The Punisher MAX Vol. 1: In the Beginning
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Lewis Larosa and Tom Palmer
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Re: The Netflix Show. If they had managed to get Clint Eastwood to play Frank Castle then maybe I would have watched it.
I mean don’t get me wrong: I actually kinda like Jon Bernthal (Brad Bodnick ftw!) but from what I read and what I heard it didn’t seem like they really wanted to push The Punisher to the kinda place where it would actually be worth watching – namely: well – every single thing that Garth Ennis does with him in the Punisher MAX which (full disclosure): might actually be one of the best comics I think I might have ever read whilst at the same time being one of the most repellent and (oh shit): here’s the kicker – the repellentness of it, the toxicity of it, the way that reading it feels like breathing in gasoline: (my fear / secret realization is) The Punisher MAX isn’t good despite of all of that stuff: it’s so good because of it.
I think the first time I read the Punisher MAX was way back when I was working for Islington Libraries. I think I picked up Volume 8: Widowmaker which is the one with all the mafia wives and yeah ok: my first reaction was basically one of disgust. Like a proper indignant Mary Whitehouse style feeling of: what the hell is this shit and why are people reading it? I mean: yeah yeah Garth Ennis had always kinda been my go-to guy (like I think I’ve already said in the past: I read Preacher back when I was a teenager and well: that stuff goes deep right?): but well yeah – in the past all of the stuff that I’d read of his although it had been crazy violent: it had always been leavened by somekind of comedy and jokes and silliness. You know: a cocktail with some juice and colour and a little cheeky umbrella on top.
And. Yes. Well. To state the complete and total obvious – Punisher Max is not that. It’s not a Piña Colada or a Sex on the Beach or anything so colourful. It is a two shots of full-strength vodka served neat. And holy fuck it burns.
And so yeah: the first time I read it all I could think was: why would anyone want to read this? It dark and nasty and full of horrific violence. I remember (again back when I was a teenager) watching Fight Club at my aunt’s house and we got to the point of the first proper Fight Club Fight she stood up and walked out of the room. And when I asked her why she said: “It’s not entertaining to watch people be violent to each other. Maybe you’ll understand when you’re older.” And well yeah shit reading this Widowmaker comic: I felt like I understood exactly what she meant. Because even tho it was just drawings: it was drawings of people being mean and ugly and oh so very violent with each other: and god – why was I filling my head with it? I mean yeah – I get that the world is a terrible and awful place: but wouldn’t it be better to go and read and watch something with way less guns and knives and blood and pain and hurting? You know: Punisher Mild? Wouldn’t that be a lot better and way much more wholesome? To and elevate my spirit instead of having it smeared with the darkness of whatever it was inside that lives this comic?
But here’s the thing maybe: maybe (just maybe?) there’s a way to show this kind of horror and instead of letting you revel in it like: oh – a hundred other comics and films that I could name… And instead of making it feel weightless – maybe there’s a way to show violence and make you feel the weight of it?
Or hell (uh oh): maybe I’m tying myself up in circles and paradoxes? Maybe this is just an incredibly violent violence for the sake of it? And everything else is just trying to justify the unjustifiable? And maybe it’s a part of living in a world that’s so often so harsh and terrible that gives us a taste for this kinda stuff in the first place? (Anyone else ever finish a long day at work and just feel like they wanna watch something with explosions and people smashing each other in various painful ways? Or to put it another way: in a perfect socialist utopia paradise – will I still wanna see Frank take out some fucker’s head with a shotgun?.
Part of me wants to say “no.” Part of me wants to be an angelic world child and form a circle with nothing but joy and sunlight inside my heart. But the other part of me sees that guy’s head explode and (oh boy) pumps my fist and cheers (“TAKE THAT YOU BASTARD!” etc)
And yeah in another context – in a cheaper-feeling comic that felt like it was just out to revel in the explosive gore: I reckon I’d probably just dismiss it or (even worse) get up on my moral high horse and say that this is part of what makes the world so terrible (and why can we show someone getting shot but we can’t show two people making love and etc): but because of what Ennis does (plus all of the very much excellent artists in every volume): because it’s all constructed and put together with such obvious care and craft and intelligence (and don’t you dare even think about disagreeing) and such good moral hand-wringing about all the things it depicts that it makes it feel more than ok to indulge and revel in all of it’s awfulness.
