Ennis’s Punisher MAX and Prose in Comics – My Week in Comics June 27–July 3

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Longer column this time. But the first one I’m pretty happy with, so that’s something.

This week: Why Garth Ennis’s Punisher is not a force of nature . . . Why it’s hard to read prose sections in comic books . . . What I read, with notes on some.

Next week: Crime goes up in comics as it goes down in real life, and the best digital comics format.


GARTH ENNIS’S PUNISHER MAX: SCOURGE OF THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX

A FEW MONTHS AGO I took a stack of single comics I’d bought collections of to Excalibur Comics and traded them for the Marvel Knights Punisher Omnibus by Garth Ennis. I hadn’t read past issue #12 or #13 or so, and took my time going through it all. The remainder of the series contains some very rich stories and some fairly shallow, over-the-top ones, but overall I enjoyed it a lot, and by the end I was ready to dive back into the Marvel MAX version. I read the hardcover collections of that as they came out, but fell behind with volume 4, and never read them close together.

Picking up first Born and From First to Last, the difference with the Marvel Knights series is startling. Not because the material is so much darker—the Marvel Knights material becomes darker as it progresses—but because it is thematically so much tighter. The Marvel Knights collection reads as a series of stories; the two collections of the MAX material outside of the main series already establish a complete worldview, with every story and character a logical extension of that world.

The Marvel Knights version of Frank Castle is a force of nature, but the MAX version isn’t; he is the inevitable consequence of a manmade world in which organized criminals think they can own a city and bankers, politicians, and defense contractors think they can own the world, the only difference between the two a matter of scale. This theme runs straight through Born and the three one-shots collected in From First to Last, culminating in “The End,” in which Frank confronts the captains of industry and politics who “pushed the world’s luck too far,” resulting in a nuclear war that only they were equipped to survive. They explain that they are likely the last living people on Earth, after which Frank kills them.

Ennis has a talent for engaging with such themes directly without it feeling too on the nose. They’re brought up again and again, but a little differently each time, and the larger thread connecting them is never made explicit. It’s clear that the Punisher is a response to the powerful having their way with the world, but it’s always framed in terms of the immediate crime. We understand that the ultimate causes of much of what Frank fights are the actions of respectable people carrying out their legally protected right to make the world a horrible place through war and corruption, but only the barest suggestion is necessary to make that point.

But the connections are there. In the first story arc of Punisher MAX proper, “In the Beginning,” the CIA attempts and fails to weaponize Frank, in their hubris thinking they can tame the beast that men like them created without him making the link between them. In “Mother Russia,” Nick Fury does the same, with Frank going along this time because only Fury shares his contempt for the games of the powerful. When Frank does as Fury expects and subverts the will of the generals both are working for, they hire someone to kill him in the next arc, “Up is Down and Black is White,” a title referring to the state of the world in the hands of men like the generals. This is what these men do; they attempt to use any and every thing they can to extend their own power and if something can’t be used, even if it is no immediate threat to them, as Frank isn’t, far more concerned with his own war, they must destroy it.

Another example of the thematic unity between stories is the intriguing possibility, suggested very subtly in “The Tyger,” that someone else could have become the Punisher. In Born, Ennis introduced a voice speaking to Frank, appealing to his taste for killing, offering to ensure that he survives Vietnam and can have a war that lasts forever, for a price. He ultimately accepts while defending Valley Forge base, the only survivor of a massive attack. It’s written so that it can be read as Death or the Devil talking to Frank, or his subconscious, or he could be losing his mind, or—a rare thing in comics, which as a visual medium encourages readers to take it literally—it could be simply metaphor. I choose to read it that way, and it’s not difficult to imagine this voice taking other forms, speaking to other characters.

