Thursday, February 25, 2010

Punisher MAX Issue 5 and 6

[Graham Tedesco-Blair continues his issue by issue look at the Punisher Max series. There is some very well observed stuff in here about various crime story influences working themselves out in the pages of the book. Smart stuff.]

Opening Remarks

Before I start the analysis, I wanted to address a question left in the comments for the preamble. Steven asked: “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.”

The story in question, “Get Some,” (The Boys, #7-10) is a murder mystery in which a young gay man is found murdered, tossed off the roof of his apartment, and examines in generous depth the reactions of a somewhat average straight guy to the homosexual community, as well as the sheer folly that comes in trying to label someone as gay or straight without bothering to try and get to know them. Issue 8 starts with Hughie reading a “Swingwing” comic, the titular character being a pastiche of DC's Nightwing. The comic's plot is almost exactly the same as Winick's famous “gay roommate” story arc in Green Lantern, and Hughie's dialog describing it seems directly pointed at the original author:

“An' then later on the kid gets queerbashed, right? An' Swingwing goes after the guys and knocks the fuck outta them... I mean, in what weird fuckin' parallel universe has anything like this ever happened to anyone, would you tell me? ... I just think this is really stupid. I mean gay fellas do get beaten up, there are these fuckers going around doing it – an' here's this shite sayin' not to worry, there's a superhero on the way...”

Butcher replies, “Well, that's the whole point a' supes, innit? Somethin' complicated, you make it simple. You make it somethin' you can hit, or else you just ignore it.”

Meow! Saucer of milk for Mr. Ennis, eh?

Issue 5 and 6

There's not really enough meat in issue 5 to merit its own separate article, so the next two are combined into one article.
These are a pair of high body count issues. We'll see quite a few more of these as the series goes on.

Five picks up right where we left off, with Nicky about to blow Frank's head off. Frank bites his finger as the gun goes, off causing him to miss. O'Brien storms the place, gunning down Ink and catching Pittsy in the shoulder. Nicky shoots her. Micro lets Frank out of his chains, and Castle proceeds to slam Nicky's head into Pittsy's face. Frank and Pittsy grapple, and Frank tells Micro to shoot Pittsy through him. It's a wonderfully choreographed fight, and features the first of many “Name Character” deaths.

Ordinarily, a guy like Ink would stick around. He's certainly a minor character, but not the kind that usually die randomly in the middle of a firefight with another minor character. A touch of realism? Also, I find it interesting that he's killed by O'Brien, rather than Frank. If Ink is our Sin City type guy (the way he dies, for example, recalls the death of the guy with the swastika carved into his forehead from “The Big Fat Kill”), and carries with him the, uh, shall we say, unenlightened view of women's empowerment that Miller's comic brings along with it, what does having him killed by the strong, mannish woman of the book say? As ambitious as S.C. was, I doubt Bloom would say it's influential enough for inclusion in the comic's canon, and subsequent crime comics seem to have borne this out as true. This Punisher wouldn't exist without it, certainly, but it doesn't need to imitate it. Ennis has subverted the conservative and misogynistic into a liberal empowerment fantasy. O'Brien may be one messed up chick, and she's quite embarrassing in this arc, but she wears a suit and carries a gun, rather than a bondage geisha costume and swastika throwing stars. She'll make more sense once we get her back story later on in the series. Ennis may be Miller's literary son, but he's trying to shake off that anxiety as early as he can in this story.

Ink shows up again as one of Jigsaw's buddies in “Punisher: Titus Pullo and Newman Kill Jimmy McNulty,” but in this version he's a cokehead who looks a lot like the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, and has basically nothing in common with the comic character. It's a nice name check for him, Nicky (last named changed to Donatelli, and turned into an undercover FBI officer) and Pittsy (who is turned into The Godfather's Luca Brasi), though. Supposedly, Ray Stephenson read the entire MAX run before filming, and it certainly shows in his performance.

We then get to the meat and bones of this issue, so to speak: where does Bethell gets his funding from? A big CIA operation like that has to get money from somewhere, right? Turns out he wants access to Afghanistan's poppy fields, so he can sell heroin in the States. And he'd be using Frank to eliminate his rivals in the area, because there's no way he can continue his operations without that extra funding. Not that that makes it okay, of course, but it casts the top secret CIA/CTU/FBI/NSA task-force trope in a whole new light. Would we still think Stony Man was as great if we knew they were secretly dealing drugs to kill the terrorists? We come back again to Frank and his neighbor, paralleling Frank and Micro's situation here: he did something he knew was wrong, but he did it anyways and hoped it would work out. And just like with Bob Garrett, Frank offers Micro a chance. “Run.” he says. But Micro refuses, unwilling to let Frank fight on his own. Castle reminds him that doing so doesn't change anything, and, using Micro's tapped cell phone, lets both the mobsters and the CIA know where he's hiding, and issue six gives us the inevitable conclusion of three heavily armed groups of killers meeting with one another.

Issue Six starts us off with a well choreographed firefight. It's rare that you see actual tactics displayed in these types of comics, but both sides actually have a plan in mind. By sending wave after wave of guys after Frank, Nicky is able to sneak Pittsy in behind Frank's line of fire, hidden in the trunk of one of the cars. As usual, the cannon fodder provides no challenge at all for Castle. Pittsy disembowels Micro, then guns Frank down off the roof, and what ensues is one of the more bad ass fights in the run. No fancy martial arts, no full page spreads of guys executing impressive jump kicks, just two old guys beating the piss out of one another for page after page. Either you like this kind of thing or you don't.

