The Punisher #34, Barracuda, Part 4 (of 6)

The Punisher #34

This issue makes two things very clear. First, Punisher MAX would’ve been an even more successful book if Goran Parlov had been handling the art chores throughout. His expressions—for the talking heads scenes—are phenomenal. There’s one scene where the big boss is monologuing to his flunkies and it’s just these three guys sitting around an outdoor table at a bar in Florida and it’s sublime. Parlov’s so good.

Especially when you take the second thing into account—everyone should have to fight a shark in a comic. Ennis and Parlov make Frank Castle versus great white shark into an absolutely phenomenal sequence, especially when you throw in the past tense narration not to mention the opening frame establishing Frank doesn’t end up a shark’s lunch. Parlov’s able to keep the situation terrifying and tense, even when the outcome is foregone.

The issue is split between Frank, the shark, and Barracuda, and then the Wall Street guys. Stephens cries his way back in the fold, pissing off Dermot because the boss treats it as a teamwork learning opportunity for Stephens. The weirdest thing about Barracuda is how thoughtful Ennis gets with the workplace dynamics, sure the big boss is a reprehensible piece of shit, but he’s good at managing people and encouraging performance from his staff. It’s like Dale Carnegie with mass corporate fraud, which might just be the natural result of Dale Carnegie.

Anyway, while Dermot’s running off to lover and boss’s wife Alice to lick his wounds after getting shut down, Frank’s trying to will himself to stay alive despite the considerable damage he’s taken.

Barracuda moves between the two plots, finally sitting down with the boss—after terrifying Stephens and Dermot—to figure out what’s next. Since they think the Punisher is dead, which is kind of an obvious mistake but Ennis has already started peppering in holes in Barracuda’s armor. He’s not quite as serious as he ought to be, in a very different way than Frank, who knows he’s screwing up. Barracuda is just overconfident. His bluster actually works really well with the Wall Street guys’ bluster. Barracuda is a relatively simple arc, but Ennis is very thoughtful in its execution. It’s extremely well done.

And Parlov’s just wonderful to have on the book.

The Punisher #33, Barracuda, Part 3 (of 6)

Ennis wastes no time getting Frank and Barracuda together this issue. He even goes so far to use coincidence to speed things up—Barracuda’s on his way to New York to take out The Punisher and just happens to see Frank walking off his flight. Dumb luck. And bad luck for Frank, who’s almost completely unprepared for any trouble.

Frank’s narration gets into what he’s done wrong as well as why he’s done it, why he’s let his guard down so much. It’s interesting, engaging stuff, but it’s just priming the reader for the eventual confrontation.

But before Frank and Barracuda can mix it up, Ennis checks in on the Wall Street-half of the story. Number one flunky Dermot is continuing his affair with boss’s wife, Alice, even after she humiliates him—rather amusingly—in public just for a laugh. Even so, it turns out Alice hasn’t just been fooling around with Dermot for his disappointing sexual prowess; she’s looking for a partner. And she’s got him hooked. So they’re busy scheming to throw over the boss.

Their plotting subplot is the most exposition in the comic—until Barracuda gets talking later on—because when Frank wakes up, he and Barracuda just get into a fight. A big, bloody, gloriously illustrated fight. It’s an eight page fight scene, in two parts, with Frank taking out an eye, chopping off some fingers, but unable to even slow Barracuda. And the Goran Parlov art is nothing short of glorious. The way he paces the fight, the panel compositions, it’s superlative. Also very good colors from Giulia Brusco.

The issue ends on a couple cliffhangers, one hard, one soft. While Barracuda is driving his boat out to dump Frank to the sharks—and blathering at him the entire way—Dermot is hanging out with the boss, only to discover the boss has brought Stephens—who Dermot intended to have killed—back into the fold, seemingly cementing Dermot’s decision to plot against the boss.

It’s not a particularly fast read, even though it’s a mix of action (in addition to the eight page fist fight, there are a couple pages of Barracuda running Frank off the road) and abbreviated talking heads. The pacing just works right in both modes. Parlov does a great job with pauses in action or conversation; also time transitions.

It’s thrilling to have such accomplished art on the book.

The Punisher #32, Barracuda, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher #32

There’s a lot of action this issue, but it’s all Barracuda doing it. Meanwhile Frank is getting information about why a dirty cop risked it all to take out Wall Street guy Stephens. Frank and Stephens have breakfast in a diner. The diner’s called “Frank’s Favorite Diner.” Not sure if that one is an Ennis touch or a Parlov touch, but it’s sure a welcome bit of humorous detail.

Parlov draws the hell out everything in the issue—Barracuda versus snake, Frank and Stephens’ talking heads, catching up with the Wall Street wolves (particularly number two man Dermot as he lets himself get seduced by the boss’s wife), Barracuda versus bangers, Frank preparing for what’s next. It moves quickly, Ennis again playing with the whole idea of a bridging issue. The scenes with Frank and Stephens fill out the backstory—why Frank Castle is going to care about some energy company and their Wall Street schemes—while Dermot screwing around with boss’s wife Alice is setting the ground situation for what’s going to come. Very few people are more successful at plotting out a six issue arc than Garth Ennis. Especially when he’s got Parlov on the art.

Meanwhile, Barracuda terrorizes the rest of the issue, giving even the most obnoxiously unsympathetic a sliver of humanity (because he’s so utterly lacking in it).

The finale has Frank prepping for the trip—he’s going to Florida to strong-arm the big boss. It’s an easy job (Frank tells us in the narration), so why bother driving and bringing guns with him, he’ll be able to just pick them up in Florida. Easy-peasy. Except it’s past tense narration and Frank knows he’s making mistakes; so we get what is de facto introspection from Frank. Including the gem about what promotes white collar criminals to his sights—deaths. It’s not a soft Frank Castle by any means, just a too cocky one. And a talkative one. Ennis’s character development for Frank in Barracuda comes in the narration more than anywhere else.

The issue ends on a rather ominous note, one panel after Parlov (and Ennis) get in a sight gag about Frank’s reading habits. Because even though we know the story’s not going to go smoothly—we’re in flashback from a shark slaughter, after all—at this point, we’re seeing a relaxed Frank Castle. We know he should be concerned with that approach, even if he doesn’t. And not just because his narration tells us to get worried. Because at this point, Frank doesn’t even know Barracuda exists; the reader’s just spent an entire issue being mortified by the guy.

The Punisher #31, Barracuda, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher #31

Punisher #31 starts off with a couple surprises. First is Goran Parlov on the art. Parlov’s excellent. He’s the best artist the book’s had in a long time. Second is Ennis using a flashback device. The issue starts with sharks chowing down on a bunch of fresh bodies and Frank watching from a boat. The narration announces it’s a frame—it’s the end of the story—so Ennis, via Frank’s narration, takes us back to the start of it.

Ennis has done some past tense narration before—last arc, actually—but he didn’t use an actual framing device where he had action set in the present and then flashed back. Not like he’s doing here. It’s interesting; Ennis is far more comfortable with Frank as narrator than ever before, which is a good thing. Presumably.

So the story starts with Frank finding some Wall Street guy tied up naked in a drug den (after Frank’s hit the den). Turns out the dealers had been keeping the guy hostage and raping him. Frank’s not particularly sympathetic and leaves the guy, not thinking much about it. The reader’s going to think about it—because Ennis jumps the action over to his Wall Street pals, including the one who hired the drug dealers to kill him. Unclear this guy knows what they did instead.

There’s a lot of good talking heads—both in Frank and the guy, Stephens, and then Stephens’ pals, big boss Harry and Harry’s number one flunky, Dermot. Ennis and Parlov also make sure we take notice of Harry’s trophy wife, Alice. Well, they make sure we take notice of Alice making sure Dermot takes notice of Alice.

Frank gets brought back into the situation because he notices a dirty cop on the news, heading in to talk to the survivor. Gets Frank thinking he might not want to abandon him. So off he goes for a rescue mission, which is complicated because he’s still ostensibly on the cops’ shit list (from the previous Slavers arc).

Harry the big boss calls in the nuclear option, Barracuda. Now, the issue opens with Frank musing in narration about barracudas without context (other than he’s on a boat named Barracuda), so there’s a very nice wrapping feel. And it’s been a great setup issue as well. Ennis gets a lot done. Parlov’s able to do a bunch of exposition in the art, lots of great tone setup and so on (particularly the “wealth porn” aspect of it).

