The Punisher #29, The Slavers, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher #29

This issue has an Ennis Punisher “wow” moment. It ends with it. Two of them actually. One in Frank’s handling of Vera, the woman who handles… the Human Resources department for the trafficking ring. One in Frank’s narration. The moments leave you with a feeling of emptiness and profound sadness. Because while they’re not surprises—and the perfectly inform everything around them—they bring an exceptional level of humanity to Frank. Even with the omnipresent narration this arc, there’s still a significant narrative distance. Not so in this issue’s conclusion. Punisher MAX is, after all, basically all about Ennis finding Frank Castle’s expansive, beautiful, tragic soul.

Anyway. Had to cover that part while still teary. Heart-wrenching stuff.

It’s a fairly quick issue again. Ennis opens after Frank has finished with the son, finding himself in a firefight with the old man, who’s trying to kill his son for the botched hit. Shootouts at big houses on lakes in upstate New York are not Fernandez’s strong suit, but it works. Ennis’s writing on Frank’s narration is great. It’s comfortable, assured, willing to show some personality.

After that scene it’s all about the B and C plots tying together—it’s the penultimate issue in the arc, after all—so the cops team up with Jen Cooke who brings them to Frank, giving Frank a chance to make one really good joke while finding out what’s going on with the NYPD being all up in his business lately. It’s a lengthy talking heads scene with mostly repeat information—the characters are just finding out what the readers have known for issues—but it’s excellent. The personalities of all four characters (Frank, Cooke, the two cops) come through very nicely. Ennis has done a great job establishing the characters.

There’s some more with the bad cop and the old man confronting Vera about the hit before the end. It’s an excellent issue, outside the often wanting artwork. Ennis’s careful construction of it all is paying off.

That ending though… it’s something special. Ennis peppers extra personality for Frank this issue—when he’s got to interact with people instead of just shoot them or torture them; it’s where Ennis has to excel beyond expectation just to get it to work (another basic description of Punisher MAX, it’s able to work because Ennis’s writing is exceptional on the title, past the exceptional it’d need to be just to get it to function). So good.

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The Punisher #28, The Slavers, Part 4 (of 6)

This issue moves real fast. Most of the expository scenes take place in a page, sometimes two, sometimes packed pages, sometimes just splash pages. There’s action for both the evil old man and Frank. Evil old man is contending with the assassins his son has sent after him, Frank is deal with the son and his security. Otherwise it’s Frank preparing for his attack, the son preparing for his father’s reaction to the attempt, and the B plot with the cops mixing into the A plot through social worker Jen Cooke (who’s become Frank’s reluctant sidekick).

But, really, it’s all about what Frank’s going to to do the son. We get a hint from the cover and the first page (one of those splash pages). Ennis isn’t racing to it, but he knows it’s the biggest question hanging over the issue, since it’s clear from five pages in what’s going on with everything else—the old man is too tough for the son to take out, the cops aren’t happy about getting beat up by their fellow officers and they want to at least figure out what’s really happening—but what are Frank’s plans for taking out this trafficking outfit? Inquiring minds want to know—well, the readers’ minds, none of the characters have the stomach for it.

Is the big reveal on the last page worth it? Oh, yeah. Abjectly terrible art on the page from Fernandez and Koblish, even on the parts of the page where Fernandez doesn’t usually choke, but it doesn’t matter. Ennis paces it beautifully in the script and Fernandez is at least good at breaking out the panels. He’s crap at realizing them once he’s got them plotted, but the visual pacing does work.

So, it’s a mix between an action issue and a bridging issue; even more of a bridging issue than last time, because Ennis is now setting up the pieces for immediate resolution. The scenes end in hard cliffhangers (though the old man is off-page once his big scene is done). The cops and Jen Cooke have a hard cliffhanger. Frank’s got the hard cliffhanger. Well, more, the son has a hard cliffhanger. It’s not up to Frank how they’re going to resolve their interrogation, after all. He gives the guy a big choice.

