Monday, 25 April 2016

The Punisher MAX Book 9: Long Cold Dark (#50-54)

"It had been thirty years since I last knew the terror of being a parent". - Frank Castle

After a gayer than usual month here at the Fop, lets check in with that poster child for heterosexual male dysfunction, good old Frank Castle to finish the month off with.  I probably shouldn't be so flippant, this is an incredibly powerful arc that finally causes Frank to seriously question why he does what he does.  It is also tremendously brutal, and although Goran Parlov's artwork is a little more "cartoony" than the grittier artists of the series before this, it still results in some grotesque and uncomfortable physical violence that's hard to look at in places. So be warned.  This story sees the return of Barracuda whose first appearance in volume five I couldn't cover because it's out of print and costs a fortune.  Briefly he's a African-American bounty killer and assassin who'll do anything for a big payday, and in their last meeting Frank injured him badly enough that he lost the use of one eye.  So in this arc he's focused on purely on revenge.  He wants to really hurt Frank and events conspire to give him the ability to actually achieve this.  Another thing one needs to bear in mind, the passage of time since the events of volume four is around a year and a half, why is this important?  You'll see.  Doing the artwork for issue #50 is legendary artist Howard Chaykin, I loved his eighties work but he is very styalised and his attempt to fit with the tone of the Punisher results in some pretty weak stuff.  Nevermind, the writing is superlative. 

We start at the home of Yorkie, a retired British soldier who we met in books two and seven. His wife is dead, he's been shot in the stomach and is bleeding out.  Barracuda is after something he can use against Frank that he knows Yorkie has.  However Yorkie tells Barracuda he is no match for Frank.

Yorkie:  "He's going to kill you...because you're a joke in spite of it all.  And he's the most dangerous man that ever walked this earth."
These words will haunt Barracuda as the book continues, but for now he shoots Yorkie dead having got what he came for.
Barracuda kills Yorkie.
Then we join Frank.  At the end of the last book, Frank had an emotionally damaged woman shoot herself in the head while raping him after she exacted vengeance on the people who betrayed her.  I like to think that shook him enough to explain his unsettled state at the beginning of this book.  He's had the dream he always dreads, not the nightmares, the happy dream.  Of a man who never served three full tours in Vietnam, nor went through the trauma there that will be elucidated upon in the final book (and the prequel to Punisher MAX, the miniseries "Born").  A man who never went to the park with his family that fateful day in 1977, who never held his dying children, who never ended up in an unwinnable war against crime. A father and grandfather. A man who is loved and who loves back, the dream is "perfect".  It's the worst dream he ever has.

We then get a few pages of pure gun porn as Frank goes out to some land he owns far away from civilisation, somewhere he could "disappear" bodies for good.  As he target shoots he contemplates how the rhythm of the shots help take his mind off his dream and he mentally gives us the history of the various guns he is using to shoot with.  The dream however is still bothering him sometime later when he hears of a meet up in a hotel of various gangland bosses looking to carve up what's left of the mafia's holdings and decides to pay them a visit.

As the criminals talk and Frank hides under the floor, they realise they have all be tricked there.  The Punisher is fearfully mentioned but it isn't Frank's doing.  Then the lfit arrives and opens and reveals Barracuda who starts killing everyone.  Suddenly Frank notices a bomb counting down next to him and he has no choice but to leap up and into the gun fire, "exactly as he wanted."
Frank doesn't see them as moral equivalents.
Frank uses one of the gangsters as a human shield and makes it out to the roof where he is knocked flat by a rigged gun.  Barracuda comes out and blasts him with enough shotgun pellets to knock him out but not kill him as they are due "a long goddamn conversation".

Later Frank comes to, shackled to a chair with Barracuda looming over him.  Barracuda says his revenge plan was initially to capture Frank and torture him, but he realised Frank wouldn't give him the satisfaction that way and it would be "a 'anticlimax".  One day he got an anonymous email from persons unknown listing "known associates of Castle".  Yorkie was one of them.

Barracuda wasn't sure how Yorkie could help him but when he paid him a visit and threatened his wife "faggot gave you up in 'bout a second homie."  Yorkie had a letter in his safe about ex-CIA Agent O'Brien (see books four and seven), who Frank had initimate relations with both times they met.  Yorkie had written to her sister to tell her O'Brien was dead.  Her sister wrote back saying O'Brien had always been fucked up and at least she was now at peace.  But did he know how to get in touch with Frank Castle?  She had something to tell him.

Barracuda leaves the room gleefully saying how long he's been waiting for this moment.  And he brings out a baby in a child seat.  A baby girl.  Frank's daughter.
Barracuda taunts Frank, telling him to beg for her life.  He holds a knife to her cheek and demands Frankbeg and plead for her, "music to my muthafuckin' ears."  All that Frank is thinking about is his murdered family calling his name.  And then we cut to him waking up in hospital, bandaged with and arm in plaster and in police restraints.