So very good issue. Even if the setup—Frank coming across someone at a crime scene and helping them against his better judgement—is identical to the Slavers setup. It’s fine… you’d just think Frank would acknowledge it in the narration, especially with everything else he calls out.

Parlov’s such a welcome art change too. He gets how to do the script.

So good.

The Punisher #30, The Slavers, Part 6 (of 6)

Ennis keeps it tight for the last issue of The Slavers. Frank’s perspective, lady cop Miller’s perspective, no one else. Other characters get significant moments—the other cop, Parker, gets some material, the dirty cop gets a big part in a scene, the old man has his showdown with Frank, Jen Cooke plays off Miller, and Viorica is back for a check in. The issue starts with Ennis establishing all the characters are their places; everyone’s waiting for Frank to act, but Frank’s being methodical in his planning.

The result of the planning is a straightforward action sequence, then the immediate and long-term fallout. There’s a devastating epilogue, where Ennis writes the hell out of Frank’s narration—he doesn’t push it as much here as he’s done in previous issues, but there’s a lot to read between the lines on. But it’s not Frank’s story to tell and he knows it. He’s not the hero because there can’t be any heroes in the story, not even for people like Cooke and Miller, who both wish there could be. For the wrap-up, little stuff Ennis has done in previous issues comes through; Miller, for instance, gets an entirely different arc than expected, something foreshadowed in the last issue.

Instead of showcasing the action sequence, which does have a fantastic hook, Ennis is more interested in the character development. There’s also Frank’s bandaid solution to the problem of trafficking, which is more about shocking than actually being effective. It’s Frank, the good guys, Ennis, the readers, punching against the impossible brick wall of the human trafficking reality. Ennis also delves, through Cooke and Miller mostly, into the morality of The Punisher and the positives and negatives of a moral vacuum. The positives and negatives of even considering such a thing under these circumstances.

It’s probably Fernandez’s best art in the arc? There are no glaring bad panels. I’m sure there are some iffy ones with Frank, but when Fernandez has to do the epilogue summary panels, he nails them well enough to forgive them. The comic’s so damn good you can’t even remember the iffy panels. You can barely remember the action, as everything else is so much more important. Because Frank doing his thing isn’t the story. It’s not even the gravy. It’s immaterial to the problem at hand. Because not even a superhero can fix this world. By the end of the issue, when the futility and tragedy of everyone involved gets the eyes tearing up, it’s hard to determine exactly what’s contributing to which profound feeling of sadness. It’s outstanding writing from Ennis, effective visual storytelling from Fernandez, and one hell of a comic. The Slavers, more than any other arc so far in Punisher MAX, comes through as a full narrative gesture. It’s devastating, obviously, and brutal, but it’s also brilliantly done. Ennis’s writing is truly awesome here. Especially (but also not especially) Frank’s narration.

The Punisher #29, The Slavers, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher #29

This issue has an Ennis Punisher “wow” moment. It ends with it. Two of them actually. One in Frank’s handling of Vera, the woman who handles… the Human Resources department for the trafficking ring. One in Frank’s narration. The moments leave you with a feeling of emptiness and profound sadness. Because while they’re not surprises—and the perfectly inform everything around them—they bring an exceptional level of humanity to Frank. Even with the omnipresent narration this arc, there’s still a significant narrative distance. Not so in this issue’s conclusion. Punisher MAX is, after all, basically all about Ennis finding Frank Castle’s expansive, beautiful, tragic soul.

Anyway. Had to cover that part while still teary. Heart-wrenching stuff.

It’s a fairly quick issue again. Ennis opens after Frank has finished with the son, finding himself in a firefight with the old man, who’s trying to kill his son for the botched hit. Shootouts at big houses on lakes in upstate New York are not Fernandez’s strong suit, but it works. Ennis’s writing on Frank’s narration is great. It’s comfortable, assured, willing to show some personality.

After that scene it’s all about the B and C plots tying together—it’s the penultimate issue in the arc, after all—so the cops team up with Jen Cooke who brings them to Frank, giving Frank a chance to make one really good joke while finding out what’s going on with the NYPD being all up in his business lately. It’s a lengthy talking heads scene with mostly repeat information—the characters are just finding out what the readers have known for issues—but it’s excellent. The personalities of all four characters (Frank, Cooke, the two cops) come through very nicely. Ennis has done a great job establishing the characters.

There’s some more with the bad cop and the old man confronting Vera about the hit before the end. It’s an excellent issue, outside the often wanting artwork. Ennis’s careful construction of it all is paying off.

That ending though… it’s something special. Ennis peppers extra personality for Frank this issue—when he’s got to interact with people instead of just shoot them or torture them; it’s where Ennis has to excel beyond expectation just to get it to work (another basic description of Punisher MAX, it’s able to work because Ennis’s writing is exceptional on the title, past the exceptional it’d need to be just to get it to function). So good.

The Punisher #28, The Slavers, Part 4 (of 6)

This issue moves real fast. Most of the expository scenes take place in a page, sometimes two, sometimes packed pages, sometimes just splash pages. There’s action for both the evil old man and Frank. Evil old man is contending with the assassins his son has sent after him, Frank is deal with the son and his security. Otherwise it’s Frank preparing for his attack, the son preparing for his father’s reaction to the attempt, and the B plot with the cops mixing into the A plot through social worker Jen Cooke (who’s become Frank’s reluctant sidekick).

But, really, it’s all about what Frank’s going to to do the son. We get a hint from the cover and the first page (one of those splash pages). Ennis isn’t racing to it, but he knows it’s the biggest question hanging over the issue, since it’s clear from five pages in what’s going on with everything else—the old man is too tough for the son to take out, the cops aren’t happy about getting beat up by their fellow officers and they want to at least figure out what’s really happening—but what are Frank’s plans for taking out this trafficking outfit? Inquiring minds want to know—well, the readers’ minds, none of the characters have the stomach for it.

Is the big reveal on the last page worth it? Oh, yeah. Abjectly terrible art on the page from Fernandez and Koblish, even on the parts of the page where Fernandez doesn’t usually choke, but it doesn’t matter. Ennis paces it beautifully in the script and Fernandez is at least good at breaking out the panels. He’s crap at realizing them once he’s got them plotted, but the visual pacing does work.

So, it’s a mix between an action issue and a bridging issue; even more of a bridging issue than last time, because Ennis is now setting up the pieces for immediate resolution. The scenes end in hard cliffhangers (though the old man is off-page once his big scene is done). The cops and Jen Cooke have a hard cliffhanger. Frank’s got the hard cliffhanger. Well, more, the son has a hard cliffhanger. It’s not up to Frank how they’re going to resolve their interrogation, after all. He gives the guy a big choice.

Great narration from Ennis. A couple of the expected past tense narration stumbles, but nothing serious, just some awkward sentences. The pulp approach is working. Even if Fernandez is choking on lots of important panels.

The Punisher #27, The Slavers, Part 3 (of 6)

The Punisher #27

It’s a bridging issue but in the best possible way. Since Ennis is now writing so much narration from Frank, the functional bridging feels a lot more organic. Frank’s got a problem—his leads have run dry because of the cluster last issue—and he needs to figure out a way to move forward. Literal bridging. And yet, completely effective chapter in the arc. While Frank’s trying to turn up new leads (the issue opens with him interrogating a pimp at knifepoint), Ennis is also working the B and C plots, though at this point they both seem on the same level.

In the B plot, the two cops—Miller (the White lady) and Parker (the Black guy)—who Frank messed up in the first issue go talk to the guy he messed up last issue so they can compare notes about how the department has used them to further this new anti-Punisher thing the NYPD’s got going on. Of course, it’s all twisted and corrupt so Miller and Parker end up getting beat down by their brothers in blue because… well, White lady and Black guy cops aren’t really really part of the club.

The C plot has the trafficking son deciding his dad has gone too far—he wants to go after Frank, not listening to reason; it’s time for some patricide.