Or to put it another way: if you try and give me a chocolate I’ll shake my head and say that chocolate is bad for you. But hell: if you wrap that baby inside something that illustrates all the various ways in which chocolate is terrible and chocolate doesn’t work and we need to learn to live in a society without chocolate – then I’m going to gobble that delicious chocolate up and tell you it’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
And that’s Punisher MAX.
(And it knows it).
What do you think?
Ugh, Garth Ennis makes my skin crawl.
There’s this strawman argument that if you don’t like his stuff, it’s because you think it’s sick filth that should be banned. It fits nicely into his super-edgy TO THE MAX schtick, but personally I just find it a bit pathetic: he’s like a toddler who’s learnt that adults react if you keep shouting POO, except he’s pushing fifty.
I guess I could lay into the homophobia/racism/misogyny/etc., but it feels like that’s just rising to his bait – he’s so desperate to offend you, he knows so many bad swears, so much red ink, look how transgressive he is! Thing is, he’s so busy doing that that there’s no time left for actually, y’know, developing characters or story. New bad guys get wheeled in each arc, all with one or two characteristics (black irish guy! woman! short angry guy! face blown off! weak establishment man!) and a complete lack of personality, then the Punisher gets to affirm his manliness by being more badass than them.
I just can’t find any reason to care. Frank Castle is a complete blank slate (he’s an angry/miserable dude with guns. woo.) and so are his victims, so I have no stakes in the fights. There’s never any tension, because I couldn’t care less who dies (spoilers: everyone but Frank).
Also, what’s the deal with the covers?
Punisher is supposed to be a vietnam vet, right? So that makes him… Say he was 18 on his first tour. makes him 21 when it ended in ’75… So he’s late 40s at least, the comic seems to go closer to late 50s.
How come every cover he looks mid-20s? Is it just to make it an easier sell to the target audiance? If so, that kind of implies the viewer is meant to identify with Castle, and that is all kinds of messed up.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Uh oh. I’m a little worried now that if I write some stuff trying to stick up for Frank/Garth then I’m gonna painted with a brush marked “edgelord”: but I’m hoping that my ambivalence is already showing from what I wrote before…
Questions for Rat (or anyone else who wants to answer I guess):
– What would make Punisher MAX feel less skin-crawly / less pathetic?
Like: it’s funny. I feel like with pretty much any other Ennis book I’d understand. The Boys and Preacher particularly have bits and moments where it feels like the target audience is Beavis and/or Butthead (which is a shame because there’s a lot of good stuff in there – The Boys especially): plus that other un-MAX Punisher thing he did with Steve Dillon? Where he punched the polar bear or something?
But well yeah: Punisher MAX I mean for me it doesn’t really feel like Garth “Preacher” Ennis. It’s more him with his serious face on. Like: if you’re reading and doing lols then I’m gonna guess there’s something wrong with you (altho I should admit that there’s a bit in the Mother Russia arc that makes me giggle like a maniac – just for the complete and total audacity of it).
– What parts of it are homophobia/racism/misogyny/etc?
Like it’s been a little while since I read it: but I should admit that I can’t really recall any moments like that. Maybe I missed them or maybe we have different points of view? I don’t know… (and again: I mean – I seem to recall that there’s loads and loads of dodgy stuff in Preacher and The Boys: but that’s a different flavour of Ennis – no?)…
– What else would need to happen to developing the characters and/or the story?
Again: maybe this is just different tastes – but shit: I thought every character is actually pretty solidly defined: with enough of a clear sense of who they are in order to get things going… Random tangent maybe: but it kinda reminds me of the first episode of Mindhunter where the main FBI agent gets home – tired after a long day at work – and opens his fridge to take a giant swig from a bottle of… milk. I mean: that tells you everything you need to know about what a boy scout he is: do you really need anything more?
– Is it bad that Frank Castle is just a complete blank slate (he’s an angry/miserable dude with guns)?
I mean: that’s like the point of the whole book no? And like: if you’re not down with the premise then it’s probably not for you. (I watched the original version of The Taking of Pelham 123 a few years ago with my cousin. It’s a film about people robbing a train. And when it was down and I asked my cousin what they thought of it they said: “I just don’t think that people would really wanna rob a train.”). Frank Castle being nothing more than a guy with guns and a thirst for punishment is what (for me) gives the series it’s sick magnetic pull. You know: and I really love how unvarnished it all is. I mean: most forms of mainstream entertainment are about a “good guy” trying to get back at a “bad guy” right? And with these books (as chessy I totally know this is to say): Garth Ennis pushes that up all the way to the… max.
