Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Punisher MAX Book 1: In The Beginning (#1-6)

"Then on your own head be it.  Here they come" - Frank Castle

I can hear the groan of one of my very good friends already as I bring you the first volume in yet another Garth Ennis series.  However I won't be looking at them in one unbroken run for two reasons, firstly some volumes are out of print and I can't find volumes 5 and 6 at a reasonable price anywhere.  Secondly this is by far the darkest, most heart-wrenching, intense piece of work Ennis has ever produced, while it has the swearing, violence and sexuality of The Boys, it is almost completely devoid of humour and artistically it leans heavily on the greys and blacks with colour very washed out, which it manages to keep through the whole sixty issue run despite different artists coming aboard.  The Punisher really is the perfect character for Ennis to take on, an ex-soldier with a tragic past, it's very likely he modelled aspects of Billy Butcher on him.  Ennis did a well respected run on The Punisher in the main Marvel Universe, but the Marvel Max imprint was designed for out-of-continuity and mature takes on various characters and The Punisher being given the full free-range Ennis treatment results in some powerful material.  So I am sprinkling my looks at the series through the rest of the year so I don't depress the hell out of myself.

The series ran between 2004 and 2008, and the comic was set during those years as well.  Interestingly Ennis decided to keep Frank Castle's war as Vietnam and the death of his family in the mid 70's.  Thus the Frank we see in this series is a much older man than he has usually been depicted, but he's still a frighteningly efficient killing machine mainly because he's been doing it for so long.  The plot running through the sixty issues has been designed so that each volume can be read independently of the others.  Events in early books have knock on events in later ones and characters do reappear, but enough recapping is provided to allow you to dip in and out, which makes missing two volumes a little easier to bear.
The tragedy that made The Punisher.
It begins with a horrifying flashback to the deaths of his wife, son and daughter in 1976.  They were picnicking with Frank in Central Park and got caught in the crossfire between two mafia gangs.  Frank was only injured, but on that day his soul died and he became a man driven to wipe out every criminal he tangles with.  Living off the grid for thirty years, racking up a body count of thousands, yet he doesn't even enjoy it, he doesn't seem to have any emotions, he is almost dead inside, but everyday "I go out and make the world sane".

He leaves the graveside of his family and heads to a huge mafia gathering attending the 100th birthday celebrations of their boss Don Massimo Cesare.  He is also being watched by a couple in a car.  The man is called Roth, the woman O'Brien, who wonders if the Punisher has a big dick and if she'll get a chance to have sex with him.

The Punisher walks into the party through the open French windows and blows Don Massimo's head off with a pistol shot.  He then walks back outside and as the mafia start pouring out, he lets rip with an M60 assault rifle, mowing down man after man.  As he kills he thinks:

Frank: "...only now, putting automatic fire into a human wall, do I feel something like peace".
Frank taking on the mafia.
O'Brien and Roth are in a penhouse swuite along with their boss, a man called Bethel.  They are all with the CIA and Homeland Security.  He is watching the events unfold via a remote NASA supplied camera.  He says The Punisher is "more than we could possibly have hoped for".  Bethel then goes into a backroom and talks with a bearded man called Microchip.  The are planning to capture Frank and Microchip says:

Micro: "I know how he operates, I know his routine insamuch as he has one.  I can take him.  When the time comes I can down like a rabid dog.  I'm his only friend in the world"

The story jumps forward in time to a funeral of one of the mafia Frank gunned down.  They lament how many more they'll have to attend.  A group of them start to discuss doing something about The Punisher, but are consumed in an explosion courtesy of The Punisher and a rocket launcher.
Roth, Micro and Roth's balls.
The action cuts back to the CIA/Homeland Security, still watching Frank.  Roth sneers at Micro for not capturing The Punisher yet, saying he thinks he's afraid.  Micro grabs Roth's balls and says calmly to him that he worked with The Punisher for ten years while he racked up over eight-hundred kills.  Micro supplied him with guns and targets:

Micro: "I turned a lone gunman into a machine that runs at optimum efficiency.  Because of me what he does can be defined as war...you're Godamn right I'm scared."

He lets go, and a chastened Roth sits down.  "You get a boner?" snarks O'Brien.  I like her!  Then after an interlude where The Punisher gets the word on the street from a working girl, we join four mafia in a cafe.  One is a local called Larry.  The other three are Nicky and his sidekicks Ink and Pittsy. 

They have been called back to New York to help with the leadership troubles they are having. Nicky mentions that they have been in exile for fifteen years (and we'll find out why in Book Four), but now they are back the first order of business is to kill The Punisher, then they'll "have a talk about who runs what."

