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The Punisher made his debut for Marvel Comics in 1979 appearing in Amazing Spider-Man #129. He debuted in his own series in 1986. For those unfamiliar with the character he's not like your standard Marvel Comics Superhero. For a start he's not 'Super' he's just a man who in great shape with a military background and a large knowledge of weapon use. And unlike other superheroes he's not content with seeing the bad guy locked up. He'd much rather kill them with his arsenal of weapons. A former Vietnam Veteran (depending on interpretation - he's been a Gulf War Veteran and/or a cop). The Punishers (real name Frank Castle) motivation has always been revenge, since his wife, daughter and son got caught in a crossfire being two gangs.
He has inspired two films the first with Dolph Lundgren (1989) and the most recent appearance with Thomas Jane (2004), a few video games, some appearances in the Spider-Man animated series and a lot of comics. He's proven an ally or nemesis to many comic book characters - Wolverine, Daredevil, Batman, Blade even making an appearance in Archie comics. Most villains don't last long in the Punisher series because of his style, however some have shown up a number of times with two of his most famous enemies being 'Jigsaw' and 'The Kingpin' Because of disastrous ideas all three of the Punishers comic runs where cancelled. Numerous attempts where made to resurrected it with more disastrous ideas. That was until it was resurrected in 2000 under a new writer and artist under the 'Marvel Knights' release where it gained popularity again. This pushed Marvel to give The Punisher another shot in a new series under the 'MAX' imprint.
For this review I shall focus on the Punishers run in the MAX series. MAX is a line that is strictly adults only, meaning that there are no boundaries to what can be said and drawn in the books. It works well for the Punisher in this line as you can see him how he was meant to be - no limits to what he does - meaning no guns that fire lasers or whatever. The MAX prints are not for the faint of heart or easily offended as in The Punisher comic you see blown up bodies, blood, gunshot wounds, very foul language, torture, gruesome deaths... oh and sex as well. These aren't a guarantee ever issue but are used when the writer feels the need. So who's responsible for such twisted ideas? The writer - Garth Ennis who wrote other titles such as 'Preacher', 'Ghost Rider' and 'Garth Ennis's war stories' (And was also responsible for the story line in the latest Punisher game). In the books he displays violence, with a mixture of dark humour. But what has he done of the origin? If he's a Vietnam veteran surely they've updated him? Wrong... this is pretty much made clear that this is the same Punisher from all those years ago. Here we have a physically strong and healthy older man in his 60's, cover in scars, cuts and wrinkles, going out and killing criminals night after night. The idea of the MAX series is to keep well away from the heroes of the Marvel universe instead we get a Punisher in the real
Pictures of Punisher - Gerry Conway
world on the streets of New York.The Punisher MAX is drawn by numerous artists. The most regular so far is Leandro Fernandez. Whoever draws the style who'll see that it is more gritty and darker than a lot of other Marvel releases - where they may be a bit more colourful and full of characters who look like underwear models, The Punisher features dark ugly characters, in dark ugly locations.
The covers of The Punisher MAX are all done by Tim Bradstreet, who does these great realistic covers. A few recently have got a bit dull and repetitive but looking at future covers it looks like this problem has been addressed.
So now I shall go on to review each book. I'll be talking about them in 'hard-print' release. Just note though that the comics are released regularly every month. However I would much rather read the full story in one go rather than having to wait. (Plus the hardcovers don't have adverts in). So far there are five hardcovers have been released (I shall update this as more come out) with each one collecting six comics each.
MAX Volume 1 - In the Beginning (Penciler - Lewis Larosa, Inker - Tom Palmer). This one is an essential to start off on. It pretty much gives the new reader the story of The Punisher, how his family where killed in the park, how he survived and got vengeance on the killers and how he continues to 'make the world sane'. We're introduced to two characters that have taken a particular interest in The Punisher (who is at the graveyard where his family are buried). We move on to a late night birthday for Don Massimo Cesare who just turned 100, with Punisher blowing him away along with lots of other 'wiseguys' The story continues with the Mafia who have a problem no leadership. So one of them has an idea to bring in an old disgraced leader - Nicky Cavella to get things running again. Cavella comes in and makes a big impact straight away having big ambitions to wack The Punisher. Meanwhile the group who are watching The Punisher plan to capture him and make him an offer he can't refuse...
I like this story it's a good introduction that gets you set up what The Punisher is all about. Not just his origin but whether you're into his style. It pretty much gets rolling after a few pages of introduction with the birthday party massacre and from there gets straight into the story of what's potentially about to happen to The Punisher. There's always the psychological element that Frank Castle, was jaded originally by The Vietnam War and this is mentioned briefly. There is an explosive finish to the story and the final panel is just beautifully violent work of art.
Quote - Punisher: Got a weapon in here (After hearing gunshots) Micro - In the same room as you? Don't be so fucking stupid! Story Rating 4/5
MAX Volume 2 - Kitchen Irish (Penciler - Leandro Fernandez)
We start the story of with Frank Castle who eating out at a local diner in Hell's Kitchen when a bomb goes off in the Irish Pub across the road, leading the blast to cause the glass to shatter killing pretty much everyone in the diner. Punisher escapes with a few cuts thanks to someone who was stood behind him taking the most of the glass. The cops thinks it's the I.R.A, The Punisher, knows where to start asking, but an unexpected development leads him to a dead end. Till an old colleague turns up with information. In the story you see four groups all-feuding over an old gangsters treasure. They all hold a piece of the map, yet no one is willing to share. Who'll get to the treasure first or will The Punisher blow them all away instead?
