Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Later on, she told me the whole story.
"About the way she left her village. About the old man, about Cristu and Vera.
"About the thing her father said.
"About her baby.
"When she was done, I knew a lot of men would have to die."
The second of four thick volumes reprinting the original ten adult-orientated PUNISHER MAX books plus attendant mini-series, this is a far cry from Ennis and Dillon's PREACHER-lite burlesque of WELCOME BACK, FRANK. Don't get me wrong, that book made me chuckle heartily, but any humour here is much, much blacker as Castle confronts real-world politics and sexual slavery.
Following the slaughter or his wife and kids, Frank Castle is a man with one mission: to kill those he believes prey on others, particularly on women and children. As he made resoundingly clear in PUNISHER MAX VOL 1, Frank is not a gun for hire. He accepts no one else's authority and no one else's instructions.
The only man in the Marvel universe who boasts the same self-assured, dogged determination is Nick Fury, which is possibly why he's one of the few people Castle will listen to.
In 'Mother Russia' Castle is told that the Russians have developed a virus; one which - if it made its way onto the black market like other arms from that crumbling military monolith - could prove lethal to the rest of the world. It's locked in an underground nuclear solo... inside the body of a young girl.
Nick needs the girl safely out, and only Frank would be both insane enough to attempt the mission and ruthless enough to accomplish it. Unbeknownst to Nick Fury, however, there's a more cowardly form of ruthlessness in action behind the desks of the Pentagon, where they're prepared to sacrifice innocents to cover their tracks, even if it means doing to others what was done to America on September 11th, 2001
That was of Ennis' best performances to date - you may find yourself punching the air when you hear Castle's uncompromising ultimatum at the end of chapter five, delivered deadpan to the Russian command. And do you honestly need me to tell you how great Braithwaite's pencils are (see JUSTICE)? He brings a gnarled and brutal physicality to the proceedings. You can almost feel the bruised, puff-eyed swellings throb and hear the headache behind them. The Russian leaders' faces are weary, drained of all life and humour. There are a lot of hard stares, and if I had to describe Travino's colour palette it would be winter gulag green - at midnight.
However, after 'Up Is Down And Back Is White' - which I confess I don't remember - we come to 'The Slavers' also illustrated by Leandro Fernandez and its bite is even harder. It deals with the all too real horror of international sex-slave trafficking: of young women from the Balkans being tricked into believing they have a future in the West, then being sold into sexual slavery here.
It's usually a family business, believe it or not, but you can forget any cuddly connotations that may spring to mind. I remember seeing a couple of undercover investigations into this - and a TV dramatisation - a few years back, and one of the many things that hit me hardest were the madams: the wives of the abductors, the women who would treat other women like meat, offering them up to be gang raped in order to break them early on. It's all here, barely diluted ("An unbeaten woman is like an untidy house"), and the Punisher realises early on that those he's up against are more hardened than his regular mafia targets. They're the father-and-son Romanian leaders of a Serb militia outfit, the results of whose genocidal campaigns had been reported by the papers:
"In the space of two years, they'd taken out a dozen villages.
"The last four places that they hit were different. Same streets of corpses as before, a total of over eighteen hundred. But men, kids and older women only in the last four. All the girls were gone.
"Someone must have had a brainwave. More profit in slavery than massacre. You already run a death squad: all the recruits you'll need when you join the private sector. And when NATO takes a hand and it isn't quite so easy doing business, what else do you do but move out West?
"One way or another, the badlands of Eastern Europe have been at war forever.
"They give their world its hardest soldiers. Always have. Men who play soccer with severed heads in kindergarten yards; who wire their captives with explosives, drug them, then send them staggering back to unsuspecting families.
"The things I'd have to do to break those men - to make them talk...
"Would be extreme."
By the Punisher's standards.
Once you meet the father-and-son war-versus-commerce contingent you will understand just how extreme those measures and must be and what an uphill task it will be deploying them without the women being whisked off somewhere else or caught in the crossfire. Because Ennis makes it personal, about individuals, you'll be rooting from Frank harder than you have done before - unlike the police who are doing fuck all about the traffickers themselves. Instead they're distracted by one corrupt Detective Westin to lie outright to the media during high-profile press conferences about how Castle is coming undone and assaulting officers, thereby hindering (and in one instance thwarting) Frank's best efforts to free the women before even worse goes down.
I have to confess that I'm more of a Braithwaite fan than Fernandez, but it's still powerful stuff and almost every panel the vile old man appears in is suitably grotesque and appalling.
Next? Believe it or not there will be a little light relieve courtesy of a bloke called Barracuda and - depending what order Marvel choose to reprint things - Christopher Walken as well.