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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The Punisher #22, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 4 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #22

The issue opens with one of those good Ennis ideas not explored; two guys breaking into a closed jewelry shop and terrified by the thought The Punisher, who’s (apparently) never cared about the non-violent street criminals, now does cares about them. Since he’s gone spree. Spree-er.

But it’s just the one-page opener, nothing Ennis wants to explore. Next up is Frank living in his dream, a dead world, everyone killed by him, and finding there’s still no peace for him. Presumably. Frank doesn’t analyze his dream, just regrets closing his eyes. Ennis then takes some time to catch up with Frank’s perspective on everything. Frank might not analyze his dreams, but he does analyze his feelings. Or at least he acknowledges he has feelings he could be analyzing if he weren’t trying to kill enough people to get a specific action from the city.

Speaking of the city, Ennis has what would be a great talking heads scene with the city brass yelling at each other about what to do with the Punisher. There’s a couple more tidbits of information—the cops don’t just go after Frank because, while he doesn’t do collateral damage, they would, and then how the city just looks the other way when Frank keeps the weekly kill count at a dozen. They just want a politically acceptable way to give Frank what he wants, because once Frank has what he wants (they think), he’s just going to go after Nicky.

And they’re right. They give Frank what he wants and after Nicky he goes. Right into a trap. Knowingly. Reflecting on it as he does, this one final act, so driven by a different kind of rage than normal he can’t stop himself. Even though Frank doesn’t think about it so Ennis doesn’t write about it (and there’s no one for Frank to confide in, thank goodness), there’s this “man’s gotta do” subtext to the whole thing. The Punisher undone by ingrained toxic masculinity.

Meanwhile, O’Brien and Roth have started staking out her ex-husband, CIA killer Rawlins, finding him not just conspiring with mobster Nicky, but also cavorting with him. Given the second issue of the arc… there’s a definite statement to Nicky being a passive, enthusiastic bottom in the sack….

Anyway, Rawlins isn’t just there for the hanky-panky, they’re teaming up to take out Frank.

Good thing O’Brien’s got horribly valid reasons to get the drop on Rawlins. But will she be in time? And would she help Frank if she were?

None of the art is good. Some of it is better than the rest of it, but it’s rather disappointing Ennis turns in this great script—building action versus last issue’s bridging action—only for Fernandez to fumble through it. Hanna’s inks… probably help. But who knows.

The scenery’s good? The scenery’s important. It’s good. Sadly the people aren’t and they’re the most important thing.

The Punisher #21, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 3 (of 6)

p 21

Every once and a while I wonder if I’m too liberal in my use of the term “bridging issue” to quickly describe how a writer uses an issue to set up the second half or next part of an arc. Then I’ll read a comic like Punisher MAX #21 and it’s exactly what I’m talking about. There have been a couple other bridging issues in Punisher MAX, but this one is the first where it feels like Ennis is writing for the trade. Makes sense as it’s the fourth arc and they’d have seen floppies versus trade sales.

Stuff sort of happens this issue, but all of it is anticipatory. Ex-CIA agent O’Brien breaks out of the pokey and heads to former colleague and fellow ex-CIA agent Roth’s apartment for help. Frank goes on a killing spree to force the NYPD to resolve outstanding issues with Nicky Cavella’s “prank” at the Castle family grave site. Meanwhile, Rawlins—who it turns out was married to O’Brien at one point because it’s still a Marvel comic and Marvel comics love nothing more than backstory coincidences—also happens to know Cavella and goes to meet with him. The issue ends with Frank killing a bunch of people and musing about a recurring dream, the one where he finally loses it and turns the guns on the civilians.

It’s a shame Ennis uses that Frank narration just to make the ending… more effective than it would be if it were just Frank killing a bunch of disposable, generic bad guys. The dream’s disturbing to be sure, but it’s also the Punisher reflecting on his chosen vocation and how he understands it. He’s not seeking vengeance, he’s not seeking redemption, so why does he do what he does. Ennis has been, slowly, starting to unpack that question since the start of the series. Just when he’s got the opportunity to do it here, he ends the issue. Because Frank’s killing spree is different than his usual thing—he’s slaughtering the bad guys in full view of civilians, hitting a night club, for example. He’s bringing his reality to a lot of people who don’t usually see it.

And then there’s the art.

Penciller Fernandez and inker Hanna choke on the talking heads. Miserably. O’Brien and Roth’s conversation has really bad “acting.” Terrible, actually. Their expressions are terrible.

