The Punisher: The Slavers (#25 – 30, Marvel MAX, 2004) – Garth Ennis

5 out of 5

Escalation.  That’s always been one of the problems – as I see it – with writing consistently interesting Punisher books.  Endless slaughter of thugs is more and more guns will get old, and tossing some over-powered Big Bad into the mix feels kinda cheap.  Maybe, sure, go ahead amd do a Dark Night Of The Soul tale, having Frank Castle face up to his personal demons.  …Except every writer has done that.

As previously noted, Garth succeeded where many writers stumbled with Frank by using him to explore the blackest sides of humanity for which he’s never – from Preacher up through Crossed – been able to provide an “answer.”  After circling the drain of various thugly organizations, he went internal for the previous arc, and wrote some really rich – and disturbing – material.  So where to go from there?  Well, in a slight “reprieve” of sorts, Ennis smartly gives us a villain we can whole-heartedly, no-shades-of-gray hate: body traffickers.  But this isn’t just an excuse to take a break on the narrative, as the villain functions as a similar switch-up for Castle, leading him to recognize that the absolute ire with which he regards them is unique.  Maybe pure, in a sense.  But also: that that doesn’t fix it; doesn’t change it.  There are victim survivors of Slavers, but surviving for what reality?  One in which some go back into the business (prostitution, in this case), or find a replacement vice.  The final panels of the concluding issue are, again, chilling due to the lack of closure.  But it’s real.  It’s powerful, painful stuff.

Leandro Fernandez and Dan Brown (colors) are back on art from the last arc, meaning the world looks mean and bleak as ever, joined with new inker Scott Koblish.  Koblish starts out inking Leandro maybe a bit too distinctly in the early issues, but he develops a finer, slightly looser line soon enough and it ultimately looks fantastic.  (Y’know, for something so dire.)

Interestingly, Garth brings over Jen Cooke, a social worker, from his Marvel Knights run, which creates an odd but appealing continuity.  In truth, some of the last arcs of the MK Punisher stuff were definitely precursors to the MAX tone (just with less blood and swearing, of course); while we certainly got plenty of years of Ennis’ Punisher, this connective tissue between his series makes me wish Garth was solely responsible for crafting all the players in Castle’s world… but alas.

And despite my criticizing writers for attempting to pair Pun with a Bad Guy, of course Garth would do well with that also, as the next arc introduces Barracuda…