The Punisher #42, Man of Stone, Part 6 (of 6)

The Punisher #42

When Ennis has Frank by himself for four days, walking across the desert, trying to beat Rawlins to the airport, in a foreign country, no gun, perfectly opportunity for some self-reflection. But no. Ennis does end up having something to say in Man of Stone—Frank’s buddy Yorkie is taking an unplanned retirement because he’s sick of the War on Terror. He’s the honorable soldier, not in it for the bloodshed, which is what he’s seeing now. Somehow Vietnam was different, he’s sure, but he’s not convincing. He and Frank have a drink (or don’t have a drink, it’s unclear because Frank’s gone monosyllabic) and Yorkie bares his broken soul. It’s a good scene. Probably should have been how Ennis did the whole arc, tracking Yorkie instead of him being a special guest star.

Per Yorkie, there’s no place for the traditional war story anymore, which seems kind of meta, especially considering Ennis came to a similar conclusion with General Zakharov, only Man of Stone isn’t really a war story. Because it’s still a Punisher comic and it’s not Frank’s war.

So the Yorkie thing is great and then it’s time for Frank to finish up. He starts with some very pulp narration, which is a strange development, but then it turns into a slasher comic with the Punisher. He’s the slasher. From the poetry of Yorkie’s sad British soldier monologue to Frank now monosyllabic even in his narration. It’s like Ennis going through and saying, it’s not a spy story, it’s not a war story, it’s not a Punisher story, because all of those things make their own mess.

The issue and—consequently—arc have a bad ending. Whatever Ennis is going for fails. It’s not Fernandez’s fault because Fernandez doesn’t have a say in any of it. It’s just how the story goes… doesn’t work, then ends worse. Ennis spent the arc trying out the supporting cast to see if they could resonate and didn’t find the best one until the final issue of the arc. Meanwhile, Frank the international troubleshooter is unpleasant; Frank Castle vs. the Taliban seems exactly like the comic Ennis doesn’t want to do and then turns around and does it half-assed because of his disinterest in how it actually plays out.

But it does resolve most if not all of the outstanding supporting cast story arcs; satisfactorily too. Ennis does a fine job cleaning house after forty-two issues. Just wish he could’ve figured out a way to do it with a better story.

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The Punisher #41, Man of Stone, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher #41

It’s not… the best issue. In some ways, it might even be the worst of the series so far. Not because there’s anything particularly bad–though Fernandez's art sort of tanks here so it doesn't help the finale hinges on Frank's expressions for effectiveness, though it might be on colorists Dan Brown and Giulia Brusco; it seems like Fernandez's panels, in black and white, might be effective. The colors don't help.

This issue is build-up to a big action set piece–how Frank and O'Brien are going to deal with the Russian general and Rawlins–and the resolution after they execute that plan. Even though Ennis opens the issue with Frank narration, there's no specifics about how the plan's supposed to go, just how transition stuff between the last issue's finale and this issue's opening.

But the issue also reveals just how wanting the villains of Man of Stone have been. Frank and O’Brien end up once place, still having to deal with Rawlins and General Zakharov. Zakharov and his flunkies find themselves at Rawlins’s mercy and he proves to be a vicious, cruel bastard, which the reader’s known for ages and Zakharov, based on when he told off Rawlins last issue or so, seems to know too. Shame he didn’t take it to heart and instead lets Rawlins get the better of him.

Rawlins is a tiring villain. He’s endlessly repugnant and opportunistic instead of smart. He’s not fun or edifying character to follow. Ennis just churns through his scenes. There are threats, there are violent realizations of those threats, there are more threats… on and on it goes. At least with Zakharov and his flunkies, there’s some examination of the characters and their situations. Rawlins is just caricature.

Meanwhile Frank is back to leading O’Brien on as far as their “romance.” Sure, he tells her not to plan for the future but he also banters with her against napalm going off in the distance; Ennis and Fernandez are way too intentional with the interplay given it can’t mean anything to Frank outside a temporary alliance.