It’s by no means a bad issue but it sure reads better in the trade versus the floppy. Especially for three bucks.

The Punisher #20, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 2 (of 6)

P20

It’s the Nicky Cavella origin story, complete with his original crew (from the first Punisher MAX arc) appearing again in fun little cameos. Well, as fun as a Punisher MAX cameo is going to get. Because Nicky Cavella has a very rough origin story. He’s the psychopath born to the family of sociopaths who don’t understand why he doesn’t have any compunctions about killing (anyone) while the family pretends there should be compunctions. It’s disturbing (mostly because Ennis doesn’t do any comedy relief with it, save the pragmatic violence of Cavella’s sidekick in the present) and it’s a lot, over a lot of pages.

The history also suggests what Nicky did to the Castle Family’s grave site is nothing compared to what he’d do if they weren’t thirty years decomposed.

The issue starts when Nicky is eight, though the first panel could be anyone in a Punisher MAX series—to the point it’s not even clear if Ennis is playing with expectations or everyone in the series is just so disturbed it’s the way the series goes. There’s an intro to his family life, including his manipulative, fellow psychopath aunt who wants to train Nicky for a brighter future than his father or uncle. They’re too soft. She wants to toughen him up.

It comes at a cost, though it’s pretty clear there never was a happy ending for Nicky.

At least not one where he doesn’t end up hurting a lot of people.

The present day stuff is Nicky and sidekick Tessie waiting for the other mobsters to decide whether or not to make Nicky boss. Other than the frame, which does account for a decent amount of pages and has the aforementioned closest thing to comic relief, it’s just the flashbacks. Ennis referred to Nicky’s ominous backstory in the first arc, now’s the pay-off. And it’s adequate pay-off. Ennis keeps his villain quirky, horrifically so.

Once again, Ferandez’s artwork disappoints. Once again, Hanna’s inks have to pick up way too much slack. Though it’s better art than the previous issue and far fewer of the bland but busy close-ups from the previous issue.

I’m not still 100% on Nicky as a master villain (or if a master villain belongs in Punisher MAX, but Ennis does the work to establish him as one hell of a bad guy.

The Punisher #19, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #19

The issue opens with Nicky Cavella, returning from the first story arc—it’s hard to believe Up is Down and Black is White is only the fourth arc in Punisher MAX—at the Castle family headstone. He’s digging up the bodies, talking to a henchman with a camcorder. Whatever he’s got planned, it’s not 1) going to be bad and 2) going to piss off Frank. But Ennis delays any follow-up with Frank (or even what Nicky does) and skips to the prison showers, where former CIA agent O’Brien (she has a first name, but it’s not important), also back from the first arc, is fending off an attempt rape.

O’Brien versus the lesbian inmates is, in 2019, a little cringe-y. It’s also not factually inaccurate so… it is what it is.

Ennis mostly splits the issue between her and Nicky, so the first arc returnees, giving Frank one big action sequence—he’s back to normal after his Russian adventure last arc, trying to sort through the crime land power vacuum the previous eighteen issues of MAX have left. But Ennis is also doing a direct sequel to the previous arc, with the shady American generals hiring a CIA assassin to go after Frank. The assassin is Rawlins, who initiated the previous arc’s terrorist attack, where he got enough page time to be familiar without being very regular.

So Up is Down is Ennis doing two arc follow-ups in one. Nicky’s busy trying to get the Italian mob together under his command, O’Brien’s getting into more and more trouble with her enemies in prison, Rawlins isn’t thrilled he’s just been given the order to off the Punisher.

Ennis teases the horrific nature of whatever Nicky was up to in the first scene, he also has a surprise reveal on Nicky’s henchman. The reveal is a little mean-spirited but if you can’t hate the bad guys, they aren’t really bad enough. But that teasing—Nicky promises the other mob bosses he’s done something amazing but they’ll have to watch the news—just primes the issue for the last scene, when we all find out what Nicky’s done and are left to wonder what Frank’s going to do about it.

It’s an excellent issue. Great pacing, great characters, great Frank narration during the shoot out.

Only one problem. And his name is Leandro Fernandez. Inker Scott Hanna was clearly brought in to do a lot of the detail work, which is probably why the close-ups don’t look much like the medium or long shots—it almost looks like Fernandez just left the features blank and Hanna put them in. The action is okay but the talking heads—and there’s a lot of talking heads—is barely middling. When Nicky’s shocking the mobsters, for instance, their shocked expressions aren’t just identical, some of their faces are identical.

