Thursday, February 18, 2010

Punisher MAX Issue 4

[Graham Tedesco-Blair continues to look at every issue of Garth Ennis's Punisher Max run.]

“No one ever before dared defy THE MAFIA. . . but THE EXECUTIONER not only defies them, he kills, maims, and tries to destroy them piece by piece, with his Vietnam-trained tactics. . . using his knowledge of jungle warfare in his one-man crusade to wipe out the evil web of organized crime in America.” --Jacket copy for Don Pendleton's “The Executioner: War Against the Mafia!”

That sound like anyone we know?

One of the clearest predecessors to The Punisher is Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan, “The Executioner.” The parallels are abundant: a well trained Vietnam soldier who's family is killed takes his war to the mob. There are superficial differences, for example, Bolan lost his parents and sister to mafia loan sharks, and was a Green Beret, while Castle lost his wife and kids, and was part of a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, but the basic idea is clearly the same.

After spending 11 years worth of novels killing his way across the states (and coinciding with Pendleton's sale of the character franchise to Gold Eagle books), Bolan fakes his own death, and emerges as the leader of the top secret government strike force Stony Man, who fight Communists and such all over the world.

And wouldn't you know, this is the exact same offer Micro makes Frank in the opening pages. “How would you like to hunt Bin Laden?” he asks, offering to put all manner of intelligence and weaponry at his disposal. And while this would be an interesting direction for the series to take, Frank replies simply “Fuck you.” Ennis then lays his politics pretty clearly on the table, as Castle explains the financial motivations for war, and how he has no interest in dying of cancer from handling depleted uranium shells, while his bosses get rich off oil. It's simple, direct, and while a little conspiratorial, also makes logical sense. The theme of “love the soldier, hate the general and politician” shows up in a ton of his war stories. Also, bear in mind that he was writing this in 2004, the height of the Bush years, so there's little question as to who he's referring to. Ennis will return to this stance a couple more times throughout the series, and Frank's like “I'm not going back to war so Colt can sell another million M-16s. I had enough of that in Vietnam” is the basic outline for the 10th storyline, “Valley Forge, Valley Forge.”

Meanwhile, Nicky and his guys have cut Roth's balls off, and are make their way to the hotel where Bethell and his team are holed up. Poor Larry, the mobster who brought them back to NYC, still doesn't have the stomach for the hardcore stuff, stopping multiple times to vomit. Here, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, Ennis draws a distinction between the kind of people who are seriously in this world, and those who are just dabbling. “Gotta be through, Larry. Gotta do things right. That's how you lose your grip, when you think you can relax and do a half-assed job instead. [...] no one's got the balls to be through and do the shit me an' Pittsy an' Ink do.”

And while Ink heads off to cut the elevator cables and keep Bethell's striketeam stuck in the basement, O'Brien finds Roth, his testicles in a cup, and speeds off, calling to let Bethel know he's about to be attacked. Here Ennis's pacing and Larosa's panel layout are perfect, switching back and forth between the strike team scrambling into the elevator, and Ink cutting the wires, slowly zooming in on his weird lazy eyes, the cutting to the basement elevator door exploding open with blood.

This will follow into another bloodbath, when Nicky and his guys crash into the hotel room, kneecap Bethell, kill his secretary, and set us up for an action filled massacre next issue, but in between those two action oriented scenes, we cut back to Micro and Frank. Castle explains an odd incident that happened after his family had died, but before he became the Punisher: one of his neighbors, Bob Garrett, came over to share a drink and show some solidarity and manly togetherness and such. About an hour into talking, Garrett mentions that he cheated on his wife, and that she left him. “I lost my wife,” Frank says. “And you threw yours away like she was nothing.” And then tells him to run. Next panels feature Garrett being thrown through the bay window, and many neighbors holding Frank back while Garrett bleeds on his lawn.

Frank's philosophy here is simple: “In his heart, he knew it was wrong. But it was what he wanted. So he went ahead and did it, and hoped that everything would work out all right. That's why he deserved to be punished.” It's an extremely simplistic and utilitarian view of justice, without any subtlety or nuance, and recalls Peter Abelard's ethical theory, which can be summed up quick and dirty as “sin in inherent in the intent of the action.” Of course, the clear objection to this (as quoted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) is “since intentions are not accessible to anyone other than the agent, doesn't Abelard's view entail that it is impossible to make ethical judgements?”

But, of course, we are dealing with a serial killer who happens to target bad guys, so he just knows that if they're mobsters, they're bad guys. And considering some of the things these people do on panel, I'd be hard-pressed to make an argument against what Frank does to them. But if in his early days, he was willing to beat the tar out of a guy for cheating on and leaving his wife, who's to say that he might not have become a jerk super-villain under a different set of circumstances?

Unfortunately, we don't get time to ponder or debate this, because Nicky Cavella busts into the room, gun in hand, while Pittsy keeps Micro covered with a shotgun. The outside world has broken into the cool, dark place where Frank and Micro are. “Shit's the word, fat boy. Shit's the fuckin' word.”

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