MAX

The Punisher Presents Barracuda (2007)

The Punisher Presents Barracuda  2007Barracuda is one of Garth Ennis’s… what shall we call them… NC-17 action comedy limited series. He’s got a bunch of them at Vertigo, a few a handful of other places. The difference with Barracuda is it’s for Marvel (it’s the only Punisher MAX spin-off, which is something since Ennis loved spin-offs for Preacher and The Boys) and it’s maybe a little more… edgy as a pejorative for that thing White guys do edgy. Bad Tarantino and Tarantino knock-offs. Every twentieth word or so from series hero Barracuda is starts with ni- and ends in -ga. I wonder if you counted them you could figure out how many the editors at Marvel let Ennis have each issue….

Then there’s the main villain, Big Chris (as in Christopher Walken—Barracuda works best when you read Chris’s lines in Walken’s voice, which the lettering actually works towards, and Barracuda in JB Smoove’s, though you’d never really want to see Smoove play Barracuda as Barracuda’s a vicious sociopathic cannibal and Smoove’s really likable). Starting with Big Chris’s return to the story—he hires Barracuda in the first part, then Barracuda betrays him in the second, and Big Chris is back in the third issue and calling Barracuda a different racial epithet at the end of every sentence. Because Barracuda buys into brothers in arms—Airborne, crime, etc—over racism. Because it’s funny to have a racist sheriff hang out with Barracuda and call him slurs. It’s the kind of post-racist thing you’d expect to see after Obama was president but Ennis is a trailblazer so it’s a couple years early.

It also doesn’t add up to anything so it’s kind of pointless to look at it so hard.

Ennis fills the five issue series with eclectic, funny but unlikable characters. There’s Barracuda, obviously, who—at least in this series—only sexually assaults men; the women are all willing. He puts together various plans throughout, which keep changing based on his inability to successfully predict how his machinations will play out. We don’t get a lot of the plans. Occasionally Ennis showcases them with a monologue or two, but more often we hear the adjustments when Barracuda’s telling other people about them.

The biggest subplot in the series are these two FBI agents, one old, one young, who are trying to use Barracuda’s plotting to arrest Big Chris. It all takes place in a fictional South American Reagan Republic, where Barracuda and his team of military advisors slaughtered the existing socialist government to put drug-runner Leopoldo in charge. Lots of great real American history stuff here, though it’s just garnish. Oddly, Goran Parlov’s art is best on the FBI guys, just for their expressions. The older one’s in sunglasses but the curve of his lips, you can see what he’s thinking. Great work from Parlov.

So Leopoldo’s the drug-running dictator, Wanda is his ex-porn star wife who’s sleeping with Barracuda, there’s the child molesting priest hiding out with them—I forgot for how long “adult” humor just meant directly targeting Howard Stern listeners. Barracuda’s there because Big Chris has entrusted him with Oswald, his only son. Oswald’s supposed to kill Leopoldo. Barracuda double-crosses Big Chris for Leopoldo, then will try to double-cross Leopoldo to take both him and Big Chris out. Plans within plans.

Oswald’s a hemophiliac and, therefore, can’t be touched or in any way injured.

Fifty is Barracuda’s fellow military advisor from the eighties who went to work at the Pentagon but is a closeted trans woman, which Barracuda somehow knows about but maybe has never seen Fifty dressed for her gender. It’s unclear. Ennis’s take on it seems to be so transphobic it’s no longer transphobic? He also throws in some homophobia but… again, is it through the looking glass and circular? Doesn’t matter, because there’s no reason to read Barracuda. Not even for Punisher MAX completists. It’s not great or even good really, but it’s not incompetent or bad. Ennis just doesn’t have a story and tries to mug his way through it. Parlov’s art is good but it’s not particularly interesting stuff. It starts in Florida, which is basically just as tropical as the South American city-state; actually, Barracuda’s adventures in Florida seem more interesting than his attempted coup with an eclectic supporting cast.

Can’t wait to see what Disney does with the property.