But the page layouts are really complex, so either Fernandez does an excellent job breaking out scenes but not illustrating them… or Ennis’s script has panel direction? Either way, rocky start to the art. Everything else is great. Just not the art.

Infinity 8: Volume Four: Symbolic Guerilla

I8v4

It’s been a while since I read any Infinity 8, but it’s the perfect series to return to after a break since each arc is a different take on the same thing. Literally.

Each arc has a different (far future) space agent who has a limited time to investigate why an intergalactic graveyard the size of Earth’s solar system is blocking the way of a giant ship.

This arc, Symbolic Guerrilla, introduces agent Patty Stardust, who’s undercover with a cult of performance artists but gets called to check out the graveyard. Meanwhile, the cult–led by sixties hippie in the future, Ron–finds out the ship is stopped and starts planning on how he’s going to exploit the situation for his–ahem, the group’s–benefit.

Patty’s Black, with a big afro–how French guy Lewis Trondheim and probably European guy Kris acknowledge people shouldn’t intrude on her wanting to touch her hair but White Americans can’t figure it out… anyway. Patty’s a fantastic lead. She’s been undercover with Ron and the Symbolic Guerrillas for five years, this mission could jeopardize it–good thing the ship’s captain is going to loop time–and she’s engaged to Ron’s stepson.

That engagement–Patty’s the stage manager, who has to do work and (presumably) stay sober, while her dude is mindbogglingly high all the time–is one of the most interesting things in the arc. Trondheim and Kris don’t dwell on the space graveyard too much. Patty sees some things, but they don’t figure into the main plot like what Ron comes across and decides to exploit. In multiple ways. With multiple terrible results.

But Patty and her love life? It adds a lot of texture to the character, who’s otherwise basically moving from action beat to action beat.

Great art from Martin Trystram. He concentrates on the psychedelic flashback aspect of the visual narrative, but doesn’t skip on the sci-fi setting. Or the ship. There are cameos from previous Infinity 8 cast members, which makes you wonder how it would all read in a sitting.

Speaking of reading… I was sort of assuming the original French publications were bigger size than the American comic format, but no. The American printings might even be a little bigger. There’s just so much little detail you want to see. Trystram packs each panel. It’s awesome.

Infinity 8 is, I guess, halfway through with Symbolic Guerrilla but thanks to the writers’ ingenuity and the consistently different, consistently fantastic art, it feels like it’s just getting started.

Also because there’s so little emphasis placed on the ship’s crisis. It’s a red herring (almost) so Trondheim and company can explore this future.

The Punisher #18, Mother Russia, Part 6 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #18

It’s a perfect comic. There’s no big Punisher action, no rampant gun porn, just high levels of espionage action as Frank figures out how they’re going to escape the missile silo as he delivers on his threat to fire nukes on Moscow. Meanwhile the Russian general’s reaction scene is another beauty of an Ennis moment—the Russian general is the best villain Ennis has come up with in Punisher MAX so far; even though he’s in this comic book, like the rest of the “men of action” here—Frank, Fury, Vanheim the Special Forces guy—Ennis has got a lot to say about his behavior. Or Ennis says a lot with the characters’ behaviors. Particularly how they function and why.

The why is usually very subtle, very muted, very heavy. Frank and Vanheim have a particularly hefty scene this issue. People in crisis and the relationships they form and so on. Ennis gets it. He perturbs the plot to hit particular points, to trigger particular neurons, all of it adding up to the impact of the final pages of the arc. It doesn’t resolve for Frank or Fury or possibly even the Russian general, but it does finish up for some of the guest stars. How they’ve affected Frank, how this experience has changed him (which shouldn’t even be possible since the whole point of a Punisher comic is how hard it’s going to be to make him a person and not a caricature). It’s fantastic.

Ennis has been trying to get to the moment he hits with Frank in the last few pages in both the previous arcs; Mother Russia is where he figures out how to do it. Having Braithwaite probably makes it all possible. Braithwaite and inker Bill Reinhold, who I haven’t mentioned because Braithwaite’s clearly the driving force on the art, but they’re good inks. Braithwaite’s able to do the large scale military espionage stuff—the nuclear missile launch sequence is awesome—but he’s just as comfortable with the smaller stuff Ennis goes with towards the end. It’s a big success.

