Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Punisher MAX Book 10: Valley Forge, Valley Forge (#55-60)

"I know you've made your life into cold, black hell.Trust no one. Believe nothing.  Show no weakness or you're done.  But it wasn't always like that" - Colonel Howe

Garth Ennis reaches the end of his Punisher MAX run with a book that examines his life as a soldier in Vietnam and how those experiences still inform what he does now.  In my opinion the series reached it's emotional apotheosis with the previous book, "Long Cold Dark" which examined the concept of him as a father.  After that, this book feels more like an epilogue, tying up the loose ends still dangling from the "Mother Russia" storyline and restating his original mission ready for the next writer to take on the character.  Frustratingly this also acts as a companion piece to the miniseries "Born" which is effectively a prologue to this run, which I will cover as soon as I can afford it.  This volume also contains lengthy text extracts of a fictional book written by a man who lost his brother in Vietnam, a character who featured in the "Born" mini as well, and which told the story of how their base, Valley Forge was overun by the North Vietnamese Army and how of all the one hundred and ninety-two men stationed there, only Frank Castle made it out alive.  The in-story book explores the lives of the soldiers as human beings, fighting in a war they didn't understand at a base where discipline had broken down completely.  It touches on possible reasons why and how Valley Forge might have affected the man who was to become The Punisher, and forms a good counterpoint to the present day story of a group of US soldiers being given the unthinkable task - to capture The Punisher alive.  Just a note, this book relies heavily on the events of Book 3 "Mother Russia", there are recaps provided in this book, but it'll help if you haven't already read it to read my recap of that volume first.

The story begins with Frank meeting Nick Fury in a bar.  They ponder the death toll of U.S. troops in the Iraq war and Fury wonders if they don't have something coming to them.  A suicide bomber exploding downtown somewhere:

Fury: "It's always some grunt.  Some poor fucking civilian".

"Sounds like your losing your faith" remarks Frank.  Fury says if he is it's because of the contents of the envelope he has passed to Frank.  He says there's been another book written about his time in 'Nam.  Frank says he never reads the books.  He gets up and starts to leave.  Fury asks him if he is going to "waste the pricks".  Franks says "might do" and departs.
Nick Fury, one man Frank does respect.
Then we join the generals playing golf the next day.  They discuss Barracuda's death and how they were sure he'd get the job done, revealing they are the ones that leaked Frank's contact list to him anonymously.

They start arguing about what to do about Frank, especially recovering the tape with Rawlin's confession about the Mother Russia plot.  They figure Frank is probably going to come gunning for them now they made it personal.  One of them points out they all hold high rank, but another says they haven't exactly fought in any wars.  Also they need to get rid of Frank to protect all the cushy jobs they have lined up in the private sector.

One of them has had an idea.  "What if you give him a target he couldn't possibly shoot at?"  He wants to send U.S. soldiers after him.  A small Delta force unit to subdue and extract him. Easy.  The others are dubious, what if local law enforcement find out?  The general dismisses these fears say they can blame the War On Terror.  He is positive the Punisher won't fire on U.S. troops and they already have a volunteer to oversee the operation.
Colonel Howe.
That volunteer is Colonel Howe, the generals send a lieutenant Geller to liase with him and report back to them.  Howe has taken an interest because the soldier who was sent to Russia with Frank died there and he was engaged to be married to Howe's daughter.  Howe couldn't find out what he was doing there though he did hear rumours of a fracas between Fury and the generals when Frank got back.

Howe believes Frank is a "stain on the reputation of the United States Military".  They trained him, it's time they closed the book on him.  Geller says Frank has a tape to be recovered as part of the operation, then the Frank can be handed off to the Justice System for trial.  Geller remarks that Howe isn't like the stereotype of Delta Force officers, and it's good that people can rise above their stereotypes.

Howe: "I imagine it is lieutenant.  I imagine it is."

And we get a page of Frank regard the photos of each of the generals which he has pinned to a board on the wall of his lair.
Frank plots and plans.
Howe tells Geller he joined the Special Forces after his experiences in Vietnam.  He and the rest of his unit were captured by the Vietcong and marched to a camp in Laos.  One by one his fellow grunts were taken out and killed, their hands and feet were tossed in the cage with him until only Howe was left.  Then a miracle happened, U.S Special Forces arrived on the scene and killed the Vietcong with ruthless efficiency, saving Howe in the process.