Great narration from Ennis. A couple of the expected past tense narration stumbles, but nothing serious, just some awkward sentences. The pulp approach is working. Even if Fernandez is choking on lots of important panels.

The Punisher #27, The Slavers, Part 3 (of 6)

The Punisher #27

It’s a bridging issue but in the best possible way. Since Ennis is now writing so much narration from Frank, the functional bridging feels a lot more organic. Frank’s got a problem—his leads have run dry because of the cluster last issue—and he needs to figure out a way to move forward. Literal bridging. And yet, completely effective chapter in the arc. While Frank’s trying to turn up new leads (the issue opens with him interrogating a pimp at knifepoint), Ennis is also working the B and C plots, though at this point they both seem on the same level.

In the B plot, the two cops—Miller (the White lady) and Parker (the Black guy)—who Frank messed up in the first issue go talk to the guy he messed up last issue so they can compare notes about how the department has used them to further this new anti-Punisher thing the NYPD’s got going on. Of course, it’s all twisted and corrupt so Miller and Parker end up getting beat down by their brothers in blue because… well, White lady and Black guy cops aren’t really really part of the club.

The C plot has the trafficking son deciding his dad has gone too far—he wants to go after Frank, not listening to reason; it’s time for some patricide.

The issue also introduces social worker Jen Cooke, who helped Viorica with her escape and got the baby killed. Frank goes to talk to her after a lecture, giving Ennis two more spots for completely natural exposition. Ennis is very thorough in how he lays out the trafficking information and presents the problem. No one has any solutions, not Frank, not Cooke (who Ennis sets up as a “shallow liberal” only to give her enough depth to hold up opposite Frank)—Frank doesn’t even know how to approach the problem. Terrorizing street pimps for information doesn’t work and, once he’s got the information he needs, he’s left trying to figure out how he’s going to get an amoral, apathetic Eastern European killing machine to talk. It’s new territory for him, more of Ennis’s subtle character development; thank goodness the writing’s there, in the narration, in the talking heads sequences, because once again Fernandez and Koblish render a very wanting Frank Castle. So many shadows too. Like, guys, putting Frank in the shadows for effect is just showcasing you not being able to draw him well.

Ennis ends the comic on a combination of soft cliffhanger and threat. Something’s coming. No one—except maybe Frank—has any inkling, but the future’s there, taunting everyone.

The Punisher #26, The Slavers, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher #26

The comic opens with Viorica telling Frank what happened to her back in Moldova. Enslaved sex work. Escape. Family (father) rejecting her. Recapture. Ennis splits it into two doses, both for the reader and the characters. In between he introduces the father. Last issue he introduced the son, along with the son’s female sidekick. This issue we meet the father as he’s executing some rival gang. Ennis also uses it to start up the C plot about the son plotting against the father. Then it’s back to Frank hearing the rest of the story: Ransomed baby, escape with baby, discovery, dead baby. Occasional panels for the flashback but mostly just talking heads. Fernandez does really well with the pacing of it. Not particularly great with the art, but not bad. Not until the end, when he’s got to do enraged Frank. There’s just something reductive about how Fernandez and Koblish visualize Frank here. He’s not imposing enough. But it’s a hell of a start to the issue. And the father is terrifying—Fernandez does better on that scene than anything else in the issue.

Once Frank’s got the story we’re caught up with the end of the previous issue—Ennis doesn’t reference the narration being a year into the future until the end of the comic, but he’s still utilizing the device. Successfully. No more hiccups in the past tense narration.

Then it’s time for the B plot, involving the dirty cop forcing the good cops (the Black gay guy and the White woman) to fake injuries from their run-in with the Punisher so they can spin it as Frank being out of control. The stuff with the cops is really, really good. There’s gravitas to it but also a whole bunch of humor, including a great laugh. It’s clearly the release valve for the comic—obviously, no one’s talking about the human trafficking and endless rape.