Why can’t it mean anything to Frank?

Because, ostensibly no character development on him. Even though Punisher MAX is all about the character development on him.

It’s not a bad comic at all, it’s just a pointless enough one it’s hard to imagine Ennis is somehow going to wrap it all up into something special with the next issue. Man of Stone clearly went off the rails somewhere, but it might have just been on the wrong track the entire time. It plays to none of the series’s strengths, especially this issue, with Fernandez no longer able to keep the art more engaging than not.

The Punisher #40, Man of Stone, Part 4 (of 6)

The Punisher #40

Man of Stone puts Frank into a world where he doesn’t belong. This issue has him showing down with rogue Russian general Zakharov in Afghan mountains; the general wants Frank alive so Frank will confess on TV. See, Zakharov has a romanticized view of himself and his soldiers. His resolve is a strength and he sees the same thing in Frank, only Frank’s got no romanticized view of himself or anything else. Zakharov’s projecting. The world where Frank doesn’t belong isn’t Afghanistan or shootouts, it’s in the daydreams of general’s and CIA agent’s (good and bad).

Frank doesn’t get jack to do this issue. He gets a kind of big action set piece but it’s not about his experience of it, rather the damage he does on others because he’s the Punisher after all. He and O’Brien hang out a bunch but it’s all her talking and him occasionally showing interest but eager to remind her they’re not going to prom after they take out the Russians and her evil ex-husband. There’s no Frank narration this issue either. When he’s got an exposition dump, it’s brief and in dialogue to O’Brien.

There’s also a lack of preparedness on Frank’s part, echoing the previous story arc, which is either Ennis covering for dramatic manipulations or Frank just being out of his element. Though I suppose in this story, it could also be he was too busy making the beast with two backs with O’Brien.

After three issues of being a prop, O’Brien gets her big monologue here and it’s… okay. Fernandez does a better job with O’Brien as action hero in the issue than Frank, but he doesn’t bring anything to her talking head panels. He doesn’t have the timing for it, which isn’t a surprise. It’s effectively done, it’s just not as good as it could be. Because O’Brien does belong in this world only she wishes she didn’t. Or wishes Frank did.

Even though Man of Stone is far from the best arc—and, frankly, not the bounce back (so far) the series needs post-Barracuda—it does at least do something with the characters. The only new character this arc is Zalharov’s main flunky, who hates Rawlins; they’re kind of comic relief. Everyone else is back from previous arcs, laden with baggage. Good baggage, well-placed baggage. Ennis’s characters are in better shape than his narrative needs.

The Punisher #39, Man of Stone, Part 3 (of 6)

The Punisher #39

Ennis starts the issue with some more framing: Frank and O’Brien eating rations in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. It’s a two page teaser, with Frank giving in and going for a roll in the sack with O’Brien. Again. Even though, the narration reveals, he’d told himself not to do it. Ennis’s Punisher MAX has done a lot of things in its run so far, but establishing Frank Castle gets horny in his downtime… well, it might not be the biggest success but it’s definitely a success. Frank Castle: Sexual Being. Who knew.

The rest of Frank’s narration, with a couple exceptions in the last couple pages, is about him getting to Afghanistan. It’s not a lot of narration, because on the last plane he meets a reporter who’s going to talk his ear off and give the reader some exposition as to how big bad Russian villain Zakharov got the “Man of Stone” nickname; doing heinous shit to Afghan civilians during the Russian occupation. What’s weird about the sequence—besides the comic cutting from the intro to the exposition dump to Zakharov and his goons preparing for the Punisher’s arrival—is how Frank probably knows all of it (yet doesn’t want to talk to the reporter so doesn’t mention it)—so it’s exclusively for the reader’s edification, which plays weird. Something’s missing. Maybe Frank’s narration.

