“Up Is Down and Black Is White” is the fourth volume of Garth Ennis’ run on The Punisher MAX, and while it isn’t as strong as “In the Beginning” was, it’s leagues ahead of the last arc, the weakest in the series so far, “Mother Russia”. The arc follows the Punisher, Frank Castle, when he’s truly cut adrift. The bodies of his family are stolen and defiled. Castle may not be enough of an investigator to puzzle out who done it, but he doesn’t have to be: the thief is an old enemy come back to haunt him, and one who knows him well enough to know what buttons to push. And he announces himself on national TV. This goes about as well as you can imagine it would.
Nicky Cavella, the sociopathic mobster from “In the Beginning,” returns with a vendetta against Castle, this time accompanied by Teresa, a bigger, meaner sister to his previous brute, Pittsy. O’Brien, the foul-mouthed black-ops harpy working for the government in “In the Beginning” returns, along with her castrated, miserable partner, Roth. And Rawlins, the government agent who planned and executed a terrorist strike on Moscow in “Mother Russia” comes back, this time as a bisexual madman intent on using Cavella for his own personal aims.
This gives the book a nice sense of importance, making it feel bigger than it really is, and at least partially excuses the painfully stupid Rawlins subplot in “Mother Russia” as just a worthless introduction to an important character, rather than an utterly worthless sideplot. It paints Rawlins as a ruthless survivor, a man who’ll do anything to get the job done and come out smelling like sunshine, a trait that carries over here. Of course, this being Garth Ennis, Rawlins ends up blowing Nicky Cavella in a secret gay domination tryst played for pretty much exclusively for shock value, but, for the most part, the characterization across the board is consistent and well-handled.
Still, it gave the book an exciting sense of continuity to finally have some connective tissue, like Ennis might really be building to something bigger. Add to that the fact that he gives us some back-story – and some relatively chilling back story at that – for Cavella, and you have a fairly effective arc. It takes the same leisurely pace of Ennis’ early arcs, spending a couple issues putting pieces into place and following their plans, before introducing a wild card that fucks everything up and then concluding in a protracted, bloody struggle. It’s a simple formula, but it’s worked wonders three times, now, and the only time he deviated from it – “Mother Russia” – it turned out to be the weakest arc. Sometimes, formulas work.
I’m definitely excited that both Rawlins and O’Brien walked away from the arc, hale and healthy. While Rawlins isn’t terribly interesting thus far, functioning largely as a standard Ennis sleazeball, he at least suggests a cunning adversary with a lot of resources, a history with the cast, and an axe to grind with the Punisher. O’Brien, on the other hand, is a shockingly strong character, a foul-mouthed woman who’s very nearly as detached from humanity as Frank. Brutally violent and refreshingly straight-forward, O’Brien has quickly become one of my favorite Ennis characters, and I hope to see more of her.
There are a few minor missteps. The fights, despite having some excellent, gritty art from Leandro Fernandez, follow the “Mother Russia” theme of Frank just walking in, guns blazing, and walking out largely unharmed because he’s the protagonist. I miss “In the Beginning” just a little, where he fought smart, from defensible locations. I realize, and thought it was a nice touch, that Frank’s clumsy, in-your-face tactics in this arc are because of his loss of focus, but despite repeated assertions that this is the case, it only comes up once, and only in his first confrontation with Cavella. Why have Frank get into a gunfight with 7 guys and come out on top just because they kept missing?
Similarly, Frank’s sexual encounter with O’Brien seems like a potential misstep, though it’s relatively well-handled here. Ennis has gone out of his way to portray Castle as, essentially, a sociopath. Castle experiences emotion, yeah, but it’s different. There’s no real hint of empathy, no remorse, no real social understanding. The scene directly preceding the hook-up is low-key, a suggestion that Ennis has a handle on both these people, that there’s nothing here but the need to release some steam.
And if it stays that way, great. Ennis isn’t a writer known for his sentimentality, and I’m hoping that his reputation pulls through here, but a ‘romantic’ entanglement for the Punisher is risky water to tread. He’s an irredeemably violent man constantly haunted by his dead wife. Softening him for a traditional comic book relationship just wouldn’t fit the tone of the book or the character. Casual sex is rarely handled well in comics, and Ennis’ work on The Boys suggests that it’ll end up severely demeaning O’Brien in some way or another. But just ignoring her feels like it’d be a waste of an excellent supporting character. Whatever Ennis chooses to do, I confess, I’m excited to find out: O’Brien is interesting, and Frank’s best carnage thus far has been with a partner.
Leandro Fernandez does some excellent work on art. Though most of the gun-fights are relatively dull, that’s not really his fault: outside of The Immortal Iron Fist, I can’t think of a single book in which a gun fight was even half as thrilling as a decent knock ’em down brawl. Thankfully, Fernandez gets a chance to do some of those, too, most notably . Teresa, enraged after rejection, sneaks up on a nude, post-coital Castle and attacks him. The six-page fight that follows is one of the best the series has given us so far, a visceral, bloody fight with a sudden, shocking climax. Credit Fernandez: this fight and O’Brien’s shower fight could have easily been turned queasily ‘sexy’, given the amount of flesh on display, but Fernandez keeps it professional and aims for the gut, rather than the groin. The end result is very, very strong.
“Up Is Down and Black Is White” isn’t the strongest arc Ennis has done on the book, but it is the most challenging. Ennis successfully balanced the actions fans demand from The Punisher MAX with some genuinely unsettling images. He set up recurring villains and a supporting cast for a character that hasn’t had much of either. He added some depth to our understanding of Frank Castle without cheapening the character’s legacy. And he pushes himself to find new ways to push his hero.
I can’t wait to see where he takes Frank next.
– Cal Cleary
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