The Punisher #3, In the Beginning, Part 3 (of 6)

The Punisher #3The Punisher #3; Marvel Comics, MAX; April 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

I guess I technically need a spoiler alert. Frank Castle, The Punisher, did not die at the end of the second issue of his seventh series. Ennis is not going ahead with some kind of New Punisher series. Instead, Micro and the CIA team hit him with rubber bullets; which would have, outside the Marvel MAX universe, been lethal given how close Micro got the barrel to Frank’s head, but whatever. He’s the Punisher, he can take it.

Ennis splits the issue, once again, between Frank, the CIA, and the mob. The Boston mob guys open the issue by taking over the New York mob; they keep the one local lackey around because they need a straight man in the gang. Even the composed leader guy is a little nuts. While cementing their control, they see a news story about Frank getting arrested and go to a dirty cop to find out what’s really going on. The cops don’t know everything, of course, because CIA, but they know enough to put the gang onto a witness.

Meanwhile, the CIA also wants to talk to the witness and tell him to shut up, putting the CIA goof (not the female agent, who’s having conniptions over hearing Frank speak) on a collision course with the gangsters. If he’s lucky, he’s going to survive. But he’s not the cliffhanger. The cliffhanger, which comes off as a hard cliffhanger, is actually pretty soft; it comes at the end of Micro talking to Frank. He’s been working up to this single question, spending the rest of the issue in an interrogation room with Frank, telling Frank why Frank is the way Frank is.

Micro’s clearly thought a lot about it. Though apparently not enough to realize he’s got two mutually exclusive opinions about Frank’s psychological profile. But Micro’s got a hubris problem.

He also thinks Frank’s origin story is Born. Given how that series turned out, it might have been nice for Ennis to have bookended it with Micro telling the story. It would’ve helped.

Frank, however, doesn’t say his origin story is born. Frank doesn’t say much of anything. He speaks once in the issue, bound to a chair in a dimly lighted room (I wish Ennis and LaRosa had shown the CIA guys converting a hotel suite bedroom into an interrogation box). Only on that one panel does Frank get eyes. The rest of the issue, both he and Micro’s eyes are obscured by shadows. It removes the personality from Micro’s exposition, in a phenomenally subtle way, and it makes Frank seem like a caged animal.

When Frank speaks, and we see his eyes… Well. It’s awesome.

And it’s also Clint Eastwood’s face on Frank’s head. Frank’s a gigantic guy, body-wise, muscles everywhere. But when he’s got to look at Micro and tell Micro what’s what, he does it with Clint Eastwood’s face.

It’s not even subtle. It’s awesome, if obviously. And does give some idea what his voice might sound like, if only to support the female agent’s reaction.

The cliffhanger’s a little pat, but otherwise it’s excellent. Ennis presents two (and a half) versions of the Punisher for the reader to consider. Except all those versions come from Frank’s jailers, not Frank. Micro’s seems the most factually informed and therefor accurate (at least from Micro’s perspective), but….

Micro can explain Frank. The CIA boss can explain Frank. Only the half impression doesn’t explain him.

It’s such smooth, such subtle work from Ennis. LaRosa does a good job on the art, but it’s all about Ennis’s script.

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The Punisher #2, In the Beginning, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher #2The Punisher #2; Marvel Comics, MAX; March 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

The second issue of Punisher, second part of the story arc, echoes nicely with the first. Last issue opened in a cemetery, this issue opens in a cemetery. Ennis also explores a little of Frank’s regular behavior; meeting one of his informants, getting involved with something there, then just heading home and cleaning his guns. Presumably Frank spends a lot of time cleaning guns.

Ennis splits the rest of the issue between Microchip and the mob. Microchip’s got to convince his rogue C.I.A. handlers he can deliver on his promise to get Frank while this New York mobster calls this other, higher up mobster to come help since Frank has wiped out all the higher level mobsters in New York. Ennis has a lot of fun with both scenes. The comic’s only got maybe six—Frank at the cemetery, Micro, Frank and the informant, mob guy, Frank cleaning guns, cliffhanger. It’s real simple, reads kind of fast, kind of not. Ennis puts a lot of attention into the dialogue for Micro, the conversation with the mobsters. Because the cliffhanger has to be a surprise. Ennis is trying to shock the reader and it works.

