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.