Monday, January 21, 2008

Punisher #54

While I’ve heard a lot of talk about Garth Ennis’s work with The Punisher tapering off lately, I don’t think I could disagree more. In fact, I’ve enjoyed his work with the MAX imprint more consistently than anything he’s written since Preacher. It seems that the writer is prone to boredom and sloppiness when his hands are bound by a more mainstream archetype, as evidenced by his terrible run at the end of the Marvel Knights Punisher series. When he’s really allowed to cut loose and tell a story without restraint, though, he writes some absolutely incredible material. That was the case with Vertigo and Preacher, and that’s the case here with Marvel MAX and newer issues of Punisher.

He really pushes those limits in the current arc, too, featuring what’s shaped up to be the penultimate battle between Frank and the Barracuda. As the conclusion of that arc, this issue is downright brutal – a bloody, gory, balls to the wall action fest. After just the third page, you’re treated to one of the most grotesque moments you’ll ever see in a Marvel comic. If there’s one thing this writer does best, it’s following through on the promise of a gigantic conclusion, and that page of Punisher #54 is all the proof you’ll need of that. Of course, it’s easy to write something that’s horribly violent… although it does take someone exceptionally twisted to imagine something so creatively disgusting. But what makes that excruciating moment so amazing is the way Ennis has set it up.

This fight is downright nasty, but it makes sense. The Punisher and ‘Cuda were destined to reach this moment of critical mass from the moment they first met, and while it’s been a bumpy ride to get here, it feels like there’s really nowhere else for them to go now. Ennis has built to the moment long enough, added enough personal assaults, that both men feel like they have no alternative but to go all-out in their quest to destroy the other. Thing is, they’re both such war-hardened, never-say-die sons of bitches that it would be a catastrophic disappointment if they went out with a whimper, rather than a bang. The stakes are already astronomical when the issue opens, and they do nothing but skyrocket as the story unfolds. Garth Ennis takes these guys to hell, and then he sends them somewhere even worse.

I couldn’t have hand-picked a better artist to accompany this story than Goran Parlov, the man who brought Barracuda to life in each of his previous appearances. He has a mildly comedic edge to his work that matches the book’s gallows humor, but can really bring the heat when the fur starts flying and the action picks up. His style of rendering is strangely reminiscent of John Romita, Jr.: clean enough to let the readers see what’s going on, but tightly detailed at the same time. If I’m skimming over his contribution it’s because Ennis’s story is so clearly the star of the show, but the writing simply wouldn’t have reached that level without Parlov’s aid. He’s as much a perfect counterpart to this writer as Steve Dillon was in the late ‘90s. It’s an outstanding pairing, and I’ll mourn the end of their collaboration.

The current arc of Punisher has been one of my favorites, and in my opinion one of the character’s best. It captures everything there is to this man: his intelligence, his drive, his motivations, his emotional detachment, his impossible dedication… and it’s highlighted them all against the backdrop of what has to be the character’s toughest battle. This may be one of the most shocking, incredible conclusions I’ve ever read. I think I breathlessly mouthed “Oh, holy shit” six times in this issue. It’s unbelievable. If you have even the slightest interest in the Punisher, his nemesis or action stories in general, you need to buy this. Freaking awesome.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 10

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