Binge Review 11: The Boys

Let me get this out of the way before we begin: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was great and you do not need me to explain why you should see it.

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Writer Garth Ennis is Mark Millar with artistic integrity. Not only has he written the best Punisher books to date, he has the uncanny ability to take intense, childishly edgy material, and play it totally straight. His books hinge on serious, but are so absurd and ridiculous they border on humorous. Ennis obviously writes to have fun and does not let that get in the way of telling a great story… except Crossed.

I was pretty young when I heard about The Boys and never picked it up because I thought it was going to be more try-hard crap like Crossed. As I got older and absorbed more of Ennis’s work I grew to appreciate what he does, but Boys did not enter my mind again until I saw it was coming to Amazon Prime. I also heard the producers of Preacher were in charge, a great show if you want to fall asleep. Needless to say I was more than a little skeptical going in.

From the start Boys captures the tone of Ennis’s writing with a heroic sequence of the show’s Justice League analogue called the Seven punctuated by a scene the protagonist’s girlfriend getting accidently obliterated by the team’s Flash equivalent. After that we switch perspectives to an up-incoming heroin called Starlight who is asked to perform oral sex on the Seven’s Aquaman analogue in order to join.

It does not get much better after that.

Boys imagines what the world would be like if superheroes were real. Not unlike how film studios handle comic book characters today, superheroes or supes as they are called in the show are corporatized assets in a multi-million dollar industry of not only (staged) crime fighting, but also movie deals, PR stunts, and sponsorships. The show also explores the psyche of the supes and gives them very human flaws. The Wonder Woman analogue is a jaded aging alcoholic. The invisible supe is a voyeuristic pervert that hangs out in bathrooms fully naked. The Superman analogue has a messiah complex and a laundry list of other issues that are bound to get worse from season to season.

The supes are only half the show with the titular Boys the main focus. We follow Hughie, a normal guy that worked at an electronics store before Butcher, an independent contractor that used to punish or kill supes for the government, recruits him following the evisceration of his girlfriend. As the pair gets deeper into a conspiracy involving the Seven and their corporate overlords, former members rejoin the Boys to help unravel the mystery. As teams go they have a good dynamic where everyone is screwed up in some way and hates each other, but they get along when it comes to taking down supes.

Unlike typical Ennis stories, the violence of the show is toned down significantly. I looked up some choice panels from Boys and there was no way even half of that was going to make it to screen. What we get is enough that it maintains the tone without too much gratuity. Sure people are lazed in half, guns melted onto criminals’ hands, and supes are blown up into bloody chunks, but it happens in short bursts about once per episode.

Where the show falters is in character progression. Boys does a good job of setting up their personalities, but they develop faster than they should for the sake of pacing. A good handful of the characters have layers of complexity that needed time to simmer and grow from episode to episode. One in particular shows his true colors rather quickly and ruins an otherwise satisfying pay off for future seasons. The whole of the season was front loaded with all this baggage unwittingly dumped on the audience for seemingly no reason. Had the show left more in the dark or set up a better cliffhanger that does not ruin the more important mystery, it would have been satisfying.

With streaming services everywhere these days, there is so much content in the open that it is impossible to judge what is worth watching. About 90% of what is available is the same crap you find on cable. The Boys is the exception as it deconstructs the superhero genre in a time when entertainment media is utterly saturated in them. May not be the most intellectual, but the show is a good start in the right direction. If you have Amazon Prime, it is worth looking into if you have eight hours to spare.

On the Punisher 09: Comics Review 6

Season two of Daredevil herald the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. The character has his own series on Netflix and it remains to be seen if Bernthal can keep up the momentum. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, I will dedicate a new series to covering my favorite Punisher stories.

* * *

The Slavers (2005)
Garth Ennis
Leandro Fernandez

If you were to compare Frank Castle to a movie slasher, Michael Myers is a perfect match. They are both shapeless entities with a singular drive, operating on instinct to get what they want. Where they differ is Frank has a defined moral compass, but remains an emotionless automaton. Nicky Cavella came close to getting a tangible emotional reaction out of Castle, but pissing on the corpses of his family was not enough. What came next would ultimately do the job in one of the darkest Punisher stories ever written.

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Lining up his crosshairs on a Balkan crime boss Frank prepares to do what he does best when someone tries to steal his kill. A lone woman nearly kills the boss before fleeing the scene. The boss sends his boys to get her, leaving him alone for Castle to perforate from his rooftop perch. Tracking the woman Frank contemplates abandoning her before the boys catch her and drop their pants. Castle makes quick work of them, saving the woman from humiliation.

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On his way out the woman begs for help, but Frank wants to stay out of it until she mentions a baby. The next day the woman wakes up in Castle’s subterranean home where she tells her story. Her name is Viorica and she lived in a village in Moldova before she was kidnapped and forced into prostitution. After enduring months of abuse and selling her body to multiple men on a daily basis, she was sent to America as a part of a larger operation run by a Romanian father/son team and a woman named Vera.

After the move Viorica gave birth to a baby named Anna, but she was only allowed to see her if she worked hard. Desperate to escape with her child, Viorica ran away and met a social worker named Jen Cooke, who was building a case against the Slavers. One day, when Jen leaves the baby in what she assumed was a safe place she gets an email from Vera meant for Viorica.

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A dead baby is more than enough motivation for Frank to rip and tear. All he needs is a who, what, and where. While telling her story, Viorica laid out the details of the operation. The Slavers have middlemen to attract clients before sending them to discreet locations where the girls are held. One of the middlemen was the boss Castle deep-sixed beforehand, leading him to the man’s club for answers. Wiping out the remaining gangsters, Frank interrogates the boss’s replacement, and gets an address.

