Blood, Grit and Skulls: Garth Ennis’ The Punisher MAX 15 Years Later

Garth Ennis has always been known for more adult comic writing and his series Preacher is a perfect example of this. However, his writing has also always had a sense of humour to it. He had been brought on to re-launch The Punisher with Welcome Back Frank in 2000 and after a successful run under the Marvel Knights imprint, he wanted to try something different. In 2002 Ennis teamed up with Darick Robertson and wrote a proposal for a short run of comics about Frank Castle’s time in Vietnam. This outline would ultimately become The Punisher: Born. This became the framework story for the series, detailing the differences between Castle and another main character in the series, a young Private called Stevie Goodwin.

At this time, the MAX imprint was relatively new. It was created in 2001 when Marvel broke from the Comic Codes Authority to establish their own rating system. The first series in the MAX line was the Jessica Jones Alias series- which served as inspiration for the recent Netflix series. The MAX line allowed artists and writers greater freedom to tackle more adult storylines. It wasn’t just about blood, gore, swearing and nudity- the stories would tackle hard hitting themes such as rape and also give readers the first ever star of their own comic that was openly gay (Rawhide Kid). The MAX imprint was essential for Garth’s Born mini-series. It allowed them the freedom to really drive home the horrors of war. With the success of Born, a new series of The Punisher was greenlit with the first issue premiering in March 2004.

What set apart the MAX imprint from all the others was the gritty realistic tone of the series. With the exception of Nick Fury and some previous Punisher characters, no other characters from the Marvel universe appear in them. Iron Man doesn’t just fly by to say “Hi!” and the series is so much better for it. I remember the first time I picked up the first graphic novel In The Beginning and at the time, I hadn’t had much exposure to The Punisher character. I’d seen the Thomas Jane movie and read Welcome Back Frank. I remember vividly reading ‘In The Beginning’ and being glued to the page. The gritty and grimy look of it didn’t seem like a standard comic book and so The Punisher shouldn’t; he isn’t a superhero, he’s an anti-hero who lives in a dark and bleak world. I remember reading it and comparing it to The Wire in terms of the grittiness, and I immediately ordered every single other MAX line graphic novel I could. I’ve read the whole run so many times over the years I’ve lost track.

I think what really drew me in -and continually pulls me to consider this line of The Punisher to be the definitive iteration of his character- is how real the world feels. The violence is visceral and every character comes across as believable. It doesn’t shy away from the hard and disturbing subject matters, it embraces them. The Slavers deals with human trafficking in a way that no other Marvel comic would or even could. The series is so grounded that you continually forget the fact that Frank Castle has previously interacted with Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine and Captain America. The closest interaction with one of the other Marvel characters is when Nick Fury shows up- but this isn’t the same Nick Fury. He’s a foul mouthed, grizzled combat veteran. The interactions between Fury and Castle are fantastic as they both share similar morals and a similar code, but only Fury is still beholden to a superior and Castle only answers to himself.

Each story in the MAX line leads to the next and plot points from previous stories are referenced (some of them integral to the plot, others are throwaway lines about something that happened previously). This gave the series a serial format- not unlike a TV series which allows long, drawn out character development. When we meet Frank Castle in the first issue for the first time, he is 54 years old. Unlike other characters in the Marvel universe, the character of Frank Castle ages in real time. His back story was not updated, he was still a Vietnam Vet and he had been operating as The Punisher for close to thirty years. The ramifications of Castle’s actions are shown in the stories too. In the Mother Russia storyline, we see that the Russian Mafia have begun to take advantage of the damage that Castle has done to the other Mafia families- and how they are weakened-which has resulted in them being overthrown by the Russian Mafia. Castle then turns his attention to them as he isn’t targeting any individual, he targets criminals; any and all.