Howe: I joined S.F. because I wanted to do the job properly instead of being helpless and outclassed.  I wanted to be the best because America needs and deserves the best."
His problem with Frank is that he "dishonours what we do".  Then he introduces Geller to the unit who'll be doing the job.

They discuss tactics, they are going to set-up in Brooklyn and wait for him to take someone out and when he does they'll stake out other locations owned by the same outfit. They believe their sheer numbers will allow them to take him alive, the difficult thing will be not tipping their hand.  He is one of them, he knows how they work, "even what you might call tribal customs".

We then return to the generals discussing Howe, one of them says he is "wonderful.  He's almost white".  Another reiterates Frank won't fire on U.S troops, but yet another points out that they are U.S troops and "the whole reason we're doing this is we're all pretty convinced Castle's going to fire on us".
Delta Force do some recon on Frank.
Two of Delta are visiting the site of Franks latest hit.  The sergeant wants to know how they know it was Frank, the other, their leader Woody, says Frank is "so damn competant" that he practically signs his work.  The place belonged to an Armenian gangster so the others are staking out places involved in their operations.  Woody walks the sergeant through Frank's work, using the bullet holes as a guide.  When the sergeant asks if he admires Frank, Woody responds:

Woody: "Ever seen Alien?  My kid brother was crazy for it growing up.  Line I always remember ' I admire its purity'".

Later that night Woody and the sergeant are on a stake out.  Then FRank finds the sergeant and walks him at gunpoint to where Woody is, saying "who might you be?"  Woody calmly tells him they are U.S. soldiers sent to detain him.  Frank kicks the sergeant in the back and into Woody and runs into the bar they were staking out.  Woody calls the others to come help as he runs in after him.

Wodody manages to corner Frank on the top floor and gets him to drop his weapons.  Then the floor collapses under him.  As Woody hangs on for dear life, Frank says he can guess who sent them and takes off.  The sergeant helps Woody up and says he managed to place the tracer inside Frank's coat, they can track him now.

Howe orders them to follow him before he finds the tracer.  They track him to a basement apartment and gain entrance only to find Frank is ready for them.  He sets off a bunch of smoke grenades and in the confusion wallops a couple of them, then he tosses a stun grenade into a box of stun grenades and there is a huge but non lethal explosion flooring the soldiers and allowing Frank to escape.  "This is him trying not to kill us" says Woody.
Frank takes down Delta with ease.
Two of them are knocked out and a couple of others have blown eardrums.  They depart before the police get there and Woody says "We handled this like a bunch of assholes".  Later Steve tells Howe:

Steve: "He made us feel like we make ordinary dudes feel.  Is how I'd put it."

Woody admits they should have been more prepared for how prepared Frank was.  Howe blames himself for rushing them.  They discuss how much longer they have to find Frank when the generals show up.
Seriously, fuck this guy and his mates.
First one of them superciliously praises Howe, but his mood suddenly changes when Howe says they haven't caught Frank yet.  He yells that he'll have them shitcanned and have someone bought in who can "do the fucking job!"  Calmly Howe says he'll ensure a smooth transition with his replacement which wrongfoots the angry general.  Another one speaks saying emotions are running high because a lot is riding on The Punisher's capture.  Then Woody runs in saying the tracer has just become active again.

In a bar, Frank watches the news which shows the police discovery of all the weapons he was forced to leave behind when his basement safehouse was compromised.  He rolls the tracer around between the bar and his finger and ponders...

The remaining Delta's follow the tracers signal.  One of them says Frank probably fed it to a dog.  They arrive at a graveyard where the signal is broadcasting from.  One of the men expresses uncertainty about the generals.  Woody agrees saying the way the generals spoke to Howe was less like officers to officer, "sounded more like people in business".

He says Howe is too smart to be played by the generals, and they tool up with guns and tasers.  They find Frank standing in front of an angel statue which he has covered in dynamite and plastic explosive, and is holding a dead man's switch.  He wants to talk to Howe.
Negociation, Punisher style.

Howe comes to the graveyard alone while Geller, who he is leaving out of the loop, tries to contact him.  He introduces himself to Frank, "want to tell me what's on your mind?"  Meanwhile Geller is speaking to one of the generals on the phone who is agitated by Howe going off like this.

