It's about how the Punisher was born, but it doesn't star a man in a skull-logo shirt. Frank Castle is its main character, but this is 1971 when he's just an ordinary grunt in Vietnam. It's a million miles away from the Marvel Universe. It's a dirty, ugly, angry war story, from a writer renowned for his love of this now-unfashionable genre.
It portrays a confused, pointless conflict without moral clarity. Ennis doesn't even glance at the rights or wrongs of either side (although he did later in detail in 'Valley Forge, Valley Forge'). The soldiers don't, after all. They're Americans, yes, but they're killers, drug addicts, would-be rapists, alcoholic defeatists and ordinary boys who are counting the days until they go home. They kill each other with bad decisions and frag their officers, who in turn talk as if America's about to pull out of the country any day. (Direct U.S. involvement didn't end until 1973.)
There's some really dark dialogue. The platoon's only black soldier is without hope, because he knows what's waiting back home. Frank explains why he killed a helpless woman. "I put a V.C. sniper on a medevac and not a man in the platoon ever trusts me in combat again. I hand her over to intel and she doesn't tell them shit. The Arvin interpreters take turns with her, then they shoot her in the head."
Oh, and Frank Castle's journey is as dark as anything in the book.
Punisher MAX: Complete Collection volume 1 includes this story and talks about it in a commentary section. The penciller, Darick Robertson, gives photoreference, layouts, what he was trying to do and his personal motivations in drawing this story. His assistant editor, Nick Lowe, made available his father's personal photo album from Vietnam. I'll quote:
"Looking through the album was a profound experience. Many simple things people wouldn't think to photograph get captured when someone is just taking snapshots of the people they're with and the things that they're doing throughout the course of the day. I really wanted to capture those details. It felt important to me, because while the Punisher is fictional, the Vietnam War was not, and like Nick's father, David, there are many veterans still alive today to whom the Vietnam war is very much a reality to them, not the stuff of fiction."
"Nick told me that his father was really impressed with Born. David Lowe went so far as to even send copies of Born along to his veteran buddies. That means more to me than any other compliment I received for my work on this series."
Ennis wrote another Castle-in-Vietnam series (Punisher: The Platoon) in 2017. I'm hoping he makes it a trilogy.