Maid of Nails: Before we get into the Punisher, I think we should let people know how XTREME his fans are.

Botswana Beast: Should I read the letter?

[To paraphrase Keats: beauty is truth, truth beauty, and this letter is both]

MoN: So that is what we’re dealing with.

BB: It doesn’t ever mention race, that letter, but it’s fairly indicative of what a lot of early Punisher comics were, which is shooting “street toughs” of undetermined race –

MoN: Were any of these “street toughs” ever named Tyrone or Leroy?

BB: They may have been. Or Hector. So yeah, the Punisher’s origins are as a Spider-Man villain-cum-antihero who is hired by — possibly the Chameleon, I can’t remember, to take out Spider-Man under some false pretext. I think that was 1973, and his debut series was actually a decade later. At that point he became a leading character, shooting largely mafiosi and, as I say, street toughs (that’s not entirely fair characterization; Mike Baron’s a good writer — well, he’s written some exciting action comics), until 1999/2000, when Garth Ennis, the infamous Irishman, took over and really redefined the character.

MoN: A lot more mafia and organized crime, and a lot fewer street toughs.

BB: He does still shoot quite a lot of black people, but –

MoN: There’s a lot fewer story arcs devoted to him shooting black people. Except for Barracuda and John James Toomey (RIP), who gets shot in a setup that the Punisher coerces one of Toomey’s crew into. And then the guy from his crew is yelling at John James Toomey like, “Who’s gonna get your fuckin’ fried chicken now?” DUDE. A lot of people like fried chicken, but I find it odd that Garth Ennis went there.

BB: What really came to define him — and I think they are among the best, if not the best comics ever published, then certainly the best researched — is the adult imprint stuff from Marvel MAX.

MoN: Stuff with more war.

BB: Another favourite topic of Garth Ennis. Anyway, it began in 2003 with the prelude miniseries Born.

MoN: Let’s tell the readers: what is Born about?

BB: It’s about the Vietnam War, of course — because that is the sort of defining thing about Frank Castle, although it’s kind of difficult now; I don’t think Marvel can really sell a character who fought in the Vietnam War, because he would be 65 or something. So Garth Ennis does enjoy a war story, and Frank Castle, prior to any of this, was a guest star in issue #7 of Marvel’s The ‘Nam comic, where he appears as a young man. And it sort of nicely counterpoints him against Captain America because you have someone who fought in a good war and was treated extremely well on returning, and then you have someone who returned from an unjust, shitty piece of American interventionism.

MoN: I’m curious to see how they’re going to handle this, because with Vietnam, it quite quickly started to occupy this symbolic space in the popular American imagination. It was, yes, American interventionism biting America in the ass — you know, you have all these movies about people going to Vietnam: manly men sticking together but, surprise, everything is terrible and everyone is cynical.

BB: And loads of the guys are strung out on dope.

MoN: And Robert De Niro is traumatized by Russian Roulette. Whereas now with Frank Castle coming back from the Middle East, the war, I think, doesn’t occupy the same kind of place in American imagination. Certainly not now. I’d be curious to see whether it does in 10 or 20 years’ time, but by then he’s again maybe going to be too old, because everyone in Marvel is really young. Like when Grant Morrison was writing New X-Men he put Emma Frost’s age at 26. That makes no goddamn sense!

BB: It’s a sort of sidebar, but I like to think Emma Frost as written by him is the sort of character who would lie and self-delude about her own age. And it is a sort of standard trope that superheroes shouldn’t really be over 30. Fortunately, America doesn’t tend to run out of wars, so you can kind of update people — like Iron Man was in Afghanistan now, not Korea.

MoN: The Punisher can’t be too young either, because he has to have a wife and kids, so at least there’s that. I actually do really, really like — not Old Man, but Older Man Frank, because he’s had so much more time to become embittered. It’s awesome.

BB: The MAX character — gosh, these comics are 10-12 years old now — is really definitive. It’s become a tombstone-shaped monument. And that is a 50-year-old man, roughly, stringing Albanian people-traffickers up by their own guts and so on. That’s the thing that really makes it work. There’s an editorial in Ennis’ first-ever issue: “In Defense Of The Punisher: You gotta be kidding. Defend the Punisher? Justify what he does?” But what he latterly does is introduce bastards that are so bad, people that can and do exist in the world. My favourite — favourite’s perhaps not the word, but the strongest story is The Slavers. This stuff does happen. I’m not even in favour of capital punishment, but if it’s delivered by the force of nature that is the Punisher, I’m thoroughly in favour of it. And there is a twist on the wish fulfilment of superhero comics; what it does is introduce a shower of total, total cunts and you’re like, “My God, I really, really can’t wait to see these people die, I hope they die horribly,” and Frank Castle delivers. The only other fiction I can think of like that, oddly, is Game of Thrones. It introduces total bastards, but you know they’ll die in a really horrible way, and that’s justice. So it’s a fairly bleak and dark form of wish fulfilment, and it’s set up, I think, in pretty fair terms — these are generally well-researched; it doesn’t overcook how bad these bastards are — and then, unlike in the real world, you get to see them die. The Punisher kills them, and it’s great.