Back with The Punisher and after cleaning his guns in his hideout he heads out to dispense some street justice.  But the CIA are waiting in a car outside.  Micro steps out and calls Frank.  Before Frank can draw his gun, Micro downs him with several blasts from a shotgun.
Micro takes down Frank.
We then return to Larry, talking with the hospitalised boss who is incensed that Nicky Cavella has been bought back.  He wants him gone.  Outside his hospital room Nicky is watching a news report of an old man being interviewed about witnessing what he thought was the arrest of The Punisher.  Nicky doen't buy it, "not for a second."

We then rejoin Frank.  he has been chained securely to a chair in the back of the penthouse suite.  Micro only stunned him with rubber bullets to knock him out long enough to be restrained.  Out in the main room Bethel is watching the same news report and says "something may need to be done."  Roth says they aren't going to kill the old man are they, Bethel says no, and sends Roth to go have a word with the man.

In the backroom, Micro lays photos of Franks dead family in front of him.  Micro says if he can't get Frank to cooperate, Frank will be killed.  Back with Nicky and his group, Larry says he heard from the cops that they were told to keep clear of where Frank was going to be captured by Homeland Security.  He wonders what the government want with The Punisher.  He then asks why Ink is called Ink.  It's because he killed a man with a pen.  "you don't wanna know about Pittsy" comments Nicky.
Frank looks a bit like Clint Eastwood here.
Back with Micro and Frank, a silent Frank sits and listens to Micro talk.  Micro says he worked with The Punisher all those years because of the randomness of the evil that claimed his son.  He then flatly states:

Micro: "You kill because you like it Frank."

He says he thinks Frank got a taste for it in Vietnam (this is most likely a reference to The Punisher BORN miniseries which is also ridiculously expensive so I don't have it).  Micro says a "darkness" reached out to Frank, "and I believe you told it yes."  When the death of his family drove him over the edge he now uses them as "an excuse for something dreadful."  Finally Frank speaks.  He tells Micro to put the photos away or he will kill him.

We then return to Roth who is at the apartment of the old man in the news report.  Before he can say anything, unfortunately for him Nicky and the boys had the same idea.  The grab Roth, take him to their car where they will have a nice ride around the block and he'll tell them where The Punisher is.
Nicky, Pittsy and Ink grab Roth.
With Roth running late and unreachable by phone, Bethel sends O'Brien to chase him up at the old mans flat.  Meanwhile Micro says to Frank that he is offering him a way to "leave The Punisher behind forever."  Micro asks if he would like to hunt Bin Laden.  Instead of going after small fry he'd go after the real monsters.

Micro: "Go out into the world and get them Frank.  Do it for your country, for civilisation itself.  With the full support of your government."

Frank doesn't reply.  Back with Nicky's group they don't have Roth anymore but they do have The Punisher's location and they have his keycard to the building.  They are coming for Frank.  Larry is nauseous about what was done to Roth and has to stop the car and puke.

Micro tells Frank that Bethel is CIA, he lacks funding for his operations hence needing someone like Frank.  He would be given weapons and a target, no red tape.  They'll release a report of his death via the NYPD and Micro will even act as his backup again if he wants.

Frank: "Yeah or fuck you?"

Micro: "Yeah"

Frank: "Fuck you."

Downstairs Nicky's group have entered the building.  Frank tells Micro he won't "go back to war so Colt can sell another milion M-16s".  When Micro protests, Frank says sixty thousand names on a memorial wouldn't say different.  Micro pleads with Frank that Bethel will kill him if he doesn't agree to work with them.  Frank is immovable.
O'Brien, Roth and Roth's balls.
O'Brien is talking to the old man who tells her about Roth being abducted in front of him.  Suddenly Roth appears holding his bloody groin with one hand, and his balls in a paper cup with the other.  O'Brien takes him to the hospital, and warns Bethel that Nicky's group are on their way.  The soldiers enter the lift, but Ink has climbed up inside and cut the cables and they plummet to their deaths.

Frank tells Micro a story about how, just after tragedy struck a neighbour came to talk with him.  The man had dumped his wife for another woman and this enrages Frank that he should leave his wife on a whim and he tells the man to "run".  When the man didn't, he threw him through the window and beat him badly on the lawn outside.  He then switches topics and asks where Bethel gets his funding from.  Before Micro can answer, Nicky and friends burst into the main penthouse room, shoot Bethel in the legs and then enter the backroom that Frank and Micro are in.

Micro is shot in the chest, Nicky walks in and holds a pistol to Frank's head.  Suddenly Frank lunges forward and bites Nicky's fingers hard and he recoils back into the main room.  O'Brien then enters the room and lets rip with a machine gun and fills Ink full of lead.  Micro tosses Frank the keys to his chains and Frank gets free.  Frank then grabs Nicky and rams him head first into Pittsy's head.
Even chained up Frank is lethal.
There is a general melee of bullets and Frank and Micro make a getaway.  As do Nicky, Pittsy and Larry.  O'Brien is shot and left lying on the floor in a pool of blood.  Micro directs Frank to a lock-up.  His vest stopped all but one bullet so he has sustained an injury.  Micro decides to come clean about Bethel's operations.  Bethel himself is being fixed up in the penthouse.  He refuses to go to the hospital as he wants to avenge himself against Frank.  O'Brien is taken away on a stretcher saying she quits.  Bethel says that means she will go back to prison.  She doesn't care.