Re: the covers / people identifying with Frank – I mean: that’s a whole thing in itself. Will just leave it here for now. 🙂
I’m really surprised with your asking ‘what parts are racism, etc.’ – not having a go at you, it just seemed so obvious to me that someone not reading it the same way is deeply weird. To my eyes it just drips off the entire thing – constant use of derogatory terms, every black character being a gangsta stereotype, irish = mad bombers, italian-american = gansters, russians are just waves of bodies with some nukes.
First woman we meet (not counting fridged wife/daughter), she’s so turned on castle that she’s listening for his growly voice at a door because ‘that shit always gets me soaking wet’. Second woman is a hooker. (There are a few more hookers, and two randoms playing pool, but they’re not speaking parts).
First black guy we see is a pimp.
That covers every non-white-male part in the first entire arc.
What would make Punisher MAX less skin-crawly? It’s a hard question, Ennis’ Punisher focuses so much on the super-extreme that to try and ‘fix’ it would just leave a pointless grey pulp. Like I said, the various ‘isms’ are just part of the Super Extreme, so I think you’d need to completely change the focus of the comic.
OK, I don’t want to get stuck on negative stuff, so I’m thinking… What’s good about Punisher, what would I do if I was going to write it? I’d have something similar to the first arc with Micro, but extend it – have it largely from the PoV of a government team trying to get this sociopathic monster on-side. Emphasise their normality (even if they’ve Seen Some Shit they’re still functional humans), contrast it with the inhuman death-machine of Castle. More horror, less gore. Quality deaths over sheer quantity, each one lovingly driven home by the reactions of the people around them.
Maybe a story from the PoV of a very Normal Person criminal? Maybe someone tries to rob a shop to pay off a debt, it goes wrong and they kill someone. Naturally, they go into hiding. But then, not only are the police after them, their friends start disappearing, and they realise The Punisher is stalking them, hunting them down. Follow the person as they run, hide, try everything to shake this larger-than-life horror that’s following them. Maybe they get lucky and land a shot on him – and it just doesn’t matter, he just keeps going. And you can’t go to the police because they’re after you just as much.
My thinking is that the Punisher would be far more effective as an antihero if the rest of the people trapped in his world were more human. I’d aim for similar plot-beats to Terminator – one of the reasons the Terminator was so scary is because his target was a regular woman pitted against this thing that doesn’t get tired, doesn’t get scared, doesn’t care about anything but killing her. I think there’s great stuff to be done with that sort of theme, and I think you’d be able to make it far nastier if you wanted to – the more you can get the reader to identify with the victim, the more effect you’ll get from Bad Shit happening to them.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
We got these plastic books stands at a Library I was at once which all had little quotes on them. The one that has always stuck with me was the one that said something like: “I love book clubs. They’re one of the only places you can have amicable disagreements.” I mean: it would be nice if you could have amicable disagreements elsewhere but I guess that’s a whole other thing… But what I’m trying to say is that I’m very happy to have amicable disagreements. I think taking through different points of views in a nice way is one of the best things in the world and important and helpful and (fingers crossed) hopefully makes all us better people with a better insights into how other people see the world…
All of which to say: thank you rat for your reply. I didn’t feel like you were having a go – it’s cool. And I hope in return you don’t feel like I’m having a go at you. I’m just going to try and articulate my point of view and you are very welcome to disagree and tell me where you think maybe I’m going wrong. 🙂
Ok: so in the hope of keeping things simple and clear (fingers crossed): let’s just stick on the racism for now (if that’s ok)
Just to be clear about what I’m coming from: I obviously think racism exists. I think it’s bad. I think it’s toxic and and stupid and ugly and corrosive. I think our society is racist. And I’d like to live in a society that was free from racism. Because – well – obviously. And well: I think that’s what most people would want – no?
But well yeah: I don’t think that Punisher MAX is racist.