Bethell meets an interesting end during this fight, also. The CIA types have been observing the Frank vs. Angry Mob fight, and Bethell is repeatedly told that they are not weapons-free by the helicopter crew. He disobeys orders, trying to pull rank, and opens up on the fray with the minigun, only to have his harness cut and his butt kicked out the chopper by the crew, where he falls to his death. “Homeland security,” they explain, echoing Bethell's earlier rank pulling in issue 5. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the traditional, well-trained soldier kills the hot headed movie archetype.

Pittsy and Frank keep smashing the tar out of one another, when we get an odd call back to Morrison's Arkham Asylum, of all things. Pittsy stabs Castle through the hand with a shard of broken glass, recalling that famous scene in the aforementioned book, the one that snaps Batman out of his scared and tired trance, and the same thing happens here with Frank, who uses it as an opportunity to chuck Pittsy out of the window, where he's impaled onto the sharp spikes of the fence below. Even then, though, this isn't enough to kill him, so Frank jumps off after him, landing feet first on Pittsy's chest, and driving him further onto the spikes. That old school mafia archetype is hard to put down, after all.

But after the baddest of the mobsters is taken care of, it's field day for Castle. Nicky makes his escape, at the expense of literally all his flunkies, and will reappear later in the series. But even after all this, Pittsy comes walking towards Frank, metal fence stuck through his chest and all. “You have gotta be fucking kidding me,” Castle says, shooting him in the face. “The next step's a reflex action. So's the next. Gotta be.” Because, well, let's face it, the mafia archetype isn't nearly so flash in the pan as the Sin City style crook was. There's going to be more books and films and comics about the mob. Even a character as strong as the Punisher isn't going to subvert and conquer that genre. But Larosa's drawing of what Pittsy's blown open face look like is suitably gross for Ennis' typical tastes.

And, at the end, we're back to Frank and Micro, alone in a dark room. Micro's dying from having been chopped open, and now it's Frank who gets to do the looming. Micro reexplains what he did before, about how Frank's using his family's death to do something awful, but this time it's not going to have any effect at all. He reinterprets Frank's story about Bob Garrett, asking if perhaps there was a time when Frank wasn't so sure about what he's doing, if there was a time when he might not have become the Punisher, and how if he's got a dead man listening to his confessions, well, that says it all, doesn't it? But Frank shuts him right down. “Now you're reaching. We both of us know what heroin does.” Telling choice of words there, isn't it? Ennis reiterates to us that this kind of analysis has no place in his work. Frank is a moral absolutist, and there's going to be none of this soul searching, put your character where he'd least like to be, character development. He's a serial killer who kills bad guys.

The arc closes with Frank shooting Micro in the face, the same way that Micro shot him back in issue 2, but this time Micro's head is clearly exploding in a shower of blood and brains from the blast. The captions which have been explaining to us the fates of each character for the past couple pages tell us “Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher. Whereabout unknown.” Almost the entire cast is dead.

Like most first seasons, this one is still finding it's feet. It has its high points (Pittsy and Ink), its embarrassing failures (O'Brien), and it sets up for the tone of the series pretty well. It's far from my favorite arc in the series, and honestly, you could skip it completely if you wanted. Nicky Cavella will show up in a later arc, as will Roth and O'Brien, but you wouldn't be Lost level lost if you skipped it or anything.

Next arc features a topic near and dear to Garth Ennis' heart, Northern Ireland and The Troubles. See you in a week for the first issue of “Kitchen Irish.”


Anonymous said...

I'm digging this series. Thanks, and keep it up.

-Dan S.

Anonymous said...

One thing worth noting: Micro had been the Punisher's sidekick for something like a decade. He'd been threatened and injured, but it was clear he was long-term supporting cast.

So by killing him off in the first arc, Ennis was making a very clean break with the past. "This is not your '80s Punisher! This is MAXX!!"

Doing it with a big, graphic, on-panel headshot: that's just rubbing it in. (And making sure nobody could bring him back, of course.)

So, if the first arc accomplishes nothing else, it draws a broad black line between itself and the earlier series. It's the Punisher, Jim, but not as we know him.

Mind, I didn't follow this series, so I don't know if Punisher got a *new* long-term supporting cast. If he did, then killing off the last survivor of the old long-term cast is less "dramatic daring break" and more "fuck you, I like mine better".

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

"I mean gay fellas do get beaten up, there are these fuckers going around doing it – an' here's this shite sayin' not to worry, there's a superhero on the way..."

Ennis is asking a really important question here.

Unfortunately, he doesn't put much effort into answering it. But that's Ennis for you.

Doug M.

James said...

Is he? I don't think he's questioning anything so much as saying "superheroes are useless" in his superhero satire.

dschonbe said...

@Doug M. - I don't think Ennis set up his own cast. A few characters recur through the MAX arc, but I don't think any persist past it.

I know Fraction setup a supporting cast in his Punisher War Journal series, but it's a Micro substitute and not Micro himself.

Graham said...

Sort of a funny thing with Micro. As soon as they relaunched a traditional continuity book, Matt Fraction brought a Micro style character back. Rick Remainder went one further in his Punisher book by bringing the actual Micro back from the dead, as an antagonist, as well as hooking him up with yet another Micro substitute. It seems writers are convinced that in order for Frank to exist in the "regular" Marvel universe, he needs someone to talk to.

We do get some reoccuring characters in the MAX run, most of whom die, but the only one who is in every story is Frank. He doesn't have a supporting cast in this book the way other characters do.

@Doug M., I have to disagree with you on the Boys. The rest of the arc handles quite nicely the answer to the question. The idea that I can't hate on a gay person because superheroes will beat me up is just as silly as saying that I shouldn't rob a bank because Superman will catch me. It can make for a nice story in the right hands, but it's far from an actual social deterant. The only thing that's going to stop violence and hatred is exposure to the Other, and attempts at personal understanding, which is the exact arc that Hughie goes through in that story. You'll get a lot further with respect than you will with fear.