Frank tells Howe the generals "aren't soldiers.  They're executives in a corporation".  Howe asks how the got their names and says he is just following orders.  "They don't give orders.  They do business" responds Frank.  He tells them to pack up and leave "and we can stop wasting each other's time."  Howe says they won't be leaving without him.
Howe is no pushover though.
Frank says Vanheim (see "Mother Russia") was Delta as well and he didn't mind following orders to kill a six-year-old child, "your bosses would have been proud of him".  Frank tells them about the recording he has of Rawlins confessing his involvement in the plot to crash a hijacked plane into Moscow (to distract the Russians from Frank and Vanheim's assault on an Russian army base to recover the child with a virus in her bloodstream the generals wanted), all on the orders of the generals.  Howe says he's had enough of this, of Frank gives up they'll safeguard him until he can be handed over to the civilian authories.

Frank: "I'd be dead by sun-up.  Either you'd do it for them or they'd get someone else.  I could give a shit about dying.  But those assholes have to be punished".

He says he tell them where to find a copy of Rawlin's confession (extracted from him in Book 4) and then they can decide of they still want to come after him.  Howe says he comes with them now, so Frank releases the dead man switch.

The statue was a decoy, the charges are fake, just tear gas and smoke.  This time the Deltas are ready with gasmasks.  They pin Frank down and taser him.  They zap him several times until he is fully down and one goes to cuff him, Frank knocks the cuffs away and shakily gets up, but they keep zapping him until he stays down and they cuff him and take him back to their base.
One of the generals gets Howe on the phone and chews him out for going dark like he did.  Howe says they have The Punisher, but they don't have the tape yet.  The general screams "you fucking stupid black fuck!!" Once again Howe ignores his rudeness and says they are about to interrogate Frank and will get the tape's location out of him.

Howe goes into the interrogation room alone and says to Frank, "it isn't you".  He tells them it's the tape the generals really want which he thought was a secondary target but now realises is the whole point of the exercise, which leads him to believe Frank is telling the truth.  Howe says he has done tours with the Green Berets, his words as an American soldier means something to Frank.

Howe: "So soldier to soldier.  I'm asking you to trust me now."
Frank at bay (for now)
Howe and Woody travel to a railway station and safely retreive the tape from a booby trapped locker.  Howe wonders why Frank would give up "the only piece of evidence on the men who want him dead."  He doesn't think Frank totally bought his soldier-to-soldier approach, he's probably got a copy of the tape stashed with a lawyer who'll release it to the media if Frank doesn't check in with him once a month.

Howe believes Frank wants him to watch the tape and acts upon what he sees.  Woody says all this is "way above my pay grade" and if it was him he hand over the tape to the generals and forget all this ever happened.  Howe says Frank is right about the generals being businessmen.

Howe: "They've never been tested in battle.  None of them are soldiers, not the way you and I understand the word."

For now Howe wants to keep ahold of Frank, "let's just say I have my reasons."  We then are shown Howe watching Rawlins confession, how the CIA operative set up an Islamic terrorist cell on the orders of the generals who would be able to use them at targets they couldn't attack directly.  Which is why they were aimed and fired at Moscow when they needed a distraction from Frank and Vanheim's raid on a Russian army base to get a sample of a weaponised virus being carried in the bloodstream of a six year old girl (who was immune).  Vanheim died on the mission, Frank bought her back to the US, but didn't allow anyone to take a sample from her and the virus broke down completely and became useless.
Scumfuck Rawlins summarises Book 3.
Howe watches the tape alone and makes notes silently as he does so.  Rawlins also admits he taped his conversations with the generals and left them with a third party so he had some leverage over them, which unfortunately he couldn't use when he pissed off the man who had them by sleeping with his wife.

The generals are having a meal in a restaurant, Geller reports via text that he is not being allowed access to Frank.  He doesn't know Howe has the tape.  One of the generals is angry that he has done his research on Howe and found out he has the reputation as being a man of outstanding moral character, "now would you like to tell me what we're doing with a man of outstanding fucking moral character?  On this?"
No seriously, FUCK these guys.
Because he volunteered, that's why.  The general who put Howe on the job says they should just sit tight and wait for Howe to recover the tape.  Meanwhile they'll have to figure out what to do with The Punisher.  Howe want's him put on trial, and they can't allow that.  So it looks like they'll have to kill him themselves.