I mean everything you’ve said is true:
“First woman we meet (not counting fridged wife/daughter), she’s so turned on castle that she’s listening for his growly voice at a door because ‘that shit always gets me soaking wet’. Second woman is a hooker. (There are a few more hookers, and two randoms playing pool, but they’re not speaking parts).
First black guy we see is a pimp.
That covers every non-white-male part in the first entire arc.”
Like: my first response is that – well: the white male characters are all awful too. The other CIA characters we meet are all corrupt and/or incompetent. The mafia guys are all psychotic or cannon fodder. Micro is a opportunistic coward who betrays his best friend. The Frank’s neighbour in the flashback is a slimeball. And Frank Castle is well… a monster. If you’re reading Punisher MAX and looking for likeable characters or role-models – then you’ve come to the wrong place. Frankly the picture it paints is that everyone is scum.
In fact – I’d say that the second woman that you mentioned (the one with the red hair right?) is probably the nicest character in the whole first arc. You know: in that she’s probably the only person I’d be comfortable sharing a drink with.
But then: I guess that maybe we might have different ideas of what makes something racist or not. And hey – for what it’s worth I would guess that most people share your ideas and not mine so it’s probably fair to say that where I’m coming from is a little weird. 🙂
Like: for me the Punisher MAX would be racist if it was written in such a way that made me think that it thought that – to use your example of the pimp: that it thought that every black guy was like that. That instead of thinking that people are just people and can come in lots of different shapes and sizes and moralities etc: that it was making some-kind of racial judgement. And well yeah: that’s not something that I get from Punisher MAX at all. I mean: pretty much everyone feels like their own fully formed character and not just a “black person” or a “irish person” or whatever. Like: it doesn’t really do stereotypes. Obviously lol the unnamed black pimp is probably an exception to that rule – but to be fair: he’s only around for one page… Like: in the next arc there’s Maginty: but he feels like a complete person and not just a cardboard cut-out or whatever.
I could be totally off base here – that maybe our disagreement is basically over whether or not there are any characters who are exemplars of their race or gender or whatever (is “exemplars” the right word? I don’t know). That if Frank Castle had a black friend who had a good job and was an upstanding member of his community then the Punisher MAX would be ok somehow? (And lol actually now I think of it: there are a few characters who are a little like that – there’s that upstanding Samuel-Jackson-type cop in volume 8).
Of course this is the whole problem with representation right? And only being able to see people as representatives of their race or gender or whatever? Like: this approach kinda made a little more sense when I was a kid and there was way less minority etc representation in culture and so every black character was basically treated as the representative of Every Black Person ever. Which lol is how you end up with tropes like the “Magical Negro.” But well: speaking only for myself – I kinda thought that as a culture we could maybe be at the point where seeing a black person be a pimp or a criminal or a cop or whatever doesn’t make you think that “Oh right – so this must be racist then.”
And well yeah: rat I think your description of Punisher stories you’d like to see (with functional, more human, normal person people) feels very telling. Because yeah – Punisher MAX isn’t coming close to that type of thing at all. In all 10 volumes of this series (plus Born and those short stories – anyone else read The End yet??): there’s no one I think really comes close to being well adjusted and ok. Like: it’s wall-to-wall criminals and grotesques. And that’s what I like about it. And that’s what I think makes it so interesting to read. Because (praise be and thank you god) I don’t live in the world of Punisher MAX which is what makes it so much of an experience visiting it.
But the whole thing is a cautionary tale. And I really don’t think any of it is supposed to be held up as any kind of example of who to live. It’s not that kind of story.
The Garth Ennis introduction to the first Complete Collection says it really well. With him talking about seeing a Violence in Comics talk long ago with the guy who was the writer / editor of The Punisher at the time:
“His take on the subject was a simple one. The Punisher was a violent character in a violent story, he said, but the violence neither made the world better nor relieved the character’s torment. Frank Castle, the Punisher, was not a happy man and never would be.”
And I’ll leave it at that for now.
My previous exposure to Punisher was the movie so I didn’t expect to care for this because superhero stuff isn’t really my bag. But it’s Garth Ennis and I did love Preacher. So there’s that.
I started In the Beginning right after I caught up on Howard Chaykin’s Divided States of Hysteria and read Frank Miller’s Holy Terror and it got me thinking about how influential 9/11 and America’s war on terror have been in 21st century pop culture. These books cover a span from 2004 (Punisher) to 2017 (Divided States).