The psychology of Frank Castle is examined in various different ways throughout the MAX run. In particular, during the Up is Down and Black is White storyline, Castle becomes fully unleashed on the criminals of New York City in retaliation to Nicky Cavella’s desecration of his family’s remains. During the story we see what happens when Castle truly loses control and gives in to his inner rage, however, what’s more important is showing the psychology of Castle is his dream. In the dream sequence there are hundreds (if not thousands) of bodies littering the streets of New York. All of them have been gunned down by him and his family appear behind him. His wife simply says, “We’re still dead.” It’s an interesting examination into what makes Castle tick. It also raises the question of whether there’s a part of him that thinks if he kills enough, will his family come back? The world sees Frank Castle as a cold blooded killer and he is, but he is also a man of a strict moral code- he cannot stand by a let innocents get hurt. The Slavers shows this aspect of his character more than any other storyline. He risks being caught protecting a complete stranger who was in danger. This is what really drives Castle. At his core, his war against crime is to help people, and whilst every day citizens may find him to be a monster because of his methods, it doesn’t change his intent. Some characters accuse him of killing because he likes it and there may be a part of him that does, but you never see him actually getting pleasure from the act. There aren’t a lot of moments of pleasure for Castle at all really.

There are several recurring characters throughout the MAX line. Yorkie Mitchell returns from the Marvel Knights series, also written by Garth Ennis. Alongside that, multiple characters that were created in the MAX line show up in multiple issues including Nicky Cavella, William Rawlins and Kathryn O’Brien. Ennis also introduced some memorable villains to the Punisher canon, most notably Barracuda, who was such a fan favourite he even got his own spin off graphic novel. These characters help to set the series aside from other Marvel comics because there is nothing fantastical about them. These recurring characters add to the serial nature of the series and so it is beneficial to start from Volume 1 rather than picking up other volumes first.

Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle in Netflix’s Daredevil S2.

The MAX line was a direct influence on the recent Netflix series that starred Jon Bernthal. The reason the series was so popular is due to the influence from the MAX line. The series was very grounded in reality; Frank got beaten and bloodied and showed real injury. The fight scenes were violent, had real weight to them and there was a level of brutality that was taken to the highest extreme, even when compared to the other Marvel series that Netflix had been producing. It’s a real shame that there won’t be a third season of The Punisher with Jon Bernthal in the title role because he embodied the character of Frank Castle unlike any other actor had previously. It would have been interesting to see where they would have taken the character in further seasons.

The Punisher is a character who has been around for 45 years this year, however the series that really made the character stand out was the MAX line, especially Garth Ennis’ run with the series. After writing 60 issues of the series, Ennis departed, and the quality of the writing was noticeably different. It wasn’t bad, it was just different and lacking in something. I truly think that Ennis is one of the greatest modern comic writers we have. The way he writes the stories is just so visceral and grounded; it was exactly what was needed to bring life back into the character and it’s exactly the world that Frank Castle should have existed in from day one. Gregg Hurwitz, Duane Swierczynski and Victor Gischler took over as writers for the remaining issues before the line ended in 2009. It wasn’t long until Frank Castle was back though, this time with a story that would serve to be an ending to the character.

In January 2010 a new series was launched that was simply called Punisher MAX. It comprised of 22 issues which told the story of the rise and fall of Kingpin and the end of Frank Castle. It was a brilliant conclusion to a character who would never walk off into the sunset. Jason Aaron was the writer and Steve Dillon returned as the artist. Dillon had worked with Ennis in the Marvel Knights run of Punisher comics. Whilst the character continues in other iterations, Punisher MAX provided readers with a satisfying end to Frank Castle’s story and showed how relentless he was to the bitter end which stayed true to the character.

I absolutely love the MAX line; it is my all-time favourite run of comics. I read them at least once every year, always starting with Born before moving on to In The Beginning; all the way through to the final volume, Welcome To The Bayou and concluding with the 2010 Punisher MAX (which I feel is a part of the same series even though it is seen as separate). Having written this article, I’ll be digging into them again sometime soon for certain, and you know what? I cannot wait to read them all again.

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