Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Punisher MAX Book 3: Mother Russia (#13-18)

"Win some. Lose some, General" - Nick Fury

After two books setting Frank Castle up as the Impacable Man, utterly and single-mindedly dedicated to his never-ending and unwinnable mission of wiping out crime in New York, it's time to see a slightly softer side to him by placing the defence of a child in his hands.  In this book he goes on a secret military mission to Russia and involves the only Marvel character outside of The Punisher's continuity to appear in the series, Nick Fury.  People who are more familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be surprised to see this Nick Fury isn't Samuel L. Jackson.  But in the main 616 Marvelverse, Fury is a white guy (for now).  Garth Ennis also wrote a MAX imprint thirteen part series about Nick Fury called "My War Gone By" and I shall be covering in the not to distant future.  Whether that Nick is the same as the one who crops up here I'm not sure, they both know and use Frank Castle for special missions and have similar tastes in women, but the Nick Fury of "My War Gone By" was very much a man of our history and disillusioned and broken by it, while this Nick Fury is still very much wanting and jockeying for an active role in the defence of America as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. This storyline also introduces a two new antagonists who'll crop up later in the series as well.

The story begins with The Punisher sitting having a sandwich in a Russian bar. An old Russian man is expressing his disillusioned frustration with his country now being a nation of gangsters.  And also that he's just finished the last bottle of decent homegrown vodka in the place.  The barman says he's stupid for speaking out the way he is, but the old man retorts he was in Leningrad during WW2 and isn't easily intimidated.

The TV is showing the release of a gangster called Leon Rastovich, which is the source of the old man's ire.  The barman throws him out, but after he does so, Frank smashes the barman's head into the counter and tells him the old man - Alexandr  Baranovich Formichenko - is "protected".  Outside Alexandr is being hassled by Rastovich's men but Frank lures them into an alley and when he gets Rastovich's location out of them, kills them all.
How rude, Mr. Fury.
The story then cuts to Nick Fury being told he can't smoke his trademark cigars on the plane he is on.  He takes no notice of course.  He tells the other man on the flight that he's been tasked with a mission by the US government and he is planning to use The Punisher for it and he's getting his attention the best way he knows how, especially after the clusterfuck that took place when the C.I.A tried to recruit him with disastrous consequences as chronicled in book one of the series.

Leon Rastovich is staying at his mother's house. The Punisher is scoping him out, wondering how a man convicted of multiple counts of murder and child prostitution could qualify for early release.  At the trial he rolled on everyone involved in his operation but his mother who was suspected of supplying the children he used from a Kazakhstan orphanage.  Frank then gets to work assaulting the heavily guarded house with guns, grenades and an inventive use of a gas oven.  As he stands and watches the house burn, Nick Fury comes up to him.

Nick Fury: "Never enough is it?"

He then tells Frank he arranged for Rastovich to be released early and he did so because he needed to find Frank fast.  They go and talk in a bar and Fury says he wants Frank for a job, "high risk.  Just about impossible.  You fuck up, no one's ever heard of you".  To convince Frank to take it on he gives him a file with user names and passwords to every criminal database in the country.
Fury courts Frank
Frank wonders who Fury is working for. The Army and Airforce right now, but if this job works out, he's hoping to get S.H.I.E.L.D back under his control.  Fury leaves and Frank ponders the fact that Nick is the only man on earth whose word he'd trust right now.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, a US agent called Rawlins is reporting to someone over the phone that his cell of terrorists are ready to hijack a plane in a suicide bombing attempt. When he hangs up we see who he'd been talking to.  Some very high up military brass in the US.  Who say now that Nick Fury and the "animal" he's using have no choice but to succeed.

On a plane that makes a unscheduled diversion to drop Frank off at the edge of Russia, he thinks back to his debriefing by Fury.  He's shown a tape with footage of Chechen prisoners strapped to tables being exposed to a biological agent nicknamed "Barbarossa".  They instantly turn into skeletons, all their flesh and organs consumed at once. 
Barbarossa in action.
The tape, with much of his research on it was given to a US general by a Russian scientist called Evengy Stenkov.  He was offered a new life in the US if he defected and he made a run for it with the only sample.  He nearly made it, but the Russian government caught him, not before he had injected the last sample into his daughter Galina. Who is protected from its effects by the antidote she also carries.

