The Punisher #2, In the Beginning, Part 2 (of 6)

The second issue of Punisher, second part of the story arc, echoes nicely with the first. Last issue opened in a cemetery, this issue opens in a cemetery. Ennis also explores a little of Frank’s regular behavior; meeting one of his informants, getting involved with something there, then just heading home and cleaning his guns. Presumably Frank spends a lot of time cleaning guns.

Ennis splits the rest of the issue between Microchip and the mob. Microchip’s got to convince his rogue C.I.A. handlers he can deliver on his promise to get Frank while this New York mobster calls this other, higher up mobster to come help since Frank has wiped out all the higher level mobsters in New York. Ennis has a lot of fun with both scenes. The comic’s only got maybe six—Frank at the cemetery, Micro, Frank and the informant, mob guy, Frank cleaning guns, cliffhanger. It’s real simple, reads kind of fast, kind of not. Ennis puts a lot of attention into the dialogue for Micro, the conversation with the mobsters. Because the cliffhanger has to be a surprise. Ennis is trying to shock the reader and it works.

LaRosa does better with the action than the talking heads. There’s a lot of digital editing on the talking heads panels and sometimes the colors are doing the shading work, which doesn’t match the rest of the issue. But the point is the dialogue. The art is secondary in those scenes. A distant second.

Micro’s exposition dump has a little more about of the back story—in Punisher Max universe; he and Frank worked together for ten years, he helped Frank kill over eight hundred people, before Micro came along Frank was just a nut job with a gun, basically. In the moment, it doesn’t read too much like self-aggrandizing—Micro’s also showing off his tough guy cred in the scene—which is impressive since it’s a lot of self-aggrandizing. Ennis does a phenomenal job setting the narrative distance with Micro and the mobsters. The way he angles it, it feels like the book is going to alternate the reader’s perspective from being in line with Micro and being in line with the mobsters. They’re both after Frank, Frank will be the subject.

It’s a really nice move, especially given how the cliffhanger functions (and turns everything upside-down).

The visiting mobsters (from Boston) are more Ennis eccentrics than anyone else in the comic so far; the sexually explicit C.I.A. agent doesn’t have much to do this issue (except get in a couple great lines). But the mob guys? The leader is slick and mean and generic, but his stooges are amazing. There’s the rude one and the weird quiet one. The rude one is somewhat standard looking—tough little, older guy in a tracksuit—but the quiet one looks like Beaker from the Muppets. They both get excellent moments during their scene; Ennis knows how to lay in sly humor. Even if it’s terrible.

It’s almost like the big boom of the cliffhanger distracts from all the strong work the comic does throughout. Almost like, but not quite. Ennis keeps it all balanced.

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The Punisher #1, In the Beginning, Part 1 (of 6)

The first page of the issue is the Castle family tombstone. Names, birth years, death year. 1976. A Marvel comic with years. Well, a MAX Comic. And the MAX Comics Punisher apparently isn’t going to be de-aging Frank Castle.

Well, actually, it does. The Punisher first appeared in 1974. So, 1976 is at least two years adjusted, but whatever. Frank’s going to be in his fifties at least.

The next page introduces the “MAX” Punisher. He’s a shadowy giant, his face indeterminately scarred. Penciller Lewis LaRosa and inker Tom Palmer rarely show Frank’s eyes. Instead they’re just shadows on his steely face. The first seven pages of the comic are the closest to an origin writer Garth Ennis does; Frank narrating his recollection of the family’s “picnic in the park.” The sounds of the machine guns, the expressions of his family—the expressions. Everyone else in the comic emotes through their eyes. Frank’s the only one who doesn’t. LaRosa and Palmer do a devastating job with these single, two-thirds of the page panels of the Castle family as they’re shot. Then there’s the “bridge” to the present. And the only questionable pages of art in the entire issue. They’re not LaRosa’s fault, not Palmer’s fault, maybe not even Ennis’s. There’s just something off about a Frank Castle amid anonymous New Yorkers panel and a gun porn panel. The comic’s got its Tim Bradstreet cover, it’s more than got its quota of gun porn just from it.

And then LaRosa’s full page Frank, skull, and guns doesn’t work either. Not after the gentle open with the family. Horrifying but gentle.

Juxtaposed against Frank’s big action set piece, the rest of the issue is setting up the arc’s hook—there are these shadowy government agents surveilling Frank for some reason. Because his old buddy Microchip has apparently sold him out. Lots of hand-wringing from Micro at the end, lots of emotion (in face and eyes), some wistful expounding about Frank Castle, and—frankly—a too quick end to the issue.

Frank’s action set piece has him taking out a bunch of mafiosos en masse with a big gun. Ennis writes some fantastic narration for it. From page two, he’s got Frank’s voice. Because Frank’s got to make it all seem not just plausible but rational and inevitable.

Lots of blood and gore, some swearing, even some Ennis dirty jokes—one of the agents has the hots for Frank and she’s explicit when describing her thoughts to her prude partner. There’s a little more character development on them later, all in dialogue, all done fast and efficient. Even though it reads a little short and there are those two somewhat wasted pages at the end of the “prologue,” Ennis paces The Punisher #1 beautifully.

As the first “X-rated” Punisher comic, Ennis manages to do the proof-of-concept and get his actual story started without ever having to change pace. Considering some of the comic—some of the arc (it’s titled In the Beginning after all) is going to be about Ennis showing his “take” on the MAX Frank.

It’s a really good first issue.

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