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.

Advertisements

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.

The Punisher #15, Mother Russia, Part 3 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #15

The first page of the issue introduces the latest cast addition—six-year old Galina Stenkov. She’s in a nuclear missile silo with mean doctors trying to get her blood out so they can have the super-weapon. And then in walks Frank. Ennis interrupts their introduction with a one page check-in to the U.S. generals. They’ve had a lot to do the previous issues. This issue they don’t have anything so a reminder of their subplot and their relation to the main plot is in order.

Also the Punisher—Ennis’s Punisher, Ennis’s Frank—introducing himself to a six-year old girl (in his rusty Russian) is a risky scene. Frank knows it’s risky too—he hasn’t talked to a kid Galina’s age since he talked to his daughter, lying to her about her chances at survival, some thirty years before. It’s also where Ennis is able to bring out all Frank’s humanity and wrap it in a nice bow and put it on his sleeve. Ennis doesn’t shy away from the awkwardness of the situation—terrified child, unstoppable killing machine—he revels in it. To lovely result. Frank’s kindly grandpa bonding with Galina is fantastic.

And it should be an easy mission once he’s got her. Until the Special Forces guy, Vanheim, panics and screws it all up, getting them pinned down in the silo (kind of Die Hard in a nuclear missile silo but with the Punisher). Frank’s got to manage Vanheim, keep Galina amused and distracted from the surrounding carnage, and figure out a way to keep the Russian army at bay. The Russian army’s not very smart, but they’re at least determined.

Some of the Russians are smart though. The issue’s split between Frank and company in the silo and then this Russian general showing up to see what’s been going on at the silo (there was the U.S. attempt to get the scientist and daughter Galina, occurring before the arc started). The local commander thinks the general is out of date and overreacting. A reactionary leftover from the Soviet era. The general ignores the local commander, who covers his ineptness with humor. They’re very muted Ennis villains, but very definitely Ennis villains.

Especially since the general travels with a small Mongolian man who never speaks and, according to one of the officers, is to be feared. It’s Ennis reining in his extremes without losing some of his detail absurdities.

And the Russian stuff is really good, but it’s nothing compared to the Frank stuff. There’s a bigger action sequence near the end of the issue, giving Braithwaite somewhere to show off besides background detail. Ennis limited the action the first couple issues of the arc, building the narrative instead. He gives Braithwaite some gristle here, but it’s still more a thriller than an action comic.

A thriller with a lot of heart. Punisher and kid after all. It’s real good; real good.

The Punisher #14, Mother Russia, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #14

There’s so much Frank narration this issue. So much. It’s wonderful. Ennis is able to use the narration for some exposition, some texture, some humor. Not a lot of humor. He’s got Nick Fury around for humor. Frank’s narration humor is dryer; though maybe not more cynical than Fury’s. It’s hard to be more cynical than Fury. Frank doesn’t have the same worldly concerns… though it’s questionable whether or not the Punisher is cynical. I’m actually leaning towards no.

Regardless, the issue’s full of great narration. Ennis has found his Frank voice and isn’t afraid to use it. The first third of the issue is split between Frank narrating his illegal entry into Russia (hence the title of the story arc) and Fury briefing Frank before he gets to Russia. There’s no narration in the flashback, just really efficient storytelling. And a lot of dialogue. Nick Fury likes to talk. The reader needs to pay attention.

Frank’s going to Russia to rescue a little girl whose father created some great chemical weapon and wanted to sell it to the U.S. only to get killed (in interrogation) by the Russians. The little girl is pumped full of the serum. There’s a time limit before the antidote (also in her system) destroys the weapon and the U.S. generals get sad because they can’t efficiently kill as many people.

He’s got a sidekick with him—a Special Forces guy named Vanheim. Vanheim’s important for a few reasons. He knows how to use computers, which Frank doesn’t. He speaks better Russian (it’s unclear why Frank speaks any Russian at all). And he’s an ostensible babysitter. Keep the Punisher out of trouble. He’s also suspicious, though a little bit less after the generals get a scene plotting against Fury and don’t mention him. He’s a sidekick, something Frank doesn’t want or need but also something Ennis knows will make Punisher work a little smoother.

There’s not a lot of action. There’s a bar fight and then the Russian base infiltration, but Braithwaite and Ennis don’t concentrate on the action. They’re moving as fast as they can to get the story going because it’s issue two of six for the arc and it’s still setup at the open, juxtaposed with narration or not.

It’s a strong issue just a slightly off cliffhanger—Ennis spends a lot of time setting up the mystery of the pseudo-terrorists on the airliner when it hasn’t got a thing to do with Frank yet. But it’s a rather strong issue. Ennis’s mix of narration, exposition, action, talking heads… it’s assuredly compelling.

The Punisher #13, Mother Russia, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #13

Right away there’s something different about this issue; from page one. Penciller Dougie Braithwaite. Braithwaite is thrilled to be doing Punisher, you can tell from the detail—I still want to know what’s on the counter next to Frank in the opening scene, presumably a menu but who knows—and he works his ass off on it. So there’s two pages of this great art, then comes the next big difference—narration. Ennis is finally comfortable with Frank narrating his scenes. And he narrates all of his scenes in this issue, even the one where he’s palling around with Nick Fury.

I don’t know if it’s Nick Fury MAX from Ennis’s Fury MAX series; I can’t remember that book. Doesn’t matter. Punisher MAX’s Nick Fury has been around since Vietnam, knows Frank from then, lost S.H.I.E.L.D. to bureaucrats, wants to get it back post 9/11. How’s he going to get it back? By sending Frank on a secret mission and currying favor with the generals who can revitalize the spy org. The bar scene between Fury and Frank is awesome. Ennis likes getting to do the mix, likes getting to do the “real” take on the weathered old warriors.

Meanwhile, the generals are cooking up their own scheme to “help” Fury, which has something to do with a plane full of terrorists. It’s the issue’s cliffhanger because Ennis has so nicely resolved Frank and Fury’s scene.

The issue’s assured, restrained, and bold. Frank takes out a bunch of Russian mob thugs but Braithwaite and Ennis don’t focus on the action violence, rather Frank’s perception of it. With excellent narration. There are some “MAX” violence moments, of course, but Ennis and Braithwaite saves those for the most emphasis. Even with a lot of narration from Frank, the comic still shows rather than tells. And the way it cuts between scenes is fantastic. It goes from Frank to Fury to Frank to Frank and Fury to the cliffhanger. Braithwaite handles the various locations beautifully (again, it’s clear he’s enthusiastic about this book, he puts a lot into the art). And it’s what Punisher needs, someone to not just take it as seriously as Ennis, but be able to show that seriousness. Braithwaite does.

The issue raises a bunch of questions, multiple plot hooks, and none of them are anywhere near as interesting as Frank. Thanks to that narration. It’s all happening around him.

Basically Punisher MAX #13 is when Ennis has truly figured out how to write Punisher MAX but also has a penciller who knows how to draw it.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: