Sunday, 14 February 2016

Punisher MAX Book 7: Man Of Stone (#37-42)

"He's an American.  We fight our wars on foreign soil" - Rawlins

So we return to my coverage of Garth Ennis's acclaimed run on The Punisher for Marvel's mature readers MAX imprint.  The last book I covered was number four, I've had to skip books five and six as they are out of print and insanely expensive on Amazon, although they have been released on the Kindle.  Fortunately these two are probably the best ones to have been skipped, the fifth book deals with Frank's nemesis the gangster assassin Barracuda and when he returns in book nine the details of their prior entanglement is filled in then.  Book six, "The Slavers" is a standalone and annoyingly many see it as the best book in the series.  I'm sure I shall read it one day, alas I don't have a Kindle.  Anyway, the important thing to understand is that with those two books taken into account, the in-story gap between books four and seven is roughly one year.  This becomes very important later in the series.  This book features characters from several previous volumes.  The female ex-CIA agent O'Brien who slept with the Frank in Book four and helped him take down the mafia goons after him.  Her slimeball ex-husband Rawlins who had arranged a terrorist attack on Russia on the orders of some US generals in Book three when they needed to distract the Russian government from a retrieval mission they sent Frank on, and who Frank tortured that information out of before he managed to make an escape from him.  Also from book three is the titular "Man Of Stone" Zakharov, a Russian general who realised it was the US who was responsible for the terrorist attack not Islamists.  Finally from book two is a British S.A.S officer called Yorkie who is a sort of friend of Frank from back in his Vietnam days.  Mix all these characters together in the hellhole that is Afghanistan in the mid-noughties and you have the recipe for another harrowing and deadly serious story.
Meeting John James Toomey.
The book kicks off with a page of a cocky Rawlins meeting a Russian only to end up terrified when it turns out the Russian in question is Zakharov.  Then we cut to Frank, hands taped behind his back on his knees on the floor of a black gang hideout.  He had blackmailed a minor gang member into pretending he had surprised and captured The Punisher so he could get an audience with the leader John James Toomey, who is untouchable even by the F.B.I.  Toomey decides he wants to see if the Russians will make good on the bounty they have out on Frank, while Frank cuts his bonds with the razor he had hidden and grabs a gun shooting and killing all the gang members in the room including Toomey.

Back with Rawlins, he is naked and hanging upsidedown.  He says he has information for Zakharov who enquires as to what that might be.  A panicked Rawlins says the incident at Sudhek wasn't terrorists... "It was the Americans" responds Zakharov, "castrate this imbecile and leave him in the street to bleed out."  Captain Dolnovich, his aide, starts cutting Rawlin's balls off, but Rawlins yells that he can help them get proof of the US involvement.
Zaharov, Dolnovich and an upside down Rawlins.
He is cut down.  Zakharov says that pursuing the matter of Sudhek got him reassigned to a training camp in the middle of nowhere. Rawlins gives us a quick recap of book three, that the Islamic terrorists hijacking a Russian plane was a cover to distract the Russian government from the raid on Sudhek where a child with a sample of a very powerful bio-weapon in her blood was retreived for the US by two men, one now dead, the other being Frank castle.

Rawlins throws a pity party over being cut loose by the US generals who ordered both the hijacking and the retrieval of the girl after this information was tortured out of him by The Punisher.  Zakharov says if Rawlins wants to stay alive he needs to find a way to deliver them Frank Castle.  Rawlins says if they have someone he cares about they can lure him out.  He has a list of six ex-Taliban his ex-wife O'Brien is after.  If they watch them, they'll find her and Frank will come and help her if she gets in trouble.
O'Brien enacting some righteous vengeance.
O'Brien meanwhile has already crossed three names off that list and crosses another one off, the men in question were those who raped her when she fell into the hands of the Taliban years ago.  Back in the USA, Frank is questioning a Russian mafia member at gunpoint, the man says the contract on him has been cancelled and the same source in Russia wants people looking out for O'Brien.