He thinks back to what happened.  In a rage he snapped the cuffs holding him and hit Barracuda very hard.  They went down punching each other and Frank bit Barracuda's cheek ripping the flesh in the process.  Barracuda stabbed him in the side and then bashed him with a chair knocking Frank out of the window and onto a passing police car.  So now he is under arrest.

He tells the policeman in charge they need to let him go, because Barracuda will cause all kinds of collateral damage coming after him.  His request is refused, the doctor then tells all the cops to leave the room.

Frank: "I didn't mention the baby.  I couldn't let them turn it into a manhunt.  I either stayed between the two of us.. or else he'd kill her."

Barracuda is at his friendly neighbourhood junkie doctors having his cheek wound seen to.  The doctor makes the unfortunate mistake of noting Barracuda got his ass kicked.  This causes Barracuda to recall Yorkie's words about him being a joke and in a rage he breaks the junkie doctor's neck.
Frank, somewhat inconvenienced.
In the hospital, the doctor tells Frank he believes him about the threat Barracuda poses to the hospital.  He unties him saying "I won't allow that to happen in my hospital."  He gives Frank a hypodermic full of sedative saying he can use it to escape.  Frank sedates him and when the cops outside come in to check what's happening he sedates another and cuffs the last one.  Then he leaves the hospital and makes it home where he passes out for a while.

Later he searches online and finds a broadcast of O'Brien's sister pleading for help in finding the kidnapped child, her name is "Sarah".  Frank realises that between him and Barracuda each will be wondering how to draw the other out.  He suits up and starts driving to O'Brien's sisters, thinking of Barracuda that he'd have the same idea and "knowing coldly certain, that he couldn't fail to get there first".
Sarah's family appeal for help.
Barracuda is on an aeroplane feeding Sarah.  He tells the curious pilot that he practically raised his little brother and sister, but one's dead and the other is a crack ho, "but what the fuck you gonna do, you know?"  The pilot asks him if the baby is his.  Barracuda scowls and says he is asking a lot of questions.  The pilot quickly changes the subject.

Frank remembers his family.  How they got him through Vietnam, "they were the only light in all that darkness."  But the real war was back home where he lived and his family showed him that in the worst possible way.  After all this time was he ready to face the parental fear all over again?

At O'Brien's sister's house, Barbara says she is going stir crazy and goes to the mall.  Frank uses this opportunity to drop a mobile phone and a note in her bag.  Barracuda is also in the area, he tells Sarah he isn't getting attached to her.  She'll live long enough to fuck her dad up real good then "you ain't gonna last no longer 'n that."
A clandestine phonecall.
Hiding in the laundery from, Barbara speaks to Frank on the phone.  She says the cops don't know he's the father as O'Brien made her swear not to tell anyone, especially not Sarah herself. Unfortunately she let slip enough information to Yorkie for Barracuda to put the pieces together.  Frank wonders is she though he might have taken her.  But Barbara says:

Barbara: "She said you were the only man on earth she believed she could really trust."

And her trust was not something she gave away lightly.  Frank says he needs her help in drawing out Barracuda, she needs to leave the house with her family, make a big scene about it and he'll confront him there.  So she does so, and the police surveillance goes with them leaving the O'Brien house empty.  That night Frank breaks in and is closely followed by Barracuda holding a baby shaped bundle in his arms.

He starts spouting threats again, but Frank calmly asks if Barracuda replied to the anonymous email sender.  When Barracuda says no, Frank thinks to himself that it means that person doesn't know about Sarah.  Thus satisfied he tells Barracuda:

Frank: "That's all I wanted to know.  I'm going to kill you now."
Would he really do it?
Barracuda glowers and puts a gun to the bundle and pulls the trigger. Frank shows no outward emotions.  His insides go light and fill with ice.  His heart stops beating.  But then he realises Barracuda wouldn't just destroy the only leverage he had over him.  They both go for their guns.

Frank: "He was bigger, younger, stronger.  It was nice to find out I was faster."

And Frank lets loose a volley that hits Barracuda in the shoulder and knocks him down. Frank stamps on his head until he knocks him out and the bundle is revealed to be a doll.  He then takes him to his car and chains him up then applies jump leads to his testicles.

Frank: "And I'd been turning the key in the ignition for fifteen minutes and he'd shit all over himself and the world was a beautiful place."

After forty-five minutes of this, he asks where Sarah is.  Barracuda manages to whisper she is in a parked car in a lot close by.  Frank forces Barracuda into the boot of the car and drives to her.  When he lays eyes on her, "if you have to ask, you'll never know."  He checks the car over and finds plastic explosive attached to her car seat and he doesn't have his bomb disposal gear with him.
Barracuda's horrible childhood relived.
Inside the car, Barracuda is having flashbacks to his father inflicting emotional and physical abuse on him as a child.  The memories are so intense and painful he manages to break the chains holding him.  He takes the weapons from Frank's car and opens fire on him. Frank is able to pick up Sarah's chair as the bomb is wired to it not the car.  He uses Barracuda's weapons to shoot back, then when he hears police sirens, he flees the scene hoping to draw Barracuda somewhere more isolated.

