The Punisher: In the Beginning (#1 – 6, Marvel MAX, 2004) – Garth Ennis

4 out of 5

Well, here we go: starting in on the series that I would absolutely consider Garth Ennis’ magnum opus.  More honed and consistent than Preacher; more overall depth – due to it being an ongoing – than Crossed; and featuring every concept Ennis adores boiled down to deep, dark, and affecting nuggets of humanity-as-misery.  And while overly violent, it’s not the same as the juvenile employment of the same in a lot of his books; Punisher MAX is grounded in something like the real world, and the violence has a similar effect.

In the Beginning only really hints at what’s to come, but it’s a very purposeful stage setter: Frank blows away a huge chunk of mobsters within its first few pages, kicking off a power vacuum that would allow Ennis to cycle through up-and-comers in future arcs, but also tossing us in at what would be the end of a ‘traditional’ vengeance adventure: all of the baddies done shot dead with grotesque splashes of blood and guts, and then quashing any sense of victory, with Frank coldly musing about how he recognizes that these actions don’t change anything, but that he will keep going.  You might titter at the gore, but it’s the narrative that sobers it.

Later, the agenda of clearing this edition of The Punisher of any comic book trappings is reasserted: a character from Frank’s past appears, tosses out what could be a cheesy setup for the series… and that’s blown away as well.

In the Beginning does recount Frank’s past, yet again, but it’s also exactly what this arc is: the beginning of a new chapter.  Forget what you know; you’ve only to pay attention to exactly what you see and hear to understand The Punisher of Punisher MAX.

The rotating arc-by-arc artists on the series were all effective, but Lewis Larosa was a great choice for the opener.  With colorist Dean White, the art team affects this downright grisly look to things by blurring the edges of panels and scratching the hell out of open space around the characters; it’s restless, it’s dirty, and it sells the tone immediately.  Letterer Tom Palmer also had the genius idea (or we’ll attribute it to him…) of doing Frank’s narration as white on black; the nightmarish thoughts of our serial murderer.  But elsewhere his letters are on point in keeping with the book’s terse sensibility, with a crisp font and minimal spacing.

Some of Larosa’s choreography doesn’t always sync up – it’s a little off with spacing / timing, undermining the impact of a scene here and there – and while this opener was a necessity, its clearing-of-the-decks is a bit discomfiting in its attempt to sidle from comic book into serious text; you can feel Garth stacking up the bleakness to counter both his humorous work on the Punisher previously, as well as the multiple prior takes on the character which had given him a sometimes silly legacy.

That said, I was blown away by how good this was when I first read it, and a decade plus later, it still definitely stands out as both a wayyy above average Marvel book, and as a defining point for it writer.