Posing as a driver for a pair of clients leaving the house, Frank pulls over the van and makes them an offer. He wants the clients to tell him everything and then to lie to the house guards about losing their wallets once they drove back. The clients oblige until a cop shows up, siren blaring. Intent on sparing the officer Castle puts the fear of God into him before fleeing, the cop’s arrival no doubt spooking the Slavers.

While trying to get information on a new house location, Frank butchers random pimps until he realizes they do not know anything. He later tracks down Jen Cooke to get something more and she gives it up without protest.

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Tiberiu and Cristu Bulat ran a militia of foreign fighters during the Bosnian War. As they massacred whole villages, the militia took the young women, and killed the rest. Castle assumes once stability returned to the region, the sex trade would be difficult to maintain without NATO intervening. So, the Bulats took their operation underground and moved west. Frank realizes trying to get more information from veterans of the Yugoslav Wars would take extreme measures and plans accordingly.

Following up on a potential location from one of Jen’s rescues, Castle heads into rural New York in search of a house on a lake. Watching from a distance he spies a squad of heavily armed men enter the house, Cristu among them. Knowing they were ready for him, Frank knew to come at dinnertime, and spike their stew with a knockout drug. Soon the whole house goes to sleep and he gives each of the men a twelve-gauge face-lift. The only man to survive was Cristu because Frank needed answers. What followed is one of the most disturbing pages in comics.

 

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Having gotten what he needed Castle makes his way back to the house when he notices Tiberiu and a dozen men had arrived. Apparently, the father came to kill the son over a business dispute. Frank takes the smart route and hides under the cabin’s dock, hoping to given them the slip. Without a second thought he decides to go loud and gives the closest man a 45-caliber castration. Frank opens fire topside until he realizes he is not fighting street trash. The Slavers are real soldiers with more than a decade of experience. As Tiberiu gives orders the soldiers overwhelm Castle, forcing him to dive into the lake.

After returning to the city he meets Jen at a diner with two off-duty cops, Russ and Miller. They came to her after learning Jen was under surveillance by a Detective Westin, a known shitbag. Russ and Miller eventually reveal Westin is on the take from the Slavers. The cops agree to help, but on the condition that the Detective lives. Frank agrees and moves to pull apart the remains of the operation.

Making his way to a business office Frank confronts Vera, the brains of the Slavers. Plunking her two guards he throws Vera face-first into the window of a secluded room. The glass does not break, giving Frank enough time to reveal how much he knows after dissecting Cristu. He throws her again and again, slowly turning her face into a bloody pulp, while looting filing cabinets for information on Westin. With his final throw the window pops out its frame and Vera plummets to the street.

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Vera’s files give Frank the address of the last house and a possible location for Tiberiu. After setting up an explosive under the manhole by the curb of the house he waits across the street for the old man’s arrival. Triggering the bomb after making a positive ID Frank charges inside. He chases Tiberiu to the top floor where he uses a girl as a shield, knife to her throat. The old man eggs him on and Castle knows he is at a disadvantage with a scattergun. Out of options he settles for a gamble and calls Tiberiu a coward in Romanian. The old man tosses the girl aside and charges Frank before Tiberiu takes a knee to the face.

Later, with Tiberiu chained to a chair, Castle brings in Detective Westin to make a deal, threatening him with Vera’s file. Frank offers to surrender the file if Westin delivers a package to the Bulat’s contacts back home and acquires Visa’s for the rescued girls. Westin asks what package before Frank turns on a video camera and douses Tiberiu in gasoline. Sparking a flame from a flip-lighter Castle looks into the camera and says “Don’t come back here,” before tossing the lighter.

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The Slavers is Taken if it were a horror movie and actually good. It shines a light on the darkest criminal enterprise in the world and makes sure you see every detail. While acts of sexual assault are not shown on the page, the description and implication thanks to Ennis’s unparalleled storytelling makes you feel all sorts of uncomfortable. Unlike the usual story arcs, trafficking and slavery is very real, and having the Punisher in the middle of it was surreal to say the least. Instead of cartoonish gangsters and run-of-the-mill thugs, Castle is faced with real monsters that make their money on sexual violence.

If you cannot stomach sexual assault and/or violence against women, stay far away from this book. For Punisher fans, get ready for Frank’s most visceral and disturbing story yet.

On the Punisher 08: Comics Review 5

Season two of Daredevil heralded the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. Soon, the character will get his own series on Netflix and it remains to be seen if Bernthal can keep up the momentum. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, I will dedicate a new series to covering my favorite Punisher books.

* * *

Up is Down and Black is White (2005)
Garth Ennis
Leandro Fernandez

Trying to emotionally shake Frank Castle is like beating on a brick wall with a whiffle bat. The man is best described as a void, a walking abyss whose singular purpose is to bring death to those that have done wrong. If he did not have his own villains, the Marvel Pantheon of Heroes would have no one left to fight. The closest anyone has ever gotten to penetrate Frank’s black exterior was Nicky Cavella in the worst way possible.

After recovering from his wounds suffered the last time he tried to kill Castle, Nicky returns home to a council of gangsters trying to salvage what is left of their business. Soldiers promoted to Capo have no clue what they are doing and call upon Cavella for advice. His solution: kill the Punisher. Having lost everything to the infamous vigilante the council is more than reluctant to devote their diminished resources to such a fruitless endeavor.

Nevertheless, they vote on the proposal while Nicky awaits their answer. Sending his partner Teresa, the sister of Pittsy to dispose of any dissenting voices, Cavella gets the gangsters to play along. In the same night Nicky and Teresa travel to the graveyard where Frank’s family is buried, exhume their skeletons, and urinate on the bones. The act is caught on camera and the footage sent to the media. At a diner the desecration is shown on television where Castle eats dinner.