The issue continues the arc’s weird pacing—like Ennis is doing all the bridging issues in the front—with, once again, barely any time spent on O’Brien. She and Frank probably get about the same amount of page time but he’s got the narration to make more of an impression. Dialogue-wise, they’re probably equal. Or Frank’s less. O’Brien’s opening scene is with Yorkie, who does most of the talking (though not all) and then she and Frank talk a little, but pragmatically. Rawlins gets the most dialogue or at least seems like it because he’s got this lengthy ranting monologue about being a great spy and how valuable he could be to Zakharov. Rawlins and Zakharov get the most agency in the arc; Frank’s just reacting to them, O’Brien’s just a damsel (of sorts).

It’s an efficient, effective issue, with Fernandez drawing Frank the tourist a lot better than Frank at home, though he barely gets any panels compared to anyone else. Even when Frank does get a panel, Fernandez usually concentrates on something else. Fernandez’s art on Punisher is better because he’s drawing less Punisher. But, given Fernandez’s lows on the series, I’ll take it.

Man of Stone is half over and Ennis has just completed arranging the pieces on the board. He’s done a fine enough job with that arranging, but hasn’t really given a sign of what’s to come for anyone involved. There’s this inevitable showdown feel to it… except Ennis has only talked about the inevitability not shown it.

The Punisher #38, Man of Stone, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher #38

Why is the only thing Fernandez unable to reliably draw, even with his much improved (and self-inked) Man of Stone style… why can’t he draw the Punisher? Frank’s out of action the entire issue, literally sitting around on the telephone, and Fernandez can’t seem to figure out how to draw Frank’s arms. It’s really, really weird how he can handle everything else but not Frank.

So I guess it’s good Frank’s only in the first couple pages and the last page. He’s on the phone with Yorkie, Yorkie’s about the blow O’Brien’s brains out. The British are helping the Americans protect former Taliban and O’Brien’s killing former Taliban so she’s got to be got. Frank learned about the British involvement thanks to BBC America, which is a throwaway line but does give an idea what Frank puts on in the background while cleaning his guns. There’s quite a bit about how Americans war—the British soldiers aren’t happy about taking assassination orders from the CIA, evil ex-CIA guy Rawlins points out they can get Frank to Afghanistan—he’s not going to want to get into a firefight with the angry Russians in New York City; Americans like going to war in other people’s countries. Quick but important digs from Ennis, as Man of Stone is more about geo-political conditions than anything with Frank himself.

So besides the frame, the issue is about Yorkie and his team capturing O’Brien and getting into a fight with Rawlins and the Russians and then Rawlins getting dangled over a cliff until he comes up with another plan to take down the Punisher. The Rawlins and Russians stuff is forward moving, while the O’Brien and Yorkie pages are more like cast catch-up. Ennis seeing what the pair is like together, having written them both alone. It’s Punisher MAX world-riffing. It’s a good use of pages, as far as the single issue goes, though maybe not for the overall arc. Especially since Yorkie has this great closing joke for O’Brien and the comic skips her reaction.

Actually, the comic skips O’Brien’s reactions to almost everything. She’s either quiet or muzzled.

If the arc has an epical structure, outside the issue’s individual ones, we seem to have just gotten to the end of the first act. Ennis is gradual about setting up the ground situation, far more committed to the individual issues’ plotting. Even if this one doesn’t much involve Frank.

The Punisher #37, Man of Stone, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher #37

Leandro Fernandez is back on the art, inking himself, and he’s better than he’s ever been before. There are still some panels where it’s clear colorist Dan Brown is doing a lot of the shading, but overall it’s a big improvement over Fernandez’s usual art.

The issue brings together a lot of the series’s leftovers—there’s ex-CIA assassins Rawlins and O’Brien, there’s the Russian general, there’s Yorkie. Well, Yorkie gets a name drop towards the end. He’s promised.

Rawlins is trying to team up with the Russians, only to discover the hardass, Wilson Fisk lookalike general from the Mother Russia arc. This arc, Man of Stone, well, the general is said Man of Stone. He doesn’t take to slimy American fixer Rawlins and most of their subplot is spent with the general, Zakharov, torturing him. Until Rawlins is able to come up with a plan to take on Frank. Zakharov’s still mad at Frank for the whole killing Russian troops in a nuclear weapon silo thing.

