The Punisher #42, Man of Stone, Part 6 (of 6)

The Punisher #42

When Ennis has Frank by himself for four days, walking across the desert, trying to beat Rawlins to the airport, in a foreign country, no gun, perfectly opportunity for some self-reflection. But no. Ennis does end up having something to say in Man of Stone—Frank’s buddy Yorkie is taking an unplanned retirement because he’s sick of the War on Terror. He’s the honorable soldier, not in it for the bloodshed, which is what he’s seeing now. Somehow Vietnam was different, he’s sure, but he’s not convincing. He and Frank have a drink (or don’t have a drink, it’s unclear because Frank’s gone monosyllabic) and Yorkie bares his broken soul. It’s a good scene. Probably should have been how Ennis did the whole arc, tracking Yorkie instead of him being a special guest star.

Per Yorkie, there’s no place for the traditional war story anymore, which seems kind of meta, especially considering Ennis came to a similar conclusion with General Zakharov, only Man of Stone isn’t really a war story. Because it’s still a Punisher comic and it’s not Frank’s war.

So the Yorkie thing is great and then it’s time for Frank to finish up. He starts with some very pulp narration, which is a strange development, but then it turns into a slasher comic with the Punisher. He’s the slasher. From the poetry of Yorkie’s sad British soldier monologue to Frank now monosyllabic even in his narration. It’s like Ennis going through and saying, it’s not a spy story, it’s not a war story, it’s not a Punisher story, because all of those things make their own mess.

The issue and—consequently—arc have a bad ending. Whatever Ennis is going for fails. It’s not Fernandez’s fault because Fernandez doesn’t have a say in any of it. It’s just how the story goes… doesn’t work, then ends worse. Ennis spent the arc trying out the supporting cast to see if they could resonate and didn’t find the best one until the final issue of the arc. Meanwhile, Frank the international troubleshooter is unpleasant; Frank Castle vs. the Taliban seems exactly like the comic Ennis doesn’t want to do and then turns around and does it half-assed because of his disinterest in how it actually plays out.

But it does resolve most if not all of the outstanding supporting cast story arcs; satisfactorily too. Ennis does a fine job cleaning house after forty-two issues. Just wish he could’ve figured out a way to do it with a better story.

The Punisher #41, Man of Stone, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher #41

It’s not… the best issue. In some ways, it might even be the worst of the series so far. Not because there’s anything particularly bad–though Fernandez's art sort of tanks here so it doesn't help the finale hinges on Frank's expressions for effectiveness, though it might be on colorists Dan Brown and Giulia Brusco; it seems like Fernandez's panels, in black and white, might be effective. The colors don't help.

This issue is build-up to a big action set piece–how Frank and O'Brien are going to deal with the Russian general and Rawlins–and the resolution after they execute that plan. Even though Ennis opens the issue with Frank narration, there's no specifics about how the plan's supposed to go, just how transition stuff between the last issue's finale and this issue's opening.

But the issue also reveals just how wanting the villains of Man of Stone have been. Frank and O’Brien end up once place, still having to deal with Rawlins and General Zakharov. Zakharov and his flunkies find themselves at Rawlins’s mercy and he proves to be a vicious, cruel bastard, which the reader’s known for ages and Zakharov, based on when he told off Rawlins last issue or so, seems to know too. Shame he didn’t take it to heart and instead lets Rawlins get the better of him.

Rawlins is a tiring villain. He’s endlessly repugnant and opportunistic instead of smart. He’s not fun or edifying character to follow. Ennis just churns through his scenes. There are threats, there are violent realizations of those threats, there are more threats… on and on it goes. At least with Zakharov and his flunkies, there’s some examination of the characters and their situations. Rawlins is just caricature.

Meanwhile Frank is back to leading O’Brien on as far as their “romance.” Sure, he tells her not to plan for the future but he also banters with her against napalm going off in the distance; Ennis and Fernandez are way too intentional with the interplay given it can’t mean anything to Frank outside a temporary alliance.

Why can’t it mean anything to Frank?

Because, ostensibly no character development on him. Even though Punisher MAX is all about the character development on him.

It’s not a bad comic at all, it’s just a pointless enough one it’s hard to imagine Ennis is somehow going to wrap it all up into something special with the next issue. Man of Stone clearly went off the rails somewhere, but it might have just been on the wrong track the entire time. It plays to none of the series’s strengths, especially this issue, with Fernandez no longer able to keep the art more engaging than not.