The Russian's started interrogating Evengy but he foiled them by dying of a massive heart attack ten minutes in.  Now the Russians have Galina and her blood but without the research on the tape, they are just "groping in the dark."  The agent will stay active in Galina's blood for the next 48 hours then the antidote will break it down completely.  So Frank, and the Delta Force soldier Martin Vanheim going with him will be tasked with getting Galina and then getting to an extraction point as quickly as possible.

Back in the present, having successfully arrived in Russia undetected, Frank reflects how Vanheim annoys him.  He stands out too much, he's a "walking action figure."  Back with Fury, he's being scolded for telling Frank all the classfied information about the virus.  Fury simply says that Frank needed to know all the stakes, oh and it's not a "sample" it's a "six year old little girl".  He then leaves and one of the men says "I really hate him".  One of the others says smugly that Fury doesn't know everything about "Barbarossa" nor do they know about Rawlins.  Fury's problem is that he "doesn't know his place."
In Russia, Frank and Vanaheim are drinking in a bar closest to the missile silo Galina is being held in.  Frank says they've already been noticed so time for "Plan B.  Start a fight".  A bar room brawl ensues, and one man starts getting the upper hand on Frank until he hits him in the throat with a bottle of vodka.  As the fight merrily continues, he and Vanheim slip out.  They kill two Russian soldiers outside and disguise themselves with their clothes, then drive into the base using their truck. 

They quietly take out the inner checkpoint and finally reach the base proper. As they suit up Frank reflects "that's everything you need to know to break into a nuclear missile base."  Meanwhile Rawlins waves off his suicide bombers at the airport then changes into a western suit of clothes and mutters "give my regards to Moscow" as he gets on a plane bound for the US.

The next chapter begins with a clearly distressed Galina in a lab hearing gunshots.  She tearfully asks if someone is doing tests and the female scientist with her yells that she needs to shut up, "or we'll do tests and tests and tests on you for the rest of your fucking life!"  Well she's not very nice.  Fortunately she gets murderised in the next panel.  Frank looms over Galina in the doorway.

Frank: "Galina Stenkov.  Don't be afraid."

Poor Galina.
We get a brief page looking at the US military monitoring the situation as well as "Rawlins' operation"  Then we're back with Frank and Galina.  She weepily asks why everyone is being so mean to her.  Frank thinks about the last time he talked to a kid, it was her daughter as she was dying.  But he steps up anyway, he introduces himself and then says:

Frank: "If anyone else tries to be mean to you, I'll be much meaner to them I promise."

This seems to calm her down.  He unhooks her from the machines she is attached to, then tells her to shut her eyes and not to open them until he tells her too.  He then carries her through a hallway full of dead Russian soldiers.

He joins up with Vanheim and they take the lift down. The door opens on a room with some soldiers lounging by a tank.  "Fuck!" exclaims Vanheim and opens fire on them, their fire is returned and they are forced to close the lift door and travel back up.  Angrily Frank rounds on Vanheim saying they could have just walked past them and "watch your language in front of the kid."

We're now introduced to the Russian response to the shenanigans relating to Evengy's attempted escape with his daughter.  A man call Semyon snootily looks down on the "fat old slug" sent from Moscow.  His friend though is horrified when he realises it's Nikolai Zakharov, the infamous "Man Of Stone" who did terrible things during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.  And he's also bought "the Mongolian" with him.
By the end, I was pulling for the war criminal.
Zakharov immediately pins the blame on the Americans so it's obvious Evengy didn't even reveal who he was giving the bio-agent to before he died.  He also asks if anything else untoward has happened recently and is told about the bar fight and the two missing men.  Zakharov wants to interview witnesses to the fight, Semyon assures him nothing serious has happened since Evengy's capture and death, just then a soldier bursts him and shouts about a firefight at the silo.  "Fuck" says Semyon.

