The Punisher #36, Barracuda, Part 6 (of 6)

The Punisher #36

Turns out the big problem with Barracuda isn’t going to be Barracuda not being a great villain or the Wall Street betrayal arc not creating great ones either, but Ennis not really having a finish for Frank. Sure, he’s got a concussion and he’s outgunned, but his big plan in this issue doesn’t allow for every contingency. It also goes wrong because Frank gets sloppy—again, the concussion can allow for those mistakes, but shouldn’t he at least recognize it, acknowledge it? After gliding over past tense narration pitfalls, Ennis slips and falls just when he needs to keep it going. Barracuda might seem like an arc about a “guest as tough as Frank” adversary and some scumbag Wall Street types, but it’s really about Frank Castle messing up and apparently not learning from it.

It’s weird.

Especially since Ennis brackets the arc with this open-ended “what’s the only thing more dangerous than a barracuda” bit in the narration. Is it the sharks? There are a lot of sharks in this issue, some fully visualized, some just shadows in the water—both equally awesome, thanks to Parlov. Or is it Frank? Is Frank the only thing more dangerous? Because he’s not. Because he gets caught with his pants down this issue. Again, weird.

But far from a bad issue. Parlov’s art is great, Ennis’s writing is strong in everything else, whether it’s the Wall Street subplot (the boss’s conniving wife and her lover) or Barracuda. Though the resolve does have an unfortunate plot… depression. It’s not a hole, it’s something they needed to deal with in panel not off page. Parlov's implication is fine, it just doesn’t have any dramatic resonance.

Ennis brings the conclusion in all right, albeit with a somewhat fake finish—that dangerous barracuda musing—but it certainly feels like something happened with the Barracuda arc. The Punisher versus Wall Street certainly promised a lot more potential. And it’s not like Ennis is trying to avoid sensationalism—there are sharks eating investors and so on. Something just seems off, like mid-arc changes were made or things just didn’t shake out in the writing.

For the first time ever, Punisher MAX ends up leveraging the art to support the writing. Thank goodness Ennis has got Parlov to do it because Parlov can do it, does do it. Barracuda’s not great (outside the art) and it’s more than a little disappointing, but it’s still good. It’s just good enough instead of superb.

The Punisher #35, Barracuda, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher #35

It’s a bridging issue but also not. Actually, there are some major plot developments here, just not much involving Frank. Other than him surviving and deciding it’s time to stop screwing around with the Wall Street guys and just take them out; thanks to Barracuda, Frank’s now taking things as seriously as he should have been before.

He doesn’t have that observation in his narration, but he’s dealing with a concussion for sure and probable brain damage so he’s too exhausted to reflect on the mistakes. He’s also got a time limit. Today’s the day—the Wall Street guys are going out on a boat and Frank’s going to do something to it. Ennis doesn’t reveal what, as next issue needs some surprises, but it involves Frank scuba diving for a bit. Also seagulls pooping on him, because Ennis wants to keep it a little lighter. And Parlov draws great passed out Frank and bird shit.

But Frank’s not in it much. Most of the issue has boss’s wife Alice and her lover (and boss’s flunky) Dermot teaming up with Barracuda. Ennis keeps Barracuda dangerous but starts using him for comic relief too, which would be fine if it didn’t make him seem less capable. He doesn’t think his plans through, eventually scaring Alice enough she decides they’ve got to get rid of him. So Barracuda is double-crossing the boss for Alice and Dermot and they’re going to double-cross him just… because.

As Barracuda’s characterization starts getting iffy, Ennis turns Alice into a much better character than he ever suggested before, which is too bad. It would’ve been nice for her to get all the agency earlier. Well, agency for something other than cheating on her husband with his protégé. And protégé Dermot’s need for a stronger leader comes through here too, even if Ennis doesn’t do much to it.

It’s a perfectly entertaining issue—great art from Parlov—but it’s pretty clear Ennis doesn’t have much more ambition for it than the entertaining. Gone is any character development for Frank and the Wall Street schemers are adequate villains, but far from great ones. Barracuda too seems like a bit of a misfire. It’s impossible to believe he could’ve survived with so many appendages intact given his irresponsible nature.

Instead of a worthwhile foe for Frank, Barracuda’s basically comic relief. Makes you wonder if someone told Ennis not to go so dark with the arc midstream.

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.

PTSD (2019)

The best thing about PTSD is creator Guillaume Singlein’s action. He paces it beautifully. The book, when it doesn’t have dialogue but just people doing things… it looks its best. So it makes sense Singlein’s going to be good at the action too. Of course, whether or not PTSD should have action is a whole other thing.

The comic takes place in a post-racial Asian metropolis. There are Asian people, White people, Black people. No difference between them. It's almost post-gender too—the many women living on the street in the comic don’t seem to be under threat of rape, for instance—but when the protagonist flashbacks to her war days, her comrades definitely treat her as a little sister more than an equal.

Even though she’s the only one who can shoot.

Singelin’s male-gaze-free manga style also plays into the postish-genderness.

