Panusher on Punisher — Part 1

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Why the hateful glare, Frank? Why that cold, death-stare that promises carefully, calculated rage, death and doom for whoever has fatally pissed you off? Is it because your excellent Punisher MAX series is about to be the subject of a retrospective, containing my thoughts on each of the ten excellent installments? Well, yes, perhaps that is the reason.

All joking aside, I hold the sixty-odd issues of Punisher MAX written by Garth Ennis, illustrated by Lewis La Rosa, Leonardo Fernandez, Doug Braithwaite, Goran Parlov, Lan Medina and Howard Chaykin and with covers by Tim Bradstreet as one of the greatest comic book series of all times. For a while, it was on par with Preacher as my favorite Ennis work and I think that it’s risen past that. Why, you may ask? Firstly, because they’re great crime stories, great action stories, and great satires. Secondly, they present a study of the character of Frank Castle, breaking him down and showing what makes him tick. Thirdly, they take what is ultimately a rather silly comic book concept (a dude with a skull on his shirt killing other dudes) and use that to provide real, meaningful commentary about war, America, our modern times and plenty of other heady issues.

See, here’s the thing that I think people forget about Punisher MAX. This was written from 2004 to 2008 and it reads very much as a product of its time. If we can think back to those ancient days of the near past, we remember a nation in a kind of crisis. Internationally, you had protracted, bloody and pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within our own country, you had the Bush Administration in their second term — with all their cronyism, corruption, doublespeak and dismal inability to manage anything. You had Katrina drenching New Orleans, civil liberties in danger, corporate crime running amok and the threat that — thanks to the War on Terror — this kind of paranoid, hostile existence would never end. Punisher MAX is a work of that time. But unlike similar War on Terror-era products such as the recent Battlestar Galactica with its shaky cams and drama-friendly paranoia, Punisher MAX is very upfront about its influences and what its using them for. This is a comic with an agenda. However, it’s an agenda that I — who was an impressionable teenager during the Bush years — can eagerly get behind. If you can’t, well, it’s still a fantastic action/crime story and I think people of all political stripes can get behind that.

There are spin-offs, prequels and one-shots that Ennis also wrote and I intend to talk about those later — but for now, let’s concern ourselves with the ten major arcs of Punisher MAX. I’ll go through them in chronological order and there will probably be some spoilers. Guns sufficiently loaded? 80s-action movie bandanas firmly knotted around the proper body parts? Then let’s begin.

1. In the Beginning

The very first issue of Punisher MAX is a perfect example of a first issue done right. It shows you right away what the tone is going to be — by a terrifying, blow by blow account of the deaths of Castle’s family. It provides the action — by showing Castle mow done countless mobsters after crashing an aging Mafia don’s birthday party. It gives you a hint about what the main story is going to be — by revealing a sneaky CIA team tailing Castle. And it sets up a cliffhanger that ensures you come around for the rest of the story. That story follows two main paths: the CIA team trying to recruit the Punisher to fight in the War on Terror and Nicky Cavella, a particularly nasty Mafia goon trying to kill Castle for good.

Very soon, you get to see the political content of Ennis’s story. The Punisher’s old friend, Micro, asks Frank is he wants to hunt Bin Laden and other terrorists. He lays it out in detail and you think — hey, I bet he’ll accept and that sounds like a cool action movie sort of story. But then you get Castle’s response: “I’m not going back to war so Colt can sell another million M-16s. I had enough of that in Vietnam.” It’s a cold sentiment — that America’s wars are fought for profit — and it’s one that Ennis will echo multiple times throughout the series.

By tying the Punisher directly to Vietnam, Ennis gives the character a sense of history. You can see that he’s done his research, with Castle using the right Vietnam Era slang in his reminiscing. It not exactly The Things They Carried — but you can tell that Ennis has read The Things They Carried and is trying to incorporate that into his work.