MoN: A lot of what you see in The Punisher is that the bad guys are motivated by business, by capitalist concerns. There’s revenge in there as well, but when it’s purely revenge, they tend to not be quite so bastardy. Like in the Widowmaker story, where the wives and partners of these mobsters that Frank Castle kills band together and try to kill him, it’s understandable why they would be upset. But then you find out that most of them — all the white ones — really are bastards, so fuck it.

BB: And The Slavers –

MoN: That’s all business.

BB: That’s business… I think Ennis is a far better prose stylist than any of his peers; Valley Forge, Valley Forge, which is the last arc he wrote, is very Ellroy-esque and, I think, is the work of a man who read The Cold Six Thousand. It’s great, and it’s prose that’s kind of snub-nosed, bullet-nosed enough to — I don’t have that “when the prose hits” drowning-in-lava moment in the way that I do with everyone else, or at least Ennis’ British peers. Like Alan Moore. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive the beat poetry section of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: a page that took me three days to summon the willpower to read.

MoN: Oh, Jesus. I can’t believe you read it! Can I also say, since Valley Forge, Valley Forge is supposed to be a book (in the comic), there’s no handwritten bullcrap.

BB: Oh, yeah, no cursive type.

MoN: Cursive type is the goddamn worst.

BB: It’s always agonizing.

MoN: So I was reading Dear Billy

BB: In Battlefields?

MoN: Yeah, Garth Ennis’ Battlefields. I got a buttload of Ennis’ Dynamite comics from Humble Bundle. I paid $20 US dollars, and I got all of The Boys, all of Battlefields, Volume 1 of Jennifer Blood, for some reason, and Volume 1 of The Shadow. One of the Battlefields comics is called Dear Billy, about a woman who’s writing a letter to this guy she used to have a relationship with, the Billy from the title. All of the narration is that handwritten cursive bullshit, and I was thinking, “Am I gonna stick with this?” Because it’s really interesting, and it talks about the traumatic effect that wartime has on women as well as men, but I thought, “I know this is World War II, but you are saying ‘Jap’ a lot, and this is a lot of cursive”. I plowed through because it was Garth Ennis, but oh my God. I’m glad Valley Forge, Valley Forge is supposed to be screenshots of a book, and it’s all nicely typed out, with no cursive. Thank you, Garth.

NEXT TIME:

We sanction some torture
Garth Ennis’ Special Forces boner
Frank Castle Vs. The Shitlords
A lot of fucking guns

7 Responses to “Punisher Chat #1: Surprise, Everything Is Terrible”

  1. tam Says:

    One thing to mention about Ennis’ Punisher max is that it’s hugely influenced by the thriller writer Stephen Hunter who writes novels that are so well structured and briskly told that I’m prepared overlook the fact they’re often more than a little politically suspect. (Apparently Stephen King feels much the same way about him…) I’m always a bit surprised how few comic readers seem aware of Hunter and vice versa, I guess there’s not much crossover between the respective markets

  2. bobsy Says:

    Punisher Max was the only anti-War on Terror parable that the entire western mediasphere was putting out. It is unreservedly my favourite comic of the 00s and the best series Marvel has EVER put out.

    (I could be wrong about all of that.)

  3. Mark Says:

    Good Punisher talk. Best comics.

  4. tam Says:

    Bobby, I reckon Punisher Max is great, but the violence is too entertaining for it to count as being properly anti War. The best pulp fiction response I’ve seen to ‘the war on terror’ is Pat Mill’s truly brutal update of Bill Savage and Invasion, you can read it collected in ‘Savage : Taking Liberties’ which is up there with V for Vendetta. Mills does a lot of potboiler stuff but this is up there with Charley’s War or Marshall Law. Although it becomes a different, though still entertaining story in the later volumes as he starts tying it into the ABC warriors Great art from the Walking Dead artist too…

  5. bobsy Says:

    Yeah good point. I remember the Savage stuff from the time, intermittently… I guess I should look at it again. Good to know though that the only other contemporary war on terror critique you could name is another comic!

    I’m not convinced that ‘violent entertainment can never be anti-war’, if you’ll accept the paraphrase, is.. Err convincing though. The fact that something can be enjoyable on one level and didactic or political on another seems a pretty simple cognitive split to manage. Arguably, the thrill power enhances the strength of the polemic.

    This is probably not the direction this convo shd go, but yknow whatever internet

  6. ED209 Says:

    This was great! More of this please!

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