LaRosa does better with the action than the talking heads. There’s a lot of digital editing on the talking heads panels and sometimes the colors are doing the shading work, which doesn’t match the rest of the issue. But the point is the dialogue. The art is secondary in those scenes. A distant second.

Micro’s exposition dump has a little more about of the back story—in Punisher Max universe; he and Frank worked together for ten years, he helped Frank kill over eight hundred people, before Micro came along Frank was just a nut job with a gun, basically. In the moment, it doesn’t read too much like self-aggrandizing—Micro’s also showing off his tough guy cred in the scene—which is impressive since it’s a lot of self-aggrandizing. Ennis does a phenomenal job setting the narrative distance with Micro and the mobsters. The way he angles it, it feels like the book is going to alternate the reader’s perspective from being in line with Micro and being in line with the mobsters. They’re both after Frank, Frank will be the subject.

It’s a really nice move, especially given how the cliffhanger functions (and turns everything upside-down).

The visiting mobsters (from Boston) are more Ennis eccentrics than anyone else in the comic so far; the sexually explicit C.I.A. agent doesn’t have much to do this issue (except get in a couple great lines). But the mob guys? The leader is slick and mean and generic, but his stooges are amazing. There’s the rude one and the weird quiet one. The rude one is somewhat standard looking—tough little, older guy in a tracksuit—but the quiet one looks like Beaker from the Muppets. They both get excellent moments during their scene; Ennis knows how to lay in sly humor. Even if it’s terrible.

It’s almost like the big boom of the cliffhanger distracts from all the strong work the comic does throughout. Almost like, but not quite. Ennis keeps it all balanced.

The Punisher #1, In the Beginning, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher #1The Punisher #1; Marvel Comics, MAX; March 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

The first page of the issue is the Castle family tombstone. Names, birth years, death year. 1976. A Marvel comic with years. Well, a MAX Comic. And the MAX Comics Punisher apparently isn’t going to be de-aging Frank Castle.

Well, actually, it does. The Punisher first appeared in 1974. So, 1976 is at least two years adjusted, but whatever. Frank’s going to be in his fifties at least.

The next page introduces the “MAX” Punisher. He’s a shadowy giant, his face indeterminately scarred. Penciller Lewis LaRosa and inker Tom Palmer rarely show Frank’s eyes. Instead they’re just shadows on his steely face. The first seven pages of the comic are the closest to an origin writer Garth Ennis does; Frank narrating his recollection of the family’s “picnic in the park.” The sounds of the machine guns, the expressions of his family—the expressions. Everyone else in the comic emotes through their eyes. Frank’s the only one who doesn’t. LaRosa and Palmer do a devastating job with these single, two-thirds of the page panels of the Castle family as they’re shot. Then there’s the “bridge” to the present. And the only questionable pages of art in the entire issue. They’re not LaRosa’s fault, not Palmer’s fault, maybe not even Ennis’s. There’s just something off about a Frank Castle amid anonymous New Yorkers panel and a gun porn panel. The comic’s got its Tim Bradstreet cover, it’s more than got its quota of gun porn just from it.

And then LaRosa’s full page Frank, skull, and guns doesn’t work either. Not after the gentle open with the family. Horrifying but gentle.

Juxtaposed against Frank’s big action set piece, the rest of the issue is setting up the arc’s hook—there are these shadowy government agents surveilling Frank for some reason. Because his old buddy Microchip has apparently sold him out. Lots of hand-wringing from Micro at the end, lots of emotion (in face and eyes), some wistful expounding about Frank Castle, and—frankly—a too quick end to the issue.

Frank’s action set piece has him taking out a bunch of mafiosos en masse with a big gun. Ennis writes some fantastic narration for it. From page two, he’s got Frank’s voice. Because Frank’s got to make it all seem not just plausible but rational and inevitable.