The Punisher (2004) #49, Widowmaker, Part 7 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  49Bill Reinhold’s back on inks—solo—this issue. It doesn’t have to be Tom Palmer, it could be someone else, but it needs to be someone else because Medina and Reinhold completely botch the finish. Ennis is going for something—something confused, because there have been too many issues in the arc and not enough focused ones, but something and the art screws it up. The final page (to the issue and arc) is a full page spread of hero Punisher in what ought to be a tragic, noir-ish Punisher. It’s an absolute fail and you’ve got to wonder what the editors were thinking okaying that page for the finale.

It looks less like the conclusion of an arc about Frank discovering what’s sown in the blood he’s spilled and more like reference art for a special edition Slurpee cup. It’s a really bad final page. The art’s wanting throughout—Medina’s pacing of the final shootout is deliberate without being interesting; that last page is a disaster. Especially since it’s a sunrise scene. It doesn’t exactly ruin the arc, but it definitely leaves it on some wobbly ground.

Ennis tries to bring everything together while still mostly following vengeance-seeker Jenny. She takes on the other widows before kidnapping her sister and tying her to a chair in front of Frank’s bed. Frank’s still recuperating; he opens the issue, watching TV, narrating about what a bum rap the news is giving the Sam Jackson but not Sam Jackson cop, then imagines how Jenny’s final run on the widows is going.

The cop spends the issue internally debating whether or not he’s going to cross the line into Punisher-like vengeance, but he’s always a few steps behind Jenny so he doesn’t get the chance until the end. Shame Ennis cuts away from the scene between the cop and Frank, which might’ve been really good. Instead, there’s no time for the cop, so quick wrap-up. Frank’s still got some thinking—and narrating—to do about his encounter with Jenny, which has a horrifying conclusion; Ennis starts the final narration like it’s going to go somewhere interesting, somewhere significant. Jenny’s had a lot to say about Frank, both as man and symbol, but it all gets wrapped up with a pretty little bow instead of another albatross for Frank. I mean, it’s possible it’d have worked out if Medina and Reinhold hadn’t so bungled the last page, but it would’ve had to be a great page. The conclusion reads like Ennis knows he has to give some postscript from Frank but doesn’t want to get too deep into anything because, really, we should’ve been getting Frank narration throughout.

Same bad eye closeup reactions too. Medina really did this arc a disservice; he’s way too bland for the story.

The Punisher (2004) #48, Widowmaker, Part 6 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  48Tom Palmer on inks this issue—he also did some of the previous issue’s inks; he makes Medina’s pencils look a lot more pensive. People are thinking, listening, far better than before. Even if maybe Palmer on inks just show off how Medina isn’t the right fit for the material. It’s mostly a talking heads issue, people standing around talking, sitting around talking. Lots of both. Along with Ennis’s very questionable AAVE with the Black female character, who’s angry this issue and speaking in a lot more contractions than before. She’s also not really thinking. See, it’s crisis time for the widows—the Punisher’s probably out there, Jenny the other widow is out there gunning for them, plus the cop (who no longer looks anything like Sam Jackson besides basic description thanks to Palmer) is questioning them. The issue opens with the questioning. Ennis going through everything a reader might have missed as far as the widows and their plan to take out Big Frank.

The exposition is some padding. It’s a decent scene thanks to Ennis’s sense of humor with the cop, but it’s all padding. Get the arc to seven issues; sure, it probably makes it easier to pick up and read just this issue, which isn’t really a usual concern for six issue arcs. And Ennis isn’t too concerned with it anyway. He’s intentionally padding here. Plus, bringing the cop in for the exposition dump with the widows and being likable makes it all the worse when tragedy befalls the cop—at the widows’ behest—to get him into position as a potential Punisher himself.

Meanwhile, Frank and Jenny spend the issue hanging out while Jenny prepares for her final assault on the widows. Frank’s healing, she’s talking about herself. He’s trying to be… sensitive, which she doesn’t have much time for. She’s got her take on the Punisher, the emotional void of Frank Castle, and she’s not off. She talks, he listens, often with these reaction shots emphasizing his baby blues; Frank’s tragedy and Jenny’s tragedy are completely different but the emotional deadness is the same. They’re similar because of circumstances, coincidences, brokenness; despite her “heroizing” him, she’s able to see him without romance. There ought to be some kind of juxtaposing with O’Brien, Frank’s previous female counterpart, but Ennis doesn’t. He stays out of Frank’s head this issue. It’s all from Jenny’s perspective and then just the observations she’s sharing (with Frank and the reader).

