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The Best Series of the 2000s: Garth Ennis' Punisher MAX

The series kept me reading, even when I quit comics.

 From first...     

On the subject of memorable runs, I’ve already written at length about Grant Morrison’s JLA and Joe Kelly’s DEADPOOL, and much has already been said about Frank Miller’s DAREDEVIL & Walt Simonson’s THOR. Here, I want to put some attention on a run that hasn't gotten adequate recognition, a run I’d even contend was the best mainstream comic of the 2000s.  

I’m talking about Garth EnnisPUNISHER

Here's how into this series I am - - I got burned out enough on reading comics in the latter half of college that I actually cancelled my pull file and sold my entire collection. It was that extreme, yes. But even during that dark spell, I still kept up with this series (through the store-credit from the sale) because it was just that compelling. I picked up all 100 or so issues that were scattered over three volumes and two imprint shifts from 2000 to 2008.  

Why did I like about it so much? It absolutely owns Frank Castle.   

What I'll always prefer about comics is that they're free to take a story past the familiar territory of its initial premise. The Punisher (and most vigilantes in fiction) had usually been frozen in a revenge arc that never delved that deep into the motivations, nor even ventured that far past the origin. A normal guy can go bad after one bad day, right? You can explain all Castle's actions away to payback, right?  == TEASER == 

 ...to last.

Just like Alan Moore realized that SWAMP THING would be vastly more intriguing if it got past the monster trying to regain his humanity plot, so too did Ennis quickly establish that Castle had killed everybody even remotely associated with his family's murder - - thus removing any notion of retribution from his career. From there, it became clear that the one bad day in the park was merely a catalyst to focus long-dormant tendencies Castle had always harbored; an excuse for his bloodlust. Where other writers wrestled with how to justifying his band of justice, Ennis embraced its contradictions and straight-up admitted that he’s a sociopathic serial killer.

Though there was wall-to-wall action, copious amounts of gut-twisting gore, solid mountains of spent casing and the ever-present aroma of cordite, this run in full was actually a detailed character study. One of the trades is titled FROM FIRST TO LAST and it's an apt name for the whole run, because it covered the span of Castle’s life. And I do mean his entire life.  

We see his rough and tumble childhood in THE TYGER, his formative war days in BORN, his mid-career score-settling in THE CELL and even a possible (and quite fitting) apocalyptic conclusion in THE END. Throughout this all, Castle's shown to be quite aware that his vendetta's accomplishing nothing.   
 During the Marvel Knights era, you even got some truly wicked black humor in gags like Big Frank's hand-to-paw fight with a polar bear...
Getting past familiar debates about the merits of vigilantism and lethal force, Castle knows all-too-well that he isn't saving the world. While threatening innocents is the surest way to enrage him, he doesn't have any illusions about helping anybody. This is all just satisfying a terrible compulsion to punish anybody he sees as a bully. While peace is never the right term for the Punisher, he’s certainly accepted his nature and, while a classic Western like Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN ends with that kind of acceptance, this series started with it.  
 The weapon and his fellow creations.

Despite all this talk about the bottomless pit Castle knowingly digs for himself, this run was also notable for letting his war on crime actually make some progress. MAX has never been explicitly stated as being a separate universe - - you could chalk the absence of superheroes to simple circumstances - - but the series was still free to push the concept into logical outcomes that continuity-bound storytelling doesn't typically allow. For one, it kept Frank’s origin in Vietnam and allowed him to age (even at 60-years-old, he was still realistically more dangerous than most guys could ever be in their 20s.) More metaphorically, he developed into a specter of war - - a Frankenstein monster (not Frankencastle, no no) created by the military industrial complex who, after years of searching for the real enemy, ultimately got revenge on the criminals who'd truly created him.  If that sounds like a horror story, it's because it was. I was even a little afraid of picking this series up when WELCOME BACK, FRANK first came out.

Progress was also illustrated literally as Castle's total body count tallied past 2000, leading to him actually start running out of competant New York gangsters in arcs like IN THE BEGINNING and UP IS DOWN, BLACK IS WHITE. Without any wise guys left to waste, he turned to international threats like the IRA in KITCHEN IRISH, Balkan white slavery in THE SLAVERS, ex-KGB war horses in MOTHER RUSSIA and even white collar criminals in LONG COLD DARK. With some carry-overs from the Knights era (when Big Frank was played more as a straight man for some wicked black comedy,) he accumulated a gallery of ugly enemies like the Russian, Barracuda, Finn Cooley, Ma Gnucci, Elite and the Man of Stone - - all of them with personalities as big and memorable as Castle's.

 Castle is more like a force of nature in this run.

