredibly juvenile. To his credit, I feel like I have a far better understanding of Frank than when I started, even if some of his actions are still a mystery to me.

Man, I’ll be glad to start some lighter reading next month.

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 find it a bit much that everybody compromises around Frank”… “we have a doctor (who has sworn a Hippocratic Oath) explain that Frank deserves everything that’s coming to him… but then effectively concedes that Frank’s methods are the only way to save lives. Similarly, Howe is a by-the-book officer who sees Frank as a perversion of everything the Marines stand for, and yet he also embraces Frank’s actions as the lesser of two evils.”

    Well, the doctor actually gets rid of Frank because of the hospital massacre Frank advises will happen if if he stays and Barracuda arrives. So the doctor possibly saves a lot of patients by putting one patient back on the street at maximum speed.

    Howe is also not able to deliver Frank to the generals (who would kill him) as he owes his own life to Frank, who rescued Howe from a prison camp. This type of bonding among military is possibly the most powerful, and as Howe knows the generals are operating off the books he would never give Frank to them. He could however bring Frank to justice.

    I don’t think these are compromising to either the doctor or to Howe. They are quite good plot points from what to the reader could appear as dead ends.

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