The B plot figures in again later when Frank’s trying to get into the bad guys’ house of operations without killing any of the girls. The bloodthirsty cops get in his way, screwing up his plan. But it’s okay, because he’s got another one up his sleeve—maybe Ennis’s editor told him to end issues with a little cushioning or something because it’s back again here, Ennis making sure the reader is primed for the next issue if not fully prepared.

Fernandez’s art gets a little wonky, of course. His quality is inconsistent. At least his panel layouts are good for most of it, making the comic effective at least. How the guy’s been drawing Frank for so long without ever figuring out a consistent look, however… not effective.

But the comic succeeds on the writing alone. Ennis is bringing it.

The Punisher #25, The Slavers, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher #25

From the first page, The Slavers is different. And not just because penciller Leandro Fernandez, inker Scott Koblish, and colorist Dan Brown turn in a splash page out of Sin City. No Frank, but a woman with a gun in the rain, screaming as she fires. Frank’s narration—which is going to be near omnipresent in the issue, so everything is very pulpy—accompanies her. She’s shooting at Frank’s target, a drug guy. The narration is past tense, set a year in the future. Again, all very pulpy (down to when writer Garth Ennis stumbles in a first person, past tense pitfall). The narration mixes exposition about the target and Frank’s arsenal. We’re getting the thought process as he goes down from his rooftop perch to save the woman, surprised to find himself sympathetic to her.

All it takes is her mentioning a dead baby for Frank to decide to play “white knight,” which he later remarks on. There are story ties between Ennis’s Punisher MAX arcs—we find out from another character this arc takes place about a month after the previous one, depending on how long after death birds go for eyes—but Ennis doesn’t talk about the character development or how he’s changing up the narrative distance. This Frank is a lot more… human than he was in the first arc of the series.

So it’s a shame Fernandez and Koblish manage to draw everyone fine except Frank. No more fifty-something Frank, just generic unwashed hair, steely-eyed Frank. It’s unclear if Fernandez doesn’t understand the way to draw the comic or if he just can’t do it. Because Koblish’s inks help with a lot. They help with the entire supporting cast here. Even on the woman Frank saves—there are these pages where the art’s fine in half the panel, but then there’s the weird, shadowy handling of Frank. It’s too bad, but thank goodness Ennis is upping the narration to distract from the art.

It’s not all Frank and the woman, Viorica, though. Ennis introduces a fairly big supporting cast (six characters). There are the two bickering (but about serious things) beat cops who happen across Frank’s impromptu rescue; he disarms them, which leads to a dirty cop (beholden to two of the villains we also meet this issue) scheming with the beat cops’ captain to use the incident to declare war on the Punisher.

Frank, meanwhile, is just finding out Viorica’s story. Ennis hints at it on the last page, in Frank’s narration—playing with the one year lead time and the past tense rather effectively—and ends the page on one hell of a dark, affecting mood. Because if it’s enough to affect Frank… it’s got to be something real bad. Especially if it’s bad enough Frank’s going to narrate about it.

It’s a very strong issue. Even with Fernandez screwing it up. One page almost looks like Paul Gulacy came in to do the heads—no M. Hands credit though—and you wish he had done all of it….

The Seeker (2019)

The Seeker

The Seeker is somewhere between somewhat disturbing and very disturbing. Creator Liz Valasco gets somewhere quite profound by the end, then dials it down a notch for the last story beat. It’s too bad, but sort of not surprising. It’s hard to say where Valasco could take for the finish to satisfy. Almost anything would be too heavy in a very different way than the rest of the comic has been heavy.

The comic takes place on Halloween in a “normal” town. It looks like Peanuts, actually; visually, Seeker reminds of Edward Gorey and Peanuts. Valasco’s art is often… pleasant, only for the story developments to make those visuals terrifying. The first part of the comic—the seventy-ish page book is split into five chapters—has “The Seeker” as the protagonist. She’s a tween, too old for Halloween but still loves the holiday. Her dad has abandoned her and her mom; her mom isn’t around in the comic. Everyone ditches the kid. So she’s trying some magic to make a friend of her own. It works, rather matter-of-factly, and by the end of the first part, the kid’s got herself a talking jack-o’-lantern, brought to life with a cat skull, magic, and cockroaches.