Frank, Vanaheim and Galina backtrack and Frank picks up some heavy ordinance.  Leaving Galina with Vanaheim he travels back down in the life and opens fire on the soldiers that have poured into the hangar with an anti-aircraft gun, which when used on humans turns them into "paint".  He finishes up by hurling aload of plastic explosive at the leftover men as the commanders call frantically for outside back-up.
I always learn something new about guns in a Garth Ennis story.
Zakharov questions one of the bar fighters and ascertains that the men who started it were white.  Meanwhile, Nick Fury in bed with three prostitutes (!) gets a call from the US military informing him of the firefight in the silo.  He is unconcerned and rolls over back to sleep, saying "HHH, Castle" as he does so.

Unable to use mass explosives to winkle Frank out without killing Galina too, the Russians send commandos down the lift shaft.  However Frank has rigged them with wires and explosives to surprise the first wave.  Vanaheim is trying to figure out a way to escape, he says maybe they should blow the whole area they are in up and hope the Russians don't notice two missing bodies.  That won't work because of Galina says Frank, find a better plan.  Then he goes back to the bottom of the shaft and fires at the soldiers as they keep sending men down.

Zakharov questions one of the survivors of the first firefight, who confirms that the man he saw (Frank) was white.  Semyon sneers that the American "theory" doesn't seem to be going away, and does it matter anyway?  Zakharov says that Islamic terrorists would have set off the nukes and blown them all sky high by now, but "these are men who want to live" and that the Americans are the most cunning enemies the Russians ever faced and shouldn't be underestimated.  Then he says his colleague, the Mongolian will be joining the next wave of attackers.
Onboard the flight to Moscow the terrorists hijack the plane and a passenger revolt is quickly quelled.  Back in the silo, Frank is still kill men as they descend, hope their stomach for a fight runs out before his ammo does.  One of the men he killed however had a special package with him, concealed in his backpack is the diminutive Mongolian.

Meanwhile the US military command has called Fury in to yell at him some more about what's going on in the silo.  He tells them to "act your fucking rank for a minute".  Frank and Vanaheim are totally deniable if the worst happens.  But the worst won't happen, Frank will get them all out and that's that.  And the next time they call him in, make sure it's important, "the women I like charge by the hour".  Oh Nick, you rogue.

The blood soaked Mongolian rushes Vanheim and kicks him in the face.  In a blur of movement he incapacitates but doesn't kill him.  Horrified Galina calls for Frank.  The US are monitoring Rawlin's pet terrorists, noting they are doing everything he told them to.  The Russian's in turn are readying their missile batteries.  The terrorists start preaching Jihad against the Russians over the radio and the man monitoring the Russians in the US says the commander of the nearest missile battery just got the order to fire.
Does Frank know kung fu? No.
Frank comes back to find Galina being threatened by the Mongolian, so he puts his guns down and prepares for mortal combat.  The Mongolian quickly beats him almost unconcious.  Zakharov says it's been seventeen minutes so the Mongolian should be done and he wants the prisoners sent to him.

Zakharov: "After all these years, the Cold War could be turning hot."

The Russians blow the hijacked airliner out of the sky before it can be crashed into Moscow.  Semyon and Zakharov are informed of this event and it's confirmed it was a Saudi airliner.  Zakharov is dubious about it being Al Qaeda, and Semyon finally snaps and says to his friend Grigori:

Semyon: "This legend of yours is now going to tell us how a gang of suicidal Arabs were actually Americans in disguise... That's what I call method fucking acting!"

Zakharov just calmly responds that Americans are inventive people who would go to such lengths "to throw us off the scent."  This is why he wanted Frank and Vanaheim alive.
Horrifying and kind of funny as well.
The pair are in bad shape.  Frank blearily thinks that he's failed Galina.  Then the Mongolian slaps her hard and knocks her down and Frank flashes back to the death of his daughter.  And like any good hero in a shonen anime this powers him back up and into battle again.  When the Mongolian tries to kick him again, he grabs his foot and swings him round smashing him repeatedly into the floor.

Frank: "I'm twisting his leg off like a drumstick when I realise I'm frightening the kid."

