Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Punisher MAX Book 4: Up Is Down And Black Is White (#19-24)

TRIGGER WARNING:  Holy shit, I don't usually bother with
trigger warnings but I think I'll make an exception this time. Older female on male child abuse and incest.  Ick.

"You made it personal Cavella.  But all that buys you is a little more pain than most" - Frank Castle

This fourth book in Garth Ennis's acclaimed Marvel MAX "mature readers only" imprint run of The Punisher is probably the darkest in the whole run.  It doesn't reach the emotional heights of later volumes, but the sheer depravity of the main villain and the fucked up things he and the Punisher get up to in their conflict with each other probably makes it the most hardcore of the run (except perhaps for volume 6 but I don't have that one).  This volume sees four returning characters and provides the crossover point between the ongoing mafia plotline and the ongoing CIA/US military one.  Coming back are the vile mobster Nicky Cavella from volume one who survived Frank's all out assault on the New York Mafia. The ex-CIA agents Roth and O'Brien also from volume one who were involved in a CIA backed plot to use the Punisher as an assassin abroad. And finally the despicable CIA operative Rawlins from volume three who masterminded a US military backed hijacking of an aeroplane by a group of Islamic terrorists he had groomed while in deep cover in Saudi Arabia.  All collide in a tale of past and present horrors that sees The Punisher driven to the edge of sanity while also containing some surprising alliances. Events take place in this volume that will have reverberations right up to the final page of the final volume in the series. Let us continue.
Frank's family
It begins at the grave of Frank's murdered wife and children.  Nicky and his female bodyguard Tessie (sister of Inky from book one) are digging up the remains.  "I know how to get you, you son of a bitch.  I finally figured it out" says Nicky as they work.  The action then moves to ex-CIA agent O'Brien, currently incarcerated in a women's prison for reasons that are never elaborated upon.  Some inmates try to attack her but she takes them down easily.

Then we check in on current CIA agent Rawlins who is meeting with the Generals from book three and who still want to use him.  They admit to having "a bit of fallout" from the hijacking operation and Rawlins realises they want him to deal with the "loose end" of the Punisher's involvement.  The Punisher, meanwhile, is taking down a load of gang members involved in a dope deal who were trying to fill the void left by Frank taking out most of the East Coast Mafia in book one.

Talking of the mafia, Nicky Cavella meets with what's left of them and offers them a deal:

Nicky: "I'll teach you what you need to know an' the shit you gotta do to put this thing a' ours on top again.  The price is you make me boss".

They are resistant to this idea, especially if it puts them in the Punisher's line of fire but he tells them to go away and watch the six o'clock news that night then think of giving him a call.

Back with O'Brien, the inmates who attacked her earlier come back and in the struggle leave a bloodied shiv in her hand.  She looks out of her cell and sees a stabbed to death guard and realises she is being set up.
Nicky defiles the grave.
The news that night leads on a video of Franks family's remains dug up and being urinated on by Nicky.  Watching in a bar, someone says "that guy is going to go fuckin' berserk".  And the chapter ends with a coldly and calmly furious Frank also in the bar watching the footage unfold.

The next chapter focuses on Nicky Cavella's history.  It flashes back to his father being walked into the woods at gun point by an eight year old Nicky, who has also just killed his mother and twelve year old sister.  He shoots his father with glee and the action returns to the present day.  The remaining Mafia bosses are discussing his offer in another room.  One is resistant saying Nicky is a psycho, Tessie offers to kill him.  "Not yet" says Nicky.

Back in the past, there are mafia goons at the scene of the massacre and Nicky's auntie Mo turns up.  Nicky says it was her brother who did the killing, so Mo authorises the mafia people to go and kill him.  When she and Nicky are alone she congratulates him for carrying out her plan to the letter, and that they'll both get what's coming to them.  Now she is the boss of the family she allows Nicky to sit in on meetings to train him up.

The action then jumps forwards a few years and Mo and Nicky are having sex.  I'm not sure how old Nicky is here, but he looks like he is in his mid-teens at most, plus it's fucking incest!  However this is proving a little too much for Nicky and we get a panel showing tears in his eyes and a look of horror and distress on his face at what is happening to him.
Kudos to artist Leandro Fernandez for his rendition of this upsetting panel.
It's a fascinating choice this panel.  Nicky was irrevocably broken before this abuse happened, but it's typical of Ennis to find a way to humanise the monster if only for a short time because no matter what he does, you can't help being haunted by the image of a teary eyed boy being raped by a female relative.  Well played Ennis.  Then Mo takes him downstairs to kill a man who owes the family money as a birthday treat.