The issue also introduces social worker Jen Cooke, who helped Viorica with her escape and got the baby killed. Frank goes to talk to her after a lecture, giving Ennis two more spots for completely natural exposition. Ennis is very thorough in how he lays out the trafficking information and presents the problem. No one has any solutions, not Frank, not Cooke (who Ennis sets up as a “shallow liberal” only to give her enough depth to hold up opposite Frank)—Frank doesn’t even know how to approach the problem. Terrorizing street pimps for information doesn’t work and, once he’s got the information he needs, he’s left trying to figure out how he’s going to get an amoral, apathetic Eastern European killing machine to talk. It’s new territory for him, more of Ennis’s subtle character development; thank goodness the writing’s there, in the narration, in the talking heads sequences, because once again Fernandez and Koblish render a very wanting Frank Castle. So many shadows too. Like, guys, putting Frank in the shadows for effect is just showcasing you not being able to draw him well.

Ennis ends the comic on a combination of soft cliffhanger and threat. Something’s coming. No one—except maybe Frank—has any inkling, but the future’s there, taunting everyone.

The Punisher #26, The Slavers, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher #26

The comic opens with Viorica telling Frank what happened to her back in Moldova. Enslaved sex work. Escape. Family (father) rejecting her. Recapture. Ennis splits it into two doses, both for the reader and the characters. In between he introduces the father. Last issue he introduced the son, along with the son’s female sidekick. This issue we meet the father as he’s executing some rival gang. Ennis also uses it to start up the C plot about the son plotting against the father. Then it’s back to Frank hearing the rest of the story: Ransomed baby, escape with baby, discovery, dead baby. Occasional panels for the flashback but mostly just talking heads. Fernandez does really well with the pacing of it. Not particularly great with the art, but not bad. Not until the end, when he’s got to do enraged Frank. There’s just something reductive about how Fernandez and Koblish visualize Frank here. He’s not imposing enough. But it’s a hell of a start to the issue. And the father is terrifying—Fernandez does better on that scene than anything else in the issue.

Once Frank’s got the story we’re caught up with the end of the previous issue—Ennis doesn’t reference the narration being a year into the future until the end of the comic, but he’s still utilizing the device. Successfully. No more hiccups in the past tense narration.

Then it’s time for the B plot, involving the dirty cop forcing the good cops (the Black gay guy and the White woman) to fake injuries from their run-in with the Punisher so they can spin it as Frank being out of control. The stuff with the cops is really, really good. There’s gravitas to it but also a whole bunch of humor, including a great laugh. It’s clearly the release valve for the comic—obviously, no one’s talking about the human trafficking and endless rape.

The B plot figures in again later when Frank’s trying to get into the bad guys’ house of operations without killing any of the girls. The bloodthirsty cops get in his way, screwing up his plan. But it’s okay, because he’s got another one up his sleeve—maybe Ennis’s editor told him to end issues with a little cushioning or something because it’s back again here, Ennis making sure the reader is primed for the next issue if not fully prepared.

Fernandez’s art gets a little wonky, of course. His quality is inconsistent. At least his panel layouts are good for most of it, making the comic effective at least. How the guy’s been drawing Frank for so long without ever figuring out a consistent look, however… not effective.

But the comic succeeds on the writing alone. Ennis is bringing it.

The Punisher #25, The Slavers, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher #25

From the first page, The Slavers is different. And not just because penciller Leandro Fernandez, inker Scott Koblish, and colorist Dan Brown turn in a splash page out of Sin City. No Frank, but a woman with a gun in the rain, screaming as she fires. Frank’s narration—which is going to be near omnipresent in the issue, so everything is very pulpy—accompanies her. She’s shooting at Frank’s target, a drug guy. The narration is past tense, set a year in the future. Again, all very pulpy (down to when writer Garth Ennis stumbles in a first person, past tense pitfall). The narration mixes exposition about the target and Frank’s arsenal. We’re getting the thought process as he goes down from his rooftop perch to save the woman, surprised to find himself sympathetic to her.

All it takes is her mentioning a dead baby for Frank to decide to play “white knight,” which he later remarks on. There are story ties between Ennis’s Punisher MAX arcs—we find out from another character this arc takes place about a month after the previous one, depending on how long after death birds go for eyes—but Ennis doesn’t talk about the character development or how he’s changing up the narrative distance. This Frank is a lot more… human than he was in the first arc of the series.

So it’s a shame Fernandez and Koblish manage to draw everyone fine except Frank. No more fifty-something Frank, just generic unwashed hair, steely-eyed Frank. It’s unclear if Fernandez doesn’t understand the way to draw the comic or if he just can’t do it. Because Koblish’s inks help with a lot. They help with the entire supporting cast here. Even on the woman Frank saves—there are these pages where the art’s fine in half the panel, but then there’s the weird, shadowy handling of Frank. It’s too bad, but thank goodness Ennis is upping the narration to distract from the art.

It’s not all Frank and the woman, Viorica, though. Ennis introduces a fairly big supporting cast (six characters). There are the two bickering (but about serious things) beat cops who happen across Frank’s impromptu rescue; he disarms them, which leads to a dirty cop (beholden to two of the villains we also meet this issue) scheming with the beat cops’ captain to use the incident to declare war on the Punisher.

Frank, meanwhile, is just finding out Viorica’s story. Ennis hints at it on the last page, in Frank’s narration—playing with the one year lead time and the past tense rather effectively—and ends the page on one hell of a dark, affecting mood. Because if it’s enough to affect Frank… it’s got to be something real bad. Especially if it’s bad enough Frank’s going to narrate about it.

It’s a very strong issue. Even with Fernandez screwing it up. One page almost looks like Paul Gulacy came in to do the heads—no M. Hands credit though—and you wish he had done all of it….

The Seeker (2019)

The Seeker

The Seeker is somewhere between somewhat disturbing and very disturbing. Creator Liz Valasco gets somewhere quite profound by the end, then dials it down a notch for the last story beat. It’s too bad, but sort of not surprising. It’s hard to say where Valasco could take for the finish to satisfy. Almost anything would be too heavy in a very different way than the rest of the comic has been heavy.

The comic takes place on Halloween in a “normal” town. It looks like Peanuts, actually; visually, Seeker reminds of Edward Gorey and Peanuts. Valasco’s art is often… pleasant, only for the story developments to make those visuals terrifying. The first part of the comic—the seventy-ish page book is split into five chapters—has “The Seeker” as the protagonist. She’s a tween, too old for Halloween but still loves the holiday. Her dad has abandoned her and her mom; her mom isn’t around in the comic. Everyone ditches the kid. So she’s trying some magic to make a friend of her own. It works, rather matter-of-factly, and by the end of the first part, the kid’s got herself a talking jack-o’-lantern, brought to life with a cat skull, magic, and cockroaches.

But the kid isn’t the protagonist for the rest of the comic. In the other four parts, the protagonist is Rob. Rob’s a teenager, also apparently in a house without a dad, and he’s going out on Halloween to drink beers and maybe get to flirt with a girl he likes. His buddy is there, along with a girl for the buddy. Pretty soon they run into the kid and the teenage girls take her under their wing, which is cool until the kid gives the jack-o’-lantern the last ingredient it needs for whatever its got planned and it reanimates a skeleton. The teenagers can’t handle the skeleton. Especially not when it seems to have evil intentions.

The best stuff in The Seeker is the teenage girls. Valasco gets a whole different kind of energy when writing their scenes and characters. The buddy’s girlfriend is about six times more interesting than Rob and only because she tries to burb louder. Rob’s just a bit of a teenage jerk—he tries to be better, which is cool and full of potential, but it goes nowhere. The girl Rob likes is a great character. The Seeker kid is a great character, she just doesn’t get anything to do because she’s more functional to the plot than anything else. There are a couple times Valasco almost takes the comic somewhere special in regards to the kid, then doesn’t. In theory, the ending ought to be all about her too, but Valasco veers way away from that conclusion. Unfortunately.

The comic’s got a lot of uncanny vibes, but ends up just being a tad disquieting. Who knows what ending would work better, but it’s definitely not the one the comic’s got.

Valasco has a pleasant style, albeit with thinner lines than seem right for the comic—it’s too Gorey, not Schulz-y enough. Though Valasco does fabulous with the scary forest. More detail, especially on the faces, wouldn’t hurt. The Seeker’s in that uncomfortable spot where it’s not detailed enough to be one thing but too detailed to be another. But even with the less than steady art, Valasco’s got some great narrative instincts. And once the teenage girls show up, the dialogue problems go away; the conversations between Rob and his mom are real iffy. Rob’s just a dull protagonist.