When it's over she runs to him and hugs his leg, which is pretty sweet.  Then we visit the US military command celebrating the airliner being shot down.  Fury then storms in.

Fury: "What the fuck did you assholes just do?"

Frank tools up and tells Galina she doesn't need to worry any more.  She picks up a pistol and asks if he wants her to help.  Frank takes it off her and says she must never play with guns.  He hides her under a desk and braces her with his and Vanaheims parachute packs, then tells her to cover her ears.  He then leaps out and shoots the shit out of the soldiers creeping up on their position.

Back with Fury, he is told that the airliner was part of an attempt to deflect blame over the recovery of the girl.  After 9/11 they got the idea of covertly raising and funding a cell of Muslim extremists who they could use to take out targets in friendly countries.  They had a deep cover operative in place, after that it was a matter of picking the flight and setting things in motion.
Fury makes his feelings clear.
Fury coldly asks whose idea it was, and everyone looks at one of the generals.  Fury takes off his belt and beats the man over and over, saying it was pretty harsh on all the passengers in the airliner, and also that anyone looking too hard could probably see something was up, and if Castle doesn't get out of the silo, they could be in huge trouble and he is "all out of ideas".

Frank returns to find Vanaheim trying to inject something in a struggling Galina.  Castle smashes his head into the wall as Vanheim stammers he has "orders".

Frank: "Tell me!"

Vanheim: "Secondary protocol.  Kill the kid and bring her blood out."

One syringe contains a stabiliser for the retrovirus, but has the side effect of killing her.  It was thought that it would be easier for them to get out with a vial of blood than with a child.  Fury didn't know, it was why the Generals were so insistent he come along with Frank.

Frank gives him hard stare as he comments that Delta Force are the "best of the best".  Vanheim has the decency to look ashamed.  Frank decides he still needs him and tells him to fire up the nukes and change the targets to all major Russian cities.  Frank then dictates terms: The Russian military withdraw from the base and allow them safe passage to the mountains with no surveillance or "I will burn Russia and its people from the face of the Earth."
Time to leave.
The US are also monitoring events and start yelling at Fury, again.  "All of you shut the fuck up" says Fury.  Thanks Nick.  Meanwhile, Frank, Galina and Vanaheim make prepare their getaway from the silo.  The missiles are set to do their thing in twelve minutes.  Frank says he's trying the one thing no has yet:

Frank: "I'm gambling that the Russians aren't stupid."

Semyon is also losing his shit by this point as the missile countdown continues.  He pleads with Zakharov to agree to the "terrorist's" demands.  Zaharov refuses, and tells him to wait.  The missile launches aimed at Moscow, and Fury suddenly realises what Frank's plan is.  Zakharov tells Semyon the Americans ARE behind it, but if he tells Moscow this it will mean the end of the world, "so we do nothing."

Semyon screams at him, saying that Arab terrorists have fired a nuke at Moscow and he is damn well going to tell them.  Zakharov shoots him in the face before he can use the phone.  Then the person monitoring the missile says it cut out at eight thousand feet high, the warhead deactivated and it's just a "harmless steel tube now".  It'll come down about ten miles away. 

Zakharov: "Our opponent is a man of extremes.  But he is not the type to murder millions.  No more than I am in the end... That was no American.  It was a Russian born in there by mistake."

And the final part of Frank's plan is revealed, out of the missile parachute Frank with Galina strapped to his chest and Vanaheim.  They make it to the ground safely but Vanaheim lost his pack in the descent and they only have one coat between them.  They draw straws for who gets it, and Frank gets to take a wrapped up Galina to the Navy SEAL drop point ten miles away and Vanaheim gets to freeze to death.  Shame.
An inventive getaway.
Nick Fury greets Frank and Galina as they arrive in the US a couple of days later.  Then the yelling starts again.  Seems Frank stood guard over Galina the whole journey and refused to let anyone take her blood and now the retrovirus is destroyed.  Fury asks if this is true.  "Promised I wouldn't let anyone hurt her" says Frank.  Fair enough shrugs Fury.  When the raging asshole General orders Frank arrested, Fury stares the soldiers down and they refuse. As the General shrieks at them for disobeying orders, Fury, Frank and Galina walk away.