In the present, one of the mafia bosses comes out to use the toilet and tells Nicky he'll never agree to him becoming boss, so Tessie murders him while he is using the facilities.  Returning to the past, we see Mo and Nicky in bed together again, he's older now and just been "Made" (ie: become a full member of the mafia).  Now he doesn't need her anymore he suffocates her.

Then we get to see him in action as a mobster.  He is meeting with a Chinatown gang boss called Kai who is eating while they talk.  Kai says he has three strong sons and a bloodline that goes back thousands of years, to him the Italians are peasants and that they need to keep "the fuck out of my affairs".

"Two strong sons" says Nicky calmly.  Turns out he and Inky and Pittsy killed Kai's youngest boy and turned him into the food Kai is eating.  Then suddenly Nicky shoots Kai's other two sons.  But doing this gets him in trouble with the higher ups in the mafia who says there'll be a war now and Nicky needs to leave town for a while to allow things to blow over, much to his annoyance.
Negociation, Cavella style.
Back in the present, Tessie tells Nicky that the rest of the mafia bosses have accepted his deal and will make him boss.  Nicky tells her to tell them to leave for now and when he is alone, he looks out over the city and bids a hearty "fuck you" to everyone in his past so far.

Frank gets suited and tooled up ready for a night out.  O'Brien meanwhile has escaped from prison and arrives at fellow ex-agent Roth's flat.  He tells her after the events of book one (where he had his testicles cut off) he was pensioned out.  She found out where he lived because he put his address on the letter he sent asking her where his balls were.

Roth: "I...I went a bit funny for a while.  I was sending those letters to everyone.  I even took out ads in the papers."

O'Brien asks him to set her up with a new identity then sees the front page of the newspaper reporting on the defilement of Frank's family's remains.
A bad thing is about to happen.
At a nightclub, Frank bursts in on where a load of criminals are meeting and gets ready to start shooting.  Back with Roth and O'Brien she is disgusted by the constant repeated coverage of the video of Nicky pissing on the remains, "there are somethings that ought to be sacred" she says.  Roth searches the CIA database and tells her that her ex-husband is in town, who turns out to be Rawlins.  She immediately asks Roth if he can get her a gun.

In the nightclub the police are contemplating a scene of utter carnage.  They find one man, badly injured but still alive with a message from the Punisher, "he said you have to bury his family" the man gasps out.  Then one of the police gets a call that the Punisher has done it again.  In total Frank kills sixty-eight people that night, one left alive at each scene to deliver the same message.

The police give out a statement that the remains are being held as evidence and they won't give in to violent intimidation.  Nicky watches the news with satisfaction saying the Punisher wants things right with his family before he comes after them.  Then someone comes to see him, turns out to be Rawlins.

Rawlins: "Been a long time Nicky.  Almost as long as my goddamn dick.  You miss me?"

We see Frank carrying out one of the massacres.  As he does so he thinks about a dream he has, where after killing all the criminals he turns his gun on the watching innocents, "if my world ends, I tell them, so does yours".  Then he wakes up and tells himself it's just a dream... just a dream.
Frank's total destruction dream
Lost in his fantasy we see him sitting amongst a scene of total devastation.  Then he sees his family, "Frank. We're still dead" says his wife and he wakes with a start.

Frank: "Never known anger like this before.  Not raging.  Not even burning.  Just colder and colder by the minute.  Building inexorably.  Towards something that has to be."

Rawlins and Nicky are arguing.  Rawlins says Nicky hasn't got the men with the ability to finally kill off the Punisher for good.  But if Nicky acts as bait, Rawlins will take him out, "real simple".  They know each other from the past when Nicky moved the drugs Rawlins was bringing back from various warzones. He then slithers down Nicky's body and starts giving him a blow job.
Negociation, Rawlin's style.
O'Brien is watching through the binoculars with disgust.  She tells Roth that on her and Rawlin's honeymoon he kicked her out of a damaged helicopter over Kabul to save a cargo of heroin.

