I enjoyed writing about every issue of The Amazing Spider-Man so much, I’ve decided to review another important book: PunisherMax. I can’t write about every issue of every Punisher book because between the miniserieses and one-shots and various volumes of “Punisher” titles there’s probably twenty or so separate series, and most of them are . . . Well . . . Shite. I could start with the Marvel Knights Punisher revival of the series, also written by Garth Ennis, but that was a very different sort of book. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but it was still Marvel Universe material without anything truly unique. Good for what it was, and great to see Wolverine get run over by a steamroller, but it wasn’t a game-changer. It wasn’t worth writing a comprehensive article about it.
No, I’m writing only about Garth Ennis’ run on PunisherMax. Because when issue #1 of that book broke free from Garth Ennis’ violent little mind, it helped change the world. Think about it: Marvel was recovering from bankruptcy both financially and intellectually. New EiC Joe Quesada needed to do something, immediately, that would signal to the world that comic books—in particular, Marvel comic books—were not a dead medium. And he delivered
Hit the break.
There were a total of ten arcs (six issues each) of PunisherMax, plus the “Born” miniseries that launched the title and three interrelated one-shots contained in the trade paperback “From First to Last” that told of Castle as a boy (first); as a prisoner; and in his last adventure as Punisher. I’m counting that as one arc, which means there are 12 Ennis arcs total, and then 2 arcs by Jason Aaron. All are rated below, on a scale of 1 to 12 (because there were 12 arcs). At the end of part 3 of this article, all 12 will be ranked—to help the cost-conscious of you decide whether to buy the books.
While technically not the same title as Punisher Max, “Born” was a four-issue miniseries that serves as the bridge from Ennis’ Marvel Knights take on Frank Castly, which was at time so over the top that it reads like a dry run on Ennis’ later anti-hero (not antihero, mind you) series, “The Boys.” The tale establishes that there’s a demon driving him that preceded the loss of his wife and children. In effect, he was destined to become Punisher irrespective of that mob hit—that just gave him an excuse.
IN THE BEGINNING (2004)
The first story arc, Punisher Max #1-6, was aptly titled, “In the Beginning.” The cover alone told you that you were in for something unlike anything that you’d seen before: Tim Bradstreet, who did all of the covers for Ennis’ run on Punisher Max, created a photorealistic image of Castle, with a Mona Lisa type smile, holding an AK-47 before a wall of guns of all sizes and types. The man in his workshop, sitting, posing for the cover photo. Open the book and you’re greeted with a splash page of the Castle family tombstone. Then, a two page spread with just five panels: Two of Punisher’s sepia-toned face, two of white words on pure black background, and the last of Lisa Castle, eyes filled with horror. The narrative recaps Punisher’s origin, and the unusual panel arrangement continues for several more pages of unflinching, gory retrospective, before we get a full page of Punisher. We’re looking up at him from below. From Hell. And he looks insane, as he characterizes his own mission: “Every night I go out and make the world sane.”
The issue then shows Punisher slaughtering just about every major crime boss in the five families. It’s just like the beginning of the most recent (crappy) Punisher movie, in a line of pretty crappy Punisher movies. The hook, though, is Microchip. The old character from the old Punisher series. Micro betrays Punisher, capturing him and offering him a contract: Get paid to go capture Osama Bin Laden. I won’t give away more than that, but as far as first stories go, this was a good intro. It let us know that the book would be about Punisher in the “real world,” without superheroes or easy solutions, and it would be horrendously, horrifyingly, delightfully violent.
Best lines: “Don’t go gettin’ fuckin’ cute, or I’ll cut ya balls off and put ‘em in a cup.” -Pittsy, a gangster, threatening a man who, of course, eventually has his testicles removed and placed in a paper cup.
“Asshole’s been eating his spinach.” –Punisher, while tussling with Pittsy.
Rank: 6/12. It loses a few points for its somewhat generic plot, but it’s still in the top 50% of a series that is one of the best runs of all time.
KITCHEN IRISH (2005)
Arc number two was a bit of a misstep in this spectacular run. Punisher goes up against a former IRA member who blew his own face off in some failed terrorist plot from days gone by, and Pun helps a British veteran who knew from his service days capture the lunatic. The best part of this story barely involves Castle: It’s the relationship between the leader of a gang of African American drug dealers and an old man who used to be a torturer for the Irish underground army. Those scenes are powerful, truly, and frightening. Also: Not a big fan of Leandro Fernandez, who was responsible for the art on this arc.
Best line: “Bullet for each of his idiots. Bullet for each of his knees. Then we’ll go for a drive and have a talk.” –Punisher.
Next: Part 2.