But the kid isn’t the protagonist for the rest of the comic. In the other four parts, the protagonist is Rob. Rob’s a teenager, also apparently in a house without a dad, and he’s going out on Halloween to drink beers and maybe get to flirt with a girl he likes. His buddy is there, along with a girl for the buddy. Pretty soon they run into the kid and the teenage girls take her under their wing, which is cool until the kid gives the jack-o’-lantern the last ingredient it needs for whatever its got planned and it reanimates a skeleton. The teenagers can’t handle the skeleton. Especially not when it seems to have evil intentions.

The best stuff in The Seeker is the teenage girls. Valasco gets a whole different kind of energy when writing their scenes and characters. The buddy’s girlfriend is about six times more interesting than Rob and only because she tries to burb louder. Rob’s just a bit of a teenage jerk—he tries to be better, which is cool and full of potential, but it goes nowhere. The girl Rob likes is a great character. The Seeker kid is a great character, she just doesn’t get anything to do because she’s more functional to the plot than anything else. There are a couple times Valasco almost takes the comic somewhere special in regards to the kid, then doesn’t. In theory, the ending ought to be all about her too, but Valasco veers way away from that conclusion. Unfortunately.

The comic’s got a lot of uncanny vibes, but ends up just being a tad disquieting. Who knows what ending would work better, but it’s definitely not the one the comic’s got.

Valasco has a pleasant style, albeit with thinner lines than seem right for the comic—it’s too Gorey, not Schulz-y enough. Though Valasco does fabulous with the scary forest. More detail, especially on the faces, wouldn’t hurt. The Seeker’s in that uncomfortable spot where it’s not detailed enough to be one thing but too detailed to be another. But even with the less than steady art, Valasco’s got some great narrative instincts. And once the teenage girls show up, the dialogue problems go away; the conversations between Rob and his mom are real iffy. Rob’s just a dull protagonist.

There’s a lot of strong stuff in The Seeker. It’s not altogether successful, but it’s pretty darn good.

Duh, Ha-Ha (2019)

Duh! Ha-Ha

Duh Ha-Ha is quick and lyrical. The nameless narrator sets up the ground situation in a page; she’s a listless early twenty-something who works in restaurant of some kind, probably not a chain. Her boss gives her a ride home and she thinks about what would happen if she his old bones. Would his gratitude outweigh his anger? Not a lot of time for the narrator to think about it because when they get to their destination, a staff party the boss is paying for (hence why I can’t believe it’s a chain), the younger guy next to her starts chatting her up.

And old boss man doesn’t like it, which convinces the now drunk narrator to come on strong to stranger guy, leading to a moderately big reveal—except creator Carolyn Nowak doesn’t want to tell the story of how that moderately big reveal affects anything. Instead, she moves on to the narrator just talking about her relationship with the guy, who becomes a (decent) boyfriend, which adds to the lyrical quality.

Nowak’s art is good, her sense of visual pacing is superb—the way she’s able to get past the expectation of a reveal exploration comes with a white text on black panel jump ahead, but also on the effectiveness of the postscript, where Ha-Ha becomes more about the narrator in the relationship than anything earlier had been about the narrator.

Nowak’s also a master of the abrupt ending. When the comic stops, you expect there to be more, but when there isn’t… the stop point makes all the more sense. It’s not groundbreaking, but for a twelve-page indie comic, there’s not much more you could ask for than Duh Ha-Ha.

The Punisher #24, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 6 (of 6)

The Punisher #24

So in the last arc, Ennis found the pulp in Punisher MAX in a non-pulp setting. This arc ends in a pulp setting but without pulp storytelling. Instead, it’s this pensive, depressing look at people trapped by their lives. O’Brien realizes she’s trapped in this dark, violent, ugly world and only ever gets glimpses of the world outside it. Frank’s world. The real world. And in the real world the six issue story arc, which features gunfights, explosions, desecration, torture, and Frank Castle post-coital, it ends on anonymous street, in front of an anonymous building, with anonymous hostages, because everything is anonymous to Frank (and O’Brien). Everything but the mission. Everything but the purpose.

