Today, we conclude our examination of Garth Ennis’ brilliant run on PunisherMax, in which he singlehandedly rejuvenated the character and, at the same time, played a major role in bringing comic books out of their 1990s-early 2000s slump.
MAN OF STONE (2008)
Another case of international intrigue, Man of Stone introduces the first (and only) love interest in the Ennis run. In fact, the aftershocks of this story reverberate throughout later arcs as well. The story also shows the progression of Ennis’ storylines, from street crime and mob bosses; to terrorist cells; to larger, international mob bosses and larger, international white-collar criminals; to this: A genocidal general intent on committing mass murder on a global scale. A weakness of this arc is that there’s no real character development—just exposition, masquerading as development—but that is true of most ongoing, serialized books because the author can only do so much: Readers want and expect their characters to remain relatively consistent from year to year. The other weakness of this arc is that it’s just a little too big, a little too broad, and a little too “important” to be believable. And I mean believable in the context of the Punisher universe—he’s out of his element here, and it’s not as satisfying to see him fighting helicopters in the desert.
The story hinges around blowback from the Mother Russia story, and we begin to see with this arc that Ennis has a world vision. These aren’t just isolated Punisher stories, they do—and will—all fit together, eventually.
Oh, and one last thing: The art is fantastic. See above.
Best dialogue: “I think the stitches in my balls have opened up!” “Trust me, you don’t want me to do it again.”
With issue #43, Ennis returns Punisher to his roots: Street crime and mob activity. But although it is a common theme, I would argue that Widowmaker is his most complex tale in terms of the three stories that run concurrently throughout the arc. In each, a different character serves as a widow and another as widowmaker, and we see the parallels between the lives of “pure” vigilante (Punisher), “second gen” vigilante, and cop. A very interesting story, with extremely well-defined characterization.
FROM FIRST TO LAST (2008)
The Tyger was the first in a series of PunisherMax self-contained one-shots, which was reprinted as “From First to Last.” They’re an interesting collection, and I’ll review all of them seriatim, right here.
The Tyger is the first tale, and it’s about big Pun’s childhood. It explores Ennis’ idea, which he began in “Born,” that Punisher was always the way he is: His family’s slaying was more of an outward excuse than a cause. More of a rationalization than a rationale. The next story, The Cell, shows Punisher going to prison so he can get at the mobsters responsible for his family’s slaying. Finally, Ennis teams up with the always incredible Richard Corben to tell “The End,” which is the last Punisher story. The theme of all three of these stories, From First To Last, is to show that no matter what the circumstances in his life, Punisher never really changes. It’s almost like a recognition of the difference between a good novel and a good, ongoing comic book. In a novel, you must have a beginning, middle and end. The character must be fundamentally different at the end of the book. In a comic, you can never fundamentally change the character: At bottom, fans of the superhero genre tend to want to see their characters go through adventures. Comic books are much more about the thrill of the moment than learning lessons and changing. And Ennis’ entire run is a celebration of that. As for The End: It’s a post-apocalyptic tale, but what it is really about is how nothing, even the end of the world, will end Frank Castle’s need for vengeance. He’s almost like Ghost Rider in this way…
Best lines: From The Cell: “My family are avenged now…But the war goes on.
Note: Part of the reason for the lower rank of this collection is that it does not “fit” with the rest of the run and is kind of redundant of what Ennis did in the main book, even if it does inform the psychological examination of the character. That said, “The End” and “The Cell,” in particular, are terrific stories.
LONG COLD DARK (2009)
The return of Barracuda. This arc, and the one that follows it, represent Garth Ennis consciously saying goodbye to writing the title, and he starts wrapping up loose ends. The problem with this one is it’s just ridiculous how much punishment Barracuda can take. But, at the same time, it’s hilarious. If you have an incredibly tough stomach and a dark sense of humor.
It’s also a testament to how well Garth Ennis can write violence, since we basically have a two-issue-long fistfight and we know who will win, but we can’t wait to read the next line anyway.
This arc also has the best cover. Punisher #51. You’ve got to love it.
Best line: Barracuda teases Punisher about not knowing his own daughter’s name: “You wanna know her name? You know, so you’n say, ‘Don’t kill little’…Her name. ‘Don’t be cuttin’ up’….Her name. ‘No, no, please don’t stick yo’ thumbs in her eyes and cave in her goddamn skull that’s my muthafuckin’ daughter’….Her name.”
VALLEY FORGE, VALLEY FORGE (2009)
This is the last Punisher story Ennis wrote (but not the last one chronologically). It wraps up just about everything, from the Generals who sent him to Russia to a videotape of a character who was tortured several arcs back. The problem with this arc, though, is that it is so heavy on plot that it lacks characterization. The use of an extended “novelization” of Punisher’s war years is juxtaposed against the standard comic book narrative, and it’s an interesting idea, but overall this is the weakest Punisher arc Ennis wrote. Of course, the weakest Ennis Punisher arc is still better than the vast majority of comic books out there.
Best scene: The opening scene of the arc, wherein Punisher gets his “mission” from Nick Fury and walks away while, in the background, Fury throws a bar patron out the window. It’s great because it shows the connection between these two characters: Fury is Punisher, he’s just a more “legit” version.
RANKING THE TALES, BEST TO LEAST BEST
(Because none of them are flat out bad…)
12. KITCHEN IRISH (2005)
11. MAN OF STONE (2008)
10. FROM FIRST TO LAST (2008)
9. VALLEY FORGE, VALLEY FORGE (2009)
8. LONG COLD DARK (2009)
7. WIDOWMAKER (2008)
6. IN THE BEGINNING (2004)
5. BARRACUDA (2007)
4. THE SLAVERS (2007)
3. BORN (2003)
2. MOTHER RUSSIA (2006)
1. UP IS DOWN AND BLACK IS WHITE (2006)