A review of Garth Ennis's PUNISHER #1:
March 20, 2000
by Matthew Richards
Well, Garth Ennis's Punisher has certainly garnered a lot of attention since it's release.
There's been a lot of debate about the non code approved book, about whether it's entertainment, or whether it's a bad social influence. I have no intention of joining that particular debate, but I have to admit that after reading issue #1, I was quite disturbed.
"Why did I spend $2.99 U.S on this crap?" I wondered.
Now don't tell me about sales. Yes, it's a fact that the first two issues have sold out so fast that Marvel is going to compile them in a Trade paperback. It's also a fact that oftentimes, sales have nothing to do with quality. That's why The Phantom Menace can rake in over $400 million and most Image titles won't win awards for their writing. In this case, the writing is totally flat. It in no way engages the reader. There are no subplots, nothing that has me eagerly awaiting the next issue. There is no conflict or danger for the "hero," no pressure, no complexity, and no emotion.
Every time I read the first issue I come up with the same synopsis:
Big angry Italian guy walks around killing mobsters.
Granted, it's the first issue of the series, the first sequence of a larger story, but consider briefly, synopses of the first issues of some of The Character's past Incarnations.
The Punisher: Circle of Blood #1: (Jan 1985) Limited Series
Imprisoned Frank Castle foils a jailbreak and agrees to accept the help of privately funded organization who claim to share his mission to wipe out organized crime.
The Punisher #1: (July 1987) Series
The Punisher tries to take down a Bolivian coke ring that murdered a Vietnam vet who refused to fly their cargo. In this issue he goes undercover, is captured, tortured, but eventually takes down a local drug dealer and gains information to further his quest.
The Punisher War Journal #1: (Nov 1988) Series
On his way to Central Park to observe the Anniversary of his family's death, Frank stops to help a woman and her baby escape the clutches of her abusive mobster husband.
The Punisher War Zone #1: (March 1992) Series
The Punisher goes undercover in the Carbone Crime family to gain info on their Mob operations.
In the best issues of these series the Punisher experienced internal and external conflict, faced real dangers and had real challenges to overcome. Subplots were established as the foundation for following stories. It made for stronger storytelling and better entertainment. Through all his previous appearances, Frank Castle was basically a good guy who did bad things. A man trying to make to make a difference, trying to protect the innocent the way he failed to protect his family. A man always obsessed to some extent, with revenge and punishment, of both criminals and himself. A man trained to kill who used his skills and intelligence to wage a personal war on crime. A man doing the things we sometimes wished we all could. Someone who wavers between teetering on the brink of total madness and slowly regaining pieces of his lost humanity. Ultimately, a good guy who loved his family and was devastated by their deaths.
Now, Garth Ennis's first issue gives us an angry Italian guy who stoically walks around killing members of the Gnucci crime family to tell the scum that he's back. As a reader, I've no problem with excess cruelty per se. Nor do I care particularly about the depraved lives of criminals, the plight of the mentally ill or justifying the Punisher's actions. I do care about story and characterization.
That penultimate page of issue #1 was one of those sloppy pieces of writing that shoots suspension of disbelief all to hell. There is no way that I can buy that Frank Castle would callously discard any chance to be with his family again. No Way. This series is a totally retrograde step for the character, rehashing the "Psycho with a gun" cliche which really has no lasting future in entertainment media. It's a regression in Frank Castle's character, more suited to the era when he was drugged by Jigsaw and was trying to kill jaywalkers. To his credit, Garth Ennis is up front about what to expect from his series. He promises a laugh, thrill, and plenty of sustained automatic weapons fire for your buck. (Wow, the elements of a thousand "B" movies.) He also promises that Frank does a number of terrible but oddly innovative things to people…
Y'know, I can forgive Marvel. They do have their creditors to think about, and gratuitous violence can be entertaining. This may bring them new fans the way that the launch of Image attracted fanboys and speculators to the industry in droves. If Garth Ennis's market friendly, Y2K compliant version of the vigilante motif is "a big Italian guy with a skull on his chest who kills mobsters in really innovative ways," I can saddle horse with that too.
But please Garth, did you have to call him the Punisher?
© 2000 PSYLUM, INC.
A reader responds (1/16/03)
I send you my answer to Matthew's review regarding Punisher # 1 :
Since the Punisher # 1 has been sold for some time now, it seems like a very old topic, but nevertheless, I'd like to reply to your review.
I respect your point of view. You like the character and it is everyone's freedom to have different views on something.
With all due respect, I disagree with some of the things you said.
Don't get me wrong, I don't want to become the absolute advocate of Garth Ennis.
As a matter of fact, I am French, and I am really surprised that such a talented Irish writer, with so many skills, who has fought many times against the clichés & stereotypes about Ireland, always include loudly jokes against the French. He did it in Preacher, he does it again in Punisher :
Little mustaches? I don't know anyone who has one; Horse eaters? I don't know someone who eats horses; Berets? except a few very old people, no French people wear one; Frogs eaters? 70% French people have never eaten a frog into their entire life; Nuclear weapons lovers? Personally, I was against the Pacific Ocean tests and, besides, France never did as much Nuke tests as the USA did ...
So, you see, while I recognize Ennis as one of the most important comics writers today, I don't agree with everything he does.
Why don't I agree with you?
"Through all his previous appearances, Frank Castle was basically a good guy who did bad things."
=> I think you just show the main problem :
How can a good guy do bad things? should someone be judged by his goals or by his behaviour?
Most dictators & their followers on Earth believe they are good guys.
Most criminals know they're outlaws but consider themselves good guys with their families and partners in crime ...
In the real world, you don't easily define good & bad.
"A man trying to make to make a difference, trying to protect the innocent the way he failed to protect his family."
=> I don't think Castle is an idealist (aka "trying to make a difference into the world"). Contrary to classic heroes, he doesn't try to protect innocent people, he has always been obsessed with killing criminals (even in his very first appearance).
This is why Castle is so different from Batman & Spider-Man. Batman & Spider-Man try to protect the innocent the way they failed to protect their family.
Castle has been broken by the way his family was killed.
In his twisted mind, he considers the death of his family the first casualties of his future personal war against criminals.
"A man always obsessed to some extent, with revenge and punishment, of both criminals and himself. A man trained to kill who used his skills and intelligence to wage a personal war on crime."
=> I agree with what you say here.
"A man doing the things we sometimes wished we all could."
=> Well, I'd say, a man doing the things we sometimes fantasy about if we lived in a simple (fictional) world.
But, I personally don't wish vigilantes to exist into the real world. It would only lead to many innocent people being killed.
Vendetta behaviours look like a regression to the Middle Ages.
"Someone who wavers between teetering on the brink of total madness and slowly regaining pieces of his lost humanity."
=> I think the main idea behind the character is to show that, unfortunatly, Castle lost this inner battle a long time ago.
"Ultimately, a good guy who loved his family and was devastated by their deaths."
=> Somehow, I agree. A skilled military guy who once had good & noble intents (regaining with his family pieces of his humanity lost during the 'Nam) but was totally devastated by his family deaths.
I don't think your characterization of the Punisher is really far from the one of Garth Ennis.
I think he has focused on another part of the Punisher myth :
THE PUNISHER IS THE BOGEY-MAN OF THE MOB.
Criminals are afraid of him like teenagers are afraid of Freddy Krueger.
It is just a different perspective but not a different character.
Instead of seeing the world through the eyes of Frank Castle, you see the world through the eyes of the criminals that he kills.
Rob reviews THE PUNISHER #1—look out!
PUNISHER #3's moral dilemma—reversed
The evidence against media violence
. . .
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