Panusher on Punisher, — Part Two

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Welcome back to Part 2 on Panusher on Punisher. I’ll be finishing up with my retrospective of the final five arcs of Garth Ennis’s Punisher MAX. The first five were great — but here’s where the series rises to masterpiece levels. Just remember the Bush Era in which they were written and Ennis’s fundamentally anti-war message and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

6. Barracuda

Barracuda is a much lighter tale and I think it’s a deliberate break from the unadulterated darkness of the Slavers. This time, it’s a broad capitalist comedy where circumstances pit the Punisher against a cabal of Wall Street white collar criminals. The Punisher himself is but one part of a larger, sprawling story that deals with a power struggle/love affair between the main white collar criminal’s underling and his femme fatale trophy wife.  After various travails, the Punisher does deliver the proper sort of punishment for these tycoons. I don’t want to spoil it — but I will say that sharks are involved. But, despite all the sex jokes and shark attacks, the greed and arrogance of the Wall Street rich — and Ennis’s message — comes through. The Punisher has to deal with the rogue rich because, as he says, “with the lock big business had on Washington, no investigation would get off the ground.” It’s another harsh truth in an age of Enron and it’s vital today — where sharks still seem like a more satisfying way of handling corporate crime than regulations.

The story also marks the appearance of the titular Barracuda, an inspired creation who is like every gangsta rap brag rolled together in one swaggering package. The domineering, amoral, alpha male Barracuda — with ‘Fuck You’ emblazoned in his gold teeth — is hired as a mercenary to go after the Punisher. Their battle is a Clash of the Titans that sets Barracuda up as a real threat, despite his somewhat humorous nature. Afterwards, Barracuda goes to work for the white collar criminals — and subsequently betrays and is betrayed. Barracuda makes another welcome return later in the series and he even gets his own spin-off, a brilliant bit of Reagan Era satire that I’ll have to talk about later.

We also get the first appearance of artist Goran Parlov. He is one of my favorite comic artists overall and his work with Garth Ennis is a large reason why. Parlov goes very cartoony, with characters that look more like caricatures and have loads of exaggeration. Still, he provides countless details to both his figures and backgrounds and does expression and action right. His art makes the world into a cartoon gone off-kilter and wrong. It’s very suitable for this story. He’s currently just finished working with Ennis on the Fury MAX series, which is a historical look at various Cold War battlefields, and is also excellent and worthy of attention.

7. Man of Stone

Nearing the end of his run on Punisher MAX, Ennis begins to tie up loose ends in the proper style. This arc features the return of General Zakharov, the ferocious Russian who wants Castle captured so he can reveal the truth about the raid on the missile silo way back in Mother Russia. Zakharov is aided by the slippery spy Rawlins and they lure Castle to Afghanistan for a chance to take him down. Also in the mix — on Castle’s side — are O’Brian and Yorkie. This story is about a massive battle in the mountains of Afghanistan, culminating in solitary walks through spooky, harsh terrain and the deaths of many characters.

I think Man of Stone follows what Ennis did earlier in Mother Russia — the examination of different types of soldiers. Rawlins is, as Zakharov says “…a parasite. He would make the world this way forever.” He’s a twisted coward, a bisexual hedonist who does whatever it takes to survive. Zakharov, on the other hand, is a man with a cause. He is a soldier who believes in completing his mission no matter what, even if it means committing horrendous war crimes. Castle is in another category altogether. “What is there to be afraid of?” Zakharov asks when Castle encounters him in the Afghan desert. “He is only death.”

The story closes with Yorkie and Frank sitting together and Yorkie finally revealing his tired disgust of war. He talks about the endless nature of the War of Terror and how he’s finally slipping out of it. Once again, ideology of any kind vanishes when compared to the true horrors of war and killing. Man of Stone is probably my second favorite storyline, because of the sad, quiet moments these two soldiers share– one finished with war, one determined never to stop fighting.

8.  Widowmaker

After some globe-trotting adventures, Frank Castle returns to New York and finds himself the target of revenge from a bunch of Mob wives that he turned into widows. These women are determined to kill Castle and devise a unique plan to do it that nearly succeeds — but then Castle is rescued by another mysterious woman, Jenny, who has her own agenda. Castle spends most of this story lying wounded in Jenny’s apartment and the story follows the Mob women trying to cover their tracks and a NYPD cop intent on bringing them down.

Once again, Ennis returns to the theme of trauma and its effect on people. Castle has his trauma and Jenny reveals a deep source of her own — which she ultimately cannot handle. The NYPD cop finds himself teetering on the edge during the whole story and an attack on his wife finally pushes him dangerously close to becoming another Punisher himself. In the conclusion, he confronts Castle and considers killing him, until Castle stares him down and says “you want to be me?”  The cop steps away, returns to his wife and refuses to go down the Punisher’s path.

Widowmaker’s interesting for having a deeper look at the detailed underworld that Castle creates in his fictional New York City. I always like a work with a detailed, cohesive underworld and the Punisher is no exception. The various gangs and kingpins feud and interact and usually prove no match for the Punisher when he routinely massacres them — but their existence is a nice detail nonetheless. It creates a sense of place and I think that’s important for any crime series.

9.  Long Cold Dark

The penultimate Punisher series features the return of Barracuda. He’s eager for revenge and has the perfect way to do it. I’m not sure how much I want to spoil it, but I will say that it involves O’Brian and a revelation that really stops Castle in his tracks. Ennis puts more time and depth into Barracuda now, in a story that is a protracted duel between him and the Punisher. The story’s climax features the mutilated, enraged Barracuda coming after Castle while he flashbacks to important events in his past — going from a street kid to war criminal in some 80s Latin American conflict to high-level hitman. The flashbacks are in horizontal strips in the middle of the page, juxtaposed with Barracuda closing in and leading to his bloody, deserved end. It’s a powerful bit of work that only a comic book could pull off. Ennis stays traditional during most of Punisher MAX, but when he mixes it up, it’s always good.

