Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Punisher MAX: Preamble [New Guest Blogger]

[Oh! What? Did someone say an issue by issue analysis of Garth Ennis's Punisher MAX run? Graham Tedesco-Blair is going to be covering that for us here on Thursdays. BAM. This is a good one for me. Jason's has taught me the virtues of Claremont, who I never disliked exactly (though I did foolishly and ignorantly consider bog standard at one point). But I kind of almost HATE Ennis, even on Punisher and Preacher, which I read at least more than 10 issues of. EXCEPT: Punisher: The End, which is on my list of favorite comics of all time because a friend put the comic in my hand and MADE me read it. I don't think I have ever seen a writer do a better job of taking a character, and thinking him all the way through to the end. So I am intrigued by this. Let's all welcome GTB.]

“[The Punisher] kills criminals because he hates them. It's not exactly brain surgery. It's his methods were interested in here.”
--Detective Soap, Marvel Knight's Punisher #3

When I was younger, I rented the film The Big Lebowski from the local video store. While watching it with my father that evening, my mother happened to walk in, and commented that she disliked how much swearing was in the film. I recall saying something about how the swearing isn't important, because it's a really great story and a very well made movie, but she just couldn't get over the word “fuck” being uttered about once a minute. And it seems that this is precisely the problem most people have with Garth Ennis.

Ennis is an often misunderstood author. Ever since his career in comics really took off with Hitman and Preacher in the mid-90s, his works have been regarded by most as a combination of Adam Sandler and Eli Roth, a coupling of scatological humor and extreme violence. While this is not at all an unfair or unfounded assessment, there's also a lot more going on in his comics than people saying the word “fuck” back and forth for 90 minutes.

With all the crazy things going on in his work, it's easy to miss that he's pretty clearly laying out a system of what's right and what's wrong. Ennis is a very moral writer, but one in the vein of writers like Bret Easton Ellis. Often, the judgment is implied by the consequences of the character's actions and our own reactions to the horrible things that they do to one another. If you need someone standing over your shoulder, reminding you that American Psycho's Patrick Bateman is an unequivocally horrible human being, then you miss the point entirely. As a result of this stylistic choice, Ennis is one of the few writers out there with the capacities to write completely reprehensible and unlikable villains who are none the less gripping and enthralling. You're not going to get any scenes of the villain playing the piano in an empty room, crying.

His work on The Punisher, for Marvel's MAX comics imprint, is arguably the best example of this moral tendency. While it contains depictions of violence on par with the Saw films or a Steve Niles comic, there's an underlying examination of social issues and moral philosophy that permeates the work. And, thank god, that philosophy isn't something so simplistic as “don't break the law or superheros will beat you up and put you in jail.” My pet thesis for this is that Ennis is targeting the sort of people who would never touch the “A Very Special Issue” type comics about sexual abuse or drug addiction or racism, instead choosing to slip these lessons in alongside what some people want to see. Ennis seems to dislike those sort of ham-fisted comics authors like Judd Winick pump out (Ennis' deconstruction of Winick in The Boys #7-10, for example, is Mark-Twain-on-James-Fenimore-Cooper level vicious). We'll see examples of this throughout the run, where issues straight out of excellent books like American Apartheid or Selling Olga are instead coupled neatly with the sort of violent action that the kind of folks who would never read books like that love.

But enough thesis, let me set us up with some historical background, and we'll get on with the (comic book) issues.
Ennis' first work with the Punisher was back in 1995, the tongue-in-cheek The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe, with art by Doug Braithwaite. In this “What If...” book, Frank Castle's entire family is killed in a skirmish between superheroes, a twist on the usual origin story, and Frank dedicates his life to killing literally every superhuman being on the planet. Ennis was then responsible for a relaunch of the franchise in 1998 as part of Joe Quesada's Marvel Knights imprint, with art duties being handled primarily by Preacher co-creator Steve Dillon. He jettisoned all the mystical garbage the character had collected over the course of the 90's (before the MK relaunch, there was an absolutely terrible storyline about Castle dying and being brought back to life by Angels and using spirit pistols or something to kill ghosts), and streamlined the character into the hyper competent Vietnam soldier that he had been when first introduced. Very similar to what Morrison and Miller have done to Batman in their various works, honestly, only the Punisher is a much less diverse character that Bats is. This series ran for 37 issues total, and was primarily a delightful black comedy that took out a lot of frustrations on superheroes, including a particularly memorable incident where the Punisher ends up fighting killer midgets in the sewers of New York City, and trapping Wolverine under a steamroller to get away. It ran until 2004, when Ennis started work with the character on the MAX imprint, Marvel's “Mature Readers” brand. Much different in tone, the MAX series was set in a mostly “real life” universe, and, as mentioned above, examined a variety of social issues, as well as the action genre and its tropes, and a conception of heroics that has nothing to do with spandex or paralyzing self-doubt.

