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 went into The Punisher MAX expecting to dislike it. But, reading “In the Beginning“, I was struck with how cleverly Ennis played with my expectations. While I expected the book to merely be an ultraviolent retelling of the exact same superhero story ever – a misunderstood martyr who, at great personal cost, was dedicated to making the world better, one fight at a time – Ennis instead gave me a story that wasn’t really about the Punisher at all. It was about the world around him, the world that spawned him, and the effect he had on the world that so enraged him… but for all that every element of every page is about the Punisher, on an emotional level, we get to know just about everyone else notably better. The Punisher is barely a character at all, and Ennis doesn’t do a lot to try and romanticize the fact that he’s a violent sociopath and likely was one before his family was ever killed.
Fastforward a couple arcs and you reach “Mother Russia,” Ennis’ third six-issue arc on the book. “Mother Russia” is everything I feared “In the Beginning” would be and then some, a mirthless action-driven arc that’s twice as long as it has any reason to be and half as shocking as it desperately wants you to think it is. In it, Nick Fury, Marvel Universe spymaster supreme, contacts the Punisher with a deal he can’t refuse: passwords to every major US intelligence agencies, the kind of information that would give him access to satellite tracking, arrest records, everything he wanted that would make his job so, so much easier. In return, Frank has to go to Russia, break into a nuclear missile silo, and kidnap a child infected with a virus and bring her back to the US.
What follows is about 3 issues worth of compelling material, one issue worth of semi-decent filler side-plot, and what seems like 44 pages of the dullest violence you could possibly imagine. The action is cut up with people being incredulous at the amount and severity of the violence. If you think that seeing violence is shocking, wait until you’re told over and over again just how shocking it is in between action scenes. Whoo, boy, that’s when you know excitement.
Now, here’s the thing about violence: it can be a lot of fun in comics. Check out any one of David Aja’s action sequences on The Immortal Iron Fist – something like that, you could read for issues, well-constructed pulp violence that combines kinetic action segments with clever paneling. But a fair chunk of this arc is people coming down an elevator shaft, and then getting shot while other people talk about it. And it’s every bit as exciting as it sounds.
This is the Punisher at his laziest: a series of violent shocks that don’t add up to much of a story. Crass and cynical, the arc is also Ennis at his laziest. The arc manages to combine violence towards children, U.S.-bred sleeper cells ready to recreate 9/11 wherever and whenever they like, nuclear war, and a U.S. government so incapable they almost start World War III at multiple points during a six-issue arc.
People who should be at the absolute least professionals are vulgar and stupid, all because, if they aren’t, the Punisher doesn’t look quite as good. Unfortunately, even the Punisher falls prey to the lazy storytelling, however, as we see in the beginning of this action sequence…
Previously, the Punisher won because he deserved to win – he was better armed, he had a plan, and he had training. Here? He’s charging a superior force that’s better armed. They KNOW he’s coming and they know which way he’s coming. They’re trained, and they’re ready. This scene goes on for a few more pages of incoherent explosions and bullet-riddled corpses, but it’s more of the same: the Punisher doesn’t get hit because it’s not that part of the story. The climax of the first arc had a similar problem, but at least then he had a stockpile of weaponry, was facing untrained thugs with pistols, and was in a fortified location!
Ennis showed that he was more than capable of both bleak humor and surprisingly tender moments in the first two arcs, moments that suggest this book might very well be among Ennis’ strongest work, even if this arc puts that theory to test. Ennis is a writer that has limited mileage with a great many readers – his tendency to abuse shock tactics sometimes pays off, and sometimes leads to scenes where a Chinese midget martial artist in a Speedo pops out of a backpack and has a bizarre, anti-climactic fight. Played with defter hands, or at least played in a story that wasn’t so drearily self-important, such a scene has a surreal energy that could be a lot of fun, but in “Mother Russia,” it largely falls dead, a wasted sight gag that leads to nothing of note.
The more blatantly Ennis goes for sentimentality, comedy or shocks, the more the book fails. The first two arcs largely worked because they didn’t heroize or even really humanize the Punisher – he was just something that happened to bad people. How bad hardly even mattered. All that mattered was that he noticed. The Punisher was a person. He had a code. This was to be respected in an abstract way, but the Punisher was not a respectable person, just a sociopath who had been pointed in the right direction. This arc follows a similar logic, except it suggests – as blatantly and often as possible – that this ‘code’ and the brutality with which it is enforced makes him a better person, a stronger person, a more invulnerable person than the rest of the world.
That said, for every few ideas he throws down, he hits one that works. The brief panel here, where Galina asks for ice cream, for example, is violent and disgusting, but it works largely because of its sparsity. We see the image once, for the first time – it’s shocking, it’s off-putting, and it helps us understand Frank. But it only works because it’s understated. Once you have Frank, or any character, talk about his inherent nobility, once you make the comparison between Frank’s dead daughter and Galina, the girl with the billion dollar blood, and Frank’s daughter, you ruin the moment. You overexplain. You make the tender, tedious.
The arc at least ended on a strong note – a very, very strong note. Galina, Frank, and the shockingly incompetent government lackey ‘overseeing’ the operation need to walk to an extraction point, but their gear is damaged. They only have enough for one of them to go, and carry Galina. They draw straws; Frank wins. What follows is the single best page in the arc, hands down, an expertly illustrated wordless panel where Frank marches stoically off to leave the ultimately respectable Vanheim to his horrendous, lonely death.
These moments are understated and underexplained, and that is perhaps why they work. No joke is funny if you have to explain it afterward; similarly, explaining why a scene should be dramatic undercuts any inherent drama from it, and the same goes for explaining why an action scene should be exciting. Unfortunately, when a relatively simple premise is blown up into a six-issue arc, these are the kinds of problems you run into, the compromises you make to fill out space.
This worries me. Looking at the book’s future, it appears as though every arc is 6 issues long. This arc proves why that’s a bad idea. What could have been a narratively tight action two-part story with a heartbreaking conclusion got lost in its own sprawl, introducing side-plots and false-starts to artificially inflate the drama. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect, and I’m not entirely sure if Ennis has the restraint to leave behind ideas that don’t fit these artificially imposed 6-issue limits. The first two arcs walked a narrative tight-rope, introducing a varied cast, all of whom had personal stakes in the action, and because of that, the six issues were easy to fill. This one had no such characterization, and given how much of the character’s supporting cast dies each adventure, I cannot help but worry that Ennis is already burning out here when it comes to creating a compelling set of characters.
– Cal Cleary
The Unread Canon #6: The Walking Dead: The Heart’s Desire
The Unread Canon #5: The Punisher MAX: Kitchen Irish
Coming Up June 5th: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life
Coming Up June 19th: The Walking Dead: The Best Defense
*just as a note, I apologize for the poor quality of these scans. The hardcover editions of The Punisher MAX are absolutely lovely, but they don’t make for great scanning, especially when you’re using an already weak machine. Hopefully, a better scanner will be available in the future.