Anyway, I won’t spoil the exact events but as you can imagine, the Mob and the CIA’s missions collide, the Punisher gets free and a whole lot of people die — usually at Castle’s hands. It all leads to a brutal fight between Castle and Pittsy, a psychotic, gray-haired old school mobster with a ferocious temper. Ennis’s fights have always been unmatched. He brings a visceral quality  to them, where the combatants are willing to do anything in order to win. They make you wince as you read them. This kind of violence has consequences. It’s ugly — but it’s also kind of awe-inspiring.

So overall, a very good start. And the best is yet to come!

2. Kitchen Irish

Quite a few of the Punisher stories follow this sort of pattern — Frank Castle is the protagonist and the only one who has an internal monologue, but he’s ultimately a player in a larger drama. These are just crime stories, told from the points of view of several characters and the Punisher simply represents one faction. This time, the story deals with several Hell’s Kitchen criminals in a violent race to locate an ancient Irish American gangster’s missing fortune. The Punisher is hunting the criminals involved in the chase and teams up with Yorkie, an aging British SAS soldier who is interested in taking down a hideously scarred IRA bomber trying to get the money for his retirement.

Ennis himself is Irish — born in Northern Ireland — and the Troubles and the modern Irish experience are themes he often revisits. This time, he confronts the issue head on when the scar-faced bomber’s young, idealistic nephew is captured by Castle and his SAS friend. “Is never giving in, never compromising, is that really so great? When so many parts of your country have been turned into Hell? When three thousand people have died for sweet fuck all?” Yorkie asks. That sentiment — of ideology being merely an excuse for slaughter and corruption — is one that Punisher MAX comes back to again and again. National or political causes let people down. In an era as ideologically charged as our own, I feel that’s an important message.

The cause of the Punisher, that of revenge, is also ultimately futile. The final panel of the story shows Frank wandering down an alley, head down, arm in a sling and already thinking of his next attack. “Look at old Frank there,” Yorkie tells his young associate. “He’s been doing this for thirty years. Do you think he feels any different?” That’s a grim look into the Punisher’s character and ensures he remains an anti-hero — which is where Castle belongs.

3. Mother Russia

Whereas the previous two stories took place in New York, with sprawling environs and larger casts, Mother Russia is a more compact, violent espionage story that seemed a bit like Die Hard in a Russian nuclear missile silo. Castle is recruited by none other than Nick Fury (though a different Fury from the Samuel L. Jackson of the then unreleased Avengers movie) to sneak into Russia and bust out the six-year-old daughter of a scientist. The little girl, Galina, has some insane virus in her bloodstream which a bunch of sleazy Air Force and Army generals want for themselves. Castle is joined by Vannheim, a Delta Force soldier with his own agenda.

Mother Russia provides a very well done, very violent heist — and it also involves some of Ennis’s observations and feelings related to the military. Castle himself is a soldier, but he’s a lot more besides. Nick Fury is grizzled, outwardly hateful and seems devoted to big cigars, booze and prostitutes. He’s a man’s man from another era. But the Army and Air Force generals themselves are a different story. They’re cowardly types who haven’t seen combat and undermine Fury and Castle at every opportunity. They employ Rawlins — a crooked CIA agent — to hijack an airliner and drive it into Moscow as part of the diversion. The generals panic as the situation in the missile silo worsens and prove themselves useless. Vannheim himself is a “walking action figure…(whose) greatest ambition is a posthumous bronze star,” and thinks nothing of executing the little girl and stealing a blood sample for the virus. But in the end, Castle escapes with the girl and gets her back to Fury — also stopping the generals from getting her blood sample. Ennis creates a unique distinction between killers like Fury and Castle and killers like Vannheim, Rawlins and the generals: namely, Castle and Fury have a sort of honor or “limits” as Fury says. In this story, that makes them the heroes.