There’s a lot of strong stuff in The Seeker. It’s not altogether successful, but it’s pretty darn good.

Duh, Ha-Ha (2019)

Duh! Ha-Ha

Duh Ha-Ha is quick and lyrical. The nameless narrator sets up the ground situation in a page; she’s a listless early twenty-something who works in restaurant of some kind, probably not a chain. Her boss gives her a ride home and she thinks about what would happen if she his old bones. Would his gratitude outweigh his anger? Not a lot of time for the narrator to think about it because when they get to their destination, a staff party the boss is paying for (hence why I can’t believe it’s a chain), the younger guy next to her starts chatting her up.

And old boss man doesn’t like it, which convinces the now drunk narrator to come on strong to stranger guy, leading to a moderately big reveal—except creator Casey Nowak doesn’t want to tell the story of how that moderately big reveal affects anything. Instead, she moves on to the narrator just talking about her relationship with the guy, who becomes a (decent) boyfriend, which adds to the lyrical quality.

Nowak’s art is good, her sense of visual pacing is superb—the way she’s able to get past the expectation of a reveal exploration comes with a white text on black panel jump ahead, but also on the effectiveness of the postscript, where Ha-Ha becomes more about the narrator in the relationship than anything earlier had been about the narrator.

Nowak’s also a master of the abrupt ending. When the comic stops, you expect there to be more, but when there isn’t… the stop point makes all the more sense. It’s not groundbreaking, but for a twelve-page indie comic, there’s not much more you could ask for than Duh Ha-Ha.

The Punisher #24, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 6 (of 6)

The Punisher #24

So in the last arc, Ennis found the pulp in Punisher MAX in a non-pulp setting. This arc ends in a pulp setting but without pulp storytelling. Instead, it’s this pensive, depressing look at people trapped by their lives. O’Brien realizes she’s trapped in this dark, violent, ugly world and only ever gets glimpses of the world outside it. Frank’s world. The real world. And in the real world the six issue story arc, which features gunfights, explosions, desecration, torture, and Frank Castle post-coital, it ends on anonymous street, in front of an anonymous building, with anonymous hostages, because everything is anonymous to Frank (and O’Brien). Everything but the mission. Everything but the purpose.

Ennis doing character development on Frank in Punisher MAX is always uphill. The series is set in the present, Frank’s been punishing since the mid-to-late seventies, we don’t get any information about those years. Other than he used to be more troubled by what was going on in his life. Nicky Cavella brings it back in this arc, which lets Ennis do that character development, but he’s always careful to pace it out. Frank’s big revelation came—we learn later—in the previous issue; he shares it at the end. The peace he’s able to find as it relates to his mission, his purpose. Even with the art, which is probably the best in arc—and still not very good—the end is very effective. You can feel the weight and calm in Frank, which is the whole point of Punisher MAX. Not to make Frank sympathetic, but to make him… rational.

The issue’s kind of strange as an arc finale; most of it is wrap-up. There’s a big action opener, but it doesn’t relate to anything before or after, not for Frank or O’Brien. Then Ennis hurries through Frank, O’Brien, and Roth’s blackmail scheme with Rawlins in order to get to the next action sequence, when Frank finally confronts Nicky Cavella after five issues of escalating animosity. It’s a “hero” moment for Frank (Punisher MAX doesn’t address the idea of Punisher as hero, but it definitely explores how he fits that expectation) but there’s no time to celebrate. Turns out there aren’t hero moments for Frank or O’Brien.

With better art, Up is Down and Black is White could be the best arc in the series so far. Instead, it’s the second best. Ennis has figured out how to work it; how to do the character development, how to handle the extremes, how to handle the narrative expectation. It goes all over the place, is always focused, is always expansive.

The ending, which has this wonderful detail about Nicky’s experience of it versus Frank’s, is lovely. Frank’s world is ugly, tragic, and hopeless, but there’s a definite, primal beauty about it.

The Punisher #23, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #23

Lots happens this issue. Lots. Also not lots. It’s a very particular kind of comic, where the heroes find out what the villains have been plotting. A revelation issue… but for the characters. There’s probably a term for it. Sort of a diegetic revelation issue.

Anyway, it also has Frank getting his head straight—courtesy a shotgun blast to his chest (and vest)—which means he’s an active character not a passive player for Ennis to move through the events. It’s nice to have him back. You got worried about him last issue, as did O’Brien; this issue has a wonderful conversation between O’Brien and Frank. She does most of the talking. Fernandez and Hanna do the talking heads well, all things considered, though it’s hard not to notice the only time Fernandez can pace out a conversation is when the people are naked.

This issue has—probably for the first time, but who knows—Frank making the beast with two backs. It’s a great moment. Ennis has really got Frank down at this point. He’s comfortable writing him, not restricting the kinds of scenes Frank gets to be in. I guess if you’re writing Frank Castle playing kindly grandpa, it’s not too difficult to roll him in the hay.

Speaking of rolling in the hay, Nicky—who survives the showdown (all of the main cast does, there’s another issue after all)—gets the wrong roll in the hay offer, which ties directly into the issue’s cliffhanger. The plotting is shootout and resolution, escape, Nicky following, Frank and company interrogating a captured bad guy (Frank getting results thanks to it being a MAX comic), some shagging, then the cliffhanger. It might be the best art in the arc so far, just because Fernandez doesn’t screw anything up majorly enough to notice it.

It’s real impressive how Ennis has plotted this arc; he’s got all these threads he can wrap up in the fifth issue and prime the arc for a great finale. Especially when you consider Frank’s been on autopilot for most of the arc so far. He wasn’t even in the Nicky issue. The Frank narration, sparing as always, jars the comic’s narrative focus back onto him. Great character development on O’Brien too.

Up is Down and Black is White isn’t pulpy; it’s a straight Punisher MAX comic, much more in common with the first and second arcs than the third, but Ennis has definitely learned from doing the pulpy, long present action arc; it informs this one. So good.

The Punisher #22, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 4 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #22

The issue opens with one of those good Ennis ideas not explored; two guys breaking into a closed jewelry shop and terrified by the thought The Punisher, who’s (apparently) never cared about the non-violent street criminals, now does cares about them. Since he’s gone spree. Spree-er.

But it’s just the one-page opener, nothing Ennis wants to explore. Next up is Frank living in his dream, a dead world, everyone killed by him, and finding there’s still no peace for him. Presumably. Frank doesn’t analyze his dream, just regrets closing his eyes. Ennis then takes some time to catch up with Frank’s perspective on everything. Frank might not analyze his dreams, but he does analyze his feelings. Or at least he acknowledges he has feelings he could be analyzing if he weren’t trying to kill enough people to get a specific action from the city.

Speaking of the city, Ennis has what would be a great talking heads scene with the city brass yelling at each other about what to do with the Punisher. There’s a couple more tidbits of information—the cops don’t just go after Frank because, while he doesn’t do collateral damage, they would, and then how the city just looks the other way when Frank keeps the weekly kill count at a dozen. They just want a politically acceptable way to give Frank what he wants, because once Frank has what he wants (they think), he’s just going to go after Nicky.

And they’re right. They give Frank what he wants and after Nicky he goes. Right into a trap. Knowingly. Reflecting on it as he does, this one final act, so driven by a different kind of rage than normal he can’t stop himself. Even though Frank doesn’t think about it so Ennis doesn’t write about it (and there’s no one for Frank to confide in, thank goodness), there’s this “man’s gotta do” subtext to the whole thing. The Punisher undone by ingrained toxic masculinity.

Meanwhile, O’Brien and Roth have started staking out her ex-husband, CIA killer Rawlins, finding him not just conspiring with mobster Nicky, but also cavorting with him. Given the second issue of the arc… there’s a definite statement to Nicky being a passive, enthusiastic bottom in the sack….

Anyway, Rawlins isn’t just there for the hanky-panky, they’re teaming up to take out Frank.

Good thing O’Brien’s got horribly valid reasons to get the drop on Rawlins. But will she be in time? And would she help Frank if she were?

None of the art is good. Some of it is better than the rest of it, but it’s rather disappointing Ennis turns in this great script—building action versus last issue’s bridging action—only for Fernandez to fumble through it. Hanna’s inks… probably help. But who knows.

