A few words on the wider outlook.

The Punisher MAX # 50

This is an extra-sized anniversary issue, with 33 pages of story. It’s also the beginning of a new five-part storyline, although many of those extra pages are spent on thematic summary and reminiscing, in the manner of some anniversary issues.

And now that we’re up to issue #50, I guess I’ll reiterate that it’s nice to be sitting in on the latest twists on what’s obviously a character-defining run, one of those rare combinations of a work-for-hire talent and a corporate-owned character that proves so successful that all future uses of that character for a decade are going to have to exist in the gravitational pull of that ideal variation.

Writer Garth Ennis is Frank Miller to the Punisher’s Daredevil, although Ennis has existed in the unique environment of his time: he’s had the luxury of plucking the character away from the demands of continuity and giving him his own discreet, mature-audiences world, one where nobody has to worry about Frank Castle having to fire bullets at the Hulk a few months down the line, which I presume allows for a stockpile of scripts and concurrent work by art teams, which in turn leads to a strong sense of visual consistency and a very rapid rate of production. In this way, the series is a bit more old-school than its fellow Marvel books, in that it’s almost always on time, and reader confusion needs extend no farther than buying backward to the start of the current storyline. It’s unsurprising that the series is such a consistent seller, although it likely couldn’t have managed it if the quality hadn’t stayed so high.

But Ennis knew what to do. Hell, he didn’t have a lot to work with, after the ‘90s hit the character hard (Tim O’Neil explains in three parts), but sometimes it’s when things look their worst that the best opportunities arrive. Hell, this book is actually Ennis’ second revision of the character - it was his initial slapstick-inclined Marvel Knights version of the character that provided the attention necessary to attract readers to the character once again -- a handy ‘Garth Ennis’ vision of the Marvel Universe -- but I think it’s the MAX version that’ll stick, even if future writers aren’t granted the same content freedom that Ennis is. The comedy is still present, but played down. It’s a very straight-faced book.

And across its fifty issues, Ennis has built up a surprisingly affecting, coherent life for Frank Castle, one in which seemingly standalone storylines inevitably give way to future storylines that bring together characters from various prior events, resulting in the deaths of many. Virtually none of the series’ minor characters are still alive, and even those that seem to ‘escape’ are eventually caught up in the fallout of some future Punisher escapade. Always, somebody needs to pay, even if the series characterizes them for a while as on the title character's side. Since the title character isn't exactly a hero anyway. Nobody quite is here.

Hell, this very issue opens with the violent death of a character first glimpsed in issue #7, one that developed from a cool, get-things-done murderer to a deeply weary, regretful man, willing to use his economic place in the world to escape the never-ending violence of his life. He doesn’t escape, because nobody escapes. Everybody in this fallen world is going to hell, but some will get their faster than others, and the Punisher will be the one to turn off the lights as the last one through the door.

So. This issue sees the return of de facto archvillain Barracuda, himself a beneficiary of rapidly evolving characterization - in his first appearance he was part of a thematic construct exploring the interrelationships between rich white criminals and street-level racial minority thugs, all as part of a broad take on the fall of Enron. The character proved popular enough with readers and editorial that he was given his own spin-off miniseries, which was another broad piece on US covert adventures in the drug trade, in which the character was repositioned as an ultimate grinning American id, a pleasure machine loose on a playground of murder.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens here, since this looks like the least comedic of the character’s storylines by far, being a characteristically brooding ‘wide-view’ Punisher tale, one that makes excellent, surprising use of the series’ quasi-realtime setup, in which multi-part storylines only cover a few days or so, but then jump up to the reader’s present after they’re finished (I think Hellblazer was like that for a while - maybe it still is). That's pretty much all that makes the issue's big twist believable, but it works, just as Ennis is able to carefully extrapolate new character relationships from little gaps in his prior stories.

There's special guest art this issue from Howard Chaykin, which is a curious departure from the series' usual taste for visual consistency. To be blunt, Chaykin looks kind of rushed here, his character faces somewhat tortured during conversation bits, and Frank's stony visage undergoing some bizarre shifts in dimension from close-up to close-up - I can buy Barracuda having slimmed up a bit in the last few months (hey, he was stuck on a raft!), but I get the feeling that this is less a special event than an act of necessity.

Still, there's a reflective tone that sets the issue apart. Frank Castle cooking up alternate futured for himself in his dreams, and narrating a classic 'armory' sequence where weapons are dispassionately fired. There's a thread that connects this Punisher to many of the old ones, but it's the old ones that'll have to deal with the present when today's reader looks backward. He's something else now, if not a perfection of the concept than an ideal form for today's comics. Here's to the future.