[Graham Tedesco-Blair continues his issue by issue look at Garth Ennis's Punisher Max series. Read this one. You will learn something. Graham Tedesco-Blair is going to take you to school.]
It's possible to read the next story arc without knowing anything about Irish history, and it's possible to enjoy Garth Ennis without knowing anything about his upbringing (“blah blah the author is dead etc.”), but this arc makes a little more sense if you know a little bit about both.
In 1968, what's known colloquially (and with a great deal of understatement) as “The Troubles” began in earnest. It's difficult to give quick summary of this VERY complicated conflict, but the short version is that the Catholics hate the Protestants, and the Irish who want to be part of England hate the ones who want Ireland to be completely free, and of course vice versa. It's a traditional hatred that's been going on since the 1600s or so, and that a civil war was fought over in the 1920s. The Ulster Volunteer Force, the Irish Republican Army, the British security forces, and hundreds of other splinter factions were engaged in an extremely violent campaign of war and terrorism against one another. Bombings and assassinations were common. It was an unequivocally shitty time to live in Northern Ireland. And our Garth Ennis was born in 1970, smackdab in the middle of it all. He grew up in Holywood, just outside Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, the son of atheist parents. He has claimed an interview with the Comics Journal in 1998 that his childhood had very little effect on his writing, but, considering how often he writes about Ireland and its Troubles, about how stupid religion is and the terrible things it can make people do, and about how awesome the British SAS are, he's must be being incredibly facetious.
This arc starts simply enough with Castle getting something to eat at a diner in Hell's Kitchen, which was historically a stronghold for the Irish mob. Frank's inner monologue says some typically old mannish things about gentrification, and right on cue, the Irish pub across the street from the diner explodes, killing a ton of people around him. Leandro Fernandez's art is very clean here, and I don't like it as much as Larosa's. It's kinetic, certainly, and his detail-less outlines against empty background colouring scheme for some panels of the explosion are cool looking, but his faces are just too cartoony for me to really feel the drama. This improves a lot in the later arcs he illustrates, but he just hasn't found the right tone yet. In places, it looks quite a lot like the Luna Brother's web-comic level art, especially with Dean White's colours. It could use a good inker.
Anyways, Frank hides out at the scene afterwards, and overhears the investigators say that they suspect it's the work of the IRA.
And then we meet the first of our villain factions, this one lead by Michael Morrison, Finn Cooley, and his nephew Peter. I find Finn fascinating. He's an IRA bomb expert who had the upper half of his face accidentally blown off, and is forced to wear a transparent plastic face mask to keep his guts from sliding out. The parallels with Frank's facially disfigured arch-nemesis Jigsaw are obvious. And, of course, Finn and his IRA buddies were the ones who blew up the bar. Their plan was to set up a meeting with the other factions there, and blow them to smithereens from a safe distance away when they were all inside. Unfortunately for them, the bomb went off much, much too early, because of the detonator system Finn was using. It was supposed to be triggered by a specific radio signal that's very uncommon in Ireland, but with NYC being one of the biggest cities in the world, it's not uncommon for tons of shortwave radio signals to be broadcast all over the place. Much like the last arc's theme was that soldiers beat action movie heroes, this arc's theme is “Things that work over there do not work over here.”
Finn mentions three other factions involved in a search for Old Man Nesbitt's millions: The Westies, a gang who seem themselves as the spiritual successors of the famous Irish gang of the same name that used to run Hell's Kitchen (for how they used to be, think “Gangs of New York” and you're not far off the mark), The River Rats, who we'll meet in the next issue, and Maginty, who we meet right at the end of this one. If your cliché action movie plot sensor is buzzing already, it's for a good reason, as this one is right out of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
Meanwhile, Frank is off to kill the leader of the Westies, Tommy Toner. The inner monologue Frank has going here makes it hard for one not to think Ennis is projecting some of his own inner anger: “Lot of people get sentimental about the Westies. Old Irish weakness, that.... Guys like Tommy Toner buy the myth, old-school warlords who ruled the streets from whiskey bars, who kept the neighborhoods safe (and white), who never missed St. Patty's day. That sounds just fine to Tommy... Today he's going to find out exactly what he's inherited.” But just as Castle's about to snipe Tommy and his buddies from a nearby rooftop, a van pulls up and kidnaps Tommy right off the street, his two compatriots being unceremoniously blown away.
And then we meet Maginty. He's a scary black Irish dude: missing a couple teeth, huge dredlocks, pirate earring, permanent scowl. It's interesting that here in the US, you almost never see a black character from another county. They're almost always either continental African or African American. But Maginty, in his own words, is “The baddest nigger ever came outta Dublin town... I'm as Irish as any one of you beer swillin', bitch-beatin', lardy-ass white fucks that ever walked the Kitchen.” And he coerces an old man named Napper French into helping him by kidnapping Napper's grandson. See, French used to be the guy Old Man Nesbitt would call if he needed a body “to pull a Houdini.” He'd cut bodies into pieces so small the cops could never find them all. Maginty needs Napper to do this to someone who's still alive. And from the white van they pull Napper's kid in, are we supposed to think he's the guy that just kidnapped Tommy Toner?
(A watered down version of Maginty appeared in the film “Punisher: War Zone,” where he was a parkour obsessed meth head. But if you saw the film, forget just forget that character. They got the look and the casting perfect, but in action and characterization the two are nothing alike. Also, if you're still curious about the Troubles, Wikipedia has a pretty readable article about the subject, and I can personally recommend David McKittrick's “Making Sense of the Troubles” as the best, least biased, introductory book you're likely to find.)