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A History of Punishment for Adults: Jog reaches the last, black page on 8/13

Joe McCulloch

The Punisher MAX #60

I think it’s useful to compare this comic — the last of writer Garth Ennis’ run on the series — with another thing Marvel released this week: The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe, a reprint of material from 1995. That was Ennis’ first work on the character; he was 25 years old, though already a professional comics writer for over than half a decade.

It’s not a very good comic. The What If…? type concept is that Frank Castle’s family is accidentally killed in the middle of a superhero battle (instead of a gangland firefight) and the opening pages do have some nasty kick, with various Marvel superheroes standing around in their rainbow-hued spandex regalia, annoyedly discussing the collateral damage caused by their adventures, the implication being that wifes and children and such get unwittingly killed in many of those happy adventures you (the reader) so enjoy reading. The same idea is present in Ennis’ current The Boys, but the Punisher comic does benefit from having all those famous characters standing around, being irritable, until Frank Castle empties a gun into the crowd without warning.

The rest of it’s a below-average Marshal Law storyline, and a fannish one at that; it’s bratty fanishness, yes, focusing on superheroes getting killed, but that’s still not substantively different from Batman Can Beat Hulk Because, and it grossly undercuts the meanness of those first pages of the comic, the critique inherent.

But it is there, and The Punisher MAX is here, and right now it’s 180 degrees away.

What’s been striking to me about this final storyline is how different it’s been from even earlier issues of the series itself. Ennis’ Punisher has always been evolving, of course. Marvel also recently reprinted Welcome Back, Frank, which marked the start of the writer’s prolonged association with the character, at the dawn of the Jemas era in 2000. That was the ‘Knights’ Punisher, a comedic take on the character cracking polar bears in the kisser and making fools of superheroes, although there were more ‘serious’ bits too.

Eventually, in 2004, the Knights version of the character was scrapped and the MAX version officially began (although the ‘Vol. 0’ MAX miniseries The Punisher: Born was released in 2003); it marked a break away from all prior continuity, taking place in its own private universe, one with few Marvel characters. Nick Fury was there (or, the version of Fury Ennis devised for his 2001-02 Fury MAX miniseries), and characters from Punisher history were occasionally featured (or alluded to), but all of them inhabited a closed-off world that operated in quasi-realtime — each new storyline ‘occurs’ at the time its first issue is published in the reader’s world — much like the old Hellblazer, the series that first brought Ennis’ work to North America.

That’s not to say the MAX Punisher did away with comedy altogether; it’d actually be a pretty big mistake to call it entirely serious. Rather, it embraced a type of ‘heightened reality’ approach, stretching the emotions and activities of ‘realistic’ characters to encompass wild deeds and develop dryly absurd situations – it’s all a bit like what manga writer Kazuo Koike does with some of his projects, though Ennis is more droll a writer, and I suspect far less inclined toward oddball improvisation. Still: the Punisher parachutes out of a nuclear missile! That stuff’s right in there (Mother Russia, Vol. 3).

(and note that I’m leaving out the likely influence of prose crime writers, which I’m just not equipped to address, sorry)

Yet in the same way, there were long, cold, dark themes at work. Ennis has really used the longview well in this series – you can get a satisfying story out of the average collected volume (or even a given issue, although Ennis’ skill with a cliffhanger doesn’t always translate to individually great chapters), but the best effect is to observe how Ennis works his concerns over years of time, both in terms of his writing and the characters’ fictional lives.

It’s certainly the only way to fully appreciate one of the series’ core themes, a very old one – that violence and retribution circle back to return to any given actor. I think it’s something to note exactly how many supporting cast members get killed over the course of this series, and, on the flip side, how Ennis never allows any one villain to retain primacy for the whole run.

There’s other concerns as well – the interrelationship between ‘high’ and ‘low’ crime, rich and poor (generally white and not-white), is a big one, reaching its climax in the extended The Punisher Shoots Enron saga of Barracuda (Vol. 6), which was chock-full of interracial, class-crossing chaos, in addition to the obvious satire. Note how Barracuda himself (by all rights, he shouldn’t have ever worked outside of that storyline, so specific is his position) quietly shifts in Long Cold Dark (Vol. 9), still a tool of (different) powerful interests, but seen a little differently amidst the story’s individual theme of parents creating Hell for their children.

That’s just one way Ennis operates with a eye toward the expansive. But always, always, it’s clear that his main character is doomed, no matter how great at killing he might be. We’re all doomed, really, if you take the 2004 MAX one-shot The Punisher: The End as not the optional ‘ending’ for the character it was conceived as by its publisher (The End is a whole series of not-really ‘final’ stories for Marvel characters, in case you didn’t know), but as the actual ending for the closed-off MAX Punisher world. There, international warmaking (a frequent motif in the MAX series proper) leads to a nuclear exchange with China, apparently wiping out most of the population of the US, and maybe the world.

That’s the trouble with a war you never want to end,” remarks Frank Castle to a traveling companion, whom he’ll later kill for his pre-apocalyptic crimes, regardless of how maybe people are even left in the world. It’s a line that belied a total lack of self-awareness in 2004, but now seems just the opposite – Vol. 9 ‘ended’ the story of this series, in terms of Frank’s characterization, with his acknowledgement that he’s done as much to create his horrible life as anyone else — the people who shot his family, the Vietnam conflict that roused his taste for killing — yet he still rejects any attempt to start over, and returns to The War.