Rather than bury the bodies, the NYPD confiscates the corpses as evidence in an ongoing investigation. Frank reacts to this development by travelling around town with a light machine gun and mopping up three criminal establishments in a single night. While inflicting near maximum casualties, he leaves one alive to tell the first responders to bury his family. If they do not, then he will keep going.

Watching his work play out, Cavella is visited by an old acquaintance named Rawlins, the same Rawlins that organized the failed terror attack on Moscow back in Mother Russia. The generals that planned the operation sent him to take out Castle for fear he knows too much. Seeing Nicky’s scheme as an opportunity, Rawlins convinces him to join forces via blackmail and appealing to Cavella’s repressed homosexuality.

With the mounting body count, the NYPD gives in and agrees to bury Frank’s family. Castle decides to go after Nicky, but a part of him knows it is a trap. However, he does not care about doing the deed with the same skill that made him such a formidable vigilante. A part of him, a rage greater than he had ever felt, wants to kill Cavella regardless of the danger.

Perched on a rooftop overlooking Nicky sitting outside a café, Rawlins stares through the scope of a rifle as Frank pulls up with shotgun. Before the killing blow could be struck, Cavella is hit instead. Behind the trigger stands Kathryn O’Brien, one of the CIA operatives that worked for Bethell from In the Beginning. She lays covering fire, buying her enough time to capture Rawlins and escape with Castle.

Meeting at the home of William Roth, another of Bethell’s operatives that tried to capture Frank, O’Brien interrogates Rawlins. He was one of her husbands who left her to a dreadful fate on a mission in Kabul. Rawlins brings up the incident and O’Brien leaves him alone with Castle. Meanwhile, Nicky and Teresa come upon Roth’s residence after licking their wounds. Cavella wants to wait for back up, but Teresa has a bloodlust that is exacerbated when Nicky turns down her advances.

After removing one of Rawlins’ eyes, Frank takes a breather with O’Brien. It is not long before the two are in bed together. She confesses that despite her years of wet work, she sees him as a good man. Watching Castle approach Cavella out in the open inspired her to act, fearing he was going to get himself killed. They lay with each other one last time before Frank takes a knife in the chest from Teresa. A fight ensues that leaves both him and O’Brien bloody. Castle gains the upper hand and gives her space to empty a whole pistol clip into Teresa’s face.

Before going their separate ways, Frank and O’Brien get Rawlins to confess to the Moscow terror attack among other operations. With the footage Castle will use it as evidence to go after the generals while O’Brien will use it to clear her name. On the way out, however, they stumble upon Cavella all by his lonesome trying to make a move.

After taking a little boy hostage, Frank calls him a coward who gets other people to do the killing and dying. Nicky gives in and lets the boy go, realizing his psychopath persona is a facade. O’Brien rushes back inside to warn Roth of the oncoming police and finds Rawlins gone. The story ends with Castle walking Cavella into the woods and shooting him in the stomach, saying he will die slowly from blood poisoning.

Needless to say there is a lot going on in Up is Down and Black is White. There was a lot I had leave out of the summary because we would have been here all day. With the characters working in parallel, we get Nicky’s backstory where he killed his own family and became the victim of sex abuse by his aunt. O’Brien is also more involved where she is accused of murder while in prison and escapes to New York City. Then there is Rawlins, who is connected to O’Brien and Nicky.

On top of that there is Castle’s desire for suicide that comes out of nowhere. While on his rampage, he has a reoccurring dream of all the scum dead at his feet as the innocents watch from the sidelines. Among the corpses is Frank’s family. He looks to the innocents and says, “If my world ends, so does yours,” before turning his gun on them. And after everyone is dead, his wife Maria tells him “We are still dead” before the dream ends.

It is an interesting concept that furthers Castle’s complexity. Nicky was right to target his family’s grave because that is where it all started. That was the last time the world appeared normal and once they were gone, Frank became the void. But Cavella’s simple provocation made Castle realize that there was no point. His family is still dead and watching Nicky piss on their corpses showed a faint glimmer of reality that he had been denying. No matter how many people he killed, nothing was going to change that they were gone forever.

O’Brien is very similar in this case.  In the latter years of her life she became embroiled in a world not unlike Frank’s.  In the nihilistic underbelly of wet work she became used to the darkness and remains content.  Even after what happened to her in Kabul, she did not quit and brushed it off as another part of the job.  Her story, though not as prominent, runs in tandem with Castle’s whereas she sees him as a genuinely good person despite what they have in common.  The title Up is Down and Black is White is how they see the world and explains why they are the way they are.

Leonardo Fernandez returns with his pencils following Kitchen Irish. It goes to show that a having a competent colorist can make all the difference in the world because this is a decisive improvement. Every panel is rich in detail from the gruesome to the beautiful. The guns are accurate, the characters’ expressions full of life, and the scenes perfectly realized.

Though one of my favorite MAX books, Up is Down and Black is White is difficult to recommend if you have not read the last three books. It builds upon what was established beforehand while adding more details that have yet to come. If you are as big a fan as I, you will have no problem understanding what is going on. Otherwise, get caught up before you jump in.

On the Punisher 07: Comics Review 4

Season two of Daredevil heralds the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, I will dedicate a new series of posts to covering my favorite Punisher books.

* * *

Mother Russia (2005)

Garth Ennis

Dougie Braithwaite

Punisher is the antithesis of the action hero. He is not handsome, he does not use one-liners, and his personality pure nihilism. Frank Castle is what happens when John Matrix experiences psychological trauma and becomes a creature of instinct whose sole motivation is to kill criminals. He does not care about anything except his purpose and coasts through life looking for people to put his bullets in. Mother Russia, however, explores how Frank would fare as an action hero.

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After a drug pusher who dabbles in child prostitution gets back on the streets, Frank pays him and a dozen bodyguards a visit. After rearranging the pusher’s face with a shotgun, Castle steps out back before the bodyguards rush inside to find the oven gas turned up and a grenade. Finishing off the survivors retreating from the burning house, Colonel Nick Fury greets Frank outside, looking to talk business. Meeting at a local bar, he offers Castle access to national criminal databases in exchange for a favor. Frank accepts and is flown to an Air Force base.

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Castle’s mission is to infiltrate a missile silo and exfiltrate with Galina Stenkov, the daughter of a Russian scientist who developed a virus called Barbarossa. After failing to defect to America, he injected Galina with the virus and the antidote before he was killed. The virus will remain active within the girl for 48 hours and the government wants a sample. While Frank would have the mission well in hand, he is not going alone. The cabal of generals running the show is adamant about sending their man Vanheim from Delta Force as a partner.

After touching down in the frozen wastes, Castle and Vanheim acquire uniforms from soldiers in the local town and make their way to the silo. A few well-placed shots and burst arteries get the two inside before finding Galina in a laboratory. Everything seems fine as they make their way out when Vanheim stumbles upon some idle Russian soldiers and jumps the gun, alerting the whole area to their presence.

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When they retreat underground and fortify their position, the Russian military is notified of the attack. In command of the troops is General Zakharov, an infamous Cold War officer known as the Man of Stone. While his subordinates are convinced the attack is the work of terrorists, Zakharov thinks there is more than meets the eye.

The Man of Stone spares no expense in trying to get in, sending a complement of troops to the facility. While forming up outside the elevator leading to the underground, Frank comes up with an RPG on his shoulder and a pair of machine guns. Taking out a tank he charges into the fray, spraying everyone not him. Mounting the DShK atop the wrecked tank, Castle lays into the remaining soldiers before the weapon jams, and he makes for the exit.

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The heavy loses do not faze Zakharov when he tries to divine the ethnicity of Frank from the survivors. When their testimonies are not enough, the Man of Stone sends more men into the silo through the elevator shaft. While cutting down dozens of repelling soldiers and Vanheim tries to find an exit, Frank is careful to keep Galina away from the carnage. He gives her a file with nuclear go-codes to read and gets her ice cream so she does not leave the safety of the room.

Unbeknownst to Castle, Zakharov sent his silent confidant the Mongolian. The cunning mute sneaks into the silo and makes quick work of Vanheim before taking Galina hostage. Frank rushes to her cries and sees the Mongolian ready to land a killing blow. The two engage in a fierce melee with the mute gaining the upper hand. In the delirium between life and death, Castle sees his little girl holding her bleeding gut as she cries for him. The thought of failing once again inspires him to rise and continue the fight with renewed focus. The Mongolian comes in for a kick, but Frank grabs his ankle, and goes for the kill.

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Meanwhile on the outskirts of Moscow, a hijacked passenger plane is shot down and the generals back in the States congratulate themselves. The room goes quiet when Fury walks in demanding an explanation. When putting together the Barbarossa mission, they were worried a US operation in Russia would cause an international incident if exposed. To counteract the possibility, the generals coordinated with a CIA wet works operator named Rawlins to organize a terrorist strike on Moscow as a distraction.

Fury was not pleased by the notion he was involved in a mission that killed hundreds of innocent people. With a cool stoicism he asks for the individual responsible for organizing the ruse and the generals were quick to oblige. The officers make way as Fury approaches the man and starts beating him with his belt. Reducing him to a bloody shaking mess, Fury chews out the rest of the generals for their stupidity before walking off, hoping Castle will find a way out.

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With Galina safe and Vanheim still unconscious from the Mongolian, Frank makes for the hallway swarming with soldiers. In the midst of slaughter, Vanheim wakes up and pulls a pair of syringes from his pocket. When Castle returns he finds him trying to inject Galina with a yellow substance and subdues him. After a beating Vanheim confesses that the generals ordered him to kill Galina and extract Barbarossa as a last resort. Ever loyal to his morals, Frank is unwilling to sacrifice an innocent and comes up with a new plan.

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Zakharov remains steadfast in his suspicion that Americans are behind the attack on the silo when his staff informs him of a nuclear launch in progress. Major cities are targeted and they receive a message telling Zakharov to pull out his forces or Russia will burn. While his subordinates panic, the Man of Stone stays calm and tells them to do likewise. When an officer disobeys and tries to retaliate, Zakharov executes him on the spot. Once the missile goes airborne and makes for Moscow, it suddenly deactivates midflight, and from its bowels Castle, Galina, and Vanheim jump out with parachutes.

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The three of them make landfall in a blizzard with Vanheim losing his gear on the way down. When they meet, the two draw straws to see who will continue to a Navy submarine on the coast with the one available coat. Galina tucked close to his chest, Frank marches ten miles through the snow as Vanheim trudges behind until death.

Back in the States Castle is confronted by the generals. On the way from Russia, he would not let the doctors touch Galina and the Barbarossa in her body deteriorated. When Frank tries to leave, one general orders his men to stop him and take the girl. Surrounded by soldiers, Fury comes to his side, and the men back off. Just before leaving, Galina begs Castle to take her with him, but he knows he cannot take care of anyone, and she concedes to go with Fury.

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Mother Russia is by far my favorite book of the MAX series. It is full of action, violence, and tons of awesome stuff.  I loved this book so much, I went over my limit of photos to show you how great it is.  The best part was Nick Fury in the only incarnation that matters. If black Fury is Chuck Connors, then white Fury is a hard drinking whore-mongering Clint Eastwood. He swears, he is quick to anger, and does not care about your feelings. The panel of Fury beating the tar out of that general and his dialog throughout is just delightful.