In a crowded marketplace in Afghanistan, two S.A.S members are monitoring one of the ex-Taliban on O'Brien's list.  When they spot her in a burka approaching her target they walk her up an alley at gunpoint.  The yanks want to know who's been killing these ex-Taliban so they are surprised to find out she is a yank herself. "Fuck. Old Yorkie's gonna love this." says one of them.

Frank is trying to track O'Brien down via his military contacts but is getting nowhere.  So he tries a longshot and calls Yorkie and asks if he has seen her:

Yorkie: "Well that is a coincidence, I was just about to shoot her through the head."

The rest of the chapter is told in flashback.  After slapping the cuffs on O'Brien, two S.U.V.s filled with Russians, including Rawlins and Dolnovich, turn into the alley.  A massive firefight ensues and Rawlins and Dolnovich have to beat a hasty retreat. 
Just another day in Kabul.
Back with Zakharov, he is unhappy that Rawlins didn't know the ex-Taliban were under S.A.S protection.  Rawlins gabbles that they must be "workin' for some shithead in D.C."  He starts covering his balls in anticipatory panic.

Zakharov: "This puts us back where we started.  New ideas Rawlins.  Think quickly".

At the S.A.S camp Yorkie gets the message from Washington that O'Brien is to be executed.  Also the name she was yelling - "Rawlins" - has Washington shitting itself and their orders are to "obliterate the cunt".  When he asks for volunteers to execute O'Brien, his men all look anywhere but him.

Yorkie: "I've no idea why you lot are getting so sentimental.  One look at that lass and you can tell she knows the score.  She's one of us."

He then goes to her and tells her to put on a uniform, then she is to come with him "for a little drive".
The S.A.S showing their sensitive side.
Rawlins is being held over a cliff edge by Dolnovich, he screams "I've had a fucking idea-!"  Zakharov indulges him and Rawlins says if they can't use O'Brien to lure Frank over, they should use Zakharov.  He says if Zakharov gives a press interview saying he is "lookin' for a comrade from Sudhek" and Frank will know Zakharov is talking about him.

Rawlins: "He'll come to you, general.  I know this fuck, he doesn't like loose ends."

Dolnovich says Moscow will see this press report too and they are not supposed to be in Kabul.  But Zakharov believes making the true events surrounding Sudhek known is worth the risk.

Then we are back to the start of the chapter with Yorkie about to shoot O'Brien and on the phone to Frank.  After a one-sided conversation he tells O'Brien there has been a change of plans.  He is going to drive her back to Kabul, give her the keys to the landrover, hit himself over the head with a rock so "it looks like you twatted me one and then we're going our seperate ways."
Luring out Frank.
Frank sees Zakharov's "invitation" on the TV news and as he packs and makes ready to leave he thinks about the lessons the British and Russians both learned a century apart:

Frank: "You go to war in Afghanistan... And everyone dies."

The next chapter also starts with a flash forward to O'Brien and Frank sat together out in the desert.  They kiss and intend to do a lot more. We go back to the last leg of his journey on a plane into Kabul talking with a journalist who wants to cover the resurgence of Zakharov.  He wrote a book on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and says to Frank he'll tell him a "horror story".
Sexy time in the desert.
Yorkie and O'Brien are having a conversation on the way back to Kabul.  She says if he knew what the scum he was protecting had done and Yorkie says he doesn't need to know, "you know as well as I do how the world really works."  Yorkie also says he's not sure why he is telling her this but Frank isn't someone you think of a future with:

Yorkie: "He's not planning on growing old with anyone.  He's not the type to sit by your deathbed and hold you when you go."

He stops the vehicle and gets out, leaving a note for Frank with her.  He says that now, "I walk home and win arsehole of the year sure and tell him I called him a cunt."
Yorkie does Frank a favour.
In a Russian secret base a couple of heavily armed attack helicopters are being readied to help capture Frank.  Rawlins comes to Zakharov saying he wants a job with him.  He's spent twenty-two years as a C.I.A field agent, a lot of the time doing deals off the books from the mujahs, the P.L.O, the I.R.A, the major drug cartels "an' that's just the tip of the iceberg".