The Punisher #40, Man of Stone, Part 4 (of 6)

The Punisher #40

Man of Stone puts Frank into a world where he doesn’t belong. This issue has him showing down with rogue Russian general Zakharov in Afghan mountains; the general wants Frank alive so Frank will confess on TV. See, Zakharov has a romanticized view of himself and his soldiers. His resolve is a strength and he sees the same thing in Frank, only Frank’s got no romanticized view of himself or anything else. Zakharov’s projecting. The world where Frank doesn’t belong isn’t Afghanistan or shootouts, it’s in the daydreams of general’s and CIA agent’s (good and bad).

Frank doesn’t get jack to do this issue. He gets a kind of big action set piece but it’s not about his experience of it, rather the damage he does on others because he’s the Punisher after all. He and O’Brien hang out a bunch but it’s all her talking and him occasionally showing interest but eager to remind her they’re not going to prom after they take out the Russians and her evil ex-husband. There’s no Frank narration this issue either. When he’s got an exposition dump, it’s brief and in dialogue to O’Brien.

There’s also a lack of preparedness on Frank’s part, echoing the previous story arc, which is either Ennis covering for dramatic manipulations or Frank just being out of his element. Though I suppose in this story, it could also be he was too busy making the beast with two backs with O’Brien.

After three issues of being a prop, O’Brien gets her big monologue here and it’s… okay. Fernandez does a better job with O’Brien as action hero in the issue than Frank, but he doesn’t bring anything to her talking head panels. He doesn’t have the timing for it, which isn’t a surprise. It’s effectively done, it’s just not as good as it could be. Because O’Brien does belong in this world only she wishes she didn’t. Or wishes Frank did.

Even though Man of Stone is far from the best arc—and, frankly, not the bounce back (so far) the series needs post-Barracuda—it does at least do something with the characters. The only new character this arc is Zalharov’s main flunky, who hates Rawlins; they’re kind of comic relief. Everyone else is back from previous arcs, laden with baggage. Good baggage, well-placed baggage. Ennis’s characters are in better shape than his narrative needs.

The Punisher #39, Man of Stone, Part 3 (of 6)

The Punisher #39

Ennis starts the issue with some more framing: Frank and O’Brien eating rations in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. It’s a two page teaser, with Frank giving in and going for a roll in the sack with O’Brien. Again. Even though, the narration reveals, he’d told himself not to do it. Ennis’s Punisher MAX has done a lot of things in its run so far, but establishing Frank Castle gets horny in his downtime… well, it might not be the biggest success but it’s definitely a success. Frank Castle: Sexual Being. Who knew.

The rest of Frank’s narration, with a couple exceptions in the last couple pages, is about him getting to Afghanistan. It’s not a lot of narration, because on the last plane he meets a reporter who’s going to talk his ear off and give the reader some exposition as to how big bad Russian villain Zakharov got the “Man of Stone” nickname; doing heinous shit to Afghan civilians during the Russian occupation. What’s weird about the sequence—besides the comic cutting from the intro to the exposition dump to Zakharov and his goons preparing for the Punisher’s arrival—is how Frank probably knows all of it (yet doesn’t want to talk to the reporter so doesn’t mention it)—so it’s exclusively for the reader’s edification, which plays weird. Something’s missing. Maybe Frank’s narration.

The issue continues the arc’s weird pacing—like Ennis is doing all the bridging issues in the front—with, once again, barely any time spent on O’Brien. She and Frank probably get about the same amount of page time but he’s got the narration to make more of an impression. Dialogue-wise, they’re probably equal. Or Frank’s less. O’Brien’s opening scene is with Yorkie, who does most of the talking (though not all) and then she and Frank talk a little, but pragmatically. Rawlins gets the most dialogue or at least seems like it because he’s got this lengthy ranting monologue about being a great spy and how valuable he could be to Zakharov. Rawlins and Zakharov get the most agency in the arc; Frank’s just reacting to them, O’Brien’s just a damsel (of sorts).

It’s an efficient, effective issue, with Fernandez drawing Frank the tourist a lot better than Frank at home, though he barely gets any panels compared to anyone else. Even when Frank does get a panel, Fernandez usually concentrates on something else. Fernandez’s art on Punisher is better because he’s drawing less Punisher. But, given Fernandez’s lows on the series, I’ll take it.