What I will attempt here is an issue by issue analysis of this series, all 60 issues, plus the three specials Ennis wrote “The Tyger,” “The Cell,” and “Punisher: The End,” (collected as Punisher: First to Last) and the “Punisher: Born” miniseries, if I can find copies of those latter two trades.


Jason said...

A new issue-by-issue blog! Sweet!

Mikey said...


Considering I just dug out the five (5!) hardcovers from the loft this past weekend, intending to read through them all myself, this couldn't be better.

Graham - I agree on Ennis and the morality of the thing. The Slavers is one of the angriest comics story arcs I have ever read, but at all times throughout the run there's also the inescapable fact that the Punisher himself, the hero, is completely psychotic. That's the cold presence in the background.

Ennis is kind of like the Punisher - he is not showy, but he's efficient in the story telling. Brutal economy. Variations on a theme. Hit the plot beats until they're dead. I think he's very smart, not in the same way as Morrison, but in an innate story telling sense. He (usually) does the story justice.

Looking forward to this. Pittsy and Ink, Fury, (and best of all) The Man of Stone. Bring it on.

Andy said...

Welcome to the Blog, Graham!

I'm very interested to see how this shapes up. I own and love the Welcome Back, Frank HC and did buy several issues afterwards, but slowly drifted away. I heard that the situations Ennis put Castle in were getting more and more ridiculous including the steamroller moment. When it was relaunched under the MAX imprint, I paid it little mind but then started hearing that the story was drastically different. I've been buying the MAX trades ever since. If you could find an interview with Ennis that explains the change in tone, I'd be interested to read it. His love for the American western is abundantly clear in most of his writing. Oh and I love the physical change that occurred to Castle - giving him the bulk and scars that would come with 30+ years of violence.

Bob Temuka said...

Excellent news. Ennis' Punisher Max stories are arguably the best thing he's ever done with moments of intensity and sheer, raw power that are unequaled in modern comics. Really looking forwawd to reading Graham's take on it all.

Joe Gualtieri said...

This should be interested, in part because Punisher: MAX might have been the third best Marvel comic of the 00s (behind New X-Men and Alias), but also because it's a comic where the single issues are clearly secondary to the collected editions.

I have to question the opening though.

"Ennis is an often misunderstood author. Ever since his career in comics really took off with Hitman and Preacher in the mid-90s, his works have been regarded by most as a combination of Adam Sandler and Eli Roth, a coupling of scatological humor and extreme violence."

Who thinks of Ennis this way, exactly? Yes, he has a tendency towards scatological humour, but Troubled Souls, Preacher, and Hitman are generally regarded as some of the best comics of the 90s, and not for the gorier or more scatological elements.

Mikey said...

Joe - I agree. I guess some people think of Ennis as ONLY the guy who created Arseface and writes The Boys and hates superheroes but that's oversimplifying it. Now I like The Boys, but I think of Ennis as the guy who created Tulip O'Hare and writes War Stories/Battlefields.

Graham said...

Joe - Yeah, that was a completely anecdotal observation. What gave me the idea, actually, was something Geoff posted a while back (paraphrasing from memory here), asking if Preacher had any redeeming value, because he didn't like the issues he'd read. My issues of Preacher were still back at my parent's place, but I did have the Punisher with me, and, frankly, I like the latter work a bit better. But yeah, I have no raw data from the surveys conducted by the Institute for Comic Sciences or anything ;p

I've just noticed that between my personal friends, and a couple folks online, that Ennis sometimes gets a bad rap, especially from the folks who haven't read very much of him. Trying to explain to a buddy that "Crossed" wasn't really representative of his broader body of work was a long, long conversation... But certainly, it's a lot more like trying to explain the appeal of Cormac McCarthy than it is trying to convince people Tom Clancy is the best writer ever or something.

Geoff Klock said...

Bob, you wrote, "Who thinks of Ennis this way, exactly?" I am sorry to tell you it is kinda me. I read a few volumes of preacher and at least one of punisher, and some hitman and just kind of dismissed the guy, maybe unfairly. I will give him a much more sympathetic read this time around, guided by Graham.

Steven said...

Great post. I'm mainly a DC reader and don't pick up too many books and the Marvel books I do pick up are mostly the cosmic stuff (Rocket Raccoon!). I started reading the Boys when it was DC and love Garth Ennis so I might have to check out the Punisher. In that Boys storyline, I didn't catch where he disses Winick. How did you pick up on that? I didn't see it, but I'd be interested to see how you caught that.