Foolkiller (1990)

Foolkiller #1 (1990)

The last time I read Foolkiller, almost fifteen years ago, I really liked it. I wish I knew what I’d liked about it because it’s really not good. Even back then I know I thought the art—Joe Brozowski on pencils, Tony DeZuniga then Vince Giarrano on the inks—was bad. And the art’s bad. It appears DeZuniga had been handling the facial features and without him, the people start looking real bad, but then Giarrano adjusts or something. Very rocky, art-wise. Never good, sometimes less bad than other times.

But the art’s not the problem. The problem’s the script, which is from Steve Gerber, who’s not just good, but also not the guy you expect to do a comic all about how the “super predators” are real. At one point they even do a Central Park Five reference. In Foolkiller, it’s a string of Central Park attacks on cyclists where the gang beats the victims to death, enraged the victims can… afford bicycles. Even the killers’ parents are okay with their sons brutally murdering those better off bicycle owners.

Of course, one of the other bad guys is a right-wing TV host. The first few issues of Foolkiller have a different feel than the rest of the comic and not just because the noses go bad at some point. The comic’s about a new Foolkiller, inspired by the original, who’s actually the second one, and is currently in a mental institution in Indiana. The protagonist, Kurt, has just lost his father, his job, his house, his wife, and finds Foolkiller—on the right-wing TV host’s show—aspirational. Pretty soon Kurt’s going around killing bad guys, romancing his shift manager at the burger joint—the only job he could get because savings and loans—and working out in garbage. On one hand, Foolkiller feels like Gerber amping up the absurdity over this kind of character but Gerber’s also grounding it as he goes along. It’s like Gerber’s too dedicated to the actual narrative to subvert it with jabs at the protagonist’s philosophy. Taxi Driver: The Comic.

And outside a mention of The Avengers and Spider-Man swinging through an issue to sell at least one to the Spidey collectors, Foolkiller doesn’t feel very Marvel comic. Outside the art, which—even bad—looks like Marvel and the lettering, which is perfunctory and somehow inappropriate. Foolkiller’s journals are all supposedly written on the computer but they appear in handwriting. It’s also unclear how the journals are supposed to be read—contemporary to events, past tense. It’d be nice if it mattered. Something in Foolkiller should matter.

Yeah, Gerber created Foolkiller, didn’t he. At least the most famous one—and he was in Man-Thing. I just can’t figure out what happened to the joke in Foolkiller. The comic takes a shift when it starts dealing with the Iraq War in the last few issues; that news is pushing Foolkiller’s killing spree out of the headlines. The other headlines are about crack babies and something else kind of iffy, even for the early nineties. The first half of Foolkiller is Randian objectivism with some sprinkles of libertarianism, the second half of it is the lead dispassionately offing examples of those philosophies. Maybe if there were a connection there’d be some impact but Gerber introduces the relevant supporting characters—outside the TV host—when he needs them, not before. And the TV host doesn’t really provide much texture. Foolkiller confuses hyperbolic with effective.

Nothing in the comic stands out. None of the characters, none of the moments Gerber tries out with the supporting cast. He’s got a lack of empathy for everyone involved, which matches the protagonist I suppose but… it’s a little long—ten issues—to go just to prove you can do something. Though Foolkiller is from the old days, back when publishers never would’ve dreamed off cutting issues off a limited series. Or at least it seemed like they wouldn’t. What do I know? I used to be a big Foolkiller (1990) fan. And not when I had any excuse to be.

Maybe the most disappointing aspect—other than Gerber’s exaggerated, almost defensive classism—is the pointlessness of the narrative. It doesn’t add up to anything for anyone involved, not Foolkiller III, not Foolkiller II, not Foolkiller II’s too liberal psychiatrist, not the girl who falls for Foolkiller III, not the stupid villain who can’t seem to die… no one. One of the villains is even a New York City real estate developer who is way too competent to be confused for any real figure.

Either something went very wrong with Foolkiller or it was always a terrible idea.

I’m not sure I wrote about Foolkiller the last time I read it, but if I did, the posts are long gone. I don’t know if I want to know what I thought but I’m frankly embarrassed about it.

Foolkiller (1990) is most decidedly not good. From the start. I kept thinking maybe it turned around in the last few issues and Gerber finally acknowledged the nonsense.

But no.

It’s just bad all the way through.

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 #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.

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 #18, Mother Russia, Part 6 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #18

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punisher MAX #17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punisher MAX #16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punisher MAX #15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Punisher MAX #14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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