The soft cliffhanger—rather viscerally—sets up the next issue’s finale, while also commenting on Frank the symbol, Frank the man, Frank the not-mentor, Jenny the not-protege, Jenny the widow, and Frank the, no pun, widow maker. There’s a lot of meat to Widowmaker, too much for Ennis to chew but he certainly does gnaw here.

The Punisher (2004) #47, Widowmaker, Part 5 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  47It’s not a light issue. There’s barely any Frank; he’s just sitting around and listening to sixth widow Jenny tell him her life story. She was a mafia princess. She got married off to a full-on psychopath who, on a good night, just beat and raped her. The other mob widows knew about it, lied to her to get her into the marriage, handled her to keep her at home once she was in. Nothing changed until Frank killed the husband, just another dead crook reaching for his pistol. Then Jenny lost a husband and got diagnosed with breast cancer (what Ennis laid on a little thick in the first issue no longer seems it, not after the recounted horrors of her married life); when she decided, fatalistically, to go to the FBI, her big sister arranged to have her killed. The killers botched it. Fast-forward ten years—which seems like a bit too long but whatever—and Jenny’s back to take them out, Frank having considerably thinned the mob herd since she’d been gone.

Ennis and Medina go all in on the awfulness of Jenny’s life, the intensity and constancy of the abuse being enough to get them past any lingering questions about whether it’s too much, dramatically speaking. Or Ennis’s writing for the Jenny character’s narration being a little too light on specific personality. It’s a heavy comics, with the release valves being the widows trying to figure out what they’re going to do after failing their first shot at the Punisher.

They’re finding out the same things Frank and the reader are finding out from the narrated flashbacks. Everyone’s getting on the same page, including the not Sam Jackson anymore Sam Jackson cop, who’s piecing together the widows’ plan for the attempted hit on Frank. He only gets a page, just to remind readers he’s still around. There are two issues left, after all. Anything could be coming next.

Ennis closes it out without a cliffhanger, just a feeling of profound sadness over its broken “heroes,” Punisher Frank and the widow he made.

It’s an unpleasant read, especially for a mainstream book, even for Punisher MAX, but Ennis pulls it off. He’s able to keep the humanity, no matter the grandiosity of the awful specifics.

The Punisher (2004) #46, Widowmaker, Part 4 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  46Ennis brings all the threads together this issue. Frank, the widows, the mystery woman, the cop. The cliffhanger resolve has Frank taking one to the chest. The issue opens with Frank thinking about how unlikely the house where the damsel widow has brought him seems like a front for a trafficking operation. He’s just about to bail when he gets shot. Ennis sticks to the ambushing widows for most of the action (including a somewhat confusing sequence—Medina’s fault—about why they can’t take a second shot). Then the mystery woman shows up and saves Frank and guts the damsel, which is the most gory the arc’s actually gotten so far. Or maybe seeing intestines exposed to oxygen just seems like the most gore.

But I think it’s the most.

Anyway. The mystery woman saves Frank, leaving the remaining widows to deal with the arriving cops and recover from a launched grenade, bringing the not Sam Jackson Sam Jackson cop into the issue. His investigation is a bit of a water tread; Ennis gets in a (very dated) jab at “C.S.I. New York” and recaps the opening action into exposition to get the cop caught up. But other than the cop figuring out the four women in the bad neighborhood late at night and discovering their identities, it’s just filler. Widowmaker is the first seven issue arc—instead of six—so there’s going to be filler. It’s not bad filler, but it’s definitely filler.

The widows regroup and calm down, with the leader realizing the mystery woman is the actually her little sister (who’s been mentioned in hushed tones since the first issue of the arc because there’s some kind of joint history involving all the widows and the little sister). Meanwhile, the little sister is busy patching Frank up. The soft cliffhanger reveals she’s yet another widow made by the Punisher, except instead of hating Frank, she’s his biggest fan (or so she says). Ennis does a fine job getting the reader wondering about the explanation but it’s time for the issue to be over so something for next time.

