Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I don't do redemption."
Ennis wraps up his impressive ten-year run on the implacable one with a finale that's as thoughtful as it is furious and quite possibly the best thing he has ever committed to paper. He has something to say and it's well worth hearing.
Before we get to 'Valley Forge, Valley Forge', however, although the vast majority of his MAX run was serious stuff dealing with real-world horror like sex-slave trafficking, there's a brief return to the light relief Garth gave us initially in the likes of WELCOME BACK, FRANK.
Being a MAX title, however, we are well into the realms of the outrageous, almost as O.T.T. as THE BOYS. Sticking at least with the geopolitical, it's a Central American revolutionary romp starring Marvel's biggest, baddest - and most surprisingly liberal - big black mo-fo, Barracuda. Evidence includes an inference of two of the chapter headings ("A Mouth Is Just A Mouth," "Curiouser And Bi-Curiouser") and the fact that Wanda, his co-conspirator with a constant mouthful, is the world's most lethal transvestite.
You don't have to know who actor Christopher Walken is to understand his adversarial role, but make no mistake, it is Christopher Walken. It's not just his impeccable likeness by Parlov, it's also in the speech patterns as perfectly presented as any of Dave Sim's guest stars' in CEREBUS. Nor do you have to understand the intricacies of haemophilia to grasp that protecting a mobster's boy with that particular condition in the middle of a gunship assault on the President's villa is going to be... problematic.
Barracuda, of course, has his own long-game in play which should net him a small fortune, but he may not want to slap his own back - or anyone else's - too quickly. It's funny how Barracuda always ends up all at sea, but he usually figures something out.
By 'Long Cold Dark' you can tell that Ennis is wrapping things up by the number of bodies he's counting. Yes, it's another bloody massacre with a particularly spectacular claymore trap and its three-storey detonation at the top of a skyscraper. Artist Howard Chaykin done good there.
It's been thirty years since Frank Castle last knew "the terror of being a parent": the wonder yet constant worry for your offspring's safety. In Frank's case he had very good cause for worry and now he does so again because Barracuda's done some digging around and found the ultimate bait. Insane levels of violence precede and succeed a cleverly constructed, tense game of cat and mouse with a young girl's life at stake.
Goran's great: under him both brutes are enormous powerhouses. I think I've described him before as a sort of John Buscema who takes liberties, and the result is a carnage that charges away at a rapid rate of shots.
So it is we come to 'Valley Forge, Valley Forge'.
A book is being written about Vietnam and certain soldiers who served there at the time of the Valley Forge Massacre where Castle was the only man left standing. It's a book whose interviewees have much to say about race, contemporary social conditions and an army at war, while its writer, Michael Goodwin, reminds his readers about the recent revelations regarding the false premises on which war was declared that time as well when we illegally invaded Iraq.
It also harks back to Ennis' 'Born' now found in PUNISHER MAX COMPLETE COLLECTION VOL 1, and it all ties together in the final issue, trust me.
Meanwhile, those ex-army chiefs who are looking forward to benefiting financially as board members on private construction companies or security firms in future armed conflict, those cowards who've hidden behind mercenaries like the Barracuda in their efforts to take Castle out and with him the knowledge of the treason they've committed (see 'Mother Russia' in PUNISHER MAX COMPLETE COLLECTION VOL 2), they know Frank will be coming for them next. But one of them discerns a weakness they can exploit: Frank will never knowingly fire on American soldiers.
I should just add that I'm tempted to transcribe the whole "Buffalo Soldier" excerpt from Michael Goodwin's book as mentioned above in which he interviews the sister of the black youth his own white brother befriended whilst on their tour of duty in Vietnam. She's eloquent, stirring and I did type our four paragraphs of keenly observed truth before letting you off.
The collection is rounded off with three earlier snap-shots of what passes for Frank Castle's life which were originally collected in 'From First To Last', featuring youthful revenge and custodial revenge and post-nuclear revenge. He'll have his revenge, will our Frank.
'The End' was early warning that Ennis had set his sights on having something to say about war in the world: who's been instigating it, why they've been doing it and how far other nations can be bombed into submission before they retaliate with apocalyptic consequences for all but those self-same perpetrators. He fitted the Punisher into the story in a manner which made perfect sense.
Frank Castle is incarcerated when the story opens, and that's how he survives the nuclear strike: in a purpose-built bunker deep under the penitentiary. Only a few manage to join him, but it's interesting company which sends Frank back to the surface with one last mission in mind. It's not a rescue mission.
Richard Corben's vision of a post-nuclear-holocaust America is the stuff of science fiction nightmares, the very clouds on fire like massive, molten cinders. He is the definition of gritty while Ennis provides the grim.
In 'The Tyger' ten-year-old Frank deals with the fall-out of a classmate committing suicide. Veteran Marvel artist John Severin proved that he had not just maintained his power, but improved his craft and was perfect for this piece. I was in awe.
Finally, as to 'The Cell' drawn with formidable shadows by Lewis Larosa, you tend to lose track over the years, but until now Frank had apparently failed to bring his family's killers to justice. I don't mean they haven't been locked up, because they have - which is why Frank's just handed himself in to be sent down.
Because justice to Frank Castle is a very different affair, involving kitchen utensils and a monkey wrench.