Born #1; Marvel Comics, MAX; August 2003; $3.50, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.
Born is, twenty-nine years after his first appearance, the secret origin of The Punisher. How did Frank Castle go from being a regular Marine to being an unstoppable, relentless killing machine. Only, as the narrator explains, Frank was never a regular Marine. The narrator’s name is Stevie Goodwin, which seems like it’s got to be an homage to Punisher writer Archie Goodwin. I was never a big fan of Punisher comics before Garth Ennis, so I’m not sure if there are other references. Maybe it’s coincidental. I don’t know anything about Archie Goodwin’s Punisher other than it’s extant.
After some “Welcome to Vietnam” material, both with and without narration, Stevie (and Ennis) lay out the ground situation as it relates to Frank. Stevie’s got a ground situation too, but it’s going to have to sit.
Frank is on his third tour. It’s October 1971. The war is winding down. Frank’s first tour was for Tet, his second tour had him an assassin (or so the rumors go), his third tour he’s the only officer who cares at an almost forgotten outpost near the Cambodian border. The base is in disarray; half-manned, Frank’s platoon the only guys not strung out on heroin or stoned. The CO is a mess, hiding in his office until the war is over. But Frank knows something is coming, he’s got his platoon out every day and they’re intercepting a lot of weapons.
Oh. Frank also has never had a man killed since he’s gotten to the base (Valley Forge).
The issue starts with Stevie, narrating about the base, about going home (he’s thirty-nine days short), about his imagined future, about Frank. The imagined future stuff, where Stevie thinks about how proud he’ll be of his wonderful future sons who will never know about Vietnam, where the rivers ran red with blood; he will never tell them.
Born #1 is full of great lines. Even when they’re totally wrong, they’re great (not historically wrong, or out of character, but the character is making an incorrect assertion).
Frank doesn’t get any great lines. He’s purely functional. In fact, his first scene to himself—reporting to his CO about the patrol, which has a bunch of action—ends with writer Ennis and penciller Darick Robertson having a non sequitur, partly due to Robertson’s inability to keep characters looking consistent. Frank never seems to look the same, not even on the same page; his head changes size and shape, features become more and less pronounced. Is it supposed to be intentional, like you can’t ever truly see him? Probably not, as Robertson has the same problem with Stevie and the CO.
About the only guy he keeps consistent is the visiting general who Frank gets killed. Intentionally. And gets away with it. Because Frank’s got to keep his war going, or so, at the end of the issue, the voice tells him. The voice appears in black word balloons, white text. Frank doesn’t react in anyway to the voice. Is it his voice? If so, then why’s it got a separate first person perspective. Is the voice the Devil. Is it Mephisto (no, it’s not, spoiler time). Is it… The Punisher? How deep is Ennis going to go with this?
The issue ends on that question. Where’s Born going; Frank’s set up, the base is set up, the narrator is set up. The story title is The First Day… which doesn't refer to anything special for the characters. It’s not even the first time the Voice has shown up. It’s an effective story title, just maybe not an accurate or relevant one.
Ennis’s writing is mostly strong, always solid. Goodwin’s narration is long-winded but excellent. It’s a war story narration, it’s supposed to be purple. Goodwin never says what he’s going to do with himself, but Great American Novelist seems like a goal. He’s a white guy, after all, smart, thoughtful. The Frank-led scenes are fine. They’re well-written exposition, dumping a lot of information and context on the reader. Frank’s a man of few worlds, luckily everyone else likes to monologue to him.
Robertson’s art is… uneven. At least on things like characters’ heads and faces. It’s not just Frank he slips on. He handles the gore–Born is very bloody, which is part of the point; it’s the first Punisher MAX series, so even though the comic was able to get violent before, not exploding brains violent. I don’t think. They definitely weren’t saying “Fuck” all the time in the old War Journals though. Characters say it occasionally in Born #1, Ennis and Robertson both have showcase moments for it being “unrated.”
Robertson has some good panel layouts, some really good composition, but problematic detail. The weirdest thing about the art is the inker… it’s experienced, awesome Marvel inker Tom Palmer (who’d been inking comics back when The Punisher first appeared). You’d think he’d have… made the heads the same size, if not the faces similar. Frank does look the same a few times in the issue, it’s just they’re never in the same scene, much less same page.
But it’s okay. It’s all right. At the end of Born #1, it seems like Ennis has got things well in hand. Even if the Voice scene at the end is ominous for the wrong reasons.