Lots of blood and gore, some swearing, even some Ennis dirty jokes—one of the agents has the hots for Frank and she’s explicit when describing her thoughts to her prude partner. There’s a little more character development on them later, all in dialogue, all done fast and efficient. Even though it reads a little short and there are those two somewhat wasted pages at the end of the “prologue,” Ennis paces The Punisher #1 beautifully.

As the first “X-rated” Punisher comic, Ennis manages to do the proof-of-concept and get his actual story started without ever having to change pace. Considering some of the comic—some of the arc (it’s titled In the Beginning after all) is going to be about Ennis showing his “take” on the MAX Frank.

It’s a really good first issue.

Born #4 (of 4)

Born #4

Born #4; Marvel Comics, MAX; November 2003; $3.50, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.Born does not end well. #4 might have the most consistent look for Frank, but only because his face is in shadow most of the time. There’s some okay action gore, but it’s not the point of the issue. Ennis and Robertson spend about as much time resolving Stevie’s story as they do showing The Punisher being “born.” It’s way too much on the former, probably just right on the latter; because unless they were going to go symphony of violence, there’s no point.

Ennis is outside the historical Vietnam War here—the issue, along with Frank’s “transformation” (into a shockingly bad reveal panel which would be better suited setting up a Punisher zombie comic), is firmly Marvel comic book. Sure, it’s violent, sure, there’s swearing, but it’s “just” a comic. It’s “just” the Punisher’s origin reveal. What defines the finale—and, I guess, the series (though not really)—is what Ennis and Robertson don’t achieve, not what they do.

They do not achieve a great symbiosis of realistic war comics with super-anti-hero comics. They do not deliver a good war comic at all. Ennis gives up on Stevie’s narration; the opening page is it and it’s bad. Well, it’s trite and obvious but not bad as war comic narration. It’s just not Stevie. No way that dude would expound this narration. Doesn’t matter because there’s only a page of it. A page and a panel. Then it’s all action until the Voice comes back. And, wow, is the Voice stuff not written anywhere near well enough. All that mystery, all that lack of personality, it bits Ennis right on the ass.

There’s a “sort of” answer to the question about Frank’s experience of the voice, but the answer quickly proves to be a fake. Series editors Nick Lowe and Joe Quesada do an exceptionally bad job on Born. Its failings are comically editorial. No pun intended. Ennis also takes the time to resolve some of the other open “subplots,” but really just a check-in on the characters we’ve met and not cared about during the series. It’s weird; it’s a weird, weird failure. It’s cheesy. Three-ish times. Sure, it’s violent and cheesy one of those times, but Robertson’s good at the gore, not really the action. And it’s hard to see where Ennis is interested. The Stevie third of the comic—unless you count when he’s in the background and you can’t recognize him and it doesn’t matter anyway—is particularly rote.

The issue’s acceptably competent, technically speaking, but it’s not even a cop out. Instead of calling it The Final Day, they just should have done The Final Issue because it’s so imaginatively inert… it’s nothing but that.

And did Paul Gulacy do the last page? Because definitely looks like a Gulacy eye.

Born #3 (of 4)

Born #3Born #3; Marvel Comics, MAX; October 2003; $3.50, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

Well, the Voice is back. And Ennis tries to do something really ambitious with Stevie, which has nothing to do with the Voice, nothing to do with Frank, nothing to do with Born really, and literally gets cut-off because there’s not enough room for it. Not with the Voice stuff, not with the conclusion.

But first there’s the opening, which is some very purple exposition set to images of the war, specifically how American soldiers conducted themselves in Vietnam. It’s too well-written and too effective to be believable from Stevie, who has a scene following where he’s musing about American Imperialism to a disinterested Angel has Stevie has none of that vocabulary.

So, follow that grandiose opening, it’s pretty clear #3 isn’t going to be an uptick from #2 like #2 was an uptick from #1. And not in the art department either. Robertson has to do this scene where Frank thinks about killing someone before committing; he reflects on it, turns it over in his head. Robertson can’t keep his facial features the same from panel to panel, much less show a thought process on his face. It’d be a bad scene anyway, especially since it kicks off the reappearance of the Voice.