Meanwhile Frank is working his way through some drug dealers, which then puts him on a collision course with the Russian mob. The Russian mobster name-drops O’Brien, who skipped last arc, as a person of interest, though Frank doesn’t know O’Brien’s out there killing the off the Afghanis who kidnapped and assaulted her.

Now, post-9/11, these guys are all American assets because… America.

It’s a lot of setup, with most of the humor in how vicious sociopath Rawlins being no match for Zakharov and his crew. Initially Ennis gives Frank a lot of narration but mostly drops it after the first scene, which is an action sequence; he’s interrogating people, no need for narration, just talking heads.

So other than the soft cliffhanger with O’Brien and maybe a couple pages of Frank’s shootout, it’s all talking heads. Just one talker about to have the other talker castrated talking heads. Ennis is really good at keeping it moving, with Fernandez all of a sudden able to keep up. Whatever Fernandez did while talking the last arc off helped.

So far Man of Stone is a gritty, realistic espionage thriller juxtaposed against Frank being Frank. It’s perfectly solid stuff, engaging as a prologue to whatever’s coming next. Even if the only thing Fernandez can’t seem to figure out how to reliably draw in Punisher MAX is The Punisher.

Also weird is how it’s following up on the arc where Ennis embraced pulp for Frank’s narration and takes an entirely different approach here.

The Punisher #36, Barracuda, Part 6 (of 6)

The Punisher #36

Turns out the big problem with Barracuda isn’t going to be Barracuda not being a great villain or the Wall Street betrayal arc not creating great ones either, but Ennis not really having a finish for Frank. Sure, he’s got a concussion and he’s outgunned, but his big plan in this issue doesn’t allow for every contingency. It also goes wrong because Frank gets sloppy—again, the concussion can allow for those mistakes, but shouldn’t he at least recognize it, acknowledge it? After gliding over past tense narration pitfalls, Ennis slips and falls just when he needs to keep it going. Barracuda might seem like an arc about a “guest as tough as Frank” adversary and some scumbag Wall Street types, but it’s really about Frank Castle messing up and apparently not learning from it.

It’s weird.

Especially since Ennis brackets the arc with this open-ended “what’s the only thing more dangerous than a barracuda” bit in the narration. Is it the sharks? There are a lot of sharks in this issue, some fully visualized, some just shadows in the water—both equally awesome, thanks to Parlov. Or is it Frank? Is Frank the only thing more dangerous? Because he’s not. Because he gets caught with his pants down this issue. Again, weird.

But far from a bad issue. Parlov’s art is great, Ennis’s writing is strong in everything else, whether it’s the Wall Street subplot (the boss’s conniving wife and her lover) or Barracuda. Though the resolve does have an unfortunate plot… depression. It’s not a hole, it’s something they needed to deal with in panel not off page. Parlov's implication is fine, it just doesn’t have any dramatic resonance.

Ennis brings the conclusion in all right, albeit with a somewhat fake finish—that dangerous barracuda musing—but it certainly feels like something happened with the Barracuda arc. The Punisher versus Wall Street certainly promised a lot more potential. And it’s not like Ennis is trying to avoid sensationalism—there are sharks eating investors and so on. Something just seems off, like mid-arc changes were made or things just didn’t shake out in the writing.

For the first time ever, Punisher MAX ends up leveraging the art to support the writing. Thank goodness Ennis has got Parlov to do it because Parlov can do it, does do it. Barracuda’s not great (outside the art) and it’s more than a little disappointing, but it’s still good. It’s just good enough instead of superb.

The Punisher #35, Barracuda, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher #35

It’s a bridging issue but also not. Actually, there are some major plot developments here, just not much involving Frank. Other than him surviving and deciding it’s time to stop screwing around with the Wall Street guys and just take them out; thanks to Barracuda, Frank’s now taking things as seriously as he should have been before.