It’s a bit of a stretched issue, but still a good one. Maybe Medina and Reinhold aren’t the most interesting when it comes to the cop questioning and investigating scenes, but they do all right enough. It’s unclear why all the widows are wearing the same green turtleneck sweaters; you’d think the cops—even the dumb ones—would notice they’re in matching outfits. But apparently not.

Ennis treads water well and the build-up to the cliffhanger—specifically the widows freaking out over their plan gone wrong—works well.

The Punisher (2004) #45, Widowmaker, Part 3 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  45Lots of action this issue. Frank’s taking out of a convoy of mob cars—the first page has Medina and Reinhold doing photo-reference on James Gandolfini but the character never figures in later so it’s not The Punisher vs. The Sopranos—but there’s a catch. The widows have put their decoy damsel in distress in one of the trunks and it’s her job to convince Frank to go with her into a trap. Since he’s a dumb lug when it comes to endangered women, he’ll go for it.

The comic goes from the action to the widows figuring out their plan. They luck out because one of them is willing to sleep with the mobsters to get information… and to just generally distract them. Ennis doesn’t specifically contrast the mobsters’ inability to refuse an easy lay with Frank’s weakness for women in danger, but there’s a general mood to it: men aren’t bright.

While the widows are plotting, they’ve got the mystery woman following them around and watching from afar. The issue’s either from the widows’ perspectives or the mobsters’. Frank gets some action-packed panels, but other than his full page establishing shot, the firefight is entirely from the mobsters’ perspective. No narration. Even when he finds the damsel, it’s still from her perspective, with Ennis offering no hint at how Frank is processing her bullshit story, which the reader knows all about.

It is a juxtaposition as far as Frank’s damsel in distress weakness and the mob guys thinking more with the little head than the big, but there’s nothing explicit about it. It’s a fact of life, kind of like how Ennis utilizes the randy widow. At least one of the other women seem to understand the plan only works because of the randy one’s willingness, but Ennis doesn’t dwell. He’s got the story he’s doing and he doesn’t get distracted. There’s a lot of context, which he establishes, but doesn’t engage.

The issue ends on a hard cliffhanger: Frank walking right into the trap, presumably unaware of anything being amiss, blinded by his sympathy.

It’s very nicely plotted, even if it is just moving Frank into position for what comes next. It doesn’t feel particularly bridging thanks to Ennis splitting the action sequence up with the widows’ plotting. He also gives the mobsters under attack just enough personality to keep things moving. It’s an efficient, effective issue.

The Punisher (2004) #44, Widowmaker, Part 2 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  44

Ennis opens the issue with Frank killing a couple child pornographers. It’s a few pages, with Frank considering his options considering the kids (and victims) are at home, as well as how much he wants to watch the perpetrators suffer. The growing itch he didn’t realize he had the desire to scratch. It’s Ennis’s long-term character development with Frank as the series progresses, understanding and exploring what’s going on under the skin.

After the opening, Frank’s out of the issue. Ennis splits the rest between the widows, the mystery woman stalking the widows, and Black NYPD detective Paul Budiansky.

The widows decide they’ve figured out Frank’s weakness—vulnerable women—from reading about The Slavers arc. Ennis plays their scenes for a combination of comedy and exposition, in case someone picking up Widowmaker had somehow missed the early arc and needed some catch-up. It’s fine exposition and decent enough comic relief (there’s no other place for it in the issue), but it’s all set up for the mystery woman, who’s right on the widows’ heels.

The mystery woman gets a scene where—if the reader paid attention last issue—there’s a bit of information conveyed. A little of the mystery revealed. Though it takes a reader who’s not just paying attention to the many Italian surnames the comic throws around, but also interrupted exclamation statements. Even though he’s very thorough with the expository catch-up, Ennis seems confident his reader is paying at least some attention.

