Thursday, February 11, 2010

Punisher MAX Issue 3

[Graham Tedesco-Blair continues to look issue by issue at Ennis's Punisher Max.]

One of the things that struck me while rereading this issue was how often these plots move along with little to no direct involvement from the Punisher. Frank has one line in the entire issue, and spends the duration tied to a chair while Micro lays out exactly what's wrong with him, while laying on the table three snapshots, one of his wife, and one each of his two children. And Mirco's analysis isn't bad at all: no rational person could have carried on a campaign like this for all those years, and while Frank doesn't seem to derive any pleasure from killing, he certainly seems to like it, as if there were some sort of darkness inside him looking for an excuse to get out. He is using his family's deaths to justify something horrible.

(We'll get the quasi-mystical/maybe-it's-all-in-his-head explanation for this in the Born miniseries, featuring just what happened to Frank during that 2nd tour of duty in Vietnam, but it's not important here. That story hadn't even been written yet.)

It's not a bad thesis, honestly. What's interesting is Frank's response: “Put them away right now. Or I guarantee you'll have to kill me.” It's not that Frank doesn't know this already; it's that he doesn't care. As he said in the first issue, his family is already avenged. He's going to keep doing this because it's the only thing he can do. He isn't going to change. And because of that simplicity and single-mindedness, he's a very easy character to build a story around, rather than one who has to dominate the plot and the characters. Sure, pretty much every character in the book is interested in him, and their actions will revolve around him, but his gravitational pull isn't so great that these characters don't get a chance to shine.

And shine they do in this issue. Nicky Cavella and his thugs continue their inquiry and plotting by killing the last living Don, and tracking down the old man who was witness to the CIA's capture of Castle in the last issue. And they're great jerk characters. From Pittsy nearly breaking a pool cue over the head of a young woman who bumps him while making a shot, to the explanation of how Ink got his nickname, and even to Nicky's reason for not killing the old man (“Poor old prick probably fought in a war or somethin'”), you're just waiting to see them get their asses kicked. Granted, their bad-assery hasn't yet been established, and all the other mobsters have done a good job these past two issues telling, rather than showing, but I don't feel bored by this. You just know there's going to be a confrontation between them and the Punisher, and because all the comments have been vague and lack details, it heightens anticipation, rather than deflating the story. As serious as this book's tone is, these guys are classic Ennis.

We do get to see them in action a little bit, when they capture Roth. Poor guy gets sent to talk to the old man, to bribe him into silence so the newspapers don't start investigating what should be a gigantic story, and walks smack dab into Cavella and his guys. They lay it out for him plain: give them all the information he has on their operation and where the Punisher is being held, or they cut his testicles off.

On the other hand, we're still stuck with O'Brien being weird. The less said about her “I want to hear [the Punisher's] voice because I bet it'd get me wet” the better. I honestly don't know what to make of it, and I'd enjoy hearing some alternative views on it. I understand that Ennis is attempting to write a strong, dominant female character who is unencumbered by the feelings and opinions of others, and is, in fact, going out of her way to make her partners uncomfortable. But at this point, it's a little jarring, because she has yet to become as well developed a character as she is later on in the series, and it feels like he's just doing it to get some sex into the comic. On the other hand, she does have an interesting conversation with Bethell about the Punisher. She compares him to a tiger pacing in it's cell (an image which will reoccur in the one-shot “The Tyger”), but Bethell isn't convinced. He's got a whole basement full of trained special ops killers, and feels that the Punisher is nothing more than an extreme case of the guys he bosses around every day. You throw the tiger some meat and it relaxes. He then orders her to go find Roth, who should have been back by now. The mobster and the CIA plots start to converge towards a climax.
(an aside: does it count as failing the 2nd qualification of the Bechdel test if the only female character spends all her scenes talking about the Punisher, just like all the other characters? This arc obviously fails the first qualification)

And at the end, we wrap back around to Micro and Frank. Micro offers him a way to stop being the Punisher, because he's convinced that Frank is still human. He hasn't walked into a McDonalds and started shooting up the place. The art for these panels is great in some places, and kinda meh in others. LaRosa seems to have gotten a little lazy with his faces, so in one panel Frank's the spitting image of an old Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry was one of the inspirations for the character, if I recall properly), and in another he's just an oval shaped mass of lines. Every panel for the interrogation scenes is a black, with Frank, Micro, and the table between them illuminated in white-blue from above. As with the earlier issues, there's a ton of those “photocopier inking” style lines across the panels, but the sense of isolation is eerie. No horizon lines, no indication of where the light above them actually is, no floor. Just two men, and the gap between them bearing pictures of Frank's family. Pretty good image to sum up this entire story.

[I don't know what to say about O'Brien in this story, other than that she is a huge embarrassment. I am very glad to hear she becomes something more.]


JP Nguyen said...

I enjoyed Punisher:MAX by Ennis a lot. Really looking forward the issue by issue analysis!
You mentioned Frank's occasional likeness with Clint Eastwood.
There's another one I had in mind : Ink looks a bit like John Turturro in Barton Fink...

Joe Gualtier said...

"We'll get the quasi-mystical/maybe-it's-all-in-his-head explanation for this in the Born miniseries, featuring just what happened to Frank during that 2nd tour of duty in Vietnam, but it's not important here. That story hadn't even been written yet"

Actually, Born came out in 2003, Punisher MAX #1 is dated March 2004.

I actually canceled my subscription to Punisher MAX because of that explanation of the character. It's terrible interpretation of the character that misses the point massively.

Graham said...

Huh, well, that'll teach me not to read the colophon before I start writing. As far as I know, the only Marvel property to bother name checking it at all was early in Charlie Huston and David Finch's run on Moon Knight.

You'll be happy to hear that it's never brought up in the main series. I'm curious to know why you believe it misses the point of the character, though.

Joe Gualtieri said...

Oh, I know it never got brought up again. I started picking MAX up again via trade with Mother Russia after hearing how good the series became.

As for why it misses the point of the character, well, my view of the character is basically that of Steven Grant, who wrote the best Punisher stories prior to Ennis. In one of his columns for CBR, he basically explains it better than I could, that the Punisher is an Existentialist. Having him influenced by a demon, removes that element pretty definitively.

hcduvall said...

While this isn't true of the later arcs, where the Punisher more directly fulfills the expectations of, I don't know, loosely gunslinger-righting wrong stories, I think Graham's description of this first arc makes me think that Mike Hodges would be a great director for something like this, violence swirling around a character, but the person being necessary in the middle because no one else is going to act much on their own.