He doesn’t have that observation in his narration, but he’s dealing with a concussion for sure and probable brain damage so he’s too exhausted to reflect on the mistakes. He’s also got a time limit. Today’s the day—the Wall Street guys are going out on a boat and Frank’s going to do something to it. Ennis doesn’t reveal what, as next issue needs some surprises, but it involves Frank scuba diving for a bit. Also seagulls pooping on him, because Ennis wants to keep it a little lighter. And Parlov draws great passed out Frank and bird shit.

But Frank’s not in it much. Most of the issue has boss’s wife Alice and her lover (and boss’s flunky) Dermot teaming up with Barracuda. Ennis keeps Barracuda dangerous but starts using him for comic relief too, which would be fine if it didn’t make him seem less capable. He doesn’t think his plans through, eventually scaring Alice enough she decides they’ve got to get rid of him. So Barracuda is double-crossing the boss for Alice and Dermot and they’re going to double-cross him just… because.

As Barracuda’s characterization starts getting iffy, Ennis turns Alice into a much better character than he ever suggested before, which is too bad. It would’ve been nice for her to get all the agency earlier. Well, agency for something other than cheating on her husband with his protégé. And protégé Dermot’s need for a stronger leader comes through here too, even if Ennis doesn’t do much to it.

It’s a perfectly entertaining issue—great art from Parlov—but it’s pretty clear Ennis doesn’t have much more ambition for it than the entertaining. Gone is any character development for Frank and the Wall Street schemers are adequate villains, but far from great ones. Barracuda too seems like a bit of a misfire. It’s impossible to believe he could’ve survived with so many appendages intact given his irresponsible nature.

Instead of a worthwhile foe for Frank, Barracuda’s basically comic relief. Makes you wonder if someone told Ennis not to go so dark with the arc midstream.

The Punisher #34, Barracuda, Part 4 (of 6)

The Punisher #34

This issue makes two things very clear. First, Punisher MAX would’ve been an even more successful book if Goran Parlov had been handling the art chores throughout. His expressions—for the talking heads scenes—are phenomenal. There’s one scene where the big boss is monologuing to his flunkies and it’s just these three guys sitting around an outdoor table at a bar in Florida and it’s sublime. Parlov’s so good.

Especially when you take the second thing into account—everyone should have to fight a shark in a comic. Ennis and Parlov make Frank Castle versus great white shark into an absolutely phenomenal sequence, especially when you throw in the past tense narration not to mention the opening frame establishing Frank doesn’t end up a shark’s lunch. Parlov’s able to keep the situation terrifying and tense, even when the outcome is foregone.

The issue is split between Frank, the shark, and Barracuda, and then the Wall Street guys. Stephens cries his way back in the fold, pissing off Dermot because the boss treats it as a teamwork learning opportunity for Stephens. The weirdest thing about Barracuda is how thoughtful Ennis gets with the workplace dynamics, sure the big boss is a reprehensible piece of shit, but he’s good at managing people and encouraging performance from his staff. It’s like Dale Carnegie with mass corporate fraud, which might just be the natural result of Dale Carnegie.

Anyway, while Dermot’s running off to lover and boss’s wife Alice to lick his wounds after getting shut down, Frank’s trying to will himself to stay alive despite the considerable damage he’s taken.

Barracuda moves between the two plots, finally sitting down with the boss—after terrifying Stephens and Dermot—to figure out what’s next. Since they think the Punisher is dead, which is kind of an obvious mistake but Ennis has already started peppering in holes in Barracuda’s armor. He’s not quite as serious as he ought to be, in a very different way than Frank, who knows he’s screwing up. Barracuda is just overconfident. His bluster actually works really well with the Wall Street guys’ bluster. Barracuda is a relatively simple arc, but Ennis is very thoughtful in its execution. It’s extremely well done.

And Parlov’s just wonderful to have on the book.

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