Read this from the beginning to the end and you'll experience one of the most complete epics in modern comics. It's a nightmarish inversion of the traditional heroic journey, to be sure, but it's still a saga wherein a legend is born, he goes into the world to find those who've wronged him and he ultimately rains vengeance on the greater threat. Both the Max and Knights era were collected quite comprehensibly in single-arc softcovers and double-arc hardcovers, and those collections have been kept steadily in circulation, so it's easy to get into this if you've missed it. Not for the weak stomached nor the easily-offended, this is a real work of fiction that, even with its supply of thrills, still has the complexity of good literature. Pick any portion of Ennis' run up and you'll understand why I had to keep reading this, even when my interest in comics was at its lowest.

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of  HYBRID BASTARDS!  &  UNIMAGINABLE . Order them on Amazon   here  &   here .  Follow him on Twitter:  @tompinchuk

40 Comments
Posted by Sentinel of Magic

Haven't read it, but I do want to

Posted by Sexy Merc

I remember this.

Edited by Emerald Dragonfly
It is not the best of 2000's. Don't even want to say, why.
Posted by dan1509

I love welcome back frank and the first Barracuda arc is one of the best punisher arcs I've ever read and the series with Nicky Cavella is probably one of the best arcs as well :) Very much recommend the arc where Nicky Cavella returns

Posted by Darkchild

LOVE ENNIS!!! he brought Fr@nk into the best stories hes ever been in

Posted by Mr. Dead Pool

PUNISHMENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by CaptainSpider91

Such a good series!!!!!

Posted by JonesDeini

Ennis has yet to disappoint me and I LOVE Frank Castle, for all the reasons you described in this piece. I've been meaning to grab this run, and now I'm extra motivated to do so.

Posted by spider-man 2996

You sold your collection!!
Posted by Mumbles

good stuff. haven't read all of Ennis run, but slowly pick them up here and there.

Posted by robokungfu

Thank you for giving this run its due credit.  THIS run is specifically why The Punisher is one of my all-time favorite four-colored characters.  I actually prefer the Marvel Knights for the extra fun factor.  Ennis's contempt for superheroes really shows (Spider-Man gets repeatedly punched in the face by The Russian, Frank runs over Wolverine with a steamroller after gunshots to the groin over and over, etc) and he pulls together a lean, mean action-movie type of story better than Hollywood has done in the last 20 or so years.   
 
Where the Marvel Knights run was a whimsical action ride the MAX series was a cruel realistic crime drama.  The violence and depravity scars up every character mentally and physically.  I always interpreted his MAX version of Castle as a Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees but with a code of conduct.  Writing the Punisher for a few years gave Ennis this great system for writing bad guys: here are the most vile, repulsive, evil scumbags on Earth and they're to get punished in the most violent yet appropriate way possible.  

Posted by Gennadius

I loved when the punisher defeated daredevil,spidey and wolverine+the punisher+wolverine vs the midgets. 

Posted by Pizawle

Sounds good and I love Ennis' work so I'll have to eventually check this out.

Posted by Silkcuts

Best Marvel of 2000s after Peter Milligan and Mike Allred's X-Statix.

Posted by InnerVenom123

I freaking love Ennis's Punisher. "Born" is a masterpiece.
Posted by JEdThing

I agree, the punisher max series was so amazing!

Posted by goldenkey

I read the first 12 or so a while back.  I liked that it was pretty damn gritty, but I just couldn't get into it.  I know this is gonna soud ludacris but even tho the Punisher is a normal non powered guy, I always thought he get a little help from some where like Weapon X and get some slight enhancements.  Sorta of like they what they do with the black widows in Ultimate Marvel.  I know some of you are screaming at what I just wrote.  You bring the cross I got the nails.
Posted by goldenkey

I will say this.  Even tho the Punisher has its fan base and a lot of love out there, this series brought him back in a big way and made sure he's here to stay mainstream
Posted by aztek_the_lost

I was recently planning to finally jump into this with Punisher MAX #1...and now I find out Ennis' run began long before that in two different Marvel Knights series? Good thing I waited...now I'll have to go track those down...

Moderator
Posted by kennybaese

I really can't read Ennis anymore. I read the first couple pages of the first Crossed trade and it disgusted me. It's not story, it's gore and violence simply for its own sake and in some weird attempt to shock or something. It was waaay too messed up for me. Now every thing i read by him is tainted by that garbage.  
 
I do own Welcome Back Frank in hardcover but that's all I'll read. I've read a bunch of the Punisher Max stuff and it started out well but it started more and more to go down that road. I think that Ennis is going the way of Millar and, while his writing started out fantastic as it goes on he just seems to get more and more up his own ass. It's a bummer, it really is, because Welcome Back Frank is amazing. 

Posted by LiquidSwords

This is what got me back into comics again. The whole Image catastrophe and the direction that Marvel took some if it characters ruined my enjoyment of comics. Garth Ennis, to me, captured the true essence of The Punisher.  Great article,thanks!