The scenery’s good? The scenery’s important. It’s good. Sadly the people aren’t and they’re the most important thing.

The Punisher #21, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 3 (of 6)

p 21

Every once and a while I wonder if I’m too liberal in my use of the term “bridging issue” to quickly describe how a writer uses an issue to set up the second half or next part of an arc. Then I’ll read a comic like Punisher MAX #21 and it’s exactly what I’m talking about. There have been a couple other bridging issues in Punisher MAX, but this one is the first where it feels like Ennis is writing for the trade. Makes sense as it’s the fourth arc and they’d have seen floppies versus trade sales.

Stuff sort of happens this issue, but all of it is anticipatory. Ex-CIA agent O’Brien breaks out of the pokey and heads to former colleague and fellow ex-CIA agent Roth’s apartment for help. Frank goes on a killing spree to force the NYPD to resolve outstanding issues with Nicky Cavella’s “prank” at the Castle family grave site. Meanwhile, Rawlins—who it turns out was married to O’Brien at one point because it’s still a Marvel comic and Marvel comics love nothing more than backstory coincidences—also happens to know Cavella and goes to meet with him. The issue ends with Frank killing a bunch of people and musing about a recurring dream, the one where he finally loses it and turns the guns on the civilians.

It’s a shame Ennis uses that Frank narration just to make the ending… more effective than it would be if it were just Frank killing a bunch of disposable, generic bad guys. The dream’s disturbing to be sure, but it’s also the Punisher reflecting on his chosen vocation and how he understands it. He’s not seeking vengeance, he’s not seeking redemption, so why does he do what he does. Ennis has been, slowly, starting to unpack that question since the start of the series. Just when he’s got the opportunity to do it here, he ends the issue. Because Frank’s killing spree is different than his usual thing—he’s slaughtering the bad guys in full view of civilians, hitting a night club, for example. He’s bringing his reality to a lot of people who don’t usually see it.

And then there’s the art.

Penciller Fernandez and inker Hanna choke on the talking heads. Miserably. O’Brien and Roth’s conversation has really bad “acting.” Terrible, actually. Their expressions are terrible.

It’s by no means a bad issue but it sure reads better in the trade versus the floppy. Especially for three bucks.

The Punisher #20, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 2 (of 6)

P20

It’s the Nicky Cavella origin story, complete with his original crew (from the first Punisher MAX arc) appearing again in fun little cameos. Well, as fun as a Punisher MAX cameo is going to get. Because Nicky Cavella has a very rough origin story. He’s the psychopath born to the family of sociopaths who don’t understand why he doesn’t have any compunctions about killing (anyone) while the family pretends there should be compunctions. It’s disturbing (mostly because Ennis doesn’t do any comedy relief with it, save the pragmatic violence of Cavella’s sidekick in the present) and it’s a lot, over a lot of pages.

The history also suggests what Nicky did to the Castle Family’s grave site is nothing compared to what he’d do if they weren’t thirty years decomposed.

The issue starts when Nicky is eight, though the first panel could be anyone in a Punisher MAX series—to the point it’s not even clear if Ennis is playing with expectations or everyone in the series is just so disturbed it’s the way the series goes. There’s an intro to his family life, including his manipulative, fellow psychopath aunt who wants to train Nicky for a brighter future than his father or uncle. They’re too soft. She wants to toughen him up.

It comes at a cost, though it’s pretty clear there never was a happy ending for Nicky.

At least not one where he doesn’t end up hurting a lot of people.

The present day stuff is Nicky and sidekick Tessie waiting for the other mobsters to decide whether or not to make Nicky boss. Other than the frame, which does account for a decent amount of pages and has the aforementioned closest thing to comic relief, it’s just the flashbacks. Ennis referred to Nicky’s ominous backstory in the first arc, now’s the pay-off. And it’s adequate pay-off. Ennis keeps his villain quirky, horrifically so.

Once again, Ferandez’s artwork disappoints. Once again, Hanna’s inks have to pick up way too much slack. Though it’s better art than the previous issue and far fewer of the bland but busy close-ups from the previous issue.

I’m not still 100% on Nicky as a master villain (or if a master villain belongs in Punisher MAX, but Ennis does the work to establish him as one hell of a bad guy.

The Punisher #19, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #19

The issue opens with Nicky Cavella, returning from the first story arc—it’s hard to believe Up is Down and Black is White is only the fourth arc in Punisher MAX—at the Castle family headstone. He’s digging up the bodies, talking to a henchman with a camcorder. Whatever he’s got planned, it’s not 1) going to be bad and 2) going to piss off Frank. But Ennis delays any follow-up with Frank (or even what Nicky does) and skips to the prison showers, where former CIA agent O’Brien (she has a first name, but it’s not important), also back from the first arc, is fending off an attempt rape.

O’Brien versus the lesbian inmates is, in 2019, a little cringe-y. It’s also not factually inaccurate so… it is what it is.

Ennis mostly splits the issue between her and Nicky, so the first arc returnees, giving Frank one big action sequence—he’s back to normal after his Russian adventure last arc, trying to sort through the crime land power vacuum the previous eighteen issues of MAX have left. But Ennis is also doing a direct sequel to the previous arc, with the shady American generals hiring a CIA assassin to go after Frank. The assassin is Rawlins, who initiated the previous arc’s terrorist attack, where he got enough page time to be familiar without being very regular.

So Up is Down is Ennis doing two arc follow-ups in one. Nicky’s busy trying to get the Italian mob together under his command, O’Brien’s getting into more and more trouble with her enemies in prison, Rawlins isn’t thrilled he’s just been given the order to off the Punisher.

Ennis teases the horrific nature of whatever Nicky was up to in the first scene, he also has a surprise reveal on Nicky’s henchman. The reveal is a little mean-spirited but if you can’t hate the bad guys, they aren’t really bad enough. But that teasing—Nicky promises the other mob bosses he’s done something amazing but they’ll have to watch the news—just primes the issue for the last scene, when we all find out what Nicky’s done and are left to wonder what Frank’s going to do about it.

It’s an excellent issue. Great pacing, great characters, great Frank narration during the shoot out.

Only one problem. And his name is Leandro Fernandez. Inker Scott Hanna was clearly brought in to do a lot of the detail work, which is probably why the close-ups don’t look much like the medium or long shots—it almost looks like Fernandez just left the features blank and Hanna put them in. The action is okay but the talking heads—and there’s a lot of talking heads—is barely middling. When Nicky’s shocking the mobsters, for instance, their shocked expressions aren’t just identical, some of their faces are identical.

But the page layouts are really complex, so either Fernandez does an excellent job breaking out scenes but not illustrating them… or Ennis’s script has panel direction? Either way, rocky start to the art. Everything else is great. Just not the art.

Infinity 8: Volume Four: Symbolic Guerilla

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It’s been a while since I read any Infinity 8, but it’s the perfect series to return to after a break since each arc is a different take on the same thing. Literally.

Each arc has a different (far future) space agent who has a limited time to investigate why an intergalactic graveyard the size of Earth’s solar system is blocking the way of a giant ship.

This arc, Symbolic Guerrilla, introduces agent Patty Stardust, who’s undercover with a cult of performance artists but gets called to check out the graveyard. Meanwhile, the cult–led by sixties hippie in the future, Ron–finds out the ship is stopped and starts planning on how he’s going to exploit the situation for his–ahem, the group’s–benefit.

Patty’s Black, with a big afro–how French guy Lewis Trondheim and probably European guy Kris acknowledge people shouldn’t intrude on her wanting to touch her hair but White Americans can’t figure it out… anyway. Patty’s a fantastic lead. She’s been undercover with Ron and the Symbolic Guerrillas for five years, this mission could jeopardize it–good thing the ship’s captain is going to loop time–and she’s engaged to Ron’s stepson.

That engagement–Patty’s the stage manager, who has to do work and (presumably) stay sober, while her dude is mindbogglingly high all the time–is one of the most interesting things in the arc. Trondheim and Kris don’t dwell on the space graveyard too much. Patty sees some things, but they don’t figure into the main plot like what Ron comes across and decides to exploit. In multiple ways. With multiple terrible results.