O'Brien: "Then the mujahs got me."

Roth: "What happened..?"

O'Brien: "What the fuck do you think happened?"

She returns to scoping out Nicky's crew, while Roth says quietly "I never knew."  She shrugs it off, but unlike an Alan Moore rape victim she isn't done with it yet, she just has more urgent things to do right now which is figure out what her ex-husband is up to. Then we cut to a meeting of the important figures running the city arguing about what to do about the Punisher.  After some impassioned debate they decide to bury his family's remains and hope that he and Nicky take each other out when the Punisher seeks his revenge.

Back with Nicky and Rawlins, Rawlins tells him that Tessie is in love with Nicky who is disbelieving.  Nicky then tells Rawlins to show him some respect in front of his men.  Rawlins responds by twisting Nicky's arm up behind his back and saying that if anything happens to him a "home movie" he shot of Nicky confessing his past (killing his family, being abused by his aunt etc) in his sleep while they were staying in a hotel together will do the rounds.
Frank walks into a killzone.
The announcement is made that Frank's family will be reburied.  With that sorted, Frank sets his sights on Nicky.  He knows he is walking into a death trap but the rage propels him onwards.  Rawlins tells Nicky to sit out in the open, because he made it personal and The Punisher is going to want to look him in the eye before killing him.  Rawlins will snipe him from an opposite building when he walks up to him.

Frank drives on thinking he can feel the crosshairs on him but the rage says go forwards, Rawlins has him in his sights but doesn't hear O'Brien coming up behind him.  Before Frank can kill Nicky the sniper bullet hits Nicky instead, O'Brien has Rawlins' gun and starts laying down covering fire yelling at Frank to "get the fuck out of there!"
Frank takes a blast to the chest and gets a wake-up call.
Tessie fires a shotgun into Frank's chest which his vest absorbs but which knocks him down flat unable to move.  After firing a few more rounds, O'Brien tosses an unconcious Rawlins into a dumpster and climbs down before wrestling him into the boot of Roth's car.  Frank is still lying on the ground trying to move and emboldened the mobsters start to come out to get him, O'Brien runs the first one down and Frank is able to heave himself into the car.  They make their getaway.

O'Brien introduces herself and Roth, saying anyone her ex-husband wants to kill "can't be all bad."  Frank feels like he's finally thinking clearly and recognises her from the clusterfuck in book one.  O'Brien assures him that she and Roth are ex-company now and if he doesn't believe them he can get out the car.

Nicky meanwhile isn't dead.  The bullet went through his vest and penetrated him but only just.  He and Tessie follow O'Brien and wait outside Roth's place to figure out what to do next.  Inside they have Rawlin's tied up because O'Brien thinks he might be useful still.  She wants to pump him for information or Frank gets a turn with him, Rawlins sneers he's been tortured by pros and they won't break him.  O'Brien leaves him with Frank.
Rawlins is such a shit.
In Nicky's car, Tessie says to Nicky they could "do it right here and now".  But he misunderstands and thinks she is talking about killing Frank.  Rawlins of course squeals after a session with the Punisher and tells them he's cleaning up a loose end from the Russian job.  Roth suggests they get him confessing on tape for potential blackmail purposes.  He goes out to buy more booze and O'Brien tends to the bullet wound in Frank's arm.

O'Brien: "I've been in prison for eighteen months, when we get through here you wanna jump in the sack?"

Frank: "Sure."

In Nicky's car, Tessie can't hold back any longer and tries to kiss him.  "Get your hands off me you fuckin' pig!"
Yells Nicky at her.  We return to Frank and O'Brien lying in bed having a post-coital chat.  She says she decided to help him when she saw Rawlins was involved and because of what Nicky did to his family's remains.
A rare moment of calm.
She says The Punisher shouldn't have ended his career walking into a trap.  She admits her love for broken bad boys and they start to make love again (interestingly there is a heavy implication here that she's the CIA agent from the final arc of DC's Hitman series, a nice little easter egg for Ennis fans).

In Nicky's car he is on the phone to his boys but they are too scared to come and help him. In a rage he leaves Tessie to watch Roth's flat and goes to talk to them in person.  But she breaks into the flat and looms over the now sleeping Frank and O'Brien.  She stabs Frank in the shoulder and punches O'Brien hard in the face.  A brief, but bloody struggle ensues which ends when O'Brien gets her hands on a machine gun and empties the clip into Tessie.  "Well I'm awake" she says.
Attack of the Tessie.
Meanwhile things aren't going well for Nicky in his meeting with the rest of the mafia.  One of them chews him out for his plan getting five of his men killed and that they are fed up with people like Nicky using them.  He appeals to their sense of loyalty, but:

Mafia Goon: "Funny thing about that shit, Cavella.  Omerta an' loyalty an 'all resta it.  Works out real fuckin' well for guys like you, don't seem to do much for guys like us."

And they leave him fuming impotently.  Back at Roth's flat, O'Brien and Frank patch each other up.  Then they record Rawlins confessing the Generals plan from book three.  Rawlins now missing an eye courtesy of Frank.  Frank and O'Brien leave to make copies of the confession, O'Brien tells Roth to watch himself round Rawlins who might be tied up but is still "lethal".  As they wait for the lift, O'Brien ruminates on the fucked up nature of her and Frank's world.

O'Brien: "I look at my life and I can't remember a time when the world wasn't the wrong way round."

Frank: "Up is down and black is white.  One day you wake up and you see that's how the world is."

Outside they see Nicky arriving back and realise he doesn't know Tessie is dead.  Nicky sees them too and grabs a passer-by and holds a gun to his head saying he gets to walk away or he kills him.  But Frank advances on him saying he won't shoot, because he's a coward.

Frank: "Hurt the boy and you die bad.  You know that.  But there's a part of you that still thinks if you let him go, you've got a chance. And that part of you won't shut up."
It's all over for Nicky.
The fight goes out of Nicky and he slumps, letting the hostage go.  O'Brien runs back up to get Roth but finds him dead and Rawlins gone.  Frank tells her to get out of town and never come back.

We jump forwards to Frank having driven his car deep into the wilderness.  Nicky tied up in the boot.  Nicky begs and pleads for his life, but Frank is not moved.  He tells Nicky he's going to shoot him in the gut so his insides fill with shit, "you'll die of blood poisoning, maybe take a couple of nights to do it."  He then blasts Nicky in the stomach and walks away.

Frank: "Out in the woods, the air is clear.  Everything the right way round.  The world is true.  Time to go home."
I mean seriously, it's all over for Nicky.
And that completes Book Four.  Some pretty damn intense stuff in this storyline, the mafia plotline isn't over with the death of Nicky and the video confession from Rawlins will be playing a major part in events to come.  Nicky is a fascinating monster, interesting that he is gay, though not surprising when you think his experience of heterosexual sex mostly comes courtesy of his dreadful aunt.  I don't think Rawlins is bisexual, he reminds me a lot of Dojima/Kakinuma in Old Boy which I covered last month, he simply sees sex as a weapon to manipulate people with, a true sociopath.  By making it "personal" Nicky does manage to come the closest anyone has come yet to killing the Punisher, it was only pure luck that O'Brien was able to rescue Frank and snap him out of his cold rage. Leandro Fernadez's art keeps to the same gritty style of the previous artists with his faces especially well drawn and full of emotion.  Now unfortunately due to this run being out of print, volumes five and six are only avaliable for stupid money online.  So I'll be skipping them and diving right back into the Rawlins/O'Brien/Russia/Afghanistan plotline with book seven come February, join me then for my look at Book Seven: Man Of Stone. 


  1. wow thats some pretty intense stuff! sucks your missing the next two volumes, marvel needs to get this series back in print. but your doing "welcome back frank" next which is cool, i have got that book its funny!

  2. I just checked on Amazon and buying volumes 5 and 6 inc. P&P would cost around £60 in total! Last time I forked out a large quantity of cash on a TPB it was Cerebus: Latter Day and we all know how THAT turned out. Well, maybe not because I know Ennis wouldn't let me down, but it's still too rich for my blood sadly. I do keep checking and hope one day someone clueless will put them up for a more affordable price and I can go back and fill in the gap. One day...

  3. Yes I agree it's horrible stuff, but to me that makes it's weirdly compelling. I think it's Ennis's skill at building character and paying off emotional situations that keeps me interested, but this is probably the darkest book I have ever read of his.