Punisher: The End
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Richard Corben
By Michael David Sims
Garth Ennis seemingly has two pens. One that allows him to author some of the best, thought-provoking fiction the genre has ever seen (RE: Preacher, Hellblazer, Heartland, Unknown Soldier, and Pride & Joy). And another that churns out ultra violent, thoughtless schlock (RE: Dicks, Fury, The Authority: Kev). When it comes to The Punisher, however, Ennis seems to write with both pens. And his run, while loved by the fans, is truthfully hit or miss. There's no middle ground.
While the 12-issue "Welcome Back Frank" storyline truly captured the essence of the character, something that Marvel had seemingly lost, there were times when Garth went for an unnecessary gag in an otherwise serious book. The polar bear, Mr. Bumpo's assistance in thwarting The Russian, and anything involving Detective Soap. Instead of a deep and violent (yes, it can be both) story heralding the return of Marvel's original antihero, we received a shallow, violent, joke-filled tale of revenge and punishment.
Just when it seems as if Ennis is mailing in his Punisher scripts, he produces gems in the form of Born, "Brotherhood", "In the Beginning", and The End. All stories that look through (instead of focusing on) the violence and examine the man. With any good story, questions are raised and answered:
Born: What exactly happened in Vietnam that twisted one man's soul?
Brotherhood: Will Castle kill a dirty cop?
In the Beginning: What does Castle's war mean to him, and how will he deal with a friend who's betrayed him?
The End: How long will he continue to wage his war, and why won't he lay his guns down even on the brink of certain death?
It's here, in The End, where Ennis truly proves his merit and reminded fans and critics alike that he can tell a story worth reading without relying on one zany murder after another. He also successfully makes a political statement in a book many wouldn't expect to find one.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to see a political statement arise in a post-apocalyptic story. After all, hoards of post-apocalyptic tales give rise to political messages (Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, 12 Monkeys, and The Matrix to name a few). And it's not that the message arrived in a comic book either, because we've seen that before too (Heartland, Green Lantern: Hate Crime, Batman: Death of Innocents, and the central core of who and what they X-Men are). It's that we found it in The Punisher, a comic that's mostly known for bloodshed and more bloodshed.
Now I could beat around the bush or give you my interpretation of what Ennis was attempting to get across, or I can simply quote the book.
Once upon a time there was a bunch of evil fucks. Hardly anyone knew, because they were so good at keeping it quiet, but these particular evil fucks owned the world. And they made the world a cruel and terrible place. They ran the great industries that poisoned the air. Their businesses turned whole countries into slaves. The money they made could have fed and healed the population of the earth twice over — but all that they could think to do with it was hoard it. They got away with it by being expert salesmen. These were men who could sell anything to anyone. They made puppets out of presidents and started wars for profit. Eventually, they came to believe that there was nothing that they couldn't do. And so one day — inevitably — they pushed the planet's luck too far.
To sum it up, I'll quote George Taylor (Charlton Heston) from Planet of the Apes (1968): "You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Goddamn you all to Hell!"
In case you hadn't guessed, Punisher: The End is not only set at the end of the Frank Castle life, but also at the end of the world. And as the world burns, literally, we watch the decaying Castle relentlessly trail the last living criminals: politicians and the men of big business, who are holed up in a bomb-shelter underneath where the World Trade Centers once stood.
After the murder of his wife and children, Frank Castle swore to avenge them by punishing all criminals. For the most part, his writers have never pitted Castle against white-collar criminals or corrupt politicians. Yes, he had a run-in with (a shadowed) President George W. Bush and has tackled the funders of drug cartels, but what's stopping him from killing ex-Enron CEO Kenneth Lay and former Illinois Governor George Ryan? Both men are more corrupt and have harmed more lives than the thug selling crack on the corner, or even the mob boss who ordered the hit that resulted in the deaths of the Castles.
It's because the writers (and/or Marvel), to date, haven't wanted to back Castle into that corner. Once he kills a politician or a Bush confidant, there's no backing out. He'll always be on the run, and there's nowhere he can hide. The book will be over sooner rather than later. Additionally, how many comic book readers really want thought provoking Punisher stories? We turn to independent or Vertigo comics for those. It's in The Punisher where we find our simplistic revenge fantasies. It's easy to comprehend why the guy on the corner who's selling crack deserves to die. But it's not so simple to explain how the CEO of a billion dollar company screwed over everyone, and, thus, deserves to die.
So while on one hand I might pan Ennis for writing to the lowest common denominator with many of his Punisher stories, I understand why he does it. It's 22 pages of straightforward, mind numbing entertainment that most comic book readers will enjoy. But what Ennis needs to remember is that most isn't all, and those who don't fall into the category of most crave something else. Something more. We want to be challenged and treated like the adults we are — after all, this is a Marvel MAX comic, no one under 18 is supposed to purchase it. So instead of paying to see polar bears knock the heads off mobsters and the morbidly obese smother seemingly unstoppably assassins, Ennis and Marvel need to produce more Punisher stories, such as The End, that induce mature, educated dialog and thought between readers.