In “The Tyger,” a ten-year-old Frank encounters a proto-Punisher in Sal Buvoli, the older brother of a friend of Frank’s who kills herself after being sexually assaulted. A Marine, like Frank will grow up to become, Buvoli commits the kind of violence against the rapist that Frank later subjects all manner of criminals to. Later, we learn that Buvoli is still a Marine during the Vietnam war, and seems to have become addicted as Frank later will, avoiding promotion out of the war zone and returning again and again. However, Buvoli is killed the first week that Frank is in-country, a few years before Frank’s reckoning at Valley Forge. At his key moment, did Buvoli not go all the way, making his bargain with the Devil, himself, whatever, that Frank did? Or did the arrival of Frank present a better figure to become the Punisher?

None of this is stated in the story, because it doesn’t have to be. I could just be reading some of this in, but the fact that that’s so easy to do is because the literary elements of Ennis’s Punisher series are so cohesive that they demand thematic connections of this kind. It may never be stated in the story, but the parallels between Frank and Buvoli are so clear, and Buvoli’s death so perfectly timed that it’s hard not to see a passing of the torch from one “Tyger” to the next.

I’ve focused on the writing to the exclusion of the art, which isn’t fair of me, since I consider Born to be artist Darick Robertson’s finest work, and the three artists in From First to Last, especially John Severin on “The Tyger,” bring so much mood and character to their stories. But Ennis is the virtuoso bringing them all together. There is so much thematic richness in these few short stories, and Ennis writes the interior world of Frank so well. The way that he integrates the William Blake poem in “The Tyger” is a highlight. So many writers would have quoted the poem’s opening lines as an epigram and left it at that. In most cases that would be wiser than drawing too much attention to it, but Ennis includes the entire poem and genuinely engages with it, making it fit into the world he’s created around the Punisher, using it as an angle of Frank and Buvoli and the power struggles that inform the world they live in, more than simply “Frank and/or Buvoli are the Tyger.”

I guess what I’m saying, between the completeness of this world and Ennis’s facility with writing the interiority of characters, plus the fact that, particularly in “The Tyger,” Ennis’s prose is (unlike many comics writers) actually really good, I would love to read a Garth Ennis novel. I’m very curious what he could do with that more interior, less literal form. Here’s hoping.

I CAN’T READ PROSE SECTIONS IN COMIC BOOKS

THE PROSE IN Punisher MAX is of course presented in the form of captions, but I’ve been noticing lately how differently I respond to prose when it’s separated from the story into an addendum. The other long series I’m currently reading in a more comprehensive way than before (this time due to publication history more than my falling behind) is James Robinson (and a legion of artists)’s Starman, and I had forgotten just how much prose is in there in the form of the Shade’s journal.

Each volume of the Omnibus series has concluded with several pages of journal and some have additional pages scattered throughout. After a few failed efforts, I quickly chose to simply skip those pages as they came up. I may be missing something by doing this, details that contribute greater novelistic detail to the history of Opal city and its inhabitants over the years (while not so monolithically focused on a few themes, even its principal theme of fathers and sons, as Punisher MAX, over the course of its run Starman enjoys a novelistic structure), but I just can’t do it. It’s a weird choice—are these parts separated from the story because they’re unimportant, or added because they matter a lot, even if they don’t quite fit? The question compels me to try to read text sections, but the slog generally overcomes the compulsion.

What strikes me as strange about it is that I am a reader. I only list the comics I’m reading in this column, but I’m always in the middle of a novel or short story collection as well. So it can’t be that. Part of it is probably that I simply don’t engage with the writing style attributed to the Shade, nor do I truly buy it as a journal. But since I’ve noticed this in other comics as well, I’m certain there’s more than that.

My inclination is to think of it as a matter of being in the mood. I pick up a comic, I’m in comics mode and prose isn’t on the menu. But I know when picking up Starman that the prose will be there, so it has to be something a little deeper than a mood, but I was having trouble coming up with what. However, while thinking it over this week, I came across an article by Jan Swafford on slate.com about why reading on electronic devices will never fully replace reading books, and connecting the topic to some of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, particularly “the medium is the message.” This section jumped out at me (italics are Swafford’s):

TV is addictive, druglike, in a way that movies and print aren’t. Recall McLuhan’s most famous aphorism: “The medium is the message.” To a large extent, we respond to any medium as medium, quite apart from the content. I add that language reflects that: We “go to the movies”; we “watch TV”; we “read a book.” If you’re a book reader, you care more about reading itself than about any particular book.

