I like Garth Ennis's Marvel Knights Punisher series. It's fun. This is completely different. Ennis has a long introduction to the first Punisher MAX Complete Collection where he talks about this. He was in New York after 9/11 and he found himself wanting to tell stories about the world at its worst, taking a step into the darkness. Soon, he realised that he was already writing the perfect vehicle for this. He cancelled the Marvel Knights Punisher (itself part of a line that had been created to shake up Marvel's usual way of doing things) and created this new series for mature readers instead.
Ennis says, "I still regard my five years on the book as some of the best and most rewarding work of my career."
It's dark as hell and unaware that taste might have boundaries. Every story arc is horrifying. Superheroes never appear, unless you count Nick Fury (another ex-army Marvel character with no superpowers). It's very, very well researched, going into disgusting detail about human trafficking, Eastern European conflicts, military hardware, criminal organisations, what happens to human anatomy under certain extreme conditions and so on. Ennis annoyed conservative American reviewers with true observations. This is fierce, horrible stuff.
1. IN THE BEGINNING ( Lewis LaRosa, 1-6)
Right from the start, you can tell that this is going to be harder and nastier than any of Ennis's earlier Punisher work. Frank's only friend, Micro, returns and holy shit. The history between these two characters makes this story huge. These gangsters are terrifying. (They tend to be cannon fodder for the Punisher, for obvious reasons, but these ones have walked in from another genre.) Frank also takes on the CIA.
Larosa also draws a terrifying Punisher. He's like a truck made of scar tissue, with Clint Eastwood's eyes and only an approximation of a head.
2. KITCHEN IRISH (Leandro Fernandez, 7-12)
To be honest, I preferred Ennis's "Punisher goes to Ireland" story in Marvel Knights. It's punchier. I'm not sure this one quite earns its page count. Both are meaty, though, and for obvious reasons Ennis always has a lot to say when it comes to Northern Ireland. There's plenty of "holy shit" here and a black comedy punchline that made me laugh.
3. MOTHER RUSSIA (Dougie Braithwaite, 13-18)
Nick Fury asks Frank to take a job that's high-risk and just about impossible. He's not joking. Russians. It's two hairs away from being a suicide mission. (I'm not speaking metaphorically, by the way. One long, one short. They get drawn and the loser has to agree to freeze to death.)
This goes beyond the Punisher's usual gangland hits into being a commando operation, behind enemy lines. Holy shit. This is another powerful one. It's also blackly funny, though, because Frank's rescuing a six-year-old girl and trying to play the Good Dad in between committing massacres. I howled. He doesn't believe in 'do as I do', for instance.
"You never play with guns, Galina. What do you never do?"
"Play with guns...?"
Then there's Nick Fury, who's another character Ennis has written elsewhere. (Stan Lee criticised the violence and gore in Ennis's 2001 limited series, Fury, which had also made George Clooney drop out of talks to play the character. Ennis put it in his personal top ten of the series he's written and later wrote Fury: Peacemaker in 2006 and Fury: My War Gone By in 2012-13.) Bloody hell. This Fury swears like it's his superpower, dislikes being told not to smoke and has sex with prostitutes.
4. UP IS DOWN AND BLACK IS WHITE (Leandro Fernandez, 19-24)
This one reunites characters from 'In the Beginning' and 'Mother Russia', with a coincidence factor that can strain belief. X used to be married to Y, who used to kill for and have sex with Z, etc. It's still messed-up, though, with a villain who's sick in the head even by the standards of this series and a plot that's, ultimately, built around family, love and sex. But in a very, very bad way.
It's also more low-key than its prequels. So far, it's looking as if Ennis is alternating between holy shit megafuckers with opponents who could crush Frank like a bug (1, 3) and quieter stories that I want to call "more domestic" (2, 4).
5. THE SLAVERS (Leandro Fernandez, 25-30)
Welcome back to the odd-numbered "holy shits". This one feels as if Ennis watched a documentary about Eastern European sex trafficking, did some research and then poured it all into this. It's horrifying because of its facts. Anyone who can read this and not blanch is made of stone. The story's not pretending that it's proposing any kind of solution here. "Don't kid yourself about any of this. I'm hitting this one outfit, that's all. It won't stop the trade in women. Won't make life any better for the victims."
But that doesn't mean Ennis and the Punisher aren't both angry.
6. BARRACUDA (Goran Parlov, 31-36)
The Punisher meets Wall Street. (Specifically, it's Dynaco, a company that bears similarities to Enron.) That probably doesn't sound like much of a fight, so these slimeballs also know a large, endearingly jovial gentleman called Barracuda. The Punisher gets his clock thoroughly cleaned, but the story's also quite funny.
"We're a corporate institution, we're not some tangible enemy you can fire bullets at. You cannot actually fight us, do you understand?"
7. MAN OF STONE (Leandro Fernandez, 37-42)
It's a sequel to 'Mother Russia'. Also to other storylines, but mostly to 'Mother Russia'. It's set in Afghanistan, it involves military-grade trouble and it's got the eponymous Man of Stone. That odd-numbered rule's still holding true.
8. WIDOWMAKER (Lan Medina, 43-49)
It's the strongest of the even-numbered stories, with an attention-grabbing hook and a powerful mix of themes. This time, the Punisher's enemies are the widows of gangsters he's killed. They themselves aren't criminals. (Mostly.) They just lived in that society and now they've lost their children and spouses just as Frank Castle did on becoming the Punisher, all those years ago.
It's about these women and the choices they did (or didn't) make in a grisly men's world. It's about what it would take to turn you into the Punisher. It's very, very good.
"You want to become me?"
9. LONG COLD DARK (Howard Chaykin 50, Goran Parlov 51-54)
Barracuda's back. This was published straight after he'd had his own Barracuda MAX mini-series, but the tone is completely different. That was comedy. This is dark, with Barracuda doing things that are shocking, not funny at all. He makes it even more personal (and powerful) than Cavella did in Up Is Down And Black Is White.
The only problem is with the art. I like Chaykin, but he's so different from Parlov that you can't tell that's Barracuda and Yorkie in the opening scene. It's jarring. Fortunately, though, Parlov's soon back.
10. VALLEY FORGE, VALLEY FORGE (Goran Parlov, 55-60)
This isn't an even-numbered story. It's the finale. The Punisher meets the U.S. military, in a story that's interleaved with thoughtful, angry observations about the Vietnam conflict. Ennis loves war stories and soldiers. That doesn't mean he likes war itself. This is another powerful one.
It's also part of a triptych with Ennis's Punisher prequel Vietnam series, Born and The Platoon.
I don't believe anyone will ever write a better Punisher run than this. Nothing's impossible, obviously, but I can't see it happening in my lifetime. If anyone wants to bet, I'll put fifty quid on the table. It's amazing just to see stories like this published under Marvel's name. Damn, they're good.