Ennis manages to do actual character development on the Punisher, manages to keep Frank the narrator (making the comic feel perfectly pulp), and he gets in just the right amount of sardonic humor. Can’t have Fury without the sardonic humor.

It’s a phenomenal close to a superior comic story.

The Punisher #17, Mother Russia, Part 5 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #17

And here’s the issue where Ennis goes for the heartstrings. Frank’s got to save the little girl, which ends up being a fantastic sequence. The issue opens with the hijacked airliner getting shot down; the response to it, both from the Russian general and Fury, are the B plot for the issue. Frank’s got other things to do. He’s got to save the little girl, first from the Russian general’s little assassin—it’s an outstanding sequence from Braithwaite—and later from the insidiousness of American generals. That sequence is effective but nothing compared to the action violence of the first. So far Mother Russia has been without truly evil villains. Frank’s been dealing with literal cannon fodder. But the little assassin… he’s a bad dude.

Ennis gets in two more big “Punisher moments.” There’s the response to the American generals’ backup plans, then there’s Frank’s solution to being trapped in the bunker with no hope of escape. The latter one is the cliffhanger, so we don’t get to know his plan, just his utterly awesome and succinct threat to the Russians.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Fury has a phenomenal meltdown scene when he finds out he’s been made part of the U.S.-sponsored terror attack. Morality is a big deal in Punisher MAX; wouldn’t work without it. Frank’s usually got a fairly simple one. Theoretically Fury’s line in the sand should be much further down the beach, but not so much it turns out. All of these soldiers and generals are hyper-violent sociopaths (or worse) while Fury and Frank are… humanists? The closest thing to them anyway.

The big scene with Frank and Galina, the little girl, successfully got me teary-eyed. It’s a really quick resolve to the scene but it’s enough; Ennis has gone out of his way to show the additional weight the girl is putting on Frank. It’s great work.

The plotting of the issue—Frank dealing with the Russian soldiers, the drama surrounding the backup plan, Fury’s meltdown with the generals, the Russian general trying to stay calm while dealing with moron officers—it’s beautifully paced. It’s the most action in any issue so far—most consequential action in any issue so far—and Ennis still makes the time to delve into the psychology of the characters and their actions. It’s exceptional comics.

The Punisher #16, Mother Russia, Part 4 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #16

Just over halfway through the arc and Ennis does a bridging issue. It’s an all-action bridging issue, but a bridging issue. We find out exactly what the U.S.-funded terrorists on the plane are going to do, we find out what the Russian general’s little henchman is capable of doing, we get some groundwork on Vanheim’s character. Not Vanheim as a character, but Vanheim the character’s character. Somewhat wanting character.

And some Fury mouthing off to the generals, who’re thrilled they’ve managed to execute a fake terrorist attack on Moscow without him knowing about it.

Frank’s busy holding off the Russian soldiers. Down the silo they rappel, up he shoots the bullets. Will the Russians run out of men before he runs out of bullets (something Ennis actually foreshadowed in the first issue of the arc, the very real problem of not having enough ammunition).

There’s also some more gentle moments for Frank—in between shooting down waves of Russian soldiers he goes and gets little Galina some ice cream. It happens off page (the actual ice cream getting and eating) because Ennis knows there are limits to Grandpa Punisher. Not many limits, really. But some. Ice cream would be too much. Ennis already has Frank make a bit of a joke in the narration so an actual cute scene would be too much. Though I do want to know if he had to make a flavor selection for her and, if so, what he went with.

About halfway through the issue, maybe a little further, the Mongolian—he’s the Russian general’s henchman—is able to infiltrate Frank and company’s defenses. Using nearly the same method a similarly little henchman used in the first arc of Punisher MAX. It’s… fine. It does make narrative sense and doesn’t come off contrived (did Ennis forget he’d used the device before? Did his editor? Why isn’t Frank prepared for this kind of thing having experienced it already). It’s just not original. And it was just twelve issues ago. You have to read Punisher MAX arcs; there’s no done in ones; readers are going to notice it.

Thank goodness for the awesome resulting fight scenes, where Braithwaite moves fast but with a lot of impact. Maybe it’s Frank getting his ass kicked in front of the kid, maybe it’s how well Braithwaite keeps track of the kid. It works and it works well. It’s just familiar.

There’s some great black humor with the Russian general as he deals with his incompetent subordinates.

Really good cliffhanger again, as things are getting dire for Frank and friends. Even the Russian general knows things are about to get really good. Ennis has got all the pieces arranged and next issue he can really start playing with them.

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