Back with Frank and the journalist, he tells Frank his horror story about Zakharov.  During the Soviet occupation there were seven villages north of Kandahar that were a big nuisence to the supply lines.  But the fighters would always leave the village before the Russians could get to them.  They would watch from the surrounding mountains "but that suited Zakharov down to the ground".

One day he had his men round up the civilians and marched them slowly off the edge of a nearby cliff.  When one woman gave him her baby and begged him not to kill it, he took it and hurled it over the edge.  Horrified the mujahadeen fighters broke cover and fired upon the Russians and so were wiped out by them. 
The Man Of Stone.
"That was the day he got his nickname. Man Of Stone" when he did not move as the bullets and bombs flew around him.  He pulled the same stunt in the other six villages as well.  The journalist is going to gather evidence to have Zakharov indicted as a war criminal.

Zakharov meanwhile turns Rawlins' offer down flat, saying he does not trust him and if he is lucky and Frank is brought in with minimal complication "I will allow you to leave here with your life."

Frank meets with O'Brien in a Kabul hotel bar.  He gave the journalist some advice before they parted which was to go home and let someone else who could do the job deal with Zakharov.  O'Brien and Frank travel out to a U.S army weapons cache and drive out into the wilderness where they can face Zakharov without incurring civilian casualties.  Then they make camp and we're back to where the chapter started, with sex about to happen.
Not a believer in the freedom of the press.
The journalist meets a sticky end at the hands of Dolnovich after Zakharov says he read his book and did not care for it.  Tsk, everyone's a critic.  Dolnovich wipes his blade on Rawlins' jacket saying "I'm still hoping that you'll do something stupid."

O'Brien fills Frank in on Rawlins' backstory as they set up their ambush.  His father was a field agent in Cairo, his mother a local girl.  He inherited most of his contacts from his dad, including those in the heroin trade.  Right after they got married, ten years ago, they were sent on a mission to reclaim some unused stinger missiles from the mujahadeen.  But the shipment was smack and when their helicopter came under fire and needed to lose some weight he kicked her out the back rather than dump the drugs and she was captured and raped by the men she's been hunting.

By the time she made it back home, Rawlins was in deep cover elsewhere so she shut her mouth knowing "one day I'd get my shot".  She says she has a thing for bad boys:

O'Brien: "It's mostly guys like Rawlins.  Or idiots.  Or drunks.  Or the truly, irrevocably doomed. That stupid bastard Tommy..."

OK, she definitely is the C.I.A agent Tommy gets involved with in the final arc of Ennis' series for DC, Hitman.  Frank says to be clear he's there because "I owed you.  I repaid the debt.  Now we're finishing off a mutual problem.  Nothing more."  And he walks off.
Romantic (!)
Zakharov's helicopters are on their trail.  They know they are being lead into an ambush.  Dolnovich wonders why they need Frank's confession when they have Rawlins.  Zakharov says a man as notorious as The Punisher confessing would cause an outcry and it would result in, at the very least, the deaths at Sudhek being re-examined.  As for Rawlins:

Zakharov: "He knows Castle and the woman.  If the fight goes badly for us, that knowledge may prove useful.  After that I do not care."

Then they spot Frank standing out in the open near a rockfall along the bottom of a cliff.  He runs and lures the helicopter gunship into the sights of O'Brien who blows it to bits with a stinger missile, while Frank mows down the soldiers on the ground. 
I like a woman with access to heavy ordinance.
The ground troops run up the rockfall to get to cover, but it has been mined and they are blown up.  Zakharov is not peturbed by this turn of events.  He announces over the radio that there is a village nearby that they will wipe out with their payload - a Massive Ordnance Air Blast weapon or MOAB for short - if Frank does not go there alone and unarmed at sundown the next day.  So at the appointed time and place, Frank surrenders.

Zakharov sends Rawlins out to cuff Frank.  Rawlins notes Frank has a bandaged wound on his arm, Zakharov tells him to take the dressing off and check it.  Rawlins finds nothing but a "shrapnel injury".  O'Brien watches from inside a nearby foxhole.  As the chopper takes off she grabs the struts under the body of the chopper and hangs on as it takes off.

