The criticisms one might hurl at Punisher MAX could be responded to with, “Well, what did you expect?” No reasonable individual is going to approach this book unless they have already steeled themselves for cranium explosions and frequent disembowelment. Not only is The Punisher arguably Marvel’s most violent antihero, but this is Punisher within the MAX imprint, which includes an “Explicit Content” warning on the covers, and prides itself on said cranium explosions. I honestly lost count of how many people in this book lost their heads to point-blank shotgun fire. I think it’s likely that most people come to Punisher MAX (and other MAX books) precisely to experience the ultra-violence, for whatever reason. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. From Robocop to death metal, ultra-violence can be an interesting, even valuable way to explore the reaches of human brutality, and its meaning and nuances. I’m still not convinced that Punisher MAX achieves that as effectively as other mediums. But there is a discernible part of me that was drawn into this book; a dark part of me that couldn’t put it down.
“In the Beginning,” the first six issue arc, opens with some basic Punisher backstory for the unacquainted before immediately jumping into some standard Punisher activity: massacring a group of mobsters at their Don’s 100th birthday party. Frank Castle is surprisingly candid in his internal monologue. He has some delusions of grandeur about mowing down the gangsters with a machine gun, comparing it to Omaha Beach and Wounded Knee. But given artists Lewis Larosa’s graphic depictions of the massacre, complete with spilling intestines and heads cut in half, maybe Castle has a point. His remark that, “…only now, pouring automatic fire into a human wall—do I feel something like peace,” is where writer Garth Ennis begins to get into the meaning of the book’s ultra-violence. It forces you to ask yourself who is the villain? At the same time, throughout the comic it’s clear that the mobsters (what’s left of them) are legitimately threatened by, even scared of, The Punisher. There are very few characters in the Marvel Universe, hero or antihero, who can intimidate villains so profoundly. Sure, The Punisher’s methods in this book are shocking, and throughout you’ll find yourself struggling to view The Punisher as anything more than a serial killer. But despite that, his methods work. He is so effective, you may just waffle on your sense of habeas corpus. Just a little bit.
Ennis does a fine job of advancing the plot at a good pace. He doesn’t dillydally with superfluous information. Much like The Punisher himself, this book is all business. The dialogue stays on point and there are no extraneous nuts and bolts in the plot. It is very tightly written. I would, however, draw attention to Ennis’s limited portrayal of women in this book. So far as I remember, there is only one female character in the book, O’Brien, whose only contribution to the dialogue is often limited to openly wondering if Frank Castle has a big dick, or openly saying to her coworkers that his mere voice made her vagina wet. She makes the same comment later after she is shot in a massive gunfight and bleeding on the floor. Here I feel that Ennis is showing a weakness as a writer. This is a female framed using the sexual maturity and understanding of a 16-year-old boy. There’s nothing wrong with the sexually-liberated woman. Nothing wrong with it at all. But when a woman is shot and bleeding on the floor, and a male writer thinks she would comment on her sexual arousal, it makes me think he doesn’t know how to write women (like I said, O’Brien is the only woman with more than one or two lines in the whole book.) As Jason Cohen recently discussed here on The Secret Hideout, while there is nothing wrong with sexuality in comic books, women are often used as mere sexual totems at the leisure of strong male characters, for the benefit of male readers. I would have liked to have seen a more well-rounded female character; it would have been an interesting foil for the hyper-masculine, male-centric Frank Castle. I feel Ennis missed an opportunity there.
But if there’s one thing Ennis has a handle on, it’s Frank Castle. The Punisher spends issues 3 and 4 tied to a chair being interrogated (and offered a new job) by his former friend and accomplice, Micro. Though his dialogue is brief and limited, he is still an imposing and even frightening individual, and that’s when Larosa’s talent shines. After Castle is able to break out of that situation when the mobsters arrive to kill him, then it’s all downhill from there for both Micro’s team and the mobsters. It’s brutality after brutality; one violent scene after another. Heads are blown off, people are stabbed, shot, heads smashed in, all manner of the macabre. The violence is “justified,” I suppose, given the circumstances that Ennis has placed Castle in. But he does get wildly creative sometimes, such as when Castle throws Pitts out a window, who then lands directly on a very pointy iron gate. Later, Ennis expands on this lovely imagery by having Pitts reappear, stumbling towards Castle in a last ditch effort, complete with a piece of gate still stuck in him. Of course, Punisher MAX would not be MAX if Castle’s final disposal of Pitts was not reminiscent of a Cannibal Corpse lyric.
This book presents an interesting dilemma for me. On the one hand, I agree with Secret Hideout contributor Alec Goodwin when he discusses the prevailing trend in comic books for darkness and brutality, and confusing pessimism with realism. He’s right, and it is a problem I have had issues with in comic books before. But on the other hand, Punisher MAX is compelling and hard to put down. It’s almost like a horror movie, or the way people rubberneck a car accident, hoping to see a severed leg or a piece of brain matter on a windshield. It’s that innate desire in the human consciousness to experience the limits of human violence and pain without actually having to experience it. Hence, art. Is that a worthy cause? I suppose that depends on who you ask. I wouldn’t necessarily say I am happy to have read Punisher MAX. But I can’t really say I regret it either. It’s a strange investigation of the depths of human misery and brutishness. The Punisher functions like an angel of death, with seemingly no other goal or motive other than the destruction of those he feels are a detriment to a just society. He considers very little else, if anything, and he remains steadfast and consistent throughout. While the villains in this book race about and scramble to figure out how to stop The Punisher, by contrast, Castle steams forward with no second-guessing or recalibration of motive or goal. Normally, that kind of behavior is characteristic of villains. It seems like there just isn’t a hero in this story. Maybe the violence itself, as it is so pervasive, is practically its own character.
I don’t need to tell you whether you should read this book or not. You already know if you want to. The least I can say about it is that it has the power to keep you engaged and interested in the title character. The most I can say about it is that it accomplishes what it sets out to do. Whether that’s a worthy endeavor or not, I guess I’m still deciding.