[Graham Tedesco-Blair continues his issue by issue look at Ennis's Punisher MAX run.I read the first four issues. They were reasonably good.]
There's a very frustrating trope in Batman comics where some talking head on a news show starts babbling about how horrible Batman is because now that he's here, he attracts all the crazy fringe elements to himself, gives the villains permission to dress up, makes the Joker want to kill people, etc etc. It's overused simply because it's a cliché excuse to pin the blame on Batman, and because it's not very well thought out. And yet, when Ennis manages to tell that exact same story with good reasons and without some smarmy newscaster losing her head, it's quite effective.
In this issue, we meet the arc's bad guys, Nicky Cavella, Pittsy, and Ink. Cavella looks like a combination of Patrick Bateman and Jerry Seinfeld, and has been brought in because all the other mob bosses are dead. Pittsy is an ancient looking, short buff dude in a yellow tracksuit, one of Tony Soprano's thugs, and Ink is straight out of a Sin City comic. We don't see them in action this issue, but even their conversation over dinner is tense. Ennis even lets a joke through, when Ink asks how they could tell if Don Massimo was dead or alive, but it's cruel, with a flat delivery you can read from Ink's expression, designed to hurt Larry, the mobster who called them back to NYC.
You pretty quickly get the sense that Nicky knows exactly the mindset that Castle is in. “He's a trained soldier. He thinks like a soldier. He treats war like what it's supposed to be: the total destruction of the enemy. What happens when you go to war, Larry? A coupla fat fucks get their skulls ventilated outside a pizzeria by another fat fuck, an' they don't see it comin' 'cause the guy's a frienda theirs? That ain't war, Larry.” He continues with a comment about getting banned from New York by the higher up mobsters thanks to the kind of stuff he and his sidekicks were capable of. And right there we have our reason: the freaks and the maniacs come in because all the other guys running the show are dead. After years and years of killing criminals, the Punisher has managed to breed some particularly vicious ones.
I should point out that Ennis has a great ear for accents. Not incomprehensible, but also not descending into the realm of parody; he knows exactly which letters to drop, and which words to portmanteau.
We get a slightly deeper look at Micro's character in this issue, in a nice little scene (with more foreshadowing about the fate of Roth's testicles) where he explains just how terrifying Castle is. Admitting that you're scared is something that no action protagonist is supposed to do, but from the way Micro lays it out when Roth calls him out, the sheer numbers alone are terrifying (“forty-two dead, seven wounded – a ratio that tells you everything you need to know”). This alone is a better ratio than has ever been achieved by a real life mass murderer, and couple it with Micro's “I worked with him for ten years. I helped him kill over eight hundred people,” and you'll start to get a picture of just how truly terrifying the Punisher is supposed to be. He wants to be careful, and do everything properly, and that's why his plan to capture Frank works. Just like Cavella, Micro understands that proper planning and training beat raw energy or raw power.
Though it's not necessary at all to understand this story, and as I mentioned last time, back in the 80s Microchip was the Punisher's tech guru and computer hacker. They parted ways when Micro's son was killed on a mission with Castle, and they haven't seen one another since. It's a nice nod to loose continuity, and, baring the occasional super-heroic intrusion, one could pretty easily consider those books as canon for this world, from back when Frank was younger. Micro was one of two regularly reoccurring secondary characters in that run, the other being Jigsaw, the closest thing Castle has to an arch-enemy, because he was the one guy Frank never managed to kill completely. Thankfully, Jigsaw doesn't appear at all in the MAX run, as he simply wouldn't fit in this kind of book.
O'Brien is frustrating in this arc, because almost all of her dialog this issue is sex jokes. I don't have much good to say about her when she's acting like the cliché female chauvinist pig, but in her other appearances she's a much more diverse character. Here, she's like a transparent, deconstructed version of the “hot female agent who wants the protagonist,” but even that feels like it's reaching. Perhaps it'd be better to say that Ennis needed to vent some of his usual frustrations somewhere in the run, and she was the unfortunate target? But as I said above, she completely redeems herself as a fully 3-dimensional character in her later appearances, so with that knowledge, I can't remain too upset with her.
Micro's take down of Frank is quick, and very reminiscent of Budd shooting The Bride in Kill Bill, vol. 2. They were published near simultaneously, but the use of the shotgun, the shooting the weapon out the hand, and the final shot to the face are almost shot for shot (no pun intended). Even then, though, it's a weird scene for an action comic: Micro literally walks up to Frank after he emerges from one of his safehouses, and calls out “Frank.”. Micro then asks if he's is going to ask what he's doing there, and Frank immediately goes for his uzi. But Micro is slightly quicker on the draw, and blasts Frank in the chest with a shotgun. “In the end I guess it's easy after all” he states, and blasts Frank in the face. Our buff, well armed, mobster massacring protagonist and male empowerment fantasy just got punked by a fat, old, balding dude dressed like someone's suburban dad.
It's a great cliffhanger image, even independent of analysis, with Micro standing over a prone and injured Castle, unloading a shot right into Frank's face, which is obscured by the silhouette of a fire-hydrant. The white-orange of the shotgun's blast, the way the black crosshatching of the background is absorbed into the black ink of the sky, the contrast of Micro's untucked button-down shirt and khakis to Frank's black leather trench-coat and gloves, the lines of Micro's scrunched up face, a frown almost hidden by his beard, and his eyes just lines, like he's trying not to cry. If this story arc is Ennis' conclusion to all the old 80's Punisher books, his “Dark Knight Returns,” then there's no better image to sum that feeling up.