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.
I spent a lot of the article last time talking about the Punisher as ‘a force of nature’, something Ennis seemed to be doing on purpose: rather than humanizing him and making him a character, Ennis kept us so far removed from the Punisher’s thoughts and feelings that it often seemed like he didn’t actually have any. It seemed like a very particular choice, but one that worked within the context of the character – the Punisher has existed so long he had nearly become a parody of himself, a man who has lived beyond the trends that spawned him, lived beyond the time period and mindset that he personified, a man who, due to the nature of comics (and humanity), would by necessity ultimately fail at his mission.
Kitchen Irish strays a little from that trend, though it does stick by it in essentials. Once again, Ennis devotes just as much time to his enemies as he does to his title character, and once again he gives that title character some (much more talkative) ‘allies’. The enemies this time come in four flavors: there’s Maginty, a black Irishman who runs one of the most hardcore Irish gangs in town; there’s the River Rats, a small group of pirates preying on yachts that get a little too close to NYC at night; there’s the Westies, an infamous (though thoroughly faded from their heyday) Irish gang in NYC led by Tommy Toner and his girl; and there’s Finn Cooley, a faceless former IRA member and bombmaker who’s new in town.
Finn, of a note, is the most quintessentially Ennis-ian villains to come along so far. A less-tragic version of Arseface from his Preacher, Finn’s clear plastic mass holding his face together is a pretty standard visual joke that only gets darker (and more disgusting) when he loses the mask, and is forced to hold his face on with hastily-applied gauze.
All the information about these gangsters is relayed to us by Yorkie and Andy Lorimer, two members of M.I.6 who have followed Finn Cooley out from the UK, and know all the basics of the plot that we (and Frank) don’t. I’m not quite sure whether Ennis included them because he didn’t trust us Americans to know/figure out what the IRA was and how they worked, or if he wanted to try and give Frank someone to bounce off of, an attempt to show a slightly different side of the Punisher.
If it was the first, it didn’t work, and it led to some of the biggest flaws of the arc. Yorkie and Andy talk. A lot. There are pages and pages of exposition from them explaining why the bad guys are bad-ass, why Frank doesn’t want them sticking around NYC, why they’re here and what they’re doing. Almost none of it is necessary, and it is only interesting in a very basic sense. Stuck in the midst of an otherwise tense 5-way stand-off between the Punisher and four different groups of well-armed Irish thugs? It didn’t quite kill the mood, but it slowed it down considerably.
As I said last week, the Punisher is almost by definition less interesting than his villains. Finn Cooley is a mess of Irish pride, greed, and intelligence. Maginty is a strong-arm thug who’s clever enough, and charismatic enough, to carve out his own niche in organized crime. Brenda is a tough, clever, no-nonsense girl unshaken by violence, and the clear leader of the Westies despite Tommy Toner’s pretensions otherwise. The Punisher, meanwhile, is a thug with a quest, and we don’t get much more than that from the boys at M.I.6, here, either. Not boring, just not really as interesting as everyone around them.
If you’re going to give him someone to bounce off, to show a slightly different facet of his personality, you need someone vastly more colorful than him: neither Andy nor Yorkie qualify. We learn more about him when he wakes up in the bomb blast and tries desperately to save one of the people injured in the bomb blast and goads the rookie EMT out of shock than we do in a dozen pages of conversation with Yorkie.
Still, like the last volume, The Punisher MAX: Kitchen Irish is about as good as a “Punisher” book could be, or so it seems. It’s got interesting bad guys, and a whole lot of them – we have two independent parties (Old Man Nesbitt and Napper), both of whom are rather shockingly interesting characters who have their own brief thematic arcs in the middle of the story, and who play a role in mobilizing the gangs, but we’ve also got a bunch of different versions of Irish organized crime, all competing against both Frank and against each other in a bid for supremacy in New York. This leads to a few pretty killer action scenes, like Frank busting in on Finn Cooley at a NYC bar or the showdown at the Intrepid.
None of them, however, match the arc’s opening, which is as tense a scene as has come in the book’s first 12 issues. The scene lasts 9 pages, and it manages to illustrate just how frail the Punisher is, to set up his bad guys almost perfectly, and to take the Punisher out of his element and show, for the first time, that there really is something human buried deep within.
The biggest problem with the opening is the narration. Well, not all of it – once the bomb goes off, I can see why Ennis wanted to talk about why Frank survived, though he should have trusted artist Leandro Fernandez. Everything Frank narrates to us, Fernandez has already drawn: either the art or the writing is superfluous here, and I’m pretty damn sure it isn’t the art. Ennis often has the tendency to overwrite in this book, to tell us things we can already see. I’m not sure why, except that that’s pretty much the only time we get inside Frank’s head at all.
Whatever the reason, it isn’t worth it. We know everything we need to about the Punisher after any single issue of his book, and to disarm tension or slow down action beats just so we can know exactly how much the Punisher is enjoying killing everyone on the planet is a bad trade-off in every conceivable way.
In the end, though, Ennis even kind of admits the futility of Frank’s quest, and touches on something that the Punisher fans and writers rarely ever want to touch on: that Frank is doing this for himself, and that it isn’t enough. He may never change, but that’s only because he doesn’t know how. It’s perhaps the most honest moment in Ennis’ run, and by far the best Punisher-related one.
(as a note, this post was so late because I am looking for a scanner to use and failing – as soon as I find one, I’ll add some pertinent images to the post – apologies!)
– Cal Cleary
The Unread Canon #4: The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars
The Unread Canon #3: The Punisher MAX: In the Beginning
Coming Up March 24th: The Walking Dead: Heart’s Desire
Coming Up May 1st: The Punisher MAX: Mother Russia