MAX

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.

The Punisher (2004) #40, Man of Stone, Part 4 (of 6)

Man of Stone puts Frank into a world where he doesn’t belong. This issue has him showing down with rogue Russian general Zakharov in Afghan mountains; the general wants Frank alive so Frank will confess on TV. See, Zakharov has a romanticized view of himself and his soldiers. His resolve is a strength and he sees the same thing in Frank, only Frank’s got no romanticized view of himself or anything else. Zakharov’s projecting. The world where Frank doesn’t belong isn’t Afghanistan or shootouts, it’s in the daydreams of general’s and CIA agent’s (good and bad).

Frank doesn’t get jack to do this issue. He gets a kind of big action set piece but it’s not about his experience of it, rather the damage he does on others because he’s the Punisher after all. He and O’Brien hang out a bunch but it’s all her talking and him occasionally showing interest but eager to remind her they’re not going to prom after they take out the Russians and her evil ex-husband. There’s no Frank narration this issue either. When he’s got an exposition dump, it’s brief and in dialogue to O’Brien.

There’s also a lack of preparedness on Frank’s part, echoing the previous story arc, which is either Ennis covering for dramatic manipulations or Frank just being out of his element. Though I suppose in this story, it could also be he was too busy making the beast with two backs with O’Brien.

After three issues of being a prop, O’Brien gets her big monologue here and it’s… okay. Fernandez does a better job with O’Brien as action hero in the issue than Frank, but he doesn’t bring anything to her talking head panels. He doesn’t have the timing for it, which isn’t a surprise. It’s effectively done, it’s just not as good as it could be. Because O’Brien does belong in this world only she wishes she didn’t. Or wishes Frank did.

Even though Man of Stone is far from the best arc—and, frankly, not the bounce back (so far) the series needs post-Barracuda—it does at least do something with the characters. The only new character this arc is Zalharov’s main flunky, who hates Rawlins; they’re kind of comic relief. Everyone else is back from previous arcs, laden with baggage. Good baggage, well-placed baggage. Ennis’s characters are in better shape than his narrative needs.

The Punisher (2004) #39, Man of Stone, Part 3 (of 6)

Ennis starts the issue with some more framing: Frank and O’Brien eating rations in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. It’s a two page teaser, with Frank giving in and going for a roll in the sack with O’Brien. Again. Even though, the narration reveals, he’d told himself not to do it. Ennis’s Punisher MAX has done a lot of things in its run so far, but establishing Frank Castle gets horny in his downtime… well, it might not be the biggest success but it’s definitely a success. Frank Castle: Sexual Being. Who knew.

The rest of Frank’s narration, with a couple exceptions in the last couple pages, is about him getting to Afghanistan. It’s not a lot of narration, because on the last plane he meets a reporter who’s going to talk his ear off and give the reader some exposition as to how big bad Russian villain Zakharov got the “Man of Stone” nickname; doing heinous shit to Afghan civilians during the Russian occupation. What’s weird about the sequence—besides the comic cutting from the intro to the exposition dump to Zakharov and his goons preparing for the Punisher’s arrival—is how Frank probably knows all of it (yet doesn’t want to talk to the reporter so doesn’t mention it)—so it’s exclusively for the reader’s edification, which plays weird. Something’s missing. Maybe Frank’s narration.

The issue continues the arc’s weird pacing—like Ennis is doing all the bridging issues in the front—with, once again, barely any time spent on O’Brien. She and Frank probably get about the same amount of page time but he’s got the narration to make more of an impression. Dialogue-wise, they’re probably equal. Or Frank’s less. O’Brien’s opening scene is with Yorkie, who does most of the talking (though not all) and then she and Frank talk a little, but pragmatically. Rawlins gets the most dialogue or at least seems like it because he’s got this lengthy ranting monologue about being a great spy and how valuable he could be to Zakharov. Rawlins and Zakharov get the most agency in the arc; Frank’s just reacting to them, O’Brien’s just a damsel (of sorts).

It’s an efficient, effective issue, with Fernandez drawing Frank the tourist a lot better than Frank at home, though he barely gets any panels compared to anyone else. Even when Frank does get a panel, Fernandez usually concentrates on something else. Fernandez’s art on Punisher is better because he’s drawing less Punisher. But, given Fernandez’s lows on the series, I’ll take it.

Man of Stone is half over and Ennis has just completed arranging the pieces on the board. He’s done a fine enough job with that arranging, but hasn’t really given a sign of what’s to come for anyone involved. There’s this inevitable showdown feel to it… except Ennis has only talked about the inevitability not shown it.