Posted by GraveSp

i got kinda tired of Punisher Max.  It seemed like it was the same story over and over.  Something bad happens so Frank goes and kills a bunch of people.  The End.

Posted by Dr. Maxwell

Once I started reading this run I couldn't stop. To me it is the Quintessential Punisher stories.,and I don't ever want to read another other interpretation of the character.

Edited by Emerald Dragonfly

Can this be the best of 2000's (which means, for example, that it is better than "All-Star Superman"), if all what it has in - sickening, disgusting, abominable scenes? This is one of the WORST OF 2000'S because "comics" like this must never be published. 
ennis and millar both should be expelled from comics for their moronic dishonor.

Posted by FunnyStuff707

You've sold me. What trades is this all in?

Posted by Pinhead230280

Garth Ennis Punisher run is really awesome. I collect the garth ennis collection in hc and can't wait for the next trade

Posted by Eyz

I dunno.. As great as everyone tells me Punisher Max is.. I miss the good ol' in-Marvel Universe dark twisted Marvel Knight Punisher :(

Posted by fajkimajki

Whoa. Very proffesional article.

Posted by Omega Ray Jay

I've read Born and thought it was really good, I'd like to pick up the rest of these some day.

Posted by Stuka69
@Tom Pinchuk: Yeah, Punisher MAX is a damn fine series - even my wife loves it - and Knights is funny as hell!
Posted by dondasch

The Punisher character needed Garth Ennis, and readers the world over were rewarded with fantastic stories.  Born, specifically, comes to my mind.  I've read the issues and I'll read them again.  To this day I still love the fight that Frank had with The Russian, which was so sadly diluted in the last Punisher movie.

Posted by FadeToBlackBolt

I've read the Marvel Knights series, which is Ennis' best work, Born, and the first few arcs of the MAX series. I enjoyed all of them, especially the MK series and Born. That said,
 GRANT MORRISON'S NEW X-MEN is the best book of the 2000s.

Posted by They Killed Cap!
@Sentinel of Magic:

Yeah, I would have to say the same. I have a few of the books that I picked from the 50 cent bin cause the covers are sweet but I might have to go and start piecing this one together.
Posted by robokungfu
@FadeToBlackBolt:   Morrison's run on X-Men started beautifully but couldn't stick its landing I think.  Part of that blame has to be attributed to the horrendous artwork later in the book.  The stories were never as good as the Cassandra Nova one, too.
Edited by Aria_belle

Here, here! 
Ennis is Amazing! 
My husband has always been a Punisher fan, but Ennis' Born is what brought me round.
Posted by GraphicCasualFreak

Well, I gotta say that Sin City is the best Comic Series EVER because it appeals to a wide enough group of people and isn't so Super Heroey to make folks who think super heroes are for kids embarrassed.   Also the art is killer and the writing is top notch.  Punisher MAX is good, but certainly not the best ever. 

Posted by Mancotron

Thank you! I've also maintained that Ennis' Punisher Max was criminally underrated. So many people are put off by The Punisher's seemingly being a one note character, but with MAX, Ennis put on a clinic in developing said one note characters. He understood that with a character like the Punisher, you need to have various foils to play him off of. This is one of the few series I've read completely from beginning to end. Ennis' Punisher, for me, is the definitive Punisher.

Posted by newblacknoise
@Emerald Dragonfly said:
ennis and millar both should be expelled from comics for their moronic dishonor. "
YEEEEEAAH, let's have ourselves an ol' fashioned book burning! Keep those young minds clean! 
 
I've got "Welcome Back, Frank" in paperback, and loved it many times over, but have yet to read the MAX series. I think this article just pushed me over the edge though. Cheers!
Posted by Bruce Vain

Tom this is a well written article that I know that you're a true fan of the Punisher. Cause all those storylines and one-shot issues that you have named. I read all of them and own. For me Ennis is really the only man who TRULY understood the Punisher. Whenever someone else writes him . It's just not the same. And the way I look at it with MAX stuff. Is that it's just a continuation of when Punisher was with the Marvel Knights, except now it's just fully uncut. The best part ....well maybe not the "best part" but the most eerie part at the end of Born. Was when that voice, Frank kept hearing in 'Nam and Frank made a deal with it to survive that ambush. Was when he saw his family again and the voice said You won't hear from me again, but remember that price I told you were going to have to pay ? and then you see his family in the Skull logo. Another part I loved was that it acknowledge that voice was in a Moon Knight issue during the Civil War. And Khonshu  was wishing Marc be more like Frank and Marc said then why don't you go to Castle. And Knonshu , looking at Frank's Skull emblem, tells Marc , " Sadly he is already taken and wears his Lord's logo proudly." - Man I loved that. 
Posted by kev17

Not the best comic of the decade, but by far the greatest pure vigilante series in history.