Black NYPD detective Paul Budiansky—who Medina and Reinhold visualize half the time as Sam Jackson, half the time as… someone else; not Sam Jackson—is a complete aside. His big scene is in a mandatory therapy session with a shrink who condescends to him in an incredibly unprofessional manner. Budiansky took out a school shooter, saving kids but also killing one, and Ennis juxtaposes him and his processing of the event with Frank (as Budiansky—and everyone else—is as aware of Frank as Frank’s oblivious to them). Then there’s a scene with Budiansky and his wife as they try to support one another being Black people working in White supremacist institutions (he’s a cop, she’s a nurse).

The arc’s shaping up to be both accessible and not. Ennis is laying out the pieces, examining them as he does, situating them in relation to one another—how does Budiansky’s story look through this lens, how does it look when the lens is tilted (the loving husband bit is a—pleasant—surprise). Ennis is never too obvious, even with the deliberate expository sections, but he always spends enough time on each piece to make it resonate.

It’s not the most exciting comic—Frank taking out the bad guys at the open intentionally doesn’t get to have the emotional pay-off the Punisher offing child pornographers could easily have—instead it’s a gradual, intentional one.

Medina and Reinhold’s art, with the possible exception of Budiansky looking markedly different between his two scenes, is solid.

The Punisher (2004) #43, Widowmaker, Part 1 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  43

There’s barely any Frank in this issue. He opens it—gets the first two pages, then writer Garth Ennis shifts the action entirely to the villains. Frank’s been up against the mob, he’s been up against the Russians, he’s been up against big business, but now he’s up against a group of women he’s widowed.

Hence the arc title.

Their story—five women who band together to try to do what the men can’t, kill the Punisher—is separate from what it seems like Frank’s got going on. He narrates the first two pages, thinking about how he’s back to the basics, not torturing criminals anymore in imaginative ways, just terrifying them into talking then putting one in the head. Given the last arc has left Frank with many of the MAX series’s threads tied, not necessarily neatly either, he’s in a new place. A somewhat self-reflective one, where he’s not unsure of himself as much as interested in what not being unsure says about him.

The women have varied histories with the Punisher. Three of them just had their mobster husbands killed (one of them is widowed from a previous arc’s supporting player), one of them stands out because she’s a Black woman (which causes problems for one of the other widows), the organizer calls back to the first issue of the series when Frank took out almost fifty mobsters in the same family. She’s the daughter and granddaughter of the family. They bicker amongst themselves a little—actually it’s mostly telling the racist one to stop being racist and get with the program—then tell their stories, which Ennis flashes back.

He juxtaposes the widows’ plotting with another woman’s night out at the bar, picking up a rando, beating the shit out of him when he gets crosses a line (despite him being a shitheel, he doesn’t actually realize the line’s there… or what being disrespectful is going to get him). The issue ends with the somewhat problematic reveal the woman has had a double mastectomy. She’s also scarred on the face, which she had make-up concealing before… but that detail’s not the emphasis. The double mastectomy is the end reveal, making the issue—which features some questionably written AAVE from the Black widow—maybe Ennis’s most problematic?

But it’s also the most ambitious he’s ever gotten with the villains. He’s giving the mob widows all the power of being just as awful as their husbands. It’s rocky, but far from unsuccessful.

Good art from Lan Medina and Bill Reinhold. There’s a lot of detail, though Medina’s Frank is kind of boring. He’s a generic big guy with nowhere near the personality Medina and Reinhold put into the widows, which doesn’t really work. Showing Frank from their perspectives—their imaginations—would be something. Instead, he’s even more generic and bland (he looks like marketing key art) in the flashbacks than he appears in the first couple pages.

From the first issue, it certainly seems like Widowmaker is going to be a far more intimate affair than Punisher MAX, Frank, and Ennis have been having lately.