Ennis doing character development on Frank in Punisher MAX is always uphill. The series is set in the present, Frank’s been punishing since the mid-to-late seventies, we don’t get any information about those years. Other than he used to be more troubled by what was going on in his life. Nicky Cavella brings it back in this arc, which lets Ennis do that character development, but he’s always careful to pace it out. Frank’s big revelation came—we learn later—in the previous issue; he shares it at the end. The peace he’s able to find as it relates to his mission, his purpose. Even with the art, which is probably the best in arc—and still not very good—the end is very effective. You can feel the weight and calm in Frank, which is the whole point of Punisher MAX. Not to make Frank sympathetic, but to make him… rational.

The issue’s kind of strange as an arc finale; most of it is wrap-up. There’s a big action opener, but it doesn’t relate to anything before or after, not for Frank or O’Brien. Then Ennis hurries through Frank, O’Brien, and Roth’s blackmail scheme with Rawlins in order to get to the next action sequence, when Frank finally confronts Nicky Cavella after five issues of escalating animosity. It’s a “hero” moment for Frank (Punisher MAX doesn’t address the idea of Punisher as hero, but it definitely explores how he fits that expectation) but there’s no time to celebrate. Turns out there aren’t hero moments for Frank or O’Brien.

With better art, Up is Down and Black is White could be the best arc in the series so far. Instead, it’s the second best. Ennis has figured out how to work it; how to do the character development, how to handle the extremes, how to handle the narrative expectation. It goes all over the place, is always focused, is always expansive.

The ending, which has this wonderful detail about Nicky’s experience of it versus Frank’s, is lovely. Frank’s world is ugly, tragic, and hopeless, but there’s a definite, primal beauty about it.

The Punisher #23, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #23

Lots happens this issue. Lots. Also not lots. It’s a very particular kind of comic, where the heroes find out what the villains have been plotting. A revelation issue… but for the characters. There’s probably a term for it. Sort of a diegetic revelation issue.

Anyway, it also has Frank getting his head straight—courtesy a shotgun blast to his chest (and vest)—which means he’s an active character not a passive player for Ennis to move through the events. It’s nice to have him back. You got worried about him last issue, as did O’Brien; this issue has a wonderful conversation between O’Brien and Frank. She does most of the talking. Fernandez and Hanna do the talking heads well, all things considered, though it’s hard not to notice the only time Fernandez can pace out a conversation is when the people are naked.

This issue has—probably for the first time, but who knows—Frank making the beast with two backs. It’s a great moment. Ennis has really got Frank down at this point. He’s comfortable writing him, not restricting the kinds of scenes Frank gets to be in. I guess if you’re writing Frank Castle playing kindly grandpa, it’s not too difficult to roll him in the hay.

Speaking of rolling in the hay, Nicky—who survives the showdown (all of the main cast does, there’s another issue after all)—gets the wrong roll in the hay offer, which ties directly into the issue’s cliffhanger. The plotting is shootout and resolution, escape, Nicky following, Frank and company interrogating a captured bad guy (Frank getting results thanks to it being a MAX comic), some shagging, then the cliffhanger. It might be the best art in the arc so far, just because Fernandez doesn’t screw anything up majorly enough to notice it.

It’s real impressive how Ennis has plotted this arc; he’s got all these threads he can wrap up in the fifth issue and prime the arc for a great finale. Especially when you consider Frank’s been on autopilot for most of the arc so far. He wasn’t even in the Nicky issue. The Frank narration, sparing as always, jars the comic’s narrative focus back onto him. Great character development on O’Brien too.

Up is Down and Black is White isn’t pulpy; it’s a straight Punisher MAX comic, much more in common with the first and second arcs than the third, but Ennis has definitely learned from doing the pulpy, long present action arc; it informs this one. So good.

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