The Punisher (2004) #38, Man of Stone, Part 2 (of 6)

Why is the only thing Fernandez unable to reliably draw, even with his much improved (and self-inked) Man of Stone style… why can’t he draw the Punisher? Frank’s out of action the entire issue, literally sitting around on the telephone, and Fernandez can’t seem to figure out how to draw Frank’s arms. It’s really, really weird how he can handle everything else but not Frank.

So I guess it’s good Frank’s only in the first couple pages and the last page. He’s on the phone with Yorkie, Yorkie’s about the blow O’Brien’s brains out. The British are helping the Americans protect former Taliban and O’Brien’s killing former Taliban so she’s got to be got. Frank learned about the British involvement thanks to BBC America, which is a throwaway line but does give an idea what Frank puts on in the background while cleaning his guns. There’s quite a bit about how Americans war—the British soldiers aren’t happy about taking assassination orders from the CIA, evil ex-CIA guy Rawlins points out they can get Frank to Afghanistan—he’s not going to want to get into a firefight with the angry Russians in New York City; Americans like going to war in other people’s countries. Quick but important digs from Ennis, as Man of Stone is more about geo-political conditions than anything with Frank himself.

So besides the frame, the issue is about Yorkie and his team capturing O’Brien and getting into a fight with Rawlins and the Russians and then Rawlins getting dangled over a cliff until he comes up with another plan to take down the Punisher. The Rawlins and Russians stuff is forward moving, while the O’Brien and Yorkie pages are more like cast catch-up. Ennis seeing what the pair is like together, having written them both alone. It’s Punisher MAX world-riffing. It’s a good use of pages, as far as the single issue goes, though maybe not for the overall arc. Especially since Yorkie has this great closing joke for O’Brien and the comic skips her reaction.

Actually, the comic skips O’Brien’s reactions to almost everything. She’s either quiet or muzzled.

If the arc has an epical structure, outside the issue’s individual ones, we seem to have just gotten to the end of the first act. Ennis is gradual about setting up the ground situation, far more committed to the individual issues’ plotting. Even if this one doesn’t much involve Frank.

The Punisher (2004) #37, Man of Stone, Part 1 (of 6)

Leandro Fernandez is back on the art, inking himself, and he’s better than he’s ever been before. There are still some panels where it’s clear colorist Dan Brown is doing a lot of the shading, but overall it’s a big improvement over Fernandez’s usual art.

The issue brings together a lot of the series’s leftovers—there’s ex-CIA assassins Rawlins and O’Brien, there’s the Russian general, there’s Yorkie. Well, Yorkie gets a name drop towards the end. He’s promised.

Rawlins is trying to team up with the Russians, only to discover the hardass, Wilson Fisk lookalike general from the Mother Russia arc. This arc, Man of Stone, well, the general is said Man of Stone. He doesn’t take to slimy American fixer Rawlins and most of their subplot is spent with the general, Zakharov, torturing him. Until Rawlins is able to come up with a plan to take on Frank. Zakharov’s still mad at Frank for the whole killing Russian troops in a nuclear weapon silo thing.

Meanwhile Frank is working his way through some drug dealers, which then puts him on a collision course with the Russian mob. The Russian mobster name-drops O’Brien, who skipped last arc, as a person of interest, though Frank doesn’t know O’Brien’s out there killing the off the Afghanis who kidnapped and assaulted her.

Now, post-9/11, these guys are all American assets because… America.

It’s a lot of setup, with most of the humor in how vicious sociopath Rawlins being no match for Zakharov and his crew. Initially Ennis gives Frank a lot of narration but mostly drops it after the first scene, which is an action sequence; he’s interrogating people, no need for narration, just talking heads.

So other than the soft cliffhanger with O’Brien and maybe a couple pages of Frank’s shootout, it’s all talking heads. Just one talker about to have the other talker castrated talking heads. Ennis is really good at keeping it moving, with Fernandez all of a sudden able to keep up. Whatever Fernandez did while talking the last arc off helped.

So far Man of Stone is a gritty, realistic espionage thriller juxtaposed against Frank being Frank. It’s perfectly solid stuff, engaging as a prologue to whatever’s coming next. Even if the only thing Fernandez can’t seem to figure out how to reliably draw in Punisher MAX is The Punisher.

Also weird is how it’s following up on the arc where Ennis embraced pulp for Frank’s narration and takes an entirely different approach here.

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