Swafford’s point is that the iPad’s LCD screen is more like a television than a printed page, leading him to theorize that readers will bring to it many of the associations they have with TV and therefore read differently than if they were reading the same story in print. For my purposes, it’s a better way to say that when I pick up a comic, there’s a level of expectation inherent in the object as to what kind of experience I will have, and while I can read novels uninterrupted for hours, a few pages of prose in the midst of a comics-reading experience makes me tremendously impatient. Starman is a story my brain is telling me I want to read in comics, and additional chapters in prose just aren’t happening.

(This naturally opens up broader questions that I’ve long thought about but don’t have answers to. What is the connection I have to comics that makes me interested in stories and genres that I can’t imagine responding to in other media? I don’t read memoirs outside of comics, and I have a greater tolerance for empty-headed action in the form of superhero comics than I do in movies. I don’t think many of the things I read in comics form would appeal to me presented another way, but I don’t know why. Some may be better-suited to comics than to other media, but there are certainly some I can imagine as a novel or movie of more or less equivalent quality, but simply know that wouldn’t interest me. Perhaps it’s all just long-held associations, like how I find serialization natural in comics, but shy away from series of novels.)

It’s nice to find a rationalization. I don’t doubt that “comics is the message” is a big part of what’s making the Shade’s journal so difficult for me, but now I don’t have to feel dumb. Never made it through the prose sections of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen either, and there are a few in Watchmen that I’ve felt content to have read only once. For others I make the effort, but it’s never easy. I love Grant Morrison’s work, so I have forced my way through his prose Batman issue more than once, since it’s an essential chapter, though the change of medium does still cause it to stand oddly outside the overall story (perhaps this is part of the idea—the Joker is the subject of the issue, but is still saved for his unveiling in “Batman RIP”? Not sure). My current thinking is that the issues with the medium are enough to put me on the edge of skipping a prose section. Then all it takes is something like a style that doesn’t agree with me, and the section gets skipped.

Incidentally, I definitely recommend taking a look at Swafford’s article. It’s a good read, both for the broader media theory, and the particular approach to the e-book question.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Avengers #2 by Brian Michael Bendis, John Romita, Jr., Klaus Jansen & Sean White
    This also has prose in the back. I read the “Oral History of the Avengers” feature in the back of Avengers #1 out of curiosity, but I haven’t gotten to the installment in this issue yet.

  • King City #9 by Brandon Graham
  • Moving Pictures by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen
    If I had a graphic novel book club, this would definitely be on the list. So much detail only suggested rather than spelled out, in both the writing and the art, which complement each other beautifully in that respect. I tried to read below the surface, but this is clearly one that would benefit from discussion and further probing.

  • Private Beach: Fun and Peril in the Trudyverse by David Hahn
  • Punisher Max: Born by Garth Ennis, Darick Robertson & Tom Palmer
  • Punisher Max: From First to Last by Garth Ennis, John Severin, Lewis Larosa & Richard Corben
  • Punisher Max (oversized HCs) vols. 1 & 2 by Garth Ennis, Lewis Larosa, Leandro Fernandez & Dougie Braithwaite
  • Superman/Aliens 2: God War by Chuck Dixon, Jon Bogdanove & Kevin Nowlan
    In which Superman is just a beard for a New Gods/Aliens crossover. Now I can’t stop imagining what Kirby-drawn Aliens would be like.

Images of The Punisher © Marvel Characters, Inc. Images of Starman © DC Comics. Images of Moving Pictures © Kathryn & Stuart Immonen

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