Frank: "Doesn't seem to bother you much the virus being destroyed.  'Matter of fact, a suspicious man might think you set the whole thing up just to pull Galina out of that hole."

Fury says he might think so too, seeing as he sent the one man he could think of who would never, ever hurt a kid.  He would have gone but he was supposed to be keeping an eye on the Generals, "not that I did a good job of it."  Also they'll have changed the passwords he promised Frank, so "nobody wins".  Frank doesn't seem too bothered.

He tells Galina to go with Nick and that he'll make sure no one hurts her.  She wants to stay with Frank and begs him not to leave her.  Frank regards her sadly:

Frank: "I can't Galina.  I can't look after anyone."
Ennis plays my heartstrings like a banjo.
And she tearfully parts from him after promising never to play with guns.  Frank sleeps the trip off then winds up back in the Russian bar he was in at the start of the book.  And what do you know?  He still has the bottle of the good vodka that saved his life in the bar fight.  He hands it to the bartender who pours some out for the grumpy Russian man.  Who is made very happy by this, "maybe there is hope for the Motherland after all".

And there it ends.  It does feel more like we are seeing Frank Castle, soldier rather than Frank Castle "The Punisher" in this book.  Even if he does rack up the same almost ludicrous body count as the story progresses,  it's still a compelling read and it's fascinating how Nick Fury and Zakharov, both creatures of the Cold War, are contrasted with the more modern (and somewhat squalid) Commanders of the War On Terror.  Putting Frank in charge of the safety of a child provides the first "humanising" glances into his soul we have been given since the series began, and he also makes an interesting contrast with the younger man "just following orders" and willing to kill a child for the sake of his military generals.  I've haven't mentioned much about the art by Dougie Braithwaite because it keeps to the muted, "realistic" look of the two previous volumes, and is someone hamstrung by the tyranny of the widescreen panel fad that plagued comics in the first half of the noughties. Luckily the script more than makes up for this and in the context of the series as a whole it's it goes on to have huge ramifications and the awesome depiction of Nick Fury and seeing the softer side of Frank means it's well worth a look.


  1. proof you don't need samuel l. jackson to make nick fury cool, you just need him to be written by garth ennis!

  2. OK that's a really good point I wish I'd made. Damn. Although I like Samuel L Jackson Nick Fury too, goodness knows both Marvel and DC badly need the increased diversity such "race lifts" bring.

    Also G, for some reason blogger stuck your comment in the spam folder. That has never happened before, so just letting you know in future if you make a comment and it disappears it maybe there and in need of rescuing, so don't panic :)

  3. *waves Samuel L Jackson flag* He's 'my' Nick Fury because I was introduced to Marvel through the cinematic universe, which is 100000 times better than DC's films, and damn is he cool. And I bet Jackson's Nick Fury wouldn't be all like, "I don't care if you get lung cancer, I wanna smoke mah cigar!"

    The Punisher lives in the same universe as Thor and the Hulk, so why would he think that the footage of Barbarossa was faked?

    I'm pretty sure it's harder to break into a nuclear missile base than that. I have fingerprint recognition on my mobile phone, for Pete's sake. And that's just an expensive Facebook machine, not a city-killer.

    "He looks like he's been eating one or two pies of stone!" I absolutely love this line :-D

    Poor old Frank. He seems more human now. And yes, all that 'war on terror' stuff is messed up.

  4. I like both Nick Fury's. I'm unsure if Punisher MAX takes place in the "real" MCU, SHIELD is the only think apart from Fury himself mentioned from it. As Ennis was also writing a Marvel Knights version of Frank who happily mixed with the supes, I think this is an alternate hero-free earth.

    Worryingly I read once that Russia lost quite a lot of nukes after the USSR fractured, so it could concievably be that easy to break into a base, especially when you don't believe what you're guarding will ever be used.

    Even Russian generals can snark, though by the end he sort of deserved being shot in the face.

    Kids seem to bring out the "best" in Frank, we'll be seeing more of that side of him much later in the series and boy is it devastating stuff.