But Patty and her love life? It adds a lot of texture to the character, who’s otherwise basically moving from action beat to action beat.

Great art from Martin Trystram. He concentrates on the psychedelic flashback aspect of the visual narrative, but doesn’t skip on the sci-fi setting. Or the ship. There are cameos from previous Infinity 8 cast members, which makes you wonder how it would all read in a sitting.

Speaking of reading… I was sort of assuming the original French publications were bigger size than the American comic format, but no. The American printings might even be a little bigger. There’s just so much little detail you want to see. Trystram packs each panel. It’s awesome.

Infinity 8 is, I guess, halfway through with Symbolic Guerrilla but thanks to the writers’ ingenuity and the consistently different, consistently fantastic art, it feels like it’s just getting started.

Also because there’s so little emphasis placed on the ship’s crisis. It’s a red herring (almost) so Trondheim and company can explore this future.

The Punisher #18, Mother Russia, Part 6 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #18

It’s a perfect comic. There’s no big Punisher action, no rampant gun porn, just high levels of espionage action as Frank figures out how they’re going to escape the missile silo as he delivers on his threat to fire nukes on Moscow. Meanwhile the Russian general’s reaction scene is another beauty of an Ennis moment—the Russian general is the best villain Ennis has come up with in Punisher MAX so far; even though he’s in this comic book, like the rest of the “men of action” here—Frank, Fury, Vanheim the Special Forces guy—Ennis has got a lot to say about his behavior. Or Ennis says a lot with the characters’ behaviors. Particularly how they function and why.

The why is usually very subtle, very muted, very heavy. Frank and Vanheim have a particularly hefty scene this issue. People in crisis and the relationships they form and so on. Ennis gets it. He perturbs the plot to hit particular points, to trigger particular neurons, all of it adding up to the impact of the final pages of the arc. It doesn’t resolve for Frank or Fury or possibly even the Russian general, but it does finish up for some of the guest stars. How they’ve affected Frank, how this experience has changed him (which shouldn’t even be possible since the whole point of a Punisher comic is how hard it’s going to be to make him a person and not a caricature). It’s fantastic.

Ennis has been trying to get to the moment he hits with Frank in the last few pages in both the previous arcs; Mother Russia is where he figures out how to do it. Having Braithwaite probably makes it all possible. Braithwaite and inker Bill Reinhold, who I haven’t mentioned because Braithwaite’s clearly the driving force on the art, but they’re good inks. Braithwaite’s able to do the large scale military espionage stuff—the nuclear missile launch sequence is awesome—but he’s just as comfortable with the smaller stuff Ennis goes with towards the end. It’s a big success.

Ennis manages to do actual character development on the Punisher, manages to keep Frank the narrator (making the comic feel perfectly pulp), and he gets in just the right amount of sardonic humor. Can’t have Fury without the sardonic humor.

It’s a phenomenal close to a superior comic story.

The Punisher #17, Mother Russia, Part 5 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #17

And here’s the issue where Ennis goes for the heartstrings. Frank’s got to save the little girl, which ends up being a fantastic sequence. The issue opens with the hijacked airliner getting shot down; the response to it, both from the Russian general and Fury, are the B plot for the issue. Frank’s got other things to do. He’s got to save the little girl, first from the Russian general’s little assassin—it’s an outstanding sequence from Braithwaite—and later from the insidiousness of American generals. That sequence is effective but nothing compared to the action violence of the first. So far Mother Russia has been without truly evil villains. Frank’s been dealing with literal cannon fodder. But the little assassin… he’s a bad dude.

Ennis gets in two more big “Punisher moments.” There’s the response to the American generals’ backup plans, then there’s Frank’s solution to being trapped in the bunker with no hope of escape. The latter one is the cliffhanger, so we don’t get to know his plan, just his utterly awesome and succinct threat to the Russians.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Fury has a phenomenal meltdown scene when he finds out he’s been made part of the U.S.-sponsored terror attack. Morality is a big deal in Punisher MAX; wouldn’t work without it. Frank’s usually got a fairly simple one. Theoretically Fury’s line in the sand should be much further down the beach, but not so much it turns out. All of these soldiers and generals are hyper-violent sociopaths (or worse) while Fury and Frank are… humanists? The closest thing to them anyway.

The big scene with Frank and Galina, the little girl, successfully got me teary-eyed. It’s a really quick resolve to the scene but it’s enough; Ennis has gone out of his way to show the additional weight the girl is putting on Frank. It’s great work.

The plotting of the issue—Frank dealing with the Russian soldiers, the drama surrounding the backup plan, Fury’s meltdown with the generals, the Russian general trying to stay calm while dealing with moron officers—it’s beautifully paced. It’s the most action in any issue so far—most consequential action in any issue so far—and Ennis still makes the time to delve into the psychology of the characters and their actions. It’s exceptional comics.

The Punisher #16, Mother Russia, Part 4 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #16

Just over halfway through the arc and Ennis does a bridging issue. It’s an all-action bridging issue, but a bridging issue. We find out exactly what the U.S.-funded terrorists on the plane are going to do, we find out what the Russian general’s little henchman is capable of doing, we get some groundwork on Vanheim’s character. Not Vanheim as a character, but Vanheim the character’s character. Somewhat wanting character.

And some Fury mouthing off to the generals, who’re thrilled they’ve managed to execute a fake terrorist attack on Moscow without him knowing about it.

Frank’s busy holding off the Russian soldiers. Down the silo they rappel, up he shoots the bullets. Will the Russians run out of men before he runs out of bullets (something Ennis actually foreshadowed in the first issue of the arc, the very real problem of not having enough ammunition).

There’s also some more gentle moments for Frank—in between shooting down waves of Russian soldiers he goes and gets little Galina some ice cream. It happens off page (the actual ice cream getting and eating) because Ennis knows there are limits to Grandpa Punisher. Not many limits, really. But some. Ice cream would be too much. Ennis already has Frank make a bit of a joke in the narration so an actual cute scene would be too much. Though I do want to know if he had to make a flavor selection for her and, if so, what he went with.

About halfway through the issue, maybe a little further, the Mongolian—he’s the Russian general’s henchman—is able to infiltrate Frank and company’s defenses. Using nearly the same method a similarly little henchman used in the first arc of Punisher MAX. It’s… fine. It does make narrative sense and doesn’t come off contrived (did Ennis forget he’d used the device before? Did his editor? Why isn’t Frank prepared for this kind of thing having experienced it already). It’s just not original. And it was just twelve issues ago. You have to read Punisher MAX arcs; there’s no done in ones; readers are going to notice it.

Thank goodness for the awesome resulting fight scenes, where Braithwaite moves fast but with a lot of impact. Maybe it’s Frank getting his ass kicked in front of the kid, maybe it’s how well Braithwaite keeps track of the kid. It works and it works well. It’s just familiar.

There’s some great black humor with the Russian general as he deals with his incompetent subordinates.

Really good cliffhanger again, as things are getting dire for Frank and friends. Even the Russian general knows things are about to get really good. Ennis has got all the pieces arranged and next issue he can really start playing with them.

The Punisher #15, Mother Russia, Part 3 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #15

The first page of the issue introduces the latest cast addition—six-year old Galina Stenkov. She’s in a nuclear missile silo with mean doctors trying to get her blood out so they can have the super-weapon. And then in walks Frank. Ennis interrupts their introduction with a one page check-in to the U.S. generals. They’ve had a lot to do the previous issues. This issue they don’t have anything so a reminder of their subplot and their relation to the main plot is in order.

Also the Punisher—Ennis’s Punisher, Ennis’s Frank—introducing himself to a six-year old girl (in his rusty Russian) is a risky scene. Frank knows it’s risky too—he hasn’t talked to a kid Galina’s age since he talked to his daughter, lying to her about her chances at survival, some thirty years before. It’s also where Ennis is able to bring out all Frank’s humanity and wrap it in a nice bow and put it on his sleeve. Ennis doesn’t shy away from the awkwardness of the situation—terrified child, unstoppable killing machine—he revels in it. To lovely result. Frank’s kindly grandpa bonding with Galina is fantastic.

And it should be an easy mission once he’s got her. Until the Special Forces guy, Vanheim, panics and screws it all up, getting them pinned down in the silo (kind of Die Hard in a nuclear missile silo but with the Punisher). Frank’s got to manage Vanheim, keep Galina amused and distracted from the surrounding carnage, and figure out a way to keep the Russian army at bay. The Russian army’s not very smart, but they’re at least determined.