Maybe, at the end of human time, he’s making a little joke about how he’ll be the last one left, burning in an irradiated city as he envisions a return to the place where his wife and children were killed, perhaps touching a bit of Morrisonian hyper-sanity and realizing that he’s not going to Hell, but has always been there, because he’s a Marvel comic book character that must have adventures into perpetuity, and so his wife and children will always be shot, and he’ll always be mad, over and over, revival and revamp, new writers and artists, never, ever ending until they all blink from the culture’s attention.

Man, that hits me a lot more than tossing Wolverine into an electric fence since his bones are metal and it’d totally melt his internal organs before he could heal… sounds kinda quaint, given the last 13 years of comics.

And so, here we are at the spectacularly-titled Valley Forge, Valley Forge: The Slaughter of a U.S. Marine Garrison and the Birth of the Punisher, Vol. 10, the last. Like I mentioned, Frank’s story reached a sort of ‘ending’ in Vol. 9, so this one is a little different. It’s the only one of Ennis’ MAX stories missing the title character’s famous narration; here, he’s observed, puzzled over. We never once climb inside him, for what more needs be said? The action is often interrupted by text and ‘photos’ taken from a book written by the brother of a dead character from Born, and the chapters we read touch on prior themes of the series, though with a special emphasis on warfare waged on questionable grounds.

This is far and away the most political of Ennis’ Punisher works; it’s a little reminiscent of his Punisher-ish 2004-05 Avatar series 303, in that it functions on one level as a murder fantasy concerning men who start conflicts for poor reasons. It’s also the most serious, concluding with no less than poetry appearing on the page as Nick Fury growls at television footage of wounded soldiers in Iraq. Poetry and song lyrics in comics are dangerous stuff, but Ennis — so often pilloried as a fatally ‘cool’ writer prone to sneering at nerdy shit like superheroes while he makes his money — seems intent on spending his final pages being as emotional as he pleases, no matter how silly he might look.

It works and it doesn’t. The plot — wicked Army and Air Force brass send good men to kill Frank so as to wipe out evidence of the nasty shit they’ve been pulling at varous points in the series — operates well in accommodating Ennis’ shift of focus away from the inside of Frank’s head. There’s little surprise that Frank copes with facing good men sent to defeat him by simply evading and disarming (due to his awesome skills) until they’re forced to give up – when you’re fighing a war that never ends, you’re likely to outlast people with other aspects to their lives, after all. He runs circles around them for most of it, quick enough that the suspense seems lopsided, though I think that’s attributable to seeing the Punisher how others see him, for once.

Additionally, by turning his gaze away from Frank, Ennis also redirects his grand theme. Here, Frank exists symbolically as well as physically, as the embodiment of Vietnam damage up and walking – it’s something he’s been known as at various points in the series, but in this storyline he’s very much an instrument of delivering violence straight to the door of men looking to profit from bloodshed, what went around coming back around. That probably makes this one of Ennis’ more pro-Punisher stories, although longtime readers know that Frank is just as doomed for his sins and everyone else.

Of course, those longtime readers will encounter some jarring shift in tone. I understand that Ennis wants to provide an immediately weighty capstone for his run, but all this rue and verse has a way of clashing with the actual details of the evil generals’ scheme, which did involve a flesh-devouring virus, a sweet little girl, the aforementioned nuclear missile dive and the Punisher thrashing a miniature martial arts master to death by grabbing his leg and bashing him against things.

And it’ll surely be up to each reader to decide if an in-story cultivation of a terrorist cell with the intention to execute a strike on foreign soil while covertly securing the use of a bacteriological weapon really synchs up allegorically to What Ennis is Really Talking About when he writes of “those who profited” from a shitty war started on shit grounds – and those prone to sudden explosions of racism in the Big Villain manner of the rest of the series at that! I’m not sure it comes across as convincing as it could; one of the benefits of writing 303 for Avatar was that he didn’t have to speak so indirectly, with such potential for choking on those extra words.

Still, there’s moments of some power in here, and a willingness to acknowledge the personal, human element inside grand moral flourishes. The artist, Goran Parlov, is excellent as always, his caricature-prone faces deftly wrinkling into pain and rage, and his action pages so sleek and hard you’ll hear everything fine without sound effects. He’s become sort of the series’ ‘regular’ artist in the last few volumes, and he fits in well with Ennis’ flowing tone, now gone over the falls to address real world concerns with unrestrained anger.

Feel free to query how any of this will look to someone hopping on at the end; I bet it’d seem a bit tinny, its super-character moving into combat with such assurance that inevitability seems at his back; longterm readers will get more kick out of the final issue’s march of its villains to doom, because they know it’s inevitable, from what Ennis has built from things he did not create. It’s a GOOD final word for what’s become a model of what a corporate-owned series can do, with a writer willing to glare so deep into its implications, ready to devote an awful lot of time and space to work-for-hire service, and renowned enough to get just what he wants away from the rigor of the shared universe.

It’s work that’ll inform the future incarnations, inevitably born again into that acknowledged perdition of further adventures.

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