Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Comic Review: The Punisher (MAX)

I don't generally think of myself as a fan of the Punisher.  You look at folks who wear Punisher t-shirts, who talk about how awesome the Punisher is, and well, these are not typically your most well-adjusted folks.  On top of that, The Punisher tends to be a little mean-spirited.  Frank Castle's family is gunned down amidst a mafia gang war, and he goes on a rampage.  That rampage involves killing, torturing, maiming...  Castle is not a nice man.  It makes him hard to like.  In fact, half the time you're reading the Punisher, the point of the book is that Frank's an asshole, that you're not supposed to like him.  He's an anti-hero in the sense that he's actually a villain.  But sometimes we tell stories about him anyway.

The Punisher is not a nice man.
I picked up The Punisher (MAX) for a couple of reasons.  The most important is that they had the complete collection at my local library.  I'd read pretty much everything else in the graphic novels section; I might as well read The Punisher.  And then, too, with the success of Marvel's Daredevil on Netflix, Marvel TV producers have talked openly about making a Punisher series as a follow-up, though always with the caveat that it needed a hard-R rating.  This means they want the Marvel MAX version of the Punisher, which is a specific series in the character's cannon.  For the most part, Punisher comics have had a PG or a PG-13 rating (when published under the Marvel Knights banner), but MAX is Marvel's adult's only line, and The Punisher is MAX's biggest success.  I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

"Slavers" is a crime drama about
human trafficking.
As I noted earlier, the Punisher was originally introduced as a villain, an antagonist for Spider-Man and especially Daredevil.  He's a character who's deadly violence contrasts sharply with the measured, ethical approach taken by the rest of Marvel's street-level superheroes.  He kills people.  The rest of the Marvel Universe merely beats people up before handing them over to the proper authorities.  But the Punisher became so popular that he eventually got his own title, and as a result, his comics tend to read like war comics set amidst urban landscapes.  The most obvious example was the long-running Punisher War Journal of the late-80s and 90s.  War Journal had its place in the grim and gritty world heralded by The Dark Knight Returns, but it was rarely a great book, and it didn't often stand out.  After all, the Punisher is just Batman with guns, but the most interesting thing about Batman is that he doesn't use guns.  You take that away, and what you have is a big, anti-social asshole who slaughters people.  Yuck.

I thought that The Punisher (MAX) was going to be more of the same but with entirely more cursing and much more gore.  I thought we might even see graphic torture scenes, and I'd avoided it for years for exactly this reason.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

Making The Punisher an R-rated book doesn't actually change Frank Castle in any way.  He's still the Punisher; he still uses guns to slaughter criminals.  What it changes is everything else in the world.  In an R-rated book, the bad guys do really fucked up things.  Granted, The Punisher (MAX) starts with Castle mowing down mobsters at a funeral with an M-60, but thankfully it doesn't keep that tone.  It quickly settles in and becomes a kind of espionage book, one in which the government, the mob, and everyone is else is willing to do pretty much anything to find Frank Castle.  They kill, torture, maim.  By the time Frank finally catches up with these guys, we're itching for vengeance.  His methods suddenly work--in a storytelling sense--in a way that they never had before in the comics.

Barracuda is the black Punisher.  Hailing from the swamps of Miami-Dade County,
he is easily the most entertaining character in this entire series.
The book picks up steam from there.  Volume Two is about a mob war between Irish gangs in Hell's Kitchen that is thoroughly entertaining.  The Castle goes to Russia on a mission for Nick Fury.  Later we see the Punisher take on human traffickers, and it's the best, most violent thing in the entire series.  We can feel Frank's rage.  It burns right off the page.  By the time Barracuda is introduced in Volume Six, it's become a rocking crime thriller that I'm thoroughly enjoying.

Haven't read this yet.  The library doesn't have it, so I guess I'm gonna have to buy it.
The Punisher (MAX) is written by Garth Ennis and (mostly) drawn by Gorlan Parlov.  I'm not always a fan of Ennis's work, but I love it here.  He's taken a hyper-grim character and made him breathe.  The Marvel Knights version of The Punisher also had a sick sense of humor, but here the gloves come off, and it makes it works a thousand-thousand times better.  Parlov's art, meanwhile, alternates between grim and funny as the story itself does.  It's bleak at times, but he really gets the characters and the sense that the story is trying to achieve, and his work suits the material to the ground.  Marvel brought in superstar Howard Chaykin to draw issue #50 of this series, and it doesn't work nearly as well.  When Parlov returns in issue #51, suddenly Barracuda is terrifying, Frank is human, and the rest of the series itself is both sensible and compelling.

Like it or not, The Punisher (MAX) gets a strong recommendation from me.  It's well-drawn and entertaining, and I've really enjoyed it.

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