I would go so far as to say he totally outshines Frank, who fits right into the role of an action hero. Usually his nihilism and lack of feeling would make him unfit for the likes of John Matrix and John Rambo, but Castle’s interactions with Galina penetrate his blackened exterior. His fatherly aspects return when he keeps her away from the violence and shields her from the carnage left in his wake. By betraying his cold personality in the presence of Galina, Frank embraces the persona of a hero like he was born to.

For any Punisher fan, Mother Russia is an essential read. Garth Ennis really lets loose while Dougie Braithwaite’s expressive art realizes his vision in beautiful fashion. If there is any book in the MAX series you must have, Mother Russia is without question the best you can hope for.

On the Punisher 05: Comics Review 3

Season two of Daredevil heralds the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, I will dedicate a new series of posts to covering my favorite Punisher books.

* * *

Kitchen Irish (2004)

Garth Ennis

Leandro Fernandez

In the Beginning is a jumping off point for multiple stories Ennis would explore across nine more volumes. Not all of them touch on Frank’s character, but they establish and build upon each arc in pieces. The previous story set up a lot and Kitchen Irish is another that introduces a single portion.

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Castle is the kind of man that minds his own business unless a problem gets his attention. While eating in a diner in Hell’s Kitchen, Frank is caught in an explosion from across the street at a pub that kills over a dozen people. As one of the few survivors, he finds himself in the midst of carnage with corpses ripped to shreds and skewered on shards of glass.

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A tip from the cops leads Frank to track down the leader of the Westies, a gang of Irish Americans that once ruled the neighborhood, and owners of the pub that was bombed. Perched on a rooftop Castle has his target Tommy Toner in sight, intent on capturing him for information until he is snatched from the street and taken into a van.

Frank discovers there is more to the bombing when he meets Yorkie, an MI6 buddy from Vietnam with his partner Andy. The attack was the work of Finn Cooley, an IRA bomber known for a scarred visage. Britain wants Cooley in the ground and sent Yorkie to do the job. Seeing as how he cannot officially act on foreign soil, Yorkie would operate via proxy and Castle agrees. At the same time, Andy is on the hunt for Finn’s nephew Peter, who killed his father during the Troubles.

It is not long before Frank finds Finn and Peter in a pub. With a shotgun in hand he paints the rustic establishment in shades of brain matter when other gangsters make the mistake of drawing weapons in the company of the Punisher. Finn and company flee through the back door and walk into an ambush by Yorkie and Andy. Peter is left behind while his uncle escapes.

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After Castle removes a bullet from Peter’s leg with a butterfly knife, the young terrorist spills the beans. The Westies, amateur pirates called River Rats, a thug named Maginty, and Finn are all connected to Old Man Nesbitt, an ancient gangster that hated everyone. Come his passing, the four parties received a letter calling for an end to crime in Hell’s Kitchen in exchange for his fortune of $10 million. Each received a portion of coordinates to the money and it was Toner that wanted everyone to meet at his pub before Finn tried to kill everyone.

To finish off the four parties at once, Frank calls the Westies thinking the others would follow, and organizes a meet on the deck of the Intrepid. When Toner’s crew led by his wife Brenda arrives along with the River Rats and Maginty’s gang, they come under attack by Yorkie and Andy behind an M60, and Castle firing from a Huey. The groups quickly scatter with Maginty losing his followers and the River Rats reduced to the original brother/sister founders. Finn, arriving just after the slaughter began, had the good sense to stay out of it before pulling Brenda from the drink.

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With each gang on the brink of killing each other completely, Maginty and the River Rats meet with Brenda and Finn and come to a compromise. Using their hatred of Nesbitt they decide to share their portion of the coordinates and find it in the bowels of a derelict ship moored in the Hudson. When they head out to pick up the money, Frank is not far behind as he follows them to the location. Not long after entering the ship does Castle and company make their move.

The ensuing firefight turns melee when a grenade drops Frank into the clutches of Finn. The bomber has the upper hand for a moment before Castle tears into Finn’s face with his teeth. Yorkie helps Castle to safety while the gangsters search for Nesbitt’s fortune. When they open a footlocker lying in the water, thinking it contains the money, they find a block of plastic explosives. The ship goes up in flames, leaving Frank and company to swim back to shore. The story ends with Andy getting his revenge by killing Peter.

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Kitchen Irish is the one drag of Punisher MAX. It comes off like a typical gangster story and does not add or take away from the character except for the introduction of Yorkie. Other than that, there is nothing particularly interesting enough warrant consideration.

In many ways the story reminds me of Snatch, a British mob comedy where the characters become involved in a diamond heist with gypsies, boxers, fences that want to be real criminals, and actual criminals that dispose of corpses by feeding them to pigs. That movie was fantastic and it did not let the darker elements keep it from having fun. Kitchen Irish tried that, but the humor felt so out of place it reminded me of the Thomas Jane Punisher film.

However, I think Kitchen Irish had a more personal intent for Ennis. The story is heavy with themes of the Troubles, a 30-year conflict in which insurgent groups in Northern Ireland fought against the British occupation, turning the region into a warzone. It was a conflict that went somewhat unnoticed, but not for the people that lived it like Garth Ennis.

I cannot confirm if he actually experienced the violence, but he obviously has articulate opinions of the whole mess. The most telling is a conversation between Yorkie and Peter. The latter is entrenched in the cause of taking Northern Ireland back from the British. The former, however, does not care in the slightest and is very impersonal about the fighting. He did not care about the ideological underpinnings because it was not important. Yorkie tells Peter ideology is worthless when the enemy does not care about why the other side is fighting. He continues on about how the fighting is meaningless and he should give in to peace.

