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

The Punisher #6The Punisher #6; Marvel Comics, MAX; July 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

Ennis brings back Frank’s narration for the last issue in the arc. He’s got some observations about the mob guys, a blow-by-blow on his fight with Pittsy, the preternaturally tough mob thug (which Ennis handles brilliantly to show Frank’s disorientation after a particularly intense beating), and not much else. It’s an all-action issue; Frank’s taking on the mob as the CIA boss comes in with an attack helicopter. Lots and lots of bad guys getting taken out by Frank. There’s the most insight so far in the series into the character too. While Frank doesn’t expound in his narration, he does actually converse with someone besides an informant or Micro. He sums it all up in four words to the CIA boss when they finally collide.

The issue ends with another of Micro’s long speeches, explaining how the Punisher works only for Punisher MAX not to work that way. Micro again refers back to the Born limited series; it comes off as nonsensical, reaching. As opposed to the interrogation, he and Frank are actually conversing. Frank’s not verbose in his responses, but he tells Micro what’s what. Tersely.

In addition to the action violence, there’s a lot of gore this issue. Much more than the first issue, which had ordnance capable of removing bad guys’s heads from their bodies. This issue those types of “kills,” for lack of a better term, get the close-up. One time the close-up gore kill is for a joke (as close as the comic ever gets to a joke—there are two in the issue, Ennis’s somewhat sardonic humor soaked oily black), the other time it’s for emphasis, to leave the reader with a better understanding of what they can expect from the series. The arc is called In the Beginning, after all. Beginning could also refer to how Micro comes to understand Frank. He’s got the wrong ideas at the start, he learns more, makes more wrong conclusions. It’s more unfortunate than tragic, as Micro’s only likable opposite the CIA pricks, never sympathetic.

Ennis does a particular great job of showing how Frank and Micro work together, presumably echoing their many years together in the old days. Before Punisher MAX, before this Frank, before this Beginning.

It’s a phenomenal conclusion to the arc. Ennis has everything running smoothly—the mob stuff in particular (the mob boss all of a sudden, but appropriately, gets a promotion serious villain)—and Frank’s fistfight is awesome. Strong art from LaRosa. He, inker Tom Palmer, and colorist Dean White toggle from small scale action to a big scale much different than they’ve done before. Even though Frank’s got a plan, the odds aren’t in his favor. Except with Frank, odds don’t have anything to do with it.

It’s haunting. Depressing. Unpleasant. And exceptional. Garth Ennis figured out how to do the Punisher straight. Not ironic, not right-wing gun porn, but straight. In the Beginning gets Ennis, Frank, and The Punisher off to superior start.

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The Punisher #5, In the Beginning, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher #5; Marvel Comics, MAX; June 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

No spoilers but it’s appropriately awesome how Frank gets out of the cliffhanger. That resolution gives way to the female CIA agent showing up and attacking the mobsters, saving her boss, distracting the goons from Frank, which gives Micro the chance to loose him.

The resulting action sequence is fast, bloody, and brutal. LaRosa paces the action out beautifully. Even though Frank’s been in action before in the series, it’s been a while and we’ve just sat through two full issues of Micro hyping up The Punisher. Turning him loose—with Micro mooning on about it after unlocking Frank’s chains—Ennis has to be careful not to go overboard. It’s intense, but guided. During that sequence, Ennis also shifts the narrative distance a little, back to Frank. It’s no longer Micro running their scenes together, it’s Frank. It’s a distinct change, alongside the CIA and mob plot lines, which stay about the same. Sure, there are going to be less CIA agents in play, but there’s only one more issue in the arc. Ennis is very clearly building up to something.

The issue ends on a softer cliffhanger. The danger is unseen, but imminent. Frank has called the mob boss up and told him to come and get it. Meanwhile, the CIA boss is betting his career on being able to bring home The Punisher.

As for Micro, well, Frank tries to explain how he doesn’t actually understand the things he thinks he understands. Once they’re out of the interrogation room, Frank starts talking a lot more, which Ennis does very, very carefully. Frank hasn’t had much dialogue until now. There’s probably twice as much dialogue from him in this issue as in the previous four combined, not counting the narration, which is a different thing.

But Frank talking to Micro? Trying to make him see reality. Ennis is on a tightrope to get across enough information without giving Frank any extraneous lines.

It entirely changes the Micro character, turning him into tragic figure, one whose misunderstanding is going to get him in more trouble than anything else ever would have. Including his arrangement with the CIA boss, which Micro seems to have gone for just because he desperately wanted to make Frank—and himself—more legitimately relevant.

Ennis makes Micro sympathetic without having any sympathy for him.

While moving the narrative distance away from Micro’s shoulder and over to Frank’s. It’s the most exquisite writing yet, if only because it makes Frank so much more active a participant.

The Punisher #4, In the Beginning, Part 4 (of 6)

The Punisher #4The Punisher #4; Marvel Comics, MAX; May 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

Ennis doesn’t waste any time with the pitch—Micro’s pitch, the reason there’s a story. Does Frank want to go hunt Bin Laden? The CIA can turn Frank into an international terrorist hunter, with Microchip backing him up, all the weapons he could want. On and on Micro chip goes, talking to empty-eyed Frank, who occasionally looks like Clint Eastwood again, but only occasionally.

Frank’s not impressed with the pitch. No more heroic action outings to fund the military industrial complex. The first time he gets the hint of an eyeball it’s to tell Micro where to stick the proposal. The second time, when he’s actually got a visualized eye, he’s talking about the Vietnam war memorial.

Turns out all Micro’s big talk about being Frank’s best friend and a valued part of Team Punisher? It’s all in Micro’s head. He doesn’t seem to understand Frank, who does take a moment to try to explain it all. It’s a flashback from Frank, to after his family died, and he explains what punishment means to him. It’s brief and fast—the mob guys are mounting their assault to take him (and the CIA) out—but it’s really, really heavy. And Micro, who seemingly really thought he was going to get Frank to agree to be a one man war on America’s enemies… doesn’t get it.

The interrogation scene is phenomenal, even with LaRosa and Palmer’s frankly (no pun) off-putting Frank. He looks like a soulless thing more than a person. The lack of visible eyes (Micro has a bunch here, as he blathers) is unsettling, which is part of the point. Outstanding dialogue from Ennis, great visual pacing from LaRosa.

Ennis has Frank and Micro as his A plot, then the CIA and the mob as his B plots. The CIA stuff is good—both closer to humor than the rest of the book (mean-spirited dark humor, but still humor) and as character development. Ennis isn’t forgetting about his cast.

Similarly, the mob stuff is all good. Turns out the Boston crew is a lot smarter than the CIA. They don’t do decorum, they do brutal.

When it gets to the hard cliffhanger, which is one of those “worst case” cliffhangers, it’s hard not to remember how Ennis already got away with one just a couple issues ago. So straits aren’t too dire. It’s a going gets (impossibly) tough. Time to see how Frank gets going. So it’s less about concern or confusion and more about anticipation.

It’s exquisitely written, well-illustrated, with a great pace. Ennis and LaRosa have definitely hit their stride.

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.

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.

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