Howe tells Woody to destroy all of Frank's weapons bar the forty-five.  He then tells them they can all go, he'll take it from here alone.  He goes into the room Frank is still shackled to a chair in.  He puts the tape on the table and says he won't use it, not only would it lead to an international incident it would sully the ideals "integral to our nation's honour".

Frank: "Figures.  You want to tell me where that leaves us?"

Howe places Frank's forty-five on the table with eight bullets in it.  He sits down and asks Frank why he does what he does. Frank says it's so people can't walk away, can't profit from the pain they cause.  He doesn't do redemption.  "And you'll never stop" says Howe.  "No" says Frank.
In the end it comes down to this.
On the plane home, Geller is reviewing Frank's military records, he discovers Frank was in "Marine Recon" during his second Vietnam tour.  And has a sudden realisation.  Back with Howe, he tells Frank he didn't believe Frank deserved a soldiers death.  Arrest, trial and prison was the answer to The Punisher.

Howe: "But I watch that tape.  And I see what was set in motion in the name of profit.  And I think about what would happen if it saw the light of day.  And I understand that you've taught me a lesson in necessity".

The generals arrive at where Frank is being held all ready to kill him.  Howe comes out and tells them Frank and the tape are upstairs, "I wash my hands of it general.  I'm done" and he walks off into the night. 
Howe leaves the Generals with a sick burn.
Geller is still trying to reach one of the generals.  He realised that Frank's unit was doing wetwork in Cambodia and Laos during his second tour.  He believes that Frank's unit was the one that rescued Howe from the prison camp he was being held at.  That's why he volunteered for the job, why he insisted on arrest and a trial.  He wanted to save Frank's life.

Geller: "And if he is as dedicated to doing the right goddamn thing as I suspect he might be, and he's seen what's on the Rawlin's tape.  Then I am very much afraid that theres no telling what he might do."
The volume ends with extracts from the book "Valley Forge" paying tribute to the soldiers of Vietnam.  Nick Fury is in a bar reading it.  He finishes, looks despondant and orders another drink.  There is a short epilogue:

Valley Forge: "In the end the war in Vietnam was much like any other.  There were those that profited.  Those it devoured.  And then there was those for whom there are no words."

And we end on an image of Frank walking away from the bodies of the generals he shot with the gun Howe left him with.  His war still not over.  It'll never be over.
A fine ending to an absolutely amazing run by Ennis and the various artists who worked on the series, Goran Parlov was my favourite as it is a nice distinct style and Ennis would go on to do Fury MAX with him which I'll cover later in the year.  This is for me the definitive take on The Punisher, a profoundly damaged man trapped in a self inflicted hell for decades.  In this book we see what really riles Ennis up, which is corporate interests infiltrating the military and a general disregard for the common soldier by those further up the chain of command. Ennis would go one step further in his series "The Boys" which had a military contractor as the main villain, but what's so depressing about what we are told in this book is how sadly true it all is.  No one writes with more authority in comics about war and the military than Ennis does, and you can pretty much garuntee he's done his research when he brings in facts and figures.  The in-story book "Valley Forge" is a pretty heart-rending read, and has made me all the more impatient for "Born" to become avaliable more cheaply. It's actually included in the first reissued collection of this series, but I'm not double-dipping, I don't have that much cash to throw around.  Still to come though is my look at Book Five "The Slavers" next month and hopefully Book Six "Barracuda" will follow.  This series is a masterpiece from start to finish and I am so happy it's come back into print.  It can be an intense experience reading it all in one go, there is none of the levity that Ennis tends to flavour his other works with.  But if you are a fan of the Punisher and want a truly mature take on the character, you can't go wrong with this out-of-official-continuity MAX run.  Amazing stuff.


  1. powerful ending, and still more to come. glad they are rereleasing this series, its one of Garth Ennis's best!

  2. I found a Judge Dredd story by Garth Ennis that I actually like! It's called 'Helter Skelter'.

  3. @G: Yeah it's supercool the series is back in print. So this is the end of the series, but I'm jumping back to fill in the gap now.

    @Lucy: I'll have to keep an eye out for that, I don't think Ennis covered himself with glory during what Dredds of his I have read.

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