Man of Stone is half over and Ennis has just completed arranging the pieces on the board. He’s done a fine enough job with that arranging, but hasn’t really given a sign of what’s to come for anyone involved. There’s this inevitable showdown feel to it… except Ennis has only talked about the inevitability not shown it.

The Punisher #38, Man of Stone, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher #38

Why is the only thing Fernandez unable to reliably draw, even with his much improved (and self-inked) Man of Stone style… why can’t he draw the Punisher? Frank’s out of action the entire issue, literally sitting around on the telephone, and Fernandez can’t seem to figure out how to draw Frank’s arms. It’s really, really weird how he can handle everything else but not Frank.

So I guess it’s good Frank’s only in the first couple pages and the last page. He’s on the phone with Yorkie, Yorkie’s about the blow O’Brien’s brains out. The British are helping the Americans protect former Taliban and O’Brien’s killing former Taliban so she’s got to be got. Frank learned about the British involvement thanks to BBC America, which is a throwaway line but does give an idea what Frank puts on in the background while cleaning his guns. There’s quite a bit about how Americans war—the British soldiers aren’t happy about taking assassination orders from the CIA, evil ex-CIA guy Rawlins points out they can get Frank to Afghanistan—he’s not going to want to get into a firefight with the angry Russians in New York City; Americans like going to war in other people’s countries. Quick but important digs from Ennis, as Man of Stone is more about geo-political conditions than anything with Frank himself.

So besides the frame, the issue is about Yorkie and his team capturing O’Brien and getting into a fight with Rawlins and the Russians and then Rawlins getting dangled over a cliff until he comes up with another plan to take down the Punisher. The Rawlins and Russians stuff is forward moving, while the O’Brien and Yorkie pages are more like cast catch-up. Ennis seeing what the pair is like together, having written them both alone. It’s Punisher MAX world-riffing. It’s a good use of pages, as far as the single issue goes, though maybe not for the overall arc. Especially since Yorkie has this great closing joke for O’Brien and the comic skips her reaction.

Actually, the comic skips O’Brien’s reactions to almost everything. She’s either quiet or muzzled.

If the arc has an epical structure, outside the issue’s individual ones, we seem to have just gotten to the end of the first act. Ennis is gradual about setting up the ground situation, far more committed to the individual issues’ plotting. Even if this one doesn’t much involve Frank.

The Punisher #37, Man of Stone, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher #37

Leandro Fernandez is back on the art, inking himself, and he’s better than he’s ever been before. There are still some panels where it’s clear colorist Dan Brown is doing a lot of the shading, but overall it’s a big improvement over Fernandez’s usual art.

The issue brings together a lot of the series’s leftovers—there’s ex-CIA assassins Rawlins and O’Brien, there’s the Russian general, there’s Yorkie. Well, Yorkie gets a name drop towards the end. He’s promised.

Rawlins is trying to team up with the Russians, only to discover the hardass, Wilson Fisk lookalike general from the Mother Russia arc. This arc, Man of Stone, well, the general is said Man of Stone. He doesn’t take to slimy American fixer Rawlins and most of their subplot is spent with the general, Zakharov, torturing him. Until Rawlins is able to come up with a plan to take on Frank. Zakharov’s still mad at Frank for the whole killing Russian troops in a nuclear weapon silo thing.

Meanwhile Frank is working his way through some drug dealers, which then puts him on a collision course with the Russian mob. The Russian mobster name-drops O’Brien, who skipped last arc, as a person of interest, though Frank doesn’t know O’Brien’s out there killing the off the Afghanis who kidnapped and assaulted her.

Now, post-9/11, these guys are all American assets because… America.

It’s a lot of setup, with most of the humor in how vicious sociopath Rawlins being no match for Zakharov and his crew. Initially Ennis gives Frank a lot of narration but mostly drops it after the first scene, which is an action sequence; he’s interrogating people, no need for narration, just talking heads.

So other than the soft cliffhanger with O’Brien and maybe a couple pages of Frank’s shootout, it’s all talking heads. Just one talker about to have the other talker castrated talking heads. Ennis is really good at keeping it moving, with Fernandez all of a sudden able to keep up. Whatever Fernandez did while talking the last arc off helped.