This is Ennis’s typical anti-war sentiment, but here it felt personal. Born and other Punisher stories feature the same themes, yet they seem written from an outsider’s perspective, like he watched a couple documentaries and was convinced of a “war for profit” conspiracy. Kitchen Irish is the exception because it feels genuine and not written by Michael Moore. That being said, the rest of the story is very underwhelming and boring like Fernandez’s art. If you have seen any gangster movie ever, you have read Kitchen Irish. The introduction of the soon-to-be important Yorkie is not worth it.

On the Punisher 04: Comics Review 2

Season two of Daredevil heralds the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. I think he nailed it in the trailer and I cannot wait till the premiere. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, the days leading up to (and beyond) the premiere will be dedicated to my favorite Punisher books.

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In the Beginning (2004)
Garth Ennis
Lewis Larosa

Where do you go with the Punisher after exploring his origin? How do you make an ordinary vigilante character appear fresh? Each of the Death Wish movies is different, but it is always: Paul Kersey has a good life, criminals kill someone close to him, and he becomes Charles Bronson. The formula gets old and the same applies to the Punisher. Rather than continue a standard vigilante narrative, In the Beginning explores the ramifications of Castle embracing the darkness and what means for him as a person.

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30 years after Valley Forge, an old Frank Castle has slaughtered his way to infamy. On the anniversary of his family’s murder he visits their grave before heading out to work. Today is the birthday of a withered mafia don where all the wiseguys in Jersey come to wish him well. Before he could blow out his candles, Castle puts a round in his skull, and lures the wiseguys into a volley of M60 fire.

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While Frank wages his war, a CIA outfit watches his every move. Headed by the arrogant and eager Bethell, the team of would-be agents keeps tabs at the behest of “Micro” Leiberman, Castle’s former partner. At the same time, survivors of the don’s birthday plot to finish him. With manpower low, the mafia brings in Nicky Cavella from exile in Boston. With his crew of Pittsy and Ink, the mafia plans to use Nicky’s brutality and cunning to take out Frank.

On the way to his usual rounds, Castle is confronted by Micro before taking six rubber slugs from a shotgun. Regaining consciousness, he finds himself in a dark room at a table, chained to a chair with Micro on the opposite side. He talks about the times they worked together and how he could not continue the war because there was no end to the crime and terror that feed Frank. Micro alludes to the idea that he embraced the darkness in Vietnam, the taste for murder, and he uses his family’s murder as an excuse to keep killing.

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Then Mirco appeals to whatever shred of humanity he has left and offers him a place in the CIA to hunt America’s enemies. Bethell specializes in repurposing psychopaths for wet work, including Katherine O’Brien who becomes more important later in the MAX series. Micro believes the job will put Castle to better use before he refuses, saying he is finished working for others. He says people always stab you in the back, citing how the government sent 60,000 kids to die in Vietnam for nothing.

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Before Micro could try one last time, Nicky and his crew crashes Bethell’s party. Chaos ensues and in an attempt to rectify the situation, Micro sets Frank loose. After a firefight, Bethell and O’Brien are wounded while Nicky makes it out with a furiously pissed off Pittsy. Castle drives Micro to a weapons cache at a warehouse where Lieberman reveals Bethell gets his money from the heroin trade. Then Frank finds a tracking device in his cellphone and the two prepare for the mafia’s and Bethell’s retaliation.

Taking position on the roof of the warehouse, Castle sprays Wiseguys while Bethell comes in on an attack helicopter, desperate to salvage the situation. Unbeknownst to him, Pittsy sneaks in and knifes Mirco before the two engage in a brutal melee. Pushed to the point of fatigue, Frank takes a risk and tackles him out a window, impaling him on a spiked fence. Even that is not enough when Pittsy pulls himself free and Castle gives him a face full of buckshot.

Unable to convince his prospective recruit, Bethell is thrown out of the helicopter by the pilots under orders from Homeland Security, while Nicky makes his escape. Returning to the warehouse, a dying Micro ponders if Frank is capable of reason. He talks about a story where Castle beat up a neighbor for walking out on his wife after his family’s murder. Micro speculates it means Frank could have been normal until he gave in to the darkness. Micro wonders if he even knows what he is doing now before Castle reaffirms his devotion to the cause and executes him.

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Instead of another vigilante story, In the Beginning adds dimension and character to the Punisher. Frank Castle accepted the darkness and was transformed into a creature of pure instinct, driven by a hunger for killing. It confirms the idea that he is a victim of PTSD and the war-torn environment of Vietnam is where he feels normal. It does not shy away from his mental issues, as Castle is a nihilistic psychopath who does not care about anything except murdering criminals. He casually puts down Mirco, his only friend, because he was involved with Bethell, a heroin dealer. If you are evil, he will do whatever it takes to end you, regardless of the implications.

Ennis does a great job of bringing this out in the character’s voice while Lewis Larosa provides the visual with Frank’s pitch-black eyes and scowled face. The gritty, muddy visuals epitomize this dark story of a man that lives in a world of darkness. The language and subject matter is unflinching and the violence brutal and organic. In the Beginning is a perfect follow up to Born and the starting point of what will become one of the best Punisher storylines ever.

On the Punisher 03: Comics Review 1

Season two of Daredevil heralds the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. I think he nailed it in the trailer and I cannot wait till the premiere. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, the days leading up to (and beyond) the premiere will be dedicated to my favorite Punisher books.