Inside, Rawlins holds a knife to Frank's eye and demands to know "where's the cunt?"  But Dolnovich yanks him away so Zakharov can question Frank himself.  As Zakharov starts to talk about Sudhek, O'Brien fiddles with the underside of the chopper and Frank slides a piece of sharp metal he had concealed deep inside the arm wound and cuts the cuffs with it.
Ow, Ow, Ow, Ouch!
He lunges forwards and headbuts Dolnovich and grabs his gun.  He and Zakharov exchange fire but both miss.  Frank shoots the choper pilots, Zakharov tells them to drop the MOAB but O'Brien sabotaged the clamps and it is jammed.  She jumps off the sharply descending helicopter and Frank opens a hatch and jumps out too.  Rawlins sees his chance and kicks Zakharov out and grabs onto him using him to cushion his fall.  Dolnovich also jumps.

Frank runs to O'Brien and braces against her as the chopper spirals into a nearby mountainside and goes up in a HUGE explosion.  Rawlins stands over Zakharov who is lying immobile on the ground, his neck broken.  Zakharov says "finish it". 

But Rawlins says "hell no", he wants Zakharov to die a slow death in the Afghan desert sun. Dolnovich comes up with his blade drawn but Rawlins lashes out and cuts Dolnovich's throat with a small pocket knife, leaving Dolnovich bleeding out, gasping for air.
Rawlins is such a dickhead.
O'Brien and Frank decide it's time to finish it and find the others.  As they begin to look for them, O'Brien wonders what she'll do next:

O'Brien: "With hubby gone I'll have no one left to want to kill.  No battles left to fight... It's like, what does that leave in my life you know? What am I going to do with myself now?"

Frank says whatever she does, it can't be anything to do with him.  Then O'Brien steps on a landmine.  Horrendously injured, Frank checks her over and says in what looks like some distress that "there's not a thing I can do for you."  She says he can do two things.  One of them is kill Rawlins, who is gloating over Dolnovich saying he plans on going to Moscow and raping and killing Dolnovich's teenage son whose address he has found on the ID he's taken from him.
Poor O'Brien.
Back with O'Brien and Frank, he holds her as she takes her last breath, then he sets off to hunt Rawlins.  But first he comes across the dying Dolnovich and Zakharov.

Zakharov: "Be strong captain.  What is there to be afraid of?  He is only death."

Zakharov says Frank has a week before the flight to Moscow.  So if he is to kill Rawlins, it must be in a week.  Dolnovich finally expires and Zakharov says of Rawlins:

Zakharov: "Our world is bad.  But we are soldiers.  He is a parasite: he would make the world this way forever".
Frank is a true Angel of Death.
Frank then crushes his skull with a huge rock.  He takes four days to stagger out of the mountains where the S.A.S fortunately find him.  He ends up having a chat in their camp with Yorkie, now relieved of command because "apparently an important prisoner escaped while in my charge".  Yorkie admits he's had enough, he's been soldiering for forty years near enough now. "So I don't give a toss about them firing me", although the airline his wife inherited will cushion the blow.

He also says if he was still in charge he couldn't "give you the names and locations of the last two bastards your friend O'Brien was after."  He'll also be giving their security details the night off, "most improper" of course.  Frank says he appreciates it.  Yorkie says if he is ever tied to a stake being used as Vietcong bayonnet practice "you be sure and show up with an M60".
Yorkie and Frank chat.
They talk some more, about how when people find out he knows Frank they want to know what makes Frank "The Punisher". Yorkie says "and I tell them there is no explaining it."  He goes on to say that when 9/11 happened a lot of people in the regiment were happy and lots of drinks were bought. "Here we go again" says Frank.

Yorkie: "There was a time I would have been one of them.  Best job in the bloody world, that's what I'd've told you. Now... It's as if everywhere I look I see dead civvies covered in dust."