So the protagonist. She lost an eye in the war; the flashbacks lead up to that event, after focusing on when she learns certain things pertinent to the present action (her medic skills). In the present she’s a loner on the streets, addicted to painkillers (government provided to vets, which Singlein doesn’t explore and is, I suppose, one of the biggest logic holes in his ground situation), not above robbing the occasional fellow junkie or even inept drug dealer.

Her path to redemption comes in the form of a kindly old vet—the war has been going on forever (and is presumably still going on but that one’s not clear either)—who loans her a dog. The dog then gives our hero the will to live.

So she goings to war, Punisher-style, with the drug dealer gang.

Hence the awesome, albeit narratively questionable action. She’s especially dangerous with the dog, who goes along even on rooftops, and her lost eye doesn’t do anything to impair depth perception, which is good.

Besides the dog and the old man, the only people who like the hero are a single mom diner owner and her son. Only our hero doesn’t care about the single mom’s attempts at altruism—Singelin has a really, really hard time writing the dialogue for the single mom and why she’s all of a sudden caring about the starving people on the streets—but he does manage to queer code the hell out of the relationship.

And, spoiler, it’s all a red herring.

Because when our hero does find herself, it’s got nothing to do with the mom, the kid, the old man, or the dog. Singlein got to the end of the avenging vet angel arc and then realized it was actually classist, apparently, and so our hero has to move forward in a different way. Other than just having all the drugs.

The only thing unpredictable about the end is when Singlein does a pointless six month time jump forward.

Good movement, even if manga’s not your thing, but it gets real bumpy during the dialogue. Really, really, really bad dialogue. Not sure if it’s Singelin or the translator.

But the simplistic motivations and anorexic character depth suggests no translator was going to fix the existing problems.

I mean, hey, if you’ve got the shakes from PTSD… try doing charity work. Works better than highly addictive drugs.

Nice art can only compensate for so much.

Batman Versus Predator (1991)

Batman Versus Predator

Batman Versus Predator, in case the title doesn’t give it away, is bad. It’s real bad. It could be worse, sure, but it’s real bad.

It doesn’t open terribly—sure, the Kubert Brothers art is pretty bland from go, but the subject matter is at least sort of interesting (compared to where it goes later). And writer Dave Gibbons (who doesn’t just overwrite the comic, he badly overwrites it) has some style for the opening. He juxtaposes the Predator attacking some old guy and his dog with the Gotham City championship boxing match. The former isn't important (other than it's a little weird the Predator is attacking a junkyard watchman), but the latter turns out to be the whole comic. See, the Predator isn’t initially interested in hunting Batman or even (armed) criminals or (armed) cops. It’s out to take out the championship boxers.

Because they’re champions. Says so on the news. The Predator watches a lot of news in Batman Versus Predator and repeats sound bytes to make dialogue. Because Gibbons is incapable of writing an action sequence without a bunch of stupid recycled sound bytes the Predator has picked up somewhere. At one point, it seems like the comic would be at least somewhat better without their constant addition. But then, once the Kuberts never get any better—they can’t make the Predator versus the criminals interesting, they can’t even make Batman versus the Predator interesting, though it’d probably be hard to do given the big showdown is in the woods surrounding Wayne Manor. But there are times when it doesn’t seem like Batman Versus Predator isn’t going to be a complete waste of time.

Sadly, all of them are in the first issue (of three). And by the end of the first issue, it seems kind of unlikely the book is ever going to turn around.

Most of the comic, overall, is about the crooked businessmen and gangsters who run Gotham (and the boxers) getting wiped out by the Predator. It kills them because… it knows they’re swinging dick criminals and it came to town to hunt some white collar looking criminals. Then it takes on Batman and puts him down for the count—there’s this terribly ineffective device where Gibbons and the Kuberts have a single panel showing Batman getting home all cut up at the bottom of pages while above the main action with the cops or crooks or whatever plays out.

Because Jim Gordon’s got a big part. Not sure why he doesn’t try to take out the Predator himself as the Kuberts draw him just as buff as Batman, which is considerable because they’re Batman is super buff. So big and buff it’s like, obviously you need some meaty muscle guy like Ben Affleck for that part.

But you wouldn’t want to see Batman Versus Predator: The Movie with Batfleck or anyone else, because the only thing the comic succeeds at showing is how bad it would be. Even though it’s about two “characters”—Batman arguably has less personality than the sound byte spouting Predator here—who are known for their wonderful toys, there’s not much competition.

You’d think after fighting aliens since the fifties or whenever they first showed up in a Batman comic, Bats would have some better ideas than he comes up with here. Nope. There are a couple times in action scenes where it’s like… why did that work? The Predator is scared of cars?

The big action finale has Batman in special armor, which looks like the suit from the end of Batman Forever, though I don’t think the Kuberts got a thank you, and then he has a sword at some point. Because armor and swords and whatever.

Batman Versus Predator is pretty dumb, even for a comic called Batman Versus Predator. I’ll bet if you bought this comic back in 1990 thinking it would resemble Watchmen in some way because of Gibbons, you were pissed as all hell. Though, as someone who bought it back in the day—at age twelve—I recall being shameless about it.

I shouldn’t have been shameless. I should’ve acutely felt the shame.

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.

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