They track Micro's location thanks to a GPS chip they put in his cellphone.  Bethel orders up a gunship to go after Frank.  Micro tells Frank that Bethel funds his operations by smuggling heroin from Afghanistan.  It is packed in with the bodies of dead soldiers, then distributed to corrupt police stations across the US who sell the drug onto street gangs.

Micro says that Frank takes money from the mobsters he kills.  But Frank says it's different, and that Micro has joined the enemy.  Micro wants to know why Frank told him the story of the man he beat for leaving his wife.  Frank says the important part of it was that he warned the man first.
A bit hypocritical Frankie boy.
Frank asks for Micro's cellphone and calls Nicky up telling him where he is located and to come and get him.  Then he shows Micro the chip in the phone, Micro is shocked.  Then Frank turns to him and says:

Frank: "Run".

But Micro refuses even though it means certain death at Frank's hands later, and he will back Frank up in the coming battle.

The mafia converge on his location, while the Homeland Security helicopter Bethel has procured takes off to the location too.  Bethel says the cops must not interfere and just establish a perimetre.  Larry and Nicky watch from the roof of a nearby building as the Punisher fires down from the top of a building into the mafia cars that try and rush his location.  One car has Pittsy in the boot, and he gets out and stabs Micro who was guarding the floor below Frank.

Pittsy fires up at Frank and the blast knocks Frank down through the hatch.  Nicky and Larry say that's the sound of Pittsy's shotgun and they can walk down now.  Then the Homeland Security helicopter whooshes over their heads,  Bethel tells them to open fire, when they say they don't have authorisation, he grabs the mounted gun and lays into the mafia himself.
Frank versus Pittsy.
Pittsy and Frank have an absolutely brutal hand-to-hand fight.  It's bloody and protracted and makes your typical superhero fight look like ballet in comparison.  Frank is pushed to the very edge and sensing this, Pittsy picks up some glass to finish him off with.  Meanwhile, Homeland Security tells the soldiers over the radio to deal with Bethel which they do, they push him out of the helicopter and naff off.

Frank manages to summon some more resources and charges Pitssy, knocking him through the window where he ends up impaled on the railings below.  Frank jumps down and stamps on Pittsy who is still alive pushing him further down onto the spikes.  He grabs a shotgun and starts laying into the mafia again. 

Nicky forces Larry to make a run at Frank so he can escape.  Frank blasts Larry and has Nicky in his sights, but then behind him staggers Pittsy, with railings still stuck in him.  Frank blasts his face off and Pittsy finally dies.  Nicky commendeers a cop car and makes his getaway, while Frank walks past a dying Bethel back to Micro.

Micro tries to talk his way out of what he knows his going to happen.  But all Frank says is that when he told him to "run", he should have.  "You really going to beg?" he asks Micro, who falls silent.  And Frank blows his head off, The End.
Frank finally shuts Micro up.
This is heady stuff, a vicious introduction to what would be the reality of Frank Castle's world rather than the more neutered anti-hero Frank of the main Marvel Universe.  He is cold and uncompromising and the art by Lewis Larosa and Tom Palmer makes him look like he's been carved out of stone in places, and the bleak and moody look suits the story perfectly.  The opening massacre of most of the East Coast mafia will have repercussions all the way through the series both as other gangs scramble to fill the hole and as the mafia try and regroup and restablish themselves.  Nicky Cavella and the CIA agents Roth and O'Brien will appear again in later volumes which flesh them out some more, and in some volumes The Punisher barely appears as we find out more about the cesspit of a world he is futilely trying to clean up, although is prescence is always being felt.  However this first volume is all about him and his neverending war, a man beyond pity, beyond forgiveness, beyond the pleasurable experiences in life.  All that is left to him is the mission, and further volumes will explore that mission and how it affects the world around him. This remains a bold introduction to a new take on Frank Castle, and I'll be covering the second volume next month.


  1. ow, that balls-in-a-cup bit made me wince! I never knew this existed, but I have read garth ennis's normal marvel Punishers, especially "welcome back frank" which got rid of the stupid angel punisher stuff.

  2. I haven't read "Welcome Back Frank" yet, it's on my list to buy though! Angel Punisher... I don't know what they were thinking with that one :)

  3. I say, that was fairly awful. And if he's killed 30 people there's no way he's off the grid. And i'm not sure you can make the world a better place one corpse at a time. Micro's right. He just likes killing. I mean, it's all so ghastly.

  4. No you can't make the world a better place that way, and this series will show that getting rid of one lot of criminals leads to more and worse taking their place. That's what's so sad about Frank, he almost runs on autopilot now. It takes something extreme to even make him feel hate after all the years he's been doing it.