Some of the Russians are smart though. The issue’s split between Frank and company in the silo and then this Russian general showing up to see what’s been going on at the silo (there was the U.S. attempt to get the scientist and daughter Galina, occurring before the arc started). The local commander thinks the general is out of date and overreacting. A reactionary leftover from the Soviet era. The general ignores the local commander, who covers his ineptness with humor. They’re very muted Ennis villains, but very definitely Ennis villains.

Especially since the general travels with a small Mongolian man who never speaks and, according to one of the officers, is to be feared. It’s Ennis reining in his extremes without losing some of his detail absurdities.

And the Russian stuff is really good, but it’s nothing compared to the Frank stuff. There’s a bigger action sequence near the end of the issue, giving Braithwaite somewhere to show off besides background detail. Ennis limited the action the first couple issues of the arc, building the narrative instead. He gives Braithwaite some gristle here, but it’s still more a thriller than an action comic.

A thriller with a lot of heart. Punisher and kid after all. It’s real good; real good.

The Punisher #14, Mother Russia, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #14

There’s so much Frank narration this issue. So much. It’s wonderful. Ennis is able to use the narration for some exposition, some texture, some humor. Not a lot of humor. He’s got Nick Fury around for humor. Frank’s narration humor is dryer; though maybe not more cynical than Fury’s. It’s hard to be more cynical than Fury. Frank doesn’t have the same worldly concerns… though it’s questionable whether or not the Punisher is cynical. I’m actually leaning towards no.

Regardless, the issue’s full of great narration. Ennis has found his Frank voice and isn’t afraid to use it. The first third of the issue is split between Frank narrating his illegal entry into Russia (hence the title of the story arc) and Fury briefing Frank before he gets to Russia. There’s no narration in the flashback, just really efficient storytelling. And a lot of dialogue. Nick Fury likes to talk. The reader needs to pay attention.

Frank’s going to Russia to rescue a little girl whose father created some great chemical weapon and wanted to sell it to the U.S. only to get killed (in interrogation) by the Russians. The little girl is pumped full of the serum. There’s a time limit before the antidote (also in her system) destroys the weapon and the U.S. generals get sad because they can’t efficiently kill as many people.

He’s got a sidekick with him—a Special Forces guy named Vanheim. Vanheim’s important for a few reasons. He knows how to use computers, which Frank doesn’t. He speaks better Russian (it’s unclear why Frank speaks any Russian at all). And he’s an ostensible babysitter. Keep the Punisher out of trouble. He’s also suspicious, though a little bit less after the generals get a scene plotting against Fury and don’t mention him. He’s a sidekick, something Frank doesn’t want or need but also something Ennis knows will make Punisher work a little smoother.

There’s not a lot of action. There’s a bar fight and then the Russian base infiltration, but Braithwaite and Ennis don’t concentrate on the action. They’re moving as fast as they can to get the story going because it’s issue two of six for the arc and it’s still setup at the open, juxtaposed with narration or not.

It’s a strong issue just a slightly off cliffhanger—Ennis spends a lot of time setting up the mystery of the pseudo-terrorists on the airliner when it hasn’t got a thing to do with Frank yet. But it’s a rather strong issue. Ennis’s mix of narration, exposition, action, talking heads… it’s assuredly compelling.

The Punisher #13, Mother Russia, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #13

Right away there’s something different about this issue; from page one. Penciller Dougie Braithwaite. Braithwaite is thrilled to be doing Punisher, you can tell from the detail—I still want to know what’s on the counter next to Frank in the opening scene, presumably a menu but who knows—and he works his ass off on it. So there’s two pages of this great art, then comes the next big difference—narration. Ennis is finally comfortable with Frank narrating his scenes. And he narrates all of his scenes in this issue, even the one where he’s palling around with Nick Fury.

I don’t know if it’s Nick Fury MAX from Ennis’s Fury MAX series; I can’t remember that book. Doesn’t matter. Punisher MAX’s Nick Fury has been around since Vietnam, knows Frank from then, lost S.H.I.E.L.D. to bureaucrats, wants to get it back post 9/11. How’s he going to get it back? By sending Frank on a secret mission and currying favor with the generals who can revitalize the spy org. The bar scene between Fury and Frank is awesome. Ennis likes getting to do the mix, likes getting to do the “real” take on the weathered old warriors.

Meanwhile, the generals are cooking up their own scheme to “help” Fury, which has something to do with a plane full of terrorists. It’s the issue’s cliffhanger because Ennis has so nicely resolved Frank and Fury’s scene.

The issue’s assured, restrained, and bold. Frank takes out a bunch of Russian mob thugs but Braithwaite and Ennis don’t focus on the action violence, rather Frank’s perception of it. With excellent narration. There are some “MAX” violence moments, of course, but Ennis and Braithwaite saves those for the most emphasis. Even with a lot of narration from Frank, the comic still shows rather than tells. And the way it cuts between scenes is fantastic. It goes from Frank to Fury to Frank to Frank and Fury to the cliffhanger. Braithwaite handles the various locations beautifully (again, it’s clear he’s enthusiastic about this book, he puts a lot into the art). And it’s what Punisher needs, someone to not just take it as seriously as Ennis, but be able to show that seriousness. Braithwaite does.

The issue raises a bunch of questions, multiple plot hooks, and none of them are anywhere near as interesting as Frank. Thanks to that narration. It’s all happening around him.

Basically Punisher MAX #13 is when Ennis has truly figured out how to write Punisher MAX but also has a penciller who knows how to draw it.

The Punisher #12, Kitchen Irish, Part 6 (of 6)

This issue, the last in the arc, starts without a title page or credits, which makes it almost suspenseful to see if we’re ever going to find out what happened with the art. Because the art at the beginning of the issue, with the Napper French resolution, is a lot better than the art’s been for a while. And Dean White’s colors aren’t doing the weird bleached out but still too neon yellow thing. It’s a great opening, even if it seems like someone decided MAX didn’t mean in-panel amputations and did some cropping so things don’t immediately make sense. Or maybe Fernandez really did leave the “shot” out, which would also make sense, but someone would’ve had to send the page back to him then… right?

Anyway. The improved art holds up for a while, but starts to slip once Fernandez has to do the big meeting of the gangs. They finally team-up this issue to go get their fortune (completely forgetting the Punisher has been after them, which seems like a mistake but whatever). For the action showdown, even with White’s color scheme being better… Fernandez loses control of the art again. Maybe even gradually, like it gets worse as it goes along. By the end of the sequence, he’s back to those terrible panel compositions so the action barely makes sense and all Ennis’s preparations are for naught.

It’s particularly upsetting because it seems—during that first scene—like the book is going to right the ship in time.

By the end, it’s back to overlooking Fernandez’s poor panel composition and lousy expressions and trying to concentrate on Ennis’s dialogue. The comic does pull off a solid Punisher moment (while Ennis identifying MAX Punisher as “Old Frank”—vs. “Big Frank,” which is what Ennis called him back during the early Marvel Knights days), but Fernandez chokes on anything involving the British agents. Ennis has already turned the gang leaders into caricatures so it doesn’t really matter given Fernandez and White (the coloring on the showdown is where he starts going wrong this issue).

Kitchen Irish isn’t able to deliver on any of its potential. It’s not like Ennis layered his “Old Frank moment” through the issues; he just gets away with this great, impromptu Frank observation because the book’s still got a bunch of goodwill. Ennis’s writing is just sensational enough to separate itself from the art.

It’s not all good from Ennis, however; there are three word boxes of narration from Frank and they’re solely to remind the reader. Way too functional. If Kitchen Irish is any indication, Ennis doesn’t yet have a handle on how to comfortable make Frank the protagonist for an entire arc. He gets an issue, some pages here and there, but the leads of Kitchen Irish are the bad guys, then the British, then Frank. And then Napper French; he’s ancillary but not to ancillary. Frank being subject is fine, just so long as he never becomes caricature.

He gets way too close to it in Kitchen Irish. Partially because of Fernandez, but mostly because of Ennis.