So far Man of Stone is a gritty, realistic espionage thriller juxtaposed against Frank being Frank. It’s perfectly solid stuff, engaging as a prologue to whatever’s coming next. Even if the only thing Fernandez can’t seem to figure out how to reliably draw in Punisher MAX is The Punisher.

Also weird is how it’s following up on the arc where Ennis embraced pulp for Frank’s narration and takes an entirely different approach here.

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 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.

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)

Pm9

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.

The Punisher #7, Kitchen Irish, Part 1 (of 6)

Ennis does three things with the first issue of Kitchen Irish, he sets up Frank’s involvement, introduces two bad guys. The bad guy introductions are separate because only one set of bad guys—led by a disfigured, former IRA bomber—have anything to do with the issue’s inciting incident (an explosion). The other bad guy has his own separate, kind of horrifying thing going. Frank does introduce a third set of bad guys—while everyone talks about four total sets—but the emphasis is on Frank’s narration, which is a history lesson.

Kitchen refers to Hell’s Kitchen, which is going through gentrification and only hoods and the Punisher are longing for the old days. It’s never really clear what Frank’s doing before the explosion changes the course of his day. It also doesn’t matter. Ennis uses Frank’s narration to set up his mindset and perspective, then it’s for exposition on the ground situation with the hoods, but the comic quickly becomes all about the villains. And some of the action, though Leandro Fernandez concentrates on the composition a lot more than the detail of the action. More on Fernandez in a bit.

The issue’s two villain introductions are strong. Finn, the IRA bomber, and his somewhat dopey, blusterous Irish-American sidekicks, and Maginty, an apparently vicious Black Irish hood (Finn and company are at least weary, if not scared, of him). Finn and company get a far less dramatic reveal than Maginty, who gets the last scene in the comic, where he kidnaps a kid. Maginty’s trying to get the grandfather to cut up a body for him; not out of the blue, the grandfather used to cut up bodies for the Irish mob. Frank running around rooftops to watch some guy through his sniper rifle doesn’t start to compare.

Partially because of Fernandez, partially becomes Ennis’s intentionally focused on the villain introductions. Frank’s already gotten a great sequence as he recovers from the explosions and finds himself in shock, physical and mental. But Fernandez… the more he does, the less well he does it. The art is occasionally lazy (Finn’s sidekicks have the same face in a few panels, just different hair, only then their haircuts change too) while the writing is disciplined and thorough. It’s hard not to imagine how the comic might read with a more effective artist. Even when Fernandez doesn’t do anything wrong, he also never does it right enough.

The Incredible Hulk 59 (October 2003)

The Incredible Hulk #59

I don’t tend to go on at length about bad art. Well, maybe I do sometimes. But not often.

This issue features the Hulk versus the Absorbing Man. Fernandez might draw the Hulk bad, but the Absorbing Man? Oh, he’s a disaster. From the panel Creel gets out–maybe even a few panels earlier where an establishing shot or two gets missed–the issue is a disaster. Fernandez is clearly trying, there’s lots of detail, it’s just inept visual storytelling.

There’s also a lack of commitment from Jones. The arc’s plot threads don’t great resolved; he sends Bruce off into the sunrise, Bill Bixby-style, ready for his next episode. There’s an orphaned kid and the super-woman female lead of the arc not getting any resolution. Worse, there’s even an ominous epilogue.

Jones also loses the too smart supervillain vibe this issue. It’s bad stuff, disjointed and rather dispassionate.

C- 

CREDITS

Hide in Plain Sight, Part Five; writer, Bruce Jones; artist, Leandro Fernandez; colorist, Steve Buccellato; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Warren Simons, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 58 (September 2003)

The Incredible Hulk #58

There’s no nice way to phrase this observation so I’m going to just go ahead–Jones gives his female characters, in particular the New York paralegal or whatever she is, way too much credit. Unless he reveals her to be a trained law enforcement officer (like most of his strong female members), it’s just absurd. She can track Banner on the run, she carries night vision binoculars, she’s cool when confronted with Creel possessing a little kid… she’s practically Rambo.

It’s too much. It’s not even clear why she needs to be here, other than Jones likes her. Her scenes with Bruce are good too. It’s the other ones where there are problems.

Almost nothing happens this issue. It’s not a bridging issue, it’s a train ride issue. Bruce and Creel take the train to the final action. Fernandez’s Hulk scene is awful.

Besides decent plot details, this issue’s plodding.

