Page 45 Review by Stephen
Highly recommended, this is by far the finest run on Frank Castle, finally given a socio-political bite by Ennis' decision to swerve the Punisher's targeted sights from superheroes to real-world pricks worth punishing like international sex-slave traders. This is the first of four thick volumes reprinting the original ten adult-orientated PUNISHER MAX books plus attendant mini-series which begins with events in Valley Forge, Vietnam, and which will be reprised in volume 4 with its final searing indictment of the false premises upon which America entered the war in the first place. As such it's a coherent account of Frank Castles why's and wherefores, means and motivation.
"Hold on tight."
He means hold on tight to what you have, lest you lose it.
"Hold on tight" if you have miraculously survived your third tour of Vietnam and the carnage that was Firebase Valley Forge. "Hold on tight" if the woman you love, the daughter you worship and the son who's only recently been born are there to greet you at the airport upon your return, and you're reminded of the deal you made with Death itself for "a war that last forever, a war that never ends" because you were so bloody addicted to combat.
There the three of them stand in front of you, alive and well, but framed in the legendary black and white Punisher skull.
"You remember I mentioned there'd be a price...?"
That Frank Castle will indeed soon embark on a relentless, remorseless crusade of violence back home, against gangsters and crime lords and drug dealers - or anyone he considers unfit for life - and that this vocation will be triggered by the slaughter of his wife and children
this knowledge is what lends the first story originally published as PUNISHER: BORN its ominous air of a crossroads being approached and which makes its punchline a killer.
It's 1972 and Captain Frank Castle is enjoying his third tour in Vietnam. If "enjoying" is too strong a term, he's certainly deriving a grim satisfaction from doing his job well. It's a job he's spectacularly good at and Firebase Valley Forge is lucky to have him. The Marine garrison now stands as the lone lookout against enemy movements, yet it has been left undermanned without adequate supplies and its position is being so undermined by the ineffectual leadership of a feckless Colonel that an inspecting General threatens to close it down completely.
That's something Castle cannot stomach because - from his patrols with the single platoon of twenty-nine motivated men he could muster - he knows that the Vietcong are stocking up for the most god almighty offensive.
All this is observed in measured terms by one Stevie Goodwin who is but 39 days short of going home forever:
"I will not die in Vietnam... I will not re-up and serve a second tour, will not become a combat-junkie like so many of the others... I will not fall in love with war like Captain Frank Castle."
Two scenes stand out for me: Frank's reaction to the order to close down the camp, thereby leaving American positions elsewhere vulnerable to attack (and, by the by, depriving Castle of the action and adrenaline he thrives upon), and an attempted gang rape by the men under his command. I'm not going to spoil either for you, but the first reaction shows a level of cold-blooded ingenuity, the second a warped sense of what constitutes helping someone out. Neither prove predictable, and both leave one ambivalent, torn between wide-eyed horror and a grudging respect for the man.
Robertson's art is the finest of his career so far. In the back he pays tribute to the soldiers he's depicting and reprints some of the photographic source material including private photographs taken there and then, along with preparatory work and unused cover sketches. So many of the eyes are haunted and weary, distant and disillusioned.
With Tom Palmer's smooth embellishment Darick's jungles are such lush and dense affairs that anyone or anything could be hidden behind the forest of fronds. The tops of the trees behind a meagre clearing are way up in the sky, while the darkest vines and trunks frame the foreground perfectly. Energised during split-second combat, once the adrenaline subsides Castle is still standing strong but lurches, left as spent as the machine gun which threatens to melt his hands off.
Paul Mounts' colouring is invaluable to this intense heat which by the fourth and final chapter becomes a deafening, acrid, blistering inferno in torrential rain.
After this PUNISHER MAX proper begins and in the third instalment Irish factions invade Hell's Kitchen in a turf war. If Ennis knows his military history, technology, terminology and deployment strategy - and he does, making the commands barked out in a crisis completely convincing (see WAR STORIES / BATTLEFIELDS), then he also knows his Irish Troubles all too well, and it begins with a bomb and the most hideous mutilations.
"For the first time in a long time I realise I don't know what to do... Trouble with a bomb is there's no one to get your hands on, no way to return fire."
However, the chapter immediately following PUNISHER: BORN - with its family smiles but its promise of the price to be paid - cuts straight to the present day with that threat already fulfilled thirty years ago, and the juxtaposition is brutal and abrupt. It could so easily have been a maudlin mawkish cliché, but artist Lewis LaRosa presents three large single-panel pages of each of Frank's family suffering such extreme, specific injuries you may wince. Ennis too rises to the challenge in white-framed black boxes above or below:
"I hit the ground beside my daughter. She'd been gutshot, badly, and when she saw the things that boiled and wriggled from her belly the expression on her face was not a little girl's."
Although all the perpetrators and orchestrators behind them are long since dead, Frank's peace-time war has been relentless. Now he hits a mafia Don's one-hundredth birthday party to which every family in the country has sent senior representatives, and he does so with military preplanning and precision whose payoff Lewis LaRosa choreographs like a freeze-framed ballet of blood. Frank's also thorough: there are now forty-two funerals to "attend".
This doesn't so much stir up as hornet's nest because are few high-up hornets left to speak of. But the three invited back in after years of exile... well, let's just say they were exiled from the mafia for extremism!
Unfortunately for Castle he's in on someone else's wish list too. A covert C.I.A. offshoot has targeted him for capture using the one man who might get the drop on him, not through brute force but through friendship: his former surveillance, intelligence and ordinance-prep manager, Micro. Unfortunately for them, they succeed. And there sits Frank, arms locked behind him, listening silently as Micro offers him permanent employment as a government-sanctioned assassin overseas. It's an opportunity to kill terrorists using whatever means he deems necessary, only they choose the targets and Frank must do as he's told.
I'm sorry, I'll type that again: Frank must do as he's told...
The extensive scenes played out in private between Micro and Castle while the mafia begins making its move are dark, stark and grim, coloured by Dean White in graveyard or abattoir blue. Lewis LaRosa - once more inked by veteran Tom Palmer - nails Castle's stony silence, his implacability and most especially his age. It isn't the age of someone worn out or run down, but the age of someone who acquired extra bulk, extra musculature through long-term endurance. What he has endured shows on his scarred physique and thick, knotted face. That he has endured it informs every single second they spend together, building the tension to its inevitable breaking point.
It's presaged to perfection by Ennis when - after Micro has finally finished - Frank tells him a story which occurred thirty years ago, shortly after his family's slaughter in Central Park. A friend called Bob Garrett mentions in passing that he's left his wife for another woman. He told Bob Garrett:
"I lost my wife. And you threw yours away like she was nothing."
"Hey, Frank, look --"
For the PUNISHER MAX series Garth for the most part ditched the burlesque characters he'd populated PREACHER and his previous PUNISHER run with, but there are some residual elements here in the mafia misfits. Also in both the straight-shooting C.I.A. operative for some sexual arousal which will become an increasingly funny running gag, and her more easily intimidated male colleague who experiences a moment of arousal which may make your eyes widen. It won't be the last time.
Lastly, let us return to unfinished business between Micro and Frank, beautifully built up then left to linger for a couple of chapters by Ennis:
"I want to know why you told me about Bob Garrett. The guy who dumped his wife and you beat half to death."
"You missed part of it. I warned him first. I told him to run because I knew what I was going to do to him."
"But why tell me...?"