The Punisher (2004) #42, Man of Stone, Part 6 (of 6)

When Ennis has Frank by himself for four days, walking across the desert, trying to beat Rawlins to the airport, in a foreign country, no gun, perfectly opportunity for some self-reflection. But no. Ennis does end up having something to say in Man of Stone—Frank’s buddy Yorkie is taking an unplanned retirement because he’s sick of the War on Terror. He’s the honorable soldier, not in it for the bloodshed, which is what he’s seeing now. Somehow Vietnam was different, he’s sure, but he’s not convincing. He and Frank have a drink (or don’t have a drink, it’s unclear because Frank’s gone monosyllabic) and Yorkie bares his broken soul. It’s a good scene. Probably should have been how Ennis did the whole arc, tracking Yorkie instead of him being a special guest star.

Per Yorkie, there’s no place for the traditional war story anymore, which seems kind of meta, especially considering Ennis came to a similar conclusion with General Zakharov, only Man of Stone isn’t really a war story. Because it’s still a Punisher comic and it’s not Frank’s war.

So the Yorkie thing is great and then it’s time for Frank to finish up. He starts with some very pulp narration, which is a strange development, but then it turns into a slasher comic with the Punisher. He’s the slasher. From the poetry of Yorkie’s sad British soldier monologue to Frank now monosyllabic even in his narration. It’s like Ennis going through and saying, it’s not a spy story, it’s not a war story, it’s not a Punisher story, because all of those things make their own mess.

The issue and—consequently—arc have a bad ending. Whatever Ennis is going for fails. It’s not Fernandez’s fault because Fernandez doesn’t have a say in any of it. It’s just how the story goes… doesn’t work, then ends worse. Ennis spent the arc trying out the supporting cast to see if they could resonate and didn’t find the best one until the final issue of the arc. Meanwhile, Frank the international troubleshooter is unpleasant; Frank Castle vs. the Taliban seems exactly like the comic Ennis doesn’t want to do and then turns around and does it half-assed because of his disinterest in how it actually plays out.

But it does resolve most if not all of the outstanding supporting cast story arcs; satisfactorily too. Ennis does a fine job cleaning house after forty-two issues. Just wish he could’ve figured out a way to do it with a better story.

The Punisher (2004) #41, Man of Stone, Part 5 (of 6)

It’s not… the best issue. In some ways, it might even be the worst of the series so far. Not because there’s anything particularly bad–though Fernandez's art sort of tanks here so it doesn't help the finale hinges on Frank's expressions for effectiveness, though it might be on colorists Dan Brown and Giulia Brusco; it seems like Fernandez's panels, in black and white, might be effective. The colors don't help.

This issue is build-up to a big action set piece–how Frank and O'Brien are going to deal with the Russian general and Rawlins–and the resolution after they execute that plan. Even though Ennis opens the issue with Frank narration, there's no specifics about how the plan's supposed to go, just how transition stuff between the last issue's finale and this issue's opening.

But the issue also reveals just how wanting the villains of Man of Stone have been. Frank and O’Brien end up once place, still having to deal with Rawlins and General Zakharov. Zakharov and his flunkies find themselves at Rawlins’s mercy and he proves to be a vicious, cruel bastard, which the reader’s known for ages and Zakharov, based on when he told off Rawlins last issue or so, seems to know too. Shame he didn’t take it to heart and instead lets Rawlins get the better of him.

Rawlins is a tiring villain. He’s endlessly repugnant and opportunistic instead of smart. He’s not fun or edifying character to follow. Ennis just churns through his scenes. There are threats, there are violent realizations of those threats, there are more threats… on and on it goes. At least with Zakharov and his flunkies, there’s some examination of the characters and their situations. Rawlins is just caricature.

Meanwhile Frank is back to leading O’Brien on as far as their “romance.” Sure, he tells her not to plan for the future but he also banters with her against napalm going off in the distance; Ennis and Fernandez are way too intentional with the interplay given it can’t mean anything to Frank outside a temporary alliance.

Why can’t it mean anything to Frank?

Because, ostensibly no character development on him. Even though Punisher MAX is all about the character development on him.

It’s not a bad comic at all, it’s just a pointless enough one it’s hard to imagine Ennis is somehow going to wrap it all up into something special with the next issue. Man of Stone clearly went off the rails somewhere, but it might have just been on the wrong track the entire time. It plays to none of the series’s strengths, especially this issue, with Fernandez no longer able to keep the art more engaging than not.

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