C 

CREDITS

Hide in Plain Sight, Part Four: Brain Dead; writer, Bruce Jones; artist, Leandro Fernandez; colorist, Steve Buccellato; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Warren Simons, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 57 (September 2003)

200828

Here's Jones's problem, at least with this arc–he can't tell this story with the Hulk. So far it has little or nothing to do with the bigger conspiracy story, it's just about Bruce Banner getting involved with the Absorbing Man's ingenious plan to free himself and kill a bunch of innocent people in the process.

But Jones hasn't really established why Crusher Creel (the Absorbing Man) is fixated on the Hulk. They've fought before, but Jones gives them a Batman versus the Joker thing this issue and I realized… Jones is writing a DC story. He's not writing for the Hulk and its constraints, he's trying to fit it to match this story more suited for a DC comic.

No wonder it isn't working.

As for the art, Fernandez does okay. It's no longer visually compelling, just because the action is out of New York, but it's okay enough.

C 

CREDITS

Hide in Plain Sight, Part Three: A Mind of His Own; writer, Bruce Jones; artist, Leandro Fernandez; colorist, Steve Buccellato; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Warren Simons, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 56 (August 2003)

200827

Much as I enjoy Fernandez's art with setting and people, he's not a good Hulk artist. The Hulk has very, very awkward proportions. Pudgy almost. Muscularly pudgy.

But since it's a Bruce Jones Hulk there's not much Hulk action. Instead, he splits the comic between Bruce (Banner) and his new lady friend recovering from an Absorbing Man possession and then the things going on back at the Absorbing Man's cell.

Jones is trying hard to give Bruce something more to do than smash, he's just trying to hard to use existing ideas. Absorbing Man is okay, but the powers are more important than the character, so Jones has to spread himself thin rationalizing the Absorbing Man cameo.

There are some weird moments at the end. They're more interesting than anything else. The narrative is pretty set once Jones opens the comic.

Still, the issue is fair enough, if decidedly undercooked.

C+ 

CREDITS

Hide in Plain Sight, Part Two: Inside Out; writer, Bruce Jones; artist, Leandro Fernandez; colorist, Steve Buccellato; letterer, Dave Sharpe; editors, Warren Simons, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 55 (August 2003)

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Leandro Fernandez to the rescue! Not just regular Leandro Fernandez either, but doing a walking and talking scene through Central Park at twilight. It’s a gorgeous issue.

And Fernandez alone isn’t responsible for rescuing Jones and Hulk (it’s just one issue after all). Jones opens from scratch. Banner on the run. He’s in New York, he meets a girl. Turns out she works at the special prison holding the Absorbing Man. There are cuts to the story going on in that prison with her coworkers (and Creel). Jones has lots to do, lots of characters and subplots to establish and he gets them done.

But his Banner story is just this walk with the good doctor and a girl. There’s a plotting reason she’s the girl he’s chatting with, but it’s still a nice sequence with fabulous art. Jones is indulging himself a little and it’s nice to see again.

B 

CREDITS

Hide in Plain Sight, Part One; writer, Bruce Jones; artist, Leandro Fernandez; colorist, Studio F; letterer, Dave Sharpe; editors, Warren Simons, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Immortal Iron Fist 7 (August 2007)

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Fraction and Brubaker take a break here to focus on one of the previous Iron Fists.

They present the story like a fable and get really cute with it. I don’t think the cuteness necessarily has to do with the Iron Fist in question being female, but because she’s got a goofy, sweet but stupid boyfriend. He’s funny.

Actually, there’s a lot of humor in it. Even narrative humor, with a joke in a text box. Probably because dealing with the tale of pirates isn’t going to be fun unless you get in some jokes.

It works as an issue–I wish they’d done one for every Iron Fist, instead of just this one (shocking how good Marvel books never seem to last).

The art’s a bit problematic. Foreman doesn’t flow naturally into Fernandez who doesn’t flow naturally into Evans. It’s not bad, it just always seems a little off.

CREDITS

The Story of the Iron Fist Wu Ao-Shi, The Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay; writers, Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction; pencillers, Travel Foreman, Leandro Fernandez and Khari Evans; inkers, Derek Fridolfs, Francisco Paronzini, Leo Fernandez and Victor Olazaba; colorist, Dan Brown; letterer, Dave Lanphear; editors, Alejandro Arbona and Warren Simons; publisher, Marvel Comics.

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