There’s also Castle’s opponent — a hulking Russian general named Zakharov and the hilariously awesome shot of Fury calmly enjoying a smoke while the generals panic about Frank Castle fueling up the nuclear missiles in the silo for launch. But I think the other important feature of this story is Frank’s relationship with Galina. It’s a good one, with Castle vowing to protect Galina and she tearfully refusing to part with him. It gives you the idea that Frank Castle could have been a decent, if awkward, father if his family hadn’t been horrifically massacred. Jason Aaron in his recent and terrific run mostly disagrees, but he still shows Castle trying to be good. I think it’s important that Castle wants something different but is trapped as a soldier forever due to his own character. That comes off in one of the final scenes of the comic, when Frank bids adieu to Galina. “I can’t look after anyone,”  he tells her and finally walks away. Castle may be the best soldier, the best tactician and the best anti-hero in his world — but he’s far from an inspirational figure. In Ennis’s world, he pathetic and that’s probably the best way to showcase a bloodthirsty vigilante.

4. Up is Down and Black is White

Nicky Cavella returns in this story and has a brilliant idea for defeating the Punisher — he digs up the grave of Castle’s family and pisses on their bones. An easy recipe for suicide? Well, it might be. What it does do is make Frank Castle so full of rage that he starts slaughtering large amounts of criminals at once and having nightmares (dreams?) about taking his anger out at the innocent world around him. Rawlins shows up again, eager to assassinate Castle for fouling up the Russian mission. O’Brian — a tough female CIA agent — appears as well to provide Castle some much needed assistance.

Leonardo Fernandez handles the art for this one.  I haven’t talked about the artists for Punisher MAX that much. Partly, this is because I’m not an artist and I doubt I’d be able to say anything of value. But I also didn’t find them that unique. Fernandez did some earlier stories, but here is where he — and the art in general — starts getting really good. Fernandez’s work is somewhat realistic, with only the occasional distorted facial feature, but he really shines when it comes to action. His gunfights are clean and detailed. His brutal physical squabbles are chaotic and frenzied, with tears, blood and the flashes of close-range gunfire mingling into a violent collage. He reaches another level in this story and the high standards for art remain during the rest of the run.

This arc also shows the demise of Cavella. It’s a rightfully awful death for an awful guy and it shows another practice that Ennis repeats as the story goes on — namely, show you how terrible a villain is so that we root for the Punisher as he dispatches them. Ennis spends an entire issue doing nothing but showing Cavella’s life, from childhood to adulthood. It sort of shows that he was born bad and that life led him to become worse. Either way, his demise is some poetic justice that, bizarrely, ends the story on something of a happy note. There’s also a few parallels to Miller’s Crossing, which is my favorite movie, so I was happy to see that.

5. The Slavers

This has been regarded as perhaps the best Punisher story of all time. I think the finale of Ennis’s run, Valley Forge, Valley Forge, is my personal favorite, but I can see why the Slavers get its well-deserved praise. This is the Punisher at his purest, which reveals some heartrendingly evil villains and then steps back to let Frank Castle wreak righteous retribution on them. The villains this time are a bunch of Balkan sex traffickers and you get the depressing feeling that their appalling crimes are far from fictional. It’s probably the darkest story here — both in the terms of the slavers and in the levels of brutality that Castle uses against them.

But Ennis uses a few tricks to right the ship. A pair of beat cops get mixed up in the slave ring and their interactions provide some levity — but never becomes too comical. Instead, they’re an integral part of the action. Humor does pepper Punisher MAX and it’s always pitch black and a shade to the extreme. Ennis can be a funny guy — a lot of Preacher had me cracking up and Hitman also features plenty of gags — but he knows when to use humor and when to reign it in. That’s a good skill and is well-served in The Slavers. Leonardo Fernadez is back for this story and he continues to impress. Rain, facial expressions, disemboweling — he draws it all and in the perfect amount of detail.

The final shot of the Slavers reveals the limits of the Punisher’s power to actually do some good. I don’t want to spoil them here, but it shows the lasting effect of trauma on people and how it never really goes away. It’s a grim end to a grim story and, when you’re dealing with this sort of subject matter, that’s really the right way to handle it.

I’ll take a break here, as this is getting quite long for one post, but stay tuned. Five more Punisher arcs are on the way!

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