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Born (2003)
Garth Ennis
Darick Robertson

There is no denying that war is terrible. People die in the millions (usually), soldiers return home mentally unstable, and countries tear themselves apart. Some argue the Civil War is the worst conflict in American history, but when it comes to cultural stigma and generational trauma, Vietnam makes Antietam look like Grenada.

Thanks to poor planning to solve a problem 20 years in the making (look it up), the Vietnam War was a stain on our country whose effects are still felt today. What could have been a simple resolution turned into a decade long shit-show thanks to General Westmoreland. A generation of young men bore the brunt of this colossal fuck-up in the form of untreated PTSD and an ungrateful American public. And in that chaos and quagmire, Frank Castle was made.

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Told from the perspective of a grunt named Stevie, we follow the exploits of Captain Castle in the Marine Corps at Firebase Valley Forge in 1971, a lone outpost watching Cambodia. Its troops include junkies and degenerates who subsist on heroin, VC scalps, and rape. With a failure of a commanding officer at the helm, Castle maintains patrols and keeps the base running. For three tours the hunger for war kept him coming back, entrenched in the world of Special Forces as he rose to notoriety. At Valley Forge, the war winding down, Castle does whatever he can to sate his thirst.

As the days wear on, Stevie struggles to keep his fellow grunt Angel focused and off the needle. Stevie knows if they stick with Castle, his hunger will keep them alive long enough to make it home. He often reminisces about his future after the war, about all the women he will meet, and the sons that will admire him for his service. For all his naiveté, Stevie does not lie to himself about the situation. He knows the war has brought out the worst in men, some of which are in his platoon.

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Frank knows Valley Forge is just a few calls away from demolition. With the commanding officer barely sober enough to care, the grunts whither and sleep off their final days as Charlie moves in the bush. Frank can have it either way as long as he gets to fight. When an inspecting general proposes closing the base, Castle makes use of his arrogance and lures him into the fire of a VC sniper.

A part of him believes in the concept of righteousness, using the war to deal out justice from behind a gun. When his soldiers fall out of line, he is quick to reprimand them, sometimes fatally. But when Frank struggles to retain what is left of his humanity, his consciousness gets the better of him, reassuring that he is only lying to himself and he can never return to normality. He will always have a taste for battle and the voice offers a war without end.

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Come a heavy storm that prevents the aid of air support, Charlie launches a surprise attack on Valley Forge. With the grunts’ fighting spirit all but gone and the command useless, the only thing standing between the VC and a full take over is Castle and his handful of men. The battle is bloody and long, lasting well into the night as ammunition runs low. Resilient to the end, Stevie struggles to keep Angel in line as he gives into the hopelessness and gets his head blown off.

Stevie then keeps close to Frank, following his lead as Charlie swarms in. In the heat of the moment and by some miracle, air support finally arrives to drop napalm danger-close. Relieved by the incredible save, Stevie is too happy to notice a flaming VC charge him with a bayonet before he gets his wish and boards the jet plane that will take him home forever.

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With the odds drifting out of his favor, the voice hounds Frank for an answer. It questions his resolve, making him consider why he kept coming back to Vietnam, to all the blood, guts, and hate that perpetuated a waking nightmare. The voice offers him a way to survive the onslaught and when he is left with only a shovel to fend off Charlie, Frank gives in. Come the morning, helicopters arrive in search of survivors. Among the charred corpses, the only one left standing is Captain Castle.

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Born is a seminal work that not only explores the failings of the Vietnam War, but also adds dimension to a character that was a one-note vigilante. Equipped with a wealth of knowledge on the subject of war, Garth Ennis crafted a narrative that puts you in the boots of a soldier playing witness to the evolution of an antihero. The apocalyptic atmosphere would not be complete without Darrick Robertson’s detailed and expressive artwork that brings the story to life. The new Punisher may not use the Vietnam origin, but Born is essential to gain insight into how Frank Castle came to be.

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The original four-issue run is collected in Punisher MAX Complete Collection Vol. 1, including the next two stories I mean to review in the near future.

On the Punisher 01: Writing Frank Castle

As a student I must make it clear that I am not a professional in any sense of the word. The opinions expressed in this essay are based on what I have learned in my studies and personal observations. I just wanted to let you know.

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Frank Castle is one of the most under appreciated and under-written characters in Marvel Comics. Based on a variety of stories, I find he is considered a one-trick pony, a one-dimensional vigilante that is more renegade than paragon. Even other characters call him a psychopath and mass murderer. Usually he is placed in a supporting role for a book other than his own, and in titles that bare his name he is hardly the focus.

Why is this? Why do authors treat Frank like a one-off anti-hero with bland dialog and stories no different than an episode of Law and Order?

It is because no one understands Frank Castle.

All characters in fiction are hard to write, but Frank is the kind of person that requires an intimate knowledge of who he is on a psychological level. He is in no way an ordinary vigilante.

There are two versions of Frank’s origin. Both are the same, but different; one says he fought in Vietnam and another in the Middle East. For this analysis I will use the Vietnam origin.

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In Mark Millar’s Civil War, after a one-sided fight between Captain America and Frank Castle, Spiderman remarked: “Are you kidding me? Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam. Same guy, different war.”

These few words speak volumes about Frank. It tells us he is or was idealistic about morality and justice, in addition to possibly being a fan of Captain America. All of that change, however, after Frank went to Vietnam, the single worst war in America’s history.

You could argue our modern wars are terrible, but when you take into account the physical and psychological damage done upon an entire generation of young men, the millions killed and poisoned, and the radical shift in public opinion against ordinary kids, fresh out of high school, who were forced to fight in a war, I could argue that you are a draft-dodging piece of garbage that doesn’t know shit about the world.