The Voice has two big problems at this point. First, it’s still not clear Frank’s hearing the Voice. Not like Robertson’s going to be able to show it (probably not even if it was obvious versus nuanced). Second, given how much work Ennis put into Stevie’s narration, shouldn’t he have put in equal time on the Voice. Because the Voice could be the reader. The Voice could be Ennis. The Voice could be anyone. And it’s not. It’s no one. It just blathers on ominously.

Then there’s Stevie and Angel getting into it about Stevie being an oblivious white dude. Angel knows there’s nothing waiting at home, so why not at least get high in ‘Nam where it’s not your federal government trying to kill you with the same drugs. That bit’s implied but it’s definitely implied. Like, Angel knows what’s up. To a shocking degree.

He’d have made a much better narrator.

The conflict of ideals—Stevie’s dumb white boy liberal ones versus Angel’s reality based Black guy ones—never goes anywhere because it’s time for the enemy to invade, leading to some Punisher money shots. The two-page spread showing the enemies attacking falls a little short. Robertson’s not going to wow with the art, no matter what he shows. It’s too far gone for that.

It’s a strange issue. There’s some really good writing from Ennis, but never when it counts. And his attempt at the race subplot plays way too slight. If he’s not going to take it seriously, why should the reader?

Born #2 (of 4)

Born #2Born #2; Marvel Comics, MAX; September 2003; $3.50, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

This issue—titled The Second Day, so we can guess what the next two issue’s titles are going to be—focuses more on Stevie. Or at least, it’s always from Stevie’s perspective. Frank has a big money shot action sequence, but it’s still Stevie seeing (and reacting). Ennis also reveals a bit more about Stevie’s experience in Vietnam; turns out Angel saved his life so now where Angel goes, Stevie goes. Even when Angel goes to get his fix and Stevie has to drag him out to go on patrol and the racist smack dealer threatens them.

If Stevie and Frank are the leads, Angel is the main supporting cast member, just because he’s still taking care of Stevie; getting him to think less about the terrible things they see, terrible things they may do. One could be overly complimentary and say Ennis is subtle about Angel’s character development. Thin would probably be more accurate. Because even though Born is a comic about the Vietnam War, but it’s also a Punisher comic. So there’s a big Frank action sequence with a very big gun. But then there’s a couple quiet, shocking scenes, which Ennis doesn’t seem to have thought through entirely. But when Stevie muses about “American through the looking-glass, lost in Vietnam” early in the issue (and you want to smack Stevie—and Ennis—for the purpleness but then high five Ennis for the period appropriate vernacular), it isn’t until after Frank gets through his quiet moments that line truly resonates. But then it comes apart a bit when Ennis can’t wrap it all up. And Robertson changes what Stevie looks like six times in two pages, which is actually worse than his seemingly randomly selected Frank faces.

With Born, Ennis avoids various project-related pitfalls. He doesn’t get overtly symbolic or make protracted comparisons; in fact, he avoids them. But it leaves him with two narratives, one of the internal Frank Castle, one of the external. This issue has zip on the internal. There’s Frank’s awkward attempt at bonding with Stevie, which seems like it gets a scene because it’d been a while since Frank had been in the issue and Ennis wanted to send things out not just with him but also with a minor, but pointless reveal.

Ennis really doesn’t seem comfortable trying to figure out the series’s potential. When he and Robertson do a gory action sequence—there are a couple great ones—or when Ennis does a shock twist or plot development, there’s enthusiasm to be sure. But there’s not a lot of ambition. Ennis’s ambition for Born seems to be in selling Stevie’s narration of the experience, particularly when he (Ennis) gets to be wordy about it.

Despite being more obvious in its Punisher-related money shots, the issue’s stronger than the first. Ennis is focused on Stevie’s experience of the day; Frank plays his part, but the structure is all about making Stevie the protagonist now. Especially the ending.

Where it seems like the Voice should or would make an appearance, but does not.

Frank’s kill count is something like seven this issue, six of them enemy combatants, one of them not. It’s where Ennis loses track of Frank… on the photo-Punisher stuff. It’s like he can’t pretend it’s not a stretch so he doesn’t even want to address it.

Born #1 (of 4)

Born #1Born #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.

