We’re looking at Ennis’ entire run on PunisherMax. One of the greatest runs in the history of comic books. Here’s part one. Part two starts after the break.
MOTHER RUSSIA (2006)
The second year of Punisher Max began with Garth Ennis revisiting one of the first Marvel characters he’d ever written about: Nick Fury. (And if any of you, my readers, has a copy of that first Fury mini he did, I’d love to swap for it.) Punisher has to go into a Russian nuke silo to rescue a little girl who is the host for the future of germ warfare. Yeah, it’s a spy story. But it’s really a war story. And few people write about the mind and heart of a solder as well as Ennis. Maybe Kubert. Maybe Jason Aaron. Not many others. It is in this story arc that Ennis really starts to understand how to pace his Punisher tales. It starts rolling slow and sinister and ends with an explosive finale. It’s perfect: One of my favorite comic book arcs of all time, probably, with realistic, tone-perfect art by Dougie Braithwaite.
Best lines: “Make sure it’s important next time. The women I like charge by the hour.” –Nick Fury.
“I’m twisting his leg off like a drumstick when I realize I’m frightening the kid.” –Punisher.
Rank: 2/12. Surprisingly, Punisher is out of his element, out of his country, and yet this is one of the greatest Punisher stories ever.
UP IS DOWN AND BLACK IS WHITE (2006)
Thus far in the series, Garth Ennis has explored Punisher as an actor on the world stage: Interacting with FBI, CIA, IRA and SHIELD. In this, the fourth arc, he gets back to his street crime roots: A junior Mafioso with ambitions, Nicky Cavella, figures out how to hurt Frank Castle: By digging up the graves of his family and pissing on their remains. The aftershocks of this tale reverberated for a few more story arcs, notably with the NYPD’s “anti-Punisher” initiative, after Castle gets framed for beating up two cops who . . . Nah, it’s complicated, with several subplots, terrific character development of both the hero and the various villains and foul-mouthed, sex-crazed FBI Agent O’Brien, from “Kitchen Irish,” who finally gets to find out if Punisher has a big dick. Even Fernandez, whose art I didn’t much care for in the “Kitchen Irish” arc, brings his “A” game. It may be the best Punisher tale of all time.
But maybe the coolest part of this story is the examination of Punisher’s techniques…See the panel sequence below.
Also, we find out in issue #19 that Punisher has been on the job for thirty years and his body count is over 2K. Neat statistic!
Best dialogue: O’Brien: “I gave the cup with the balls in them to the nurse at the E.R. Figured they could sew them back on or something.”
Roth: “You can’t sew balls back on, O’Brien!”
O’Brien: “How would I know? The only thing I know about balls is how to bust them.”
Rank: 1/12. That’s right, this is the best of all of them. I know a lot of you will disagree, but the story and subplots here are deeper—even if it lacks the emotional hit of Slavers or the balls-out fun of Barracuda.
THE SLAVERS (2007)
Beginning in issue #24, “The Slavers” brought in elements of international and local crime—something Ennis had been working toward in earlier story arcs. It was a way to show how Punisher’s “broken windows” approach to crime could actually have an impact internationally, even if it couldn’t address the roots of the problems. As you might guess from the title, it focused on the white slave (prostitution) trade from Eastern Europe, and the details were particularly harrowing—even for this series. The power here was in Castle’s confrontation with the most base, fundamental intrusion: Rape. Sex isn’t a subject Garth Ennis shies away from in PunisherMax, but it’s also not a major part of Castle’s personality. His ability to love seemingly died with his wife—although on occasion it can be glimpsed—so protecting a young woman is the closest thing he can get to it. The foil for Castle in this story is a social worker—a do-gooder—who must decide whether to work with, or against, The Punisher when she is faced with a situation in which there can be no “good” result.
Slavers is morally complex—much more so than the stories that preceded it—and, as a result, is a fascinating character study—as well as a bloody good, violent romp.
Best line: After an escaped female slave tells her story to Frank, Frank thinks: “She told me the whole story. About the day she left her village. About the old man. About her baby. When she was done, I knew a lot of men would have to die.”
For many, the story of Barracuda—a psychotic ex-con whose ability to give and take a beating exceeds even that of Frank Castle—is the pinnacle of this series. One thing it has more of than any other PunisherMax tale is humor. Tons of it. It’s dark, of course, and miserably violent, but it’s also hilarious. The plot and story are good, but they’re almost incidental: Barracuda was such a great character that he got his own spin-off miniseries, which was even more horrifyingly sadistic than this story arc.
Ennis’ writing of black characters is his biggest weakness, and betrays what may be his own inability to relate to the characters: They are always caricatures, and nearly always streetwise thugs who speak in exaggerated ebonics. Barracuda is by far the shrewdest African American Ennis ever wrote about, but he’s still a little too over-the-top. Fortunately, though, in this case, everything about this storyline is over the top: From the loss of extremities to the hungry sharks to the . . . Well, I won’t give more away than that. Suffice to say, if you read only one PunisherMax story, you won’t go wrong making it this one.
Best lines: Way too many to mention. But try this one, from the title character himself: “Yeah. Guess findin’ yo’ wife wit’ a couple dicks in her mouth, that gonna be a pretty goddamn big distraction.”