Miller’s is the most simplistic treatment of the three, though I don’t think it’s as terrible as its reputation would suggest. Or at least, not for the reasons usually cited. I didn’t find it especially offensive, but I thought it lacked depth.
All three run on the (damaged) hero vs. terrorists trope. Divided States and In the Beginning seem more on the same wavelength. Where Holy Terror is pure revenge fantasy (and this is the redeeming feature of the book: Miller’s pain and rage infuse the art on a visceral level) Divided States and In the Beginning are more nuanced, and more cynical.
They have a lot common. Chaykin’s Frank Villa and Punisher Frank Castle are both men who lost their families, seeking vengeance outside the law. Frank Villa is a more optimistic character and his revenge is tempered with atonement; the terrorist attack occurred because he fucked up. Frank Castle is under no illusions that what he’s doing is anything but meting out punishment. He’s a vigilante serial killer; it’s his all consuming purpose. Where Villa has Chrissie, and some kind of redemption arc, Castle has none. His human relationships are hollow; the closest thing he has to a personal connection is with O’Brien, a woman nearly as damaged and consumed with vengeance as he is. (That comes later though, in Up is Down).
There’s contrast in how the two work with official structures. In Divided States, Villa is disgraced, but he has the latitude to pursue his personal vendetta against the terrorists with an unofficial blessing because it coincides with the goals of the state. He’s on the outside but not completely.
The Punisher is a different matter. When he’s approached with an off-the-books offer from the CIA to kill some terrorists for God, Country, and Apple Pie, he throws it back in their faces and kills some corrupt CIA agents for good measure. In his own way, Frank Castle’s world view is as simple as Frank Miller’s; he’s untroubled by the idea that poverty, systemic inequalities, and lack of opportunity may push young men into criminal gangs, for instance. People in his world are either innocent or guilty.
They contrast again in how the three stories present the global causes of terrorism. Miller’s is, fittingly, a black and white world view where terrorism is simplistic: religious fundamentalists fighting a holy war. Chaykin’s is more complex; there are relationships between different factions, oligarchs, foreign investors, and odd-bedfellow alliances serving more complicated agendas, but for all its cowardice and politicking, the U.S. Government is still on the side of right. Ennis’s treatment is by far the most grim, where the U.S. government itself is actively peddling drugs and perpetuating terrorism, raising up its own Islamist terrorist cells to use on foreign enemies.
My favorite art (so far – I’ve read up to Barracuda) is by Leandro Fernandez. But I was excited to see Chaykin draws one of the later stories. (Haven’t gotten there yet, but yay!)
I thought In the Beginning was a beautiful meditation on violence. I love everything about this book.
Islington Comic Forum
I think the Punisher MAX series is great, one of the best testosterone filled takes on the thriller genre I’ve seen done in comics outside of manga. The violence is satisfyingly horrible, there’s some often very funny black humour, there are lots of good twists and the art ranges from pretty good to sublime, especially the stunning art by Goran Parlov (In particular O Brien enjoying a sunrise is one of my favorite panels of any comic comic) I’m not convinced it’s got anything particularly profound to say about the nature of violence but the storytelling craft is what really impressed me about the run. Although there are about ten volumes, what’s really impressive is how any single volume makes a satisfying standalone read and even each of the original comics was fairly accessable for new readers without lots of annoying obtrusive recaps. It’s also worth mentioning that a huge influence on this series is the works of US thriller writer Stephen Hunter which are some of the best page turners I’ve ever read. He’s become irritaingly (to me at least) pro Republican party over the years but his earlier books like ‘Dirty White Boys’, ‘Black Light’ and ‘Point of Impact’ (made into the inferior film Shooter) are well worth reading if anyone’s looking for more of the same after finishing Punisher Max
Geek Genre / Twitter
If you ever double cross Frank Castle, you will get ten times as punishment as what you had inflicted on him and this is what this graphic novel volume of Punisher Max by Garth Ennis speaks in abundance about. It’s a testosterone and adrenaline dangerous ride with some slick shady grainy art to boot! If you like the story to be as gritty and as anti-hero with ultimate badassery abounds with a layer upon layer of higher vengeance, then you will like this story a lot! The writing is so easy to digest with direct street-like talk and it is very satisfying to read on its next subplot with each issue!