Everyone has a set of entertainment by which they’ll swear, the ones they’ll eventually convince every friend to watch/listen to/read. Sometimes, those suggestions are echoed time and again all over the place, and even the most jaded, world-weary or dirt-poor fan of the medium has to get curious about just what all that fuss is for. That’s why I’ve started The Unread Canon, my attempt to experience a great deal more of comics than I already have and take a look at the books that, over the past few years (or, in some cases, decades) have achieved passionate, vocal critical and fan supporters that have nevertheless managed to slip by me and to try and look at how they grew, how they aged, why they work, or why they might not work so well anymore.
The Punisher cannot be an easy character to write. He doesn’t have charisma. He doesn’t have love interests. He doesn’t have a future. He just has one thing: a mission. And it’s not even a terrible interesting mission. His mission is pretty much just to kill everyone he doesn’t like., and he doesn’t really like very many people at all.
So, how do you write an ongoing series about a character that, by and large, lacks character? Aside from a Charlie Bronson-style revenge fantasy and a bit of the good ol’ ultra-violence, neither of which tend to be terribly interesting in the long run, what does Castle bring to the table?
Ennis gives the question the only answer he can: nothing… and that’s okay. The opening arc of Garth Ennis’ The Punisher MAX, follows the titular hero as he confronts danger on two side: former ally Microchip has teamed up with a black ops group to recruit Castle for a mysterious mission, while the Mafia is after him in what little force remains after a massive hit that takes out most of the group’s higher-ups. But aside from bits of narration in the opening and closing issues, the book hardly follows The Punisher at all, instead focusing on his nemeses as they go after Frank, then each other, and then, finally, themselves.
It turns out there’s a lot to this idea. With Castle largely portrayed as a force of nature, a hammer that strikes injustice capriciously and with disturbing violence, all concerns regarding tepid plotting and dull character arcs are tossed out the window. I question, of course, just how long Ennis would be able to maintain this: in order to make it work, judging by this arc, he needs compelling villains – a lot of them – and a reason for anyone to actually go after Frank. And since pretty much 90% of the supporting cast dies in this arc, I foresee problems down the road.
I’ve made mention of the Punisher as a ‘force of nature’ in this arc, now. There might be a better way to describe it, but I’m not so sure. See these two pages from early in the arc:
This guy didn’t really do anything. Sure he’s a pimp, a scum-bag who’s turning out girls too young and getting them hooked on drugs, but this isn’t the sort of thing that normally brings the Punisher down on you. He’s not a major player and he’s not noisy about what he does. But because he’s on the wrong corner while the Punisher is sitting on a nearby bench, he gets murdered. In broad daylight. And the Punisher just walks away. That seems like a force of nature to me: his kills in this book are rarely because he planned to go out and kill a whole bunch of people, but because they happened to be in his general vicinity.
But for now, there’s actually a lot to like. Ennis’ implication that Castle was severely damaged well before he became the Punisher makes sense – you don’t go from ‘family man’ to ‘vigilante with a death count in the thousands’ because of one bad day. Instead, it’s suggested that something happened in Vietnam, something that kept him distant from humanity even when he had a family, and it was that mindset that he turned to when he lost everything else.
A sharp point, that, made all the sharper by artist Lewis Larosa. Larosa’s art throughout most of the arc is a little scratchy, a little cartoonish, a little excessive, but his occasionally mundane action sequences are saved by his talent for staging a few fairly spectacular images, like the one above.
Another plus? The Vietnam War. Rather than de-aging Castle and having his war keep moving up, throwing him in the Iraq War or something, the Punisher is in this arc an old man. Spider-Man may be eternally 12 years old, an iconic, Peter Pan-like figure who wants to grow up, but isn’t allowed to, but the Punisher’s wife and kids died in 1976 – he’s been doing this for 30 years at this point, and the comic isn’t afraid to show him slowing down because of it.
The arc isn’t without flaws. The arc ends with a pretty mundane shoot-out, and while the point is made that the Punisher has made a ‘perfect kill-zone’, the art mostly makes it look like he’s standing on a roof in broad daylight. Yes, he has a lot of weapons, but, well… so do they. A single sniper, hell, just someone who’s a good shot with a pistol, and they can turn this around. In many of the issue’s brutal fights, the Punisher wins because he’s willing to do things that the other guys aren’t; in this issue, he wins because if he didn’t, there wouldn’t be a next issue. It’s a particularly lazy way out of what had to that point been a surprisingly vigorous opening arc.
Another issue is the fairly massive chunks of exposition. The arc can, in fact, often be summed up by making a diagram tracking ‘exposition’ and ‘action’ scenes as they swap back and forth. I understand the necessity – the Punisher’s silence while everyone talks at him reinforces both his stance as a man for whom there ARE no compromises, and it makes everything he says in rebuttal take on vastly more significance and power – but he spends literally a third of the arc tied up in a dark room, being talked at. I can’t imagine how that would have read on a monthly basis.
Of course, as soon as he breaks out, Ennis and Larosa immediately give us some pretty spectacular action scenes. Remember when I said that the Punisher has little to offer other than a bit of ultra-violence? Well, this is a team who knows how to use it to full effect.
This was the moment, I think, when I really began to appreciate the arc. Not because of the violence of it, but because at this point, 5 issues into his The Punisher MAX, and many of the people we’ve seen die are people we’ve been following for a hundred-plus pages at this point. This isn’t a story about the Punisher; this is a story about the people he fights. And these people can be as charismatic, as cunning, as colorfully characterized as Ennis wants them to be. He can give them any backstory, and he can make them as young or old as he wants. All the freedom he doesn’t have with Castle, he does with a revolving, violent supporting cast. So Castle slamming Cavella and Pittsy together in the most bad-ass headbutt you can imagine? Immensely satisfying, and that’s in large part because we know Castle, we know Cavella, and we know Pittsy… and we have no idea whether Cavella, Pittsy, Bethel, or O’Brien will survive this fight, nor how. All we know is, the Punisher isn’t done killing, and no one in that room is necessarily safe.
Sure, Ennis and Larosa have a tendency to overuse violence, to try and make it sexy or funny, and they rarely succeed at either. Scenes like Roth staggering down a hallway, testicles in a plastic cup and spraying blood from his groin, it too far over the top, not in terms of the violence of the image, but in terms that it seems played half for laughs, a sick punchline to a joke we’re never really told. But when they’re making it work with the story, rather than cramming it in just ‘cuz, The Punisher MAX seems like it has a lot of potential.
In an industry full of sanitized violence, where characters don’t die unless it’s advertised months in advance to boost sales and people seem more interesting in playing with 40 year old villains like toys rather than creating something new, The Punisher MAX offers something surprisingly difference. The beats it hits are the same ones hit by most superhero comics, but it doesn’t even remotely glamorize vigilante violence, and it isn’t afraid to kill, maim or betray its supporting cast. If Ennis can keep the energy going at this level, I could definitely understand what the fuss is about.
– Cal Cleary
The Unread Canon #2: The Walking Dead: Miles Behind Us
The Unread Canon #1: The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye
Coming Up April 2nd: The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars
Coming Up April 9th: The Punisher MAX: Kitchen Irish