He doesn't know what they are doing in Afghanistan any more.  Frank wishes him well and leaves.  He kills the final two ex-Taliban on O'Brien's list then tracks Rawlins to the airport.

Frank: "Two things you can do for me she said.  One was be there, so she didn't take her last breath alone.  The other was a thing I'm good at."
He confronts Rawlins in the toilets, Rawlins starts trying to talk his way out of certain death while getting Frank to come close enough to slash with his pocket knife.  Frank cuts the knifehand clean off.  Bleeding out on the floor he says he knows stuff "she'll want to hear".

Frank: "She's dead... Right when I was starting to like her."
Couldn't happen to a more deserving guy.
And with that the book comes to a close.  This was a special Valentines day post so I hope you enjoyed its bleak and desolate attitude towards love and marriage, where sex performed as something to pass the time with someone who is emotionally distant is the closest you'll get to someone caring about you and marriage is worth less than a shipment of heroin. CAN YOU TELL I AM SINGLE?  Anyway, jokes aside, this is another corking piece of work from the pen of Mr. Ennis, O'Brien's tale is a sad one and it's fitting her scumbag ex-husband goes out squealing on the filthy floor of a public toilet.  The seamier side of the wests dealings with the one time Mujahadeen and ex-Taliban with protection for terrorist scum who might prove a useful intelligence asset against worse terrorist scum leading to a career soldier like Yorkie (himself no stranger to wetwork, as seen in book two) to finally throw in the towel is shown unflinchingly.  Not everything Ennis writes glorifies the military although he shows his protest through the Yorkie character.  The battle between Zakharov and Frank is a battle between two clever men with nothing to lose and despite being a monster, Zakharov remains weirdly honourable to the end. Leandro Fernandez keeps the artwork grittily realistic adding immeasurably to the downbeat tone of the book.  And this isn't the most miserable book in the series either, we have a long way down still to go.  It does have the biggest kersplosions in it though, always nice that.


  1. Justice is bloody and very painful. I'm glad I'm not in the army.

  2. Having had a best mate in the British army (who served in NI) and dated a woman in the US military I can honestly say it takes a special kind of person who is strong enough to follow orders even when it might conflict with their own morality. I have nothing but respect for those who choose to serve, but it's not something I could ever do.

  3. I absolutely agree. Let's hope our politicians don't do anything as stupid as another Iraq or Afghanistan again, so our armed forces can stay at home and deal with things like floods.

  4. I think Garth Ennis's run on Punisher MAX has been pretty explicit on the notion that good patriotic soldiers were sacrificed in wars on foreign soil to prop up the commrecial interests of the corrupt military-industrial complex, certainly book 10 will make this clear. And his Fury MAX series which I'll be looking at once I have finished Punisher MAX covers the US's rather inglorious post WW2 military escapades as well.

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  6. "Lions led by donkeys," eh? 'Twas ever thus...

    It comes to something when even an English degree devotes an entire first year module to, essentially, the brutality and idiocy of war: my English degree at Durham had a first year module on the poetry of World War I.

    (First attempt at this comment deleted because of an egregious spelling mistake that cast shame upon my alma mater.)

  7. Heh, I did a module for my A'Levels not on WWI but on the just the causes of it. Man, that war was like the most spectacular episode of Family Feud ever made. The minute things like the CIA started getting involved in US military policy that was when I think things began to go wrong. Ennis's Fury MAX miniseries deal with that more explicitly the same way The Boys dealt with commercial war profiteering.

  8. sorry i didn't read this yesterday as I was spending time with my girlfriend! :P

    I wish this punisher series was still in print, its the first time i have ever been interested in him.

  9. Yay, one of us has a girlfriend! :-)

  10. Bah, I'm banning all non single people from my blog >:(

    Nah, I'm joking G, I'm not a total unromantic! Also if you have a kindle it looks like the whole of the Punisher MAX has been released for it, I'm guessing short of a reprint that's how I'll end up reading the two missing volumes.

  11. you know there's a site that has all the punisher max issues for free.

  12. thanks anon I shall have a look :)

    I still mourn the two volume gap on my bookshelf though.