On the subject of memorable runs, I’ve already written at length about Grant Morrison’s JLA and Joe Kelly’s DEADPOOL, and much has already been said about Frank Miller’s DAREDEVIL & Walt Simonson’s THOR. Here, I want to put some attention on a run that hasn't gotten adequate recognition, a run I’d even contend was the best mainstream comic of the 2000s.
Here's how into this series I am - - I got burned out enough on reading comics in the latter half of college that I actually cancelled my pull file and sold my entire collection. It was that extreme, yes. But even during that dark spell, I still kept up with this series (through the store-credit from the sale) because it was just that compelling. I picked up all 100 or so issues that were scattered over three volumes and two imprint shifts from 2000 to 2008.
Why did I like about it so much? It absolutely owns Frank Castle.
What I'll always prefer about comics is that they're free to take a story past the familiar territory of its initial premise. The Punisher (and most vigilantes in fiction) had usually been frozen in a revenge arc that never delved that deep into the motivations, nor even ventured that far past the origin. A normal guy can go bad after one bad day, right? You can explain all Castle's actions away to payback, right? == TEASER ==
Just like Alan Moore realized that SWAMP THING would be vastly more intriguing if it got past the monster trying to regain his humanity plot, so too did Ennis quickly establish that Castle had killed everybody even remotely associated with his family's murder - - thus removing any notion of retribution from his career. From there, it became clear that the one bad day in the park was merely a catalyst to focus long-dormant tendencies Castle had always harbored; an excuse for his bloodlust. Where other writers wrestled with how to justifying his band of justice, Ennis embraced its contradictions and straight-up admitted that he’s a sociopathic serial killer.
Though there was wall-to-wall action, copious amounts of gut-twisting gore, solid mountains of spent casing and the ever-present aroma of cordite, this run in full was actually a detailed character study. One of the trades is titled FROM FIRST TO LAST and it's an apt name for the whole run, because it covered the span of Castle’s life. And I do mean his entire life.We see his rough and tumble childhood in THE TYGER, his formative war days in BORN, his mid-career score-settling in THE CELL and even a possible (and quite fitting) apocalyptic conclusion in THE END. Throughout this all, Castle's shown to be quite aware that his vendetta's accomplishing nothing.
Getting past familiar debates about the merits of vigilantism and lethal force, Castle knows all-too-well that he isn't saving the world. While threatening innocents is the surest way to enrage him, he doesn't have any illusions about helping anybody. This is all just satisfying a terrible compulsion to punish anybody he sees as a bully. While peace is never the right term for the Punisher, he’s certainly accepted his nature and, while a classic Western like Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN ends with that kind of acceptance, this series started with it.
Despite all this talk about the bottomless pit Castle knowingly digs for himself, this run was also notable for letting his war on crime actually make some progress. MAX has never been explicitly stated as being a separate universe - - you could chalk the absence of superheroes to simple circumstances - - but the series was still free to push the concept into logical outcomes that continuity-bound storytelling doesn't typically allow. For one, it kept Frank’s origin in Vietnam and allowed him to age (even at 60-years-old, he was still realistically more dangerous than most guys could ever be in their 20s.) More metaphorically, he developed into a specter of war - - a Frankenstein monster (not Frankencastle, no no) created by the military industrial complex who, after years of searching for the real enemy, ultimately got revenge on the criminals who'd truly created him. If that sounds like a horror story, it's because it was. I was even a little afraid of picking this series up when WELCOME BACK, FRANK first came out.
Progress was also illustrated literally as Castle's total body count tallied past 2000, leading to him actually start running out of competant New York gangsters in arcs like IN THE BEGINNING and UP IS DOWN, BLACK IS WHITE. Without any wise guys left to waste, he turned to international threats like the IRA in KITCHEN IRISH, Balkan white slavery in THE SLAVERS, ex-KGB war horses in MOTHER RUSSIA and even white collar criminals in LONG COLD DARK. With some carry-overs from the Knights era (when Big Frank was played more as a straight man for some wicked black comedy,) he accumulated a gallery of ugly enemies like the Russian, Barracuda, Finn Cooley, Ma Gnucci, Elite and the Man of Stone - - all of them with personalities as big and memorable as Castle's.
Read this from the beginning to the end and you'll experience one of the most complete epics in modern comics. It's a nightmarish inversion of the traditional heroic journey, to be sure, but it's still a saga wherein a legend is born, he goes into the world to find those who've wronged him and he ultimately rains vengeance on the greater threat. Both the Max and Knights era were collected quite comprehensibly in single-arc softcovers and double-arc hardcovers, and those collections have been kept steadily in circulation, so it's easy to get into this if you've missed it. Not for the weak stomached nor the easily-offended, this is a real work of fiction that, even with its supply of thrills, still has the complexity of good literature. Pick any portion of Ennis' run up and you'll understand why I had to keep reading this, even when my interest in comics was at its lowest.