I thought this story was okay, not as bad as other fans of the series make out, but compare to other stories in the series this is the weakest so far. I felt that maybe this book could be Garth Ennis (himself Irish) way of giving a political opinion on how the American-Irish funded the I.R.A. with the British M:I:6 agent providing the majority of the politics in this book. With the four groups stories going on at the same time and the M:I:6 agent all in the story, this leaves little room for Punisher in this one mainly with his role just being the one who blows everyone away.
Quote - Punisher: Anyone not wanting to die for Ireland, Better clear on out the back. Story Rating 3/5
MAX Volume 3 - Mother Russia (Penciler - Dougie Braithwaite)
We start in a bar, where The Punisher is hunting a Russian mobster who has been released from a life sentence early. This leads him to the mobsters mothers house where the events are predictable with a good night for Punisher. That's where he bumps in Nick Fury, who granted the mobster early release as he knew the Punisher would be there and he has a proposition - To rescue a little girl. But she's no ordinary girl, she's injected with a killer virus the Russians have made and the U.S military want it. But can The Punisher and Fury trust those who set the mission?
I liked this story a lot, I feel the pace has been picked up a bit, plus it's focusing back on the Punisher. I also like the fact in one scene he sees the little girls cry in a similar situation to when her daughter was laying down dying, it motivates him to get up and fight (going mental in the process), despite the fact he was total out. Great artwork in this, a lot of blood and guts had to be drawn and I like the look of Nick Fury in this book.
Quote - Punisher: There's a rumor the Russians are our friends these days. Nick Fury: Well, there's friends and there's friends.
Story Rating 4/5
MAX Volume 4 - Up is Down Black is White (Penciler - Leandro Fernandez)
Nicky Cavella is back with a vengeance. We see the first page, being a similar one to 'In the Beginning' with a picture of Castle's family gravestone. Cavella digs up their bodies and does something unthinkable. This drives The Punisher mental as the cops won't re-bury the bodies because there evidence. One things for sure though Cavella will suffer.
This is quite a bizarre story in the series. It mainly covers Nicky Cavella's past. His family, how he came to be in charge, how he was packed off to Boston. Also there's story of how he and his Auntie Mo where having a relationship till he killed her, which kind of makes you think WTF was Ennis on when he came up with that? It's almost like Ennis is writing as much as possible in this issue to try and shock the readers. I liked the bit at the beginning - however it seemed after that that Nicky Cavella didn't really have a solid plan what he was going to do with The Punisher, which was so different to his appearance in the first story where he was so calm, manipulating and clever.
Quote - Punisher: Sawn-Off Twelve-Gauge. Both Barrels Point-Blank. Consider that my wake-up call.
Story Rating 4/5
MAX Volume 5 - The Slavers (Penciler - Leandro Fernandez) Story Rating 5/5
It all happens one night, Punisher saves a girl from a load of men, her name is Viorica, and she has something to tell him. When he hears it he knows a lot of men will have to die. But wait the cops have suddenly taken an interest in The Punisher, they want him taken down, for supposedly beating up two cops. But they weren't that badly hurt really... so why the sudden interest.
This is the most recent release and so far definitely the best. It's almost like Punishers working his way through every racial group possible, with the Italians, Irish, Russians and now some Eastern Europeans. This book is shocking, but this time for the right reasons as it's inspired by true life with Eastern gangs capturing women in villages raping them, selling them as slave prostitutes. This book like Kitchen Irish is quite political, but doesn't feel like a writer using his words as some sort of soapbox but is trying to get across that no one is doing anything about this. The sub story with the corrupt police officer is quite a good, because it shows the Punisher in a situation I've not actually seen him in before, having to do his work and avoid the cops without hurting them (after all Punisher won't hurt innocents). This also explains to people why the cops don't do anything in the first place... because they actually appreciate what he does.
Quote - Vera: We... we wanted to be here.. We just wanted to do business. Punisher: So? All that counts is you can't stop me. I'm stronger than you, so I can do anything I want... Isn't that the way it works?
Overall I would say my favourite artist so far is Leandro Fernandez, closely followed by Dougie Braithwaite, because there style seems the most polished. Whereas say in the first book the style was a bit rougher. It could be argued that that's a better style for a violent book like The Punisher, but I suppose that's all down to personal opinion.
Garth Ennis, like I said for 'Up is down, black is white', I feel he tries too hard sometimes to try and come up with a potential 'shock' in each issue, when it's not needed, he's a fantastic writer, who makes fantastic stories, with fantastic dialogue I just felt that there's no need to have a back story where a mobsters big fat auntie is forcing herself on him.
Also recommended - Punisher: Born. Which is a prologue into The Punishers past when he was in Vietnam. Or if the Punisher MAX sounds too gory then you could always try the new addition that's just been issued recently - Punisher: War Journal (Civil War) which isn't the violent MAX world, but back with all of Marvels Superheroes.