The Punisher #11, Kitchen Irish, Part 5 (of 6)

Fernandez’s art goes from where it was on the lacking scale last issue to much worse this issue. And someone else noticed, because Dean White’s color work now includes giving the walls textures in addition to doing all the perspective on Fernandez’s faces. It’s a bad turn.

And most of it comes after the already bad turn when Fernandez utterly chokes on the big action sequence. He can’t keep track of the characters, he can’t keep track of the setting, he can’t keep track of the action. Worse, the issue opens with it. It ought to be a great sequence and instead it’s impossible to imagine it even being successful, much less superior. Frank’s got a little bit of narration for it, then Ennis drops it and Frank from most of the rest of the issue. Instead when it’s on Frank and sidekicks, Yorkie—the ‘Nam buddy turned MI6 assassin—gets the big scene. It’s great scene, with Ennis getting to show off how well he can write expository dialogue about the Troubles and the British soldier take on it. Shame Fernandez does such a bad job with the art.

While Yorkie’s having his combination history lesson and sociology riff, the bad guys are recovering from the opening firefight. Finn—whose terrible rendition (Fernandez somehow has a harder time with bandages on the face than a translucent mask the first couple issues) forecasts the art depths—teams up with widow Brenda while the River Rat brother and sister find themselves on their own (and the sister becomes an even stronger character, despite how bad Fernandez is at her arc in particular), and Maginty gets into a bit of trouble.

It’d be nice if Frank played a bigger part in the story, but it’s also very much not his story. He’s a guest star in his own comic, which is fine—Ennis does well enough with the additional cast—but the art. It’s not fine with the art. Fernandez is just too slim and whatever the compensation thing with White’s colors? Doesn’t work. Really doesn’t work.

Only Ennis’s writing is holding the book up now and he’s got his slips and slides too. Though it’s hard to know if they’re on him or because Fernandez’s composed the panel so poorly.

The Punisher #10, Kitchen Irish, Part 4 (of 6)

Well, the Fernandez art problems escalated quickly. Reading this issue, I had this foreboding feeling, like it was going to be bad… only it’s perfectly well-written, beautifully organized, only the art is always off. Fernandez is still rushing and relying on the colors. And Dean White’s colors don’t match Fernandez’s lines. Though there’s really nothing to do with the now poor composition of these panels. Bad composition, bad detail, then weird colors.

Then again maybe the panel composition was Ennis’s idea, which certainly makes sense for the talking heads portions of the issue, when Fernandez can’t get an expression out of the characters (reading the issue I just kept thinking, oh, yeah, it’s one of those Ennis issues without someone who knows how to do that thing he does with talking heads). So the close-ups are ineffective. Some of the long shots are just bad. Like the angles. And in those panels you can tell it’s not White’s fault, it’s Fernandez.

There’s still some great character stuff on the River Rat leader, Polly, and a little bit more on Brenda. The difference between Polly and Brenda is Polly’s not as awful of a person and Ennis is able to use Brenda for some shock value. Then there’s some more on Maginty. The issue opens with the Punisher—notice I’m in the third paragraph and haven’t mentioned Frank yet? It’s because Fernandez avoids showing him in panels, which works in the last scene because it opens with Frank’s narration. In the rest of the comic it makes him third or fourth tier in his own book. It’s very weird.

And not entirely on Fernandez. Ennis clearly wants to do Frank a particular way and Fernandez isn’t on the same page. The script and art never exactly seem out of sync either, which is almost to the issue’s detriment. The art’s just a bad take on the events it portrays.

The opening scene is Frank and his sidekicks (but he’s actually just their sidekick) interrogating their prisoner. He goes into a big exposition dump about the old neighborhood and all the gangs searching for a ten million payday.

The flashback doesn’t work. The old Irish mobster who died looks like a wizard, which—again—could be Ennis’s fault too. But they only don’t work because Fernandez hasn’t laid the groundwork for it to be effective. This issue’s exposition dump ought to be amazing. Instead it’s… poorly composed talking heads exposition dump.

The writing this issue is great. So good it lets Ennis get away with a cheesy cliffhanger.

The Punisher #9, Kitchen Irish, Part 3 (of 6)

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Fernandez’s art is so underwhelming the entire issue feels like it’s incomplete. Like it’s storyboards for the actual comic. After the opening shoot out, which Fernandez entirely flubs, it’s a talking heads issue and instead of expressions, Fernandez uses a lot of shadows. Static faces and shadows. Sometimes the faces look so static you think they’re just copied and pasted from another panel. Even stranger is when colorist Dean White tries to pick up the slack for the lack of dimension, doing it in the coloring (particularly on faces), only then his shadows don’t match Fernandez’s shadows.

Other than the art problems, it’s a solid issue. Lots of exposition (from everyone but Frank) and the introduction of Brenda Toner, wife of Tommy, who is being cut up by Napper French for Magnify. Brenda proves to be a lot tougher than her husband’s goons, which is nice. She’s a loathsome character, but not as cruel as Finn or Maginty. And not as dumb as the bro in charge of the River Rats. So she’s at least interesting. Unfortunately she’s only it in for a few, poorly illustrated pages.

After the opening shootout involving Frank, the Brits, Finn, and the River Rats, Ennis splits the issue between Frank and the Brits interrogating Finn’s nephew, Finn and his pal regrouping, the River Rats recovering, Maginty getting Napper to cut up Tommy Toner, Brenda Toner getting pieces of her husband. In the interrogation scenes, Frank barely talks. It’s mostly monologuing from head Brit, Yorkie, which is fine… Ennis writes it well. Fernandez doesn’t render it well, but the dialogue’s good. It is redundant because Ennis is going through information the reader already has about what’s going on. It’s like the reader is getting a refresh, only it was just last issue the reader got the information (maybe some of it in the first issue) but it’s more than they need. If the art were better, it probably would just pass, but with the particularly wonky talking heads art? It drags. The most boring stuff in the Punisher comic is the Punisher, because mostly he’s just standing around and letting some other guy do the talking.

There’s some good character work for the younger Brit, the one seeking revenge. Ennis is almost too serious this issue. It’s like he doesn’t know how to balance macabre absurd with the non-absurd. It’s not a misstep, it’s just… incomplete. Maybe better art would’ve fixed it all. Someone really needed to talk to Fernandez about his thumbnails, if he made them, because it’s not just the detail he’s not doing, he’s also not hitting the right action emphases.

And to keep a bridging, talking heads exposition dump of a comic going? Got to have all the right art emphases.

The Punisher #8, Kitchen Irish, Part 2 (of 6)

This issue introduces two more groups involved in Kitchen Irish, starting with the British guys. One of them is a Vietnam vet who knows Frank from the war, the other is the son of the last British foot soldier killed in Northern Ireland. The older guy, Yorkie, is bringing the younger guy, Andy, along because the guy who killed his dad is villain Finn Cooley’s nephew. They meet up with Frank and Yorkie goes over Finn’s history with the IRA, fleshing out some backstory for that character (Finn). It’s a nice talking heads scene—spread throughout the issue—particularly because it forces Frank to be sociable. Or his version of sociable. There’s no Frank narration this issue.

Then there are the River Rats, a gang of modern-day pirates who target yachts headed for the Hamptons to rob. Lots of action with them, then lots of character setup after the job’s finished and they’re on their way to the bar. The yacht robbery feels like an entirely different comic book but it works out fine; Fernandez’s action art on it is strong, Ennis keeps it moving. The characters are kind of bland though, at least compared to the rest of the bad guys. Ennis throws out a bunch of character names, which seem disposable at this point, and it’s just texture.

Speaking of the other bad guys, there’s more of Maginty getting the old guy to cut up a rival gang leader while the grandson is handcuffed to a radiator in the other room. There’s not a lot of violence in the issue, most of it’s implied, but the psychological aspect is there. The grandson clearly shouldn’t be involved in what’s going on in the comic, but then should anyone else.

Ennis still hasn’t revealed what all the bad guys are talking about—money but no context for it—and the issue ends with Frank getting ready to take on Finn, who makes the mistake of going out in public after the bombing last issue. Not sure how Frank finds him. Maybe the British intelligence guy knows something?

It’s a concise issue, even when it feels like Ennis and Fernandez are taking their time on action. It’s perfectly paced, perfectly balanced between the various factions. Very thoughtfully executed; very nice Fernandez is able to keep up here too.

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