Frank: "And I wanted Sarah out of there.  Hearing her scream through the firefight made me sick to my guts.  Like all her terror and confusion was on me.. and in a way it was. She was precious beyond gold and I couldn't have her hurting for another second."

As he runs into the forest he reflects that in the past week she'd been kidnapped, drugged and surrounded by carnage.  "My world was an abbatoir. Everyone it touched it cut to ribbons, whether good or bad."  He starts disarming the bomb when Barracuda comes up behind him and attacks.  He kicks Frank's gun away and starts beating him with his fists, "he'd gone the kind of place you don't come back from.. this time he was the one with madness on his side."

Taking a terrible beating, Frank manages to grab a hold of the pliers he was using to disarm the explosive.  He gets hold of Barracuda's nose and rips it clean off.  Given temporary respite, Frank picks up Sara and runs into the nearby elementary school.  Delirious Barracuda flashes back to a life full of violence, from school student to soldier and he makes his way into the school.
A fleshwound!
Frank hits him with a fireaxe and severs his arm.  Then he buries the axe in Barracuda's chest knocking him down.  He picks up the machine gun Barracuda had, and as Barracuda remembers Yorkie's warning again, Frank pumps round after round into him until he is nothing but fine pink mince.  Frank picks up Sarah and thinks:

Frank: "I thought about what I'd look like through her eyes.  An animal.  A monster, standing in another's blood."

He disarms the explosive, and finds himself unable to keep his usual amotional distance.  She has bought back all his parental feelings and made him feel like a human being for the first time in a long while.

He checks himself and Sarah into a motel and reflects on O'Brien.  How in the end she couldn't stand to be in a world where bad men lived.  And maybe she didn't want to inflict her "fucked up" life on the kid.  Frank spends the day with Sarah then calls Barbara to tell her she's safe.
Just one day with his daughter.
He returns Sarah to her and reiterates she must never be told who her father is. "Lie to her.  Save her life.  Don't give her cause to contact me."  He offers money to support her, but Barbara refuses saying her sister left her well provided for.  Then she asks Frank what her sister was really like.  "She was strong and she was sad" replies Frank.  But he also remembers a morning when he watched her watching the sun rise over the desert mountains in Afghanistan where she seemed at peace.  Memories like that he tries to kill, but perhaps she can do something with them.

He drives home and he realised that no matter what kind of life he tried to build with Sarah, the Barracuda's of this world would always be out there and some thing would need to be done about them.  His war would never end.

Frank: "The sun slipped away behind me.  The last sliver seeming to pause on the horizon then succumbing to the black.  And I drove on through the shadows of America.  Through the long, cold, dark night that I've made of my life."
*inelegant blubbering*
Oh my heart, it hurts.  By that last line I had tears streaming down my face, I have never known an author so talented at building up and paying off an emotional arc than Garth Ennis.  He's deconstructs the idea of the macho man as much as he relies on the trope straight and while volume ten is a fine book in and of itself, that one finishes the story of Frank as a soldier.  This is the culmination of the story of Frank as a man locked in a hell of his own making.  Making him a father again was a stroke of genius and really uses the ability of a non-official MU canon take to bring in such massive events for a character to deal with. It says something for Ennis's incredibly humane style that even a character as revolting as Barracuda is given a tragic backstory that while it doesn't excuse what he is, allows you to find some sympathy for him amongst the violence he enables. Frank's realisation that to his daughter he must seem like a monster is a powerful one, and yet there is still a desire to connect with her as he spends one day alone with her.  But he has to take her out of his life, to protect her from him and his compulsion to exact vengeance on the world of crime.  He knows this means his life is empty without violence now and he knows he made it that way.  She represents a second chance he can never take, a future that he cannot be a part of.  And that self-knowledge is his tragedy.  The whole series was slowly putting the pieces in place for this masterpiece, what follows is more of an epilogue as you'll see next month when I finish the series off (chronologically speaking anyway).

Oh and if you're interested in checking out the Punisher MAX series, they are now being reissued as thick trades containing a couple of arcs apeice, and including "Born" in volume one as well.  This has had the knock on effect of dropping the price of one of the two arcs I was missing, so once I am done with volume ten next month, I shall jump back to volume five - "The Slavers" and hopefully volume six "Barracuda" and the prequel "Born" will similarly become available at cut price.  I hope my whining about the cost of the series helped a little in getting these reissues out. But I am probably being big headed, heh.


  1. they are rereleasing them? that is cool news! bet you're happy to fill those gaps in finally now right? ;)

  2. I have volume 5 winging is way to me as we speak. I hope volume 6 is soon to follow!

  3. Every month is teh gay month :-D

    Some artists get better over time, and some get worse. Fortunately, most of the artists who work for 2000 AD belong in the former category.

    This comic should come with sooooooo many trigger warnings. Like, homophobic language!

  4. I must admit I am heartened by how many comics I have labelled LBGT. This month sort of happened by accident which goes to show... something.

    I save my Trigger Warnings up so when it gets really grim they have more impact ;)