The other theme of Long Cold Dark is of family and Castle possibly turning away from his role as the Punisher to take up a new path as a father. It starts with Castle’s dream in the first issue (illustrated by grand master Howard Chaykin) where his family didn’t visit Central Park on that fateful day and he’s now a proud, happy, tubby grandfather. “I’m old and fat and slow,” he thinks. “It’s perfect.” But later, Castle gets an actual chance to leave the Punisher behind and he doesn’t take it. At this point in his life, war — whether Vietnam or against criminals — has changed him too much. War is all there is for Castle and nothing else makes sense.

10. Valley Forge, Valley Forge

 This is the final story for the Punisher and it’s got a simple message hammered home in a seemingly simple manner. That message, which has been floating in the background the whole time, now comes to the forefront. It’s that war is bad. War kills people that we care about. War changes people and stays burned into their memories. War is never worth it.

The plot features the sleazy generals who first appeared in Mother Russia. Castle is blackmailing them with a tape of Rawlins’ confession about the Russian business (made in Up in Down and Black is White) and they need a way to take him down. They come up with an interesting solution — use a team of Delta Force soldiers to capture him. After all, Castle is a former soldier and, supposedly, won’t shoot at his fellows. The generals recruit Colonel George Howe (who looks like Morgan Freeman) and his Delta Force men to bring the Punisher down. The issue is an extended battle between the Punisher and Delta Force, with the Punisher using non-lethal methods until he is finally captured. But Howe begins to realize what exactly what his masters are. However, there’s a lot more to Valley Forge, Valley Forge than just this story.

Nick Fury makes a welcome return, sourly sucking back booze in a bar and reading a (fictional) book entitled Valley Forge, Valley Forge by Michael Goodwin. The book details the siege and destruction of Marine Firebase Valley Forge in the Vietnam War, which led to the death of Goodwin’s older brother. Frank Castle was the sole survivor of the attack. The book takes up decent portions of the story (there’s even a photo section, with excellent historical images captured by Parlov) and at first, I was a little upset about this. For starters, I wanted to read a comic book, not a prose book. Secondly, I already knew the story of Valley Forge from reading Enni’s Born series, which shows the siege and destruction. But when I got into the prose and actually started reading it, I appreciated it all the more. Valley Forge, Valley Forge is my favorite Punisher story and a lot of that is thanks to the excerpts from the book.

Ennis shows the Vietnam War’s effect on America by having Goodwin interview people who were affected by the conflict in different ways. A former tank commander explains that he now leads a comfortable, normal life — like countless veterans do. But as he says “the war wasn’t worth it, you see. Not one life. Not your brother’s nor anyone else’s. Not ours, not theirs. It wasn’t worth a single human life.” Goodwin interviews the younger sister of one of his brother’s war buddies, who explains the minority experience in Vietnam, in 1970s America and, regrettably today: “our young people grow up knowing levels of despair and frustration that you simply cannot imagine — and if they do not want to live in poverty or to deal drugs, what other choice do they have? Well, well, looks who’s waiting to welcome them with open arms: whether it’s the draft back in the 60s and 70s or the recruiters today, just look who’s waiting to snap them up.” A little kooky?  You might think so — but I just saw a Marine recruitment billboard proclaiming ‘Celebrating Hispanic Values and the Marines who Act on Them.’ If that’s not racially targeted recruitment, I don’t know what is. Anyway, Goodwin also interviews a grizzled GI sergeant who was severely damaged by his time in the war. “They sent me away a believer and they turned me into a cynic,” he explains. “They took America from me, man. They took America. How fucked up is that?”

If there’s one flaw with the book portions, I think it’s that the sentiments of the Vietnamese people themselves are never explained. Like in most Vietnam War movies, the Vietnamese are simply an amorphous Other presenting a constant danger to the American soldiers. In the first arc of Fury MAX, which is sent in 1950s French Indochina, Ennis does give them a voice — and maybe it’s unfair to expect him to fit them in here, but I do think that’s one of the many aspects of the war that we always forget.

Anyway, the story — and the entire run’s conclusion — closes with Ennis’s final message. Fury finishes the book in his bar. He turns to the TV, which is playing CNN news footage from Iraq or Afghanistan of US soldiers, once more at war. He closes the book as the TV switches off, turns to the bartender and, his face in a Parlov-drawn grimace, says “same again.” Ennis isn’t exactly hitting you over the head with his message that America is repeating Vietnam in the War on Terror, but he’s not being gentle about it either. I don’t want to spoil the final three pages, but they’ve got some powerful stuff and are the right conclusion for the story.

Well, that’s the end of Ennis’ run. I may do a Part Three for the various one-shots, prequels and spin-offs, but I think tomorrow’s posts will go in a different (and perhaps less grim) direction. I hope you enjoyed these recollections. I think why Punisher MAX resonated with me so much and why it’s important is because it is a work with a message, and is up front about that message, but still manages to be extremely an well-crafted and compelling piece of genre entertainment. The Wire did that with the failure on the War on Drugs. China Miėvelle’s work, particularly Iron Council,  did that with worker’s rights. And as a writer of silly stories about dinosaurs and so on, that’s something that is always at the forefront of my mind. Avoiding being too pedantic or too cheesy is a difficult tightrope to walk, but Punisher MAX and works like it showed me that the effort is worth it. That alone makes it my favorite.

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