Of course war is an awful thing that creates as many heroes as victims, but Vietnam was a conflict that makes Verdun look like Grenada. There is not a single man or woman who grew up in that time that feels the effects of that disaster today. When you come home from the worst place in the world, after doing your duty to your country, to be called a murdering rapist baby killer, how would you feel about yourself? How can you move on knowing people think you are a monster? This mentality from the general public alienated millions of young men whom were already worse off with a flawed VA system and an even more incompetent government that had no idea how to deal with the situation after a series of domestic crises.

Frank Castle was one of the many soldiers affected by the war. He was a skilled sniper, but underneath his calm, stoic exterior was a man utterly changed by horror. Even Rambo could not cope with seeing his friends in roasted pieces of meat. On his return home he would have become one with disillusioned youth, had it not been for the one thing that kept him together: his wife and children.

Maria, Lisa, and Frank Jr. were his normal, his center, and reason for going on. Most returning vets would turn to heroin or suicide to cope with home life, but Frank had is family, and it was with them he was truly happy. They kept his darker side at bay, the part of him that killed hundreds, and seen the worst of humanity.

And on one fateful day, the horror is set loose after Frank sees his wife and children murdered in Mafia crossfire.

This is where the origins intersect and where most people find Frank an easy character to understand. It is the archetypical vigilante creation story; ordinary person loses loved ones and is inspired to go out and fight crime. It is Batman’s origin, a story even people who don’t read comics know about.

It is here most writers draw their conclusions about Frank. The problem is the blatant disregard for his past. Usually his military service is meant to justify his skill with firearms, but the psychological effects of war are completely disregarded.

Combat and a year’s worth of horror are taxing on a person’s mental health that becomes exacerbated after coming home. And when you consider the social effects of the Vietnam War, apply them to a man who saw his wife and children massacred in a park, you make for a logical take on the vigilante and a character with more empathetic complexity than any bat-themed billionaire.

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This brings to mind his psychological state.

Frank Castle is not crazy. He knows what he is doing, knows he is a mass murder, knows it is wrong, and does not care. This would make him a sociopath, but a sociopath is someone who willingly rejects morality. Frank Castle has a sense of morality because he murders criminals, ones that are the absolute worst. He does not shoot j-walkers or torture thieves, but when he knows someone has done true evil, he goes the extra mile.

He does not enjoy any part of it either; for him it is like a meaningless job you do just for the paycheck. In Rick Remender’s run from 2009-2010, Frank says a few one-liners, but the delivery comes of as dry and flat. This serves as a juxtaposition between the character’s action-hero aesthetic and the brutality of killing. What it is trying to say is nothing can make murder cool, no matter how witty your choice of words. It is more of a thematic aspect, but it says a lot about the character.

And on the subject of murder, Frank is very utilitarian in his methodology. He does whatever is necessary to get the job done, without the need for theatrics. He finds his targets, shoots them, and moves on. It is only when the target truly deserves it that Frank goes into Saw/Hostel territory; like the father who used his own children in pornography or the businesswoman that kidnapped girls to have them raped and drugged for prostitution.

So if he does not get anything out of it, why does Frank Castle kill people, even after getting his revenge? He is as much a hero as a victim; a man with morals and skills parallel to Captain America, and the emotional baggage of a disillusioned Vietnam veteran and a widower. To that effect, when he sees a world full of victims created by psychotic monsters, he has no choice but to cleanse them from the earth.

In the words of comic book writer Garth Ennis, “[Frank Castle] make[s] the world sane.”

Now if Frank is mentally stable and aware of what he is doing, why does he wear a costume? Wearing the skull is unnecessary because he does not wear a mask either; people and the authorities know exactly what he looks like. On top of that, why does Batman dress like a bat? To be a symbol? I understand protecting your identity, but you can do that without looking like a furry. But I digress; the reason behind Frank’s costume is simple:

If we assume Frank is a fan of Captain America, in a world of superheroes, then it is only fitting he dons a costume fit for his character. He is a murder, so he would wear a skull.

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I understand this has been a very biased analysis because I care about this character. There are millions of war veterans that have gone through the same experiences (family massacre aside) and like them, Frank Castle deservers the same respect in comics. However, I am not saying there aren’t stories that do him justice.

The best by far, if you are looking for a psychological and adult take on Frank, is Punisher MAX by Garth Ennis. The series can be a hard read because it is violent and offensive, but it is also compelling and realistic.

Another good story puts Frank knee deep in the Marvel Universe, unlike MAX. Rick Remender and Nathan Edmonson both take into account the realities of a world of superheroes, gods, and aliens. Remender goes into realms of camp with a story about Frank becoming Franken-Castle, a walking Frankenstein pun after Wolverine’s son chops him into pieces. Edmonson’s is more grounded in realism with appearances from Electro, Black Widow, and Domino against the backdrop of a drug cartel’s plot to kill the citizens of Los Angeles with a chemical weapon.

Other stories combine the serious with the fantastical. Greg Rucka’s run is more of a true-crime take, but it falls short because the focus is on the supporting cast. Another series is from the Essential Punisher Collection #2 by Mike Baron, where Frank travels the world in the war on drugs. Later he gets into a brawl with the Man Without Fear, Daredevil.

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I hope this analysis has bettered your understanding of this underappreciated character. Sure I have been very biased, but when it comes to the Punisher, I think he needs to be understood on a deeper level. Though he is not unique in concept, Frank Castle is one of the more complex characters in the Marvel Universe. It is a shame so many writers do not see it.

 

Sources

Millar M, McNiven S, Vines D, Hollowell M (2007). Civil War. New York, New York: Marvel Comics.

Ennis G, Larosa L, Palmer T (2004). Punisher MAX: In the Beginning. New York, New York: Marvel Comics.