Robocop: Last Stand #8 of 8

Rls8Robocop: Last Stand #8; Boom! Studios; March 2014; $3.99, 32 pgs; available collected.

Robocop: Last Stand #8 screams behind-the-scenes story. It’s got a new writer, on issue eight of an eight issue limited, but it’s also got no mention of Frank Miller. Besides the narrative—which loosely follows the previous seven issues but could also be seen entirely as a follow-up to Robocop 3—and Oztekin’s art, it’s a very different handling than what Steven Grant had done. Ed Brisson’s Robocop Detroit feels very much Judge Dredd-inspired with its gang of marauders. They’ve come to town, which—following the events in issues one to seven and also Robocop 3—has no functioning city government or government services.

Brisson does a rather good job addressing that situation without a lot of exposition, which wouldn’t be appropriate because it’s a shortcoming of issues one to seven and Robocop 3. Even if the enemy gang is a little bit too cartoonish. There’s just not enough time spent developing them. It seems like an editorial issue—Oztekin’s only got so much space and there’s a lot of action; character development—even caricature-y character development—takes a third seat. Back seat is already taken (by humor). There are some decent smiles thanks to Oztekin’s visual pacing.

By the end of the issue, it’s clear Brisson isn’t just end-capping Boom!’s pseudo-Frank Miller Robocop comic, he’s also end-capping the Robocop franchise. But subtly. He’s getting around to answering narrative questions you didn’t bother answering in eighties-born movie franchises. Robocop: Last Stand #8 sets up a fine sequel possibility for Boom!, a good starting point for an ongoing series.

Though none of the subsequent Robocop ongoings have used the Last Stand continuity (or the Last Stand #8 continuity).

As a franchise, film or comic, Robocop is a disaster zone. Brisson at least makes some attempt to put order to it here. As an epilogue to the previous seven issues, I guess it works fine? It does work fine, but it does some extra credit too and the extra credit is where it’s interesting. Brisson’s got some franchise enthusiasm not seen in the previous issues. There’s an actual surprise cameo.

Robocop: Last Stand is a singular success. It’s a good Robocop comic and a good Robocop sequel. Brisson at least seems to understand its possibilities (and responsibilities) and turns in the right finish. Even if it is too short.

Robocop: Last Stand #7 of 8

Robocop: Last Stand #7 of 8Robocop: Last Stand #7; Boom! Studios; February 2014; $3.99, 32 pgs; available collected.

This issue of Last Stand has me wishing I had been timing how long the comic took to read. It’s an all action issue. There’s Robocop versus Japanese cyborgs, good guys at OCP trying to survive slash beat the “suit” villain (which gives Last Stand’s sidekicks more to do than Robo sidekicks usually get to do). There’s a two page resolution, which features some of the civilian cast but they weren’t important enough to get any page time during the main action.

And how is the main action, since there’s nothing else to the book?

It’s good, sometimes really good. But it also reveals how clunky Robocop comes off in big action sequences. Oztekin doesn’t solve that problem (or even acknowledge it), but the rest of the issue? The all-action comic with a single fight scene determining the end of the story? Oztekin does a fine job. It’s a good fight, with Grant getting in some occasional, effective banter.

Then the issue ends—in those two pages—with such ambiguity it’s hard to imagine what they’ve got in store for the grand finale. Because it doesn’t seem like anyone’s got any idea what they’re going for with tone for the ending. The issue’s been twenty-ish pages of constant conflict; Grant and Oztekin don’t have room to shift gears fast enough. Considering Oztekin doesn’t have room for giant explosions by the end of the issue, the resolution to a Robo subplot—or, more, the nod to a resolution for a Robo subplot—doesn’t figure into the issue’s plotting, which is too bad. Especially since Last Stand #7 is Grant’s last one on the eight issue series, which also makes you wonder where exactly this script came from… did Grant write it back in the Frank Miller’s Robocop (Robocop 2) adaptation? Did Boom! get it with the license?

Regardless, Grant and Oztekin (and their editors) did the incredible—they turned an exceedingly troubled pseudo-cyberpunk action sequel into a successful comic book. Oztekin’s the star, obviously, but whatever Grant contributed—seemingly—was exactly what the book needed.

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