[Graham Tedesco-Blair starts his issue by issue look at Ennis's Punisher MAX run. I wanted to comment but have not yet read the issue, though it is in my house. Soon. I make a brief comment below.]
We open with a single page splash panel depicting the gravestone of Frank Castle's family. There are very few other places one could start the series, as Castle is as tied to his origin story as heroes like Batman or Spider-Man are. And it is just that origin story we are treated to in the opening pages, depicted ably by penciler Lewis Larosa. Some panels look like they were inked by running them through a photocopier that was low on toner, but this adds a grittiness and atmosphere that help set the mood. “Gritty” and “Moody” are overused adjectives, but they describe these pages perfectly.
“They hated that old man so much that they shot him through my family,” Castle's narration begins. Like the aforementioned heroes, the Punisher had his origin in the death of his family by criminals, but unlike them, he was already a well trained soldier, a veteran the Vietnam war, rather than an impressionable young boy or teenager. While Bruce Wayne's parents being shot down in front of his young eyes gave him a life long aversion to guns and killing, and fueled his transformation into a child's idea of the perfect man, and teenage Peter Parker's uncle dying thanks to his inaction led him to have crippling guilt about ever not interfering if he thinks he could help, Frank Castle was already a trained killer with a wife and two children he loved dearly. Without them, he reverts to being a soldier, the only thing he knows how to do, the only thing which makes sense. His description of the incident is peppered with phrases like “Thompsons, like the kind our fathers carried” (presumably in World War II) and “the old man's soldiers” because this is the kind of mindset he now lives in. Rather than a traditional, reactionary vigilante book, we are being set up for a war comic that happens to take place in New York City between one well trained man against any and all criminals who cross his path. As his narration continues, Castle mentions almost as an aside that he's already killed the old man, all the shooters responsible, the ones who had ordered the hit, and “probably thousands more.” It hasn't given him any sense of closure, nor has it stopped his mission.
A strange little quick of this origin speech is that Castle never describes what happens to him during the firefight. We learn how each of his children died, how his wife bled to death on a operating table, but he gives no description of his own wounds or actions, other than attempting to hold his children as they die. We also never see the shooters, or the old man. Each of the drawings take up most of the page, depicting Maria, Lisa, and Frank Jr. dying from gunshot wounds, and Castle's narration in small white text centered inside a very large black box below the illustration. It makes him seem terribly lonely and isolated, which, of course, he is. This separation from “regular people” is something Ennis will touch upon throughout the whole series.
Interestingly, the book is set in the present time of publication (2004), and eschews any of the attempts at modernization or sliding time scale the regular Marvel comic has tried, such as making Castle a veteran of the first Iraqi war. The gravestone on the first page sets the death of his family in 1976. This would make Castle well over 50 years old, far older than your traditional action protagonist or male empowerment fantasy. His campaign has lasted for almost 30 years.
The rest of the issue helps to set up for what this first story arc will feature. We are introduced to government agents O'Brien (who was originally in Ennis' Hitman series) and Roth, who are tracking Castle for reasons not yet specified. Castle proceeds to invade the hundredth birthday party being held for Don Massimo, by brazenly walking in through the front door and shooting the drooling, wheelchair bound old man in the face (which, to me anyways, calls to mind a similar incident in his work on The Darkness). Massimo has done enough over the years to deserve it, Castle assures us. He then exits the building, and proceeds to mow down all the mobsters who pursue him with a large caliber machine gun and mortars. More of his military training coming in. We get page after page of slaughter, while Frank talks narrates about all the different battles this reminds him of, and how while these gangsters style themselves “soldiers,” they certainly aren't worthy of the term. We'll learn more about the fall out of this slaughter in the next couple issues.
This massacre is observed from afar by some shadowy government agents in a hotel room, via satellite transmission. O'Brien and Roth had been tracking Castle on his way from the graveyard to the party, and their boss, Bethell, seems to have a plan for Castle, though what it is we won't know for a couple issues yet. It is also revealed that Bethell and the rest of his team are working with Microchip, the Punisher's weaponsmith and sidekick from the 80s and 90s comic, and his “only friend in the world.” Micro assures them that he's the only man who can take Frank Castle down. This is another place where the art truly shines, as it's rare to find someone who can draw an overweight, balding man looking truly sad, rather than comically exaggerated.
As with most first issues, this one is mainly set up for the remaining 5 issues of the story arc. It lays out its major themes pretty well, but, when read in isolation, it seems uncertain exactly what it is exactly that Ennis is trying to say. We have to wait until the next couple issues for that be to fleshed out. It is decidedly different that the Marvel Knights series, with only one joke (O'Brien asking Roth if he thinks Castle his a big dick, which, honestly, might be considered foreshadowing considering what happens to Roth later in the story, and certainly foreshadows what happens between her and Castle later on in the run), which was certainly an intentional decision, to set it apart from his other work.
We pick up next week with the introduction of the villains of the arc, and Castle's meeting with Micro.
(As an aside, Ennis' war comics are among the finest ever published. In DC's “War Stories,” or the “Battlefields” series he's currently writing for Dynamite publishing, there is nary a dick joke nor insane inbred Christ figure throwing poop at people. He is easily the best war comic author since Joe Kubert or Robert Kanigher.)
[And as an aside from me, while I agree that 50 year old male protagonists are not as common as younger men, the last decade featured quite a resurgence, especially in characters who came "back" to please their fan base, now as old as they are: John Locke was cut from whole cloth, but Rocky, Rambo, and John McClane are all 50 year old men who, like the Punisher, are back. It is a pretty good fantasy -- you are never too old to kick some serious ass, even if your glory days are behind you.]