The Punisher: Up is Down and Black is White (#19 – 24, Marvel MAX, 2004) – Garth Ennis

5 out of 5

While a momentary – truly momentary, a couple pages out of six issues – misstep into Ennis jokey territory threatens to undermine its impact, Up is Down and Black is White remains the bleakest, and most hard-hitting, Punisher arc up to that point in the series.  It also successfully tied together the slaughter Ennis had enacted up until that point (which had somewhat felt like very separate ‘Frank versus the Mob;’ ‘Frank versus the Irish;’ and etcetera stories, otherwise) by having Nicky Cavella – from the opening salvo –  trying to overtake the wiseguys in the power vacuum left by Castle’s actions then and in Kitchen Irish, as well as some remnants from the Russian business lingering about to foul things up further.

It kicks off with a notable gut punch: Cavella, on film, digs up Castle’s family’s bones and verily desecrates them.  (By peeing on them, gang.)  But what would likely be a very exploitative scene in other writer’s hands becomes very much a character one: Frank is wordless; the media and government respond, but Frank – shown in closeup in the first issue’s final panel, is just monstrously silent.  And yes, he responds in kind, but in a very manic, un-Punisher-y type way.  Cavella’s plan to unsettle Frank has succeeded, and what makes the story effectively haunting is how Garth writes Castle as aware of the foolishness of what he’s doing.  He writes of Frank’s dreams in which his “war” turns on to civilians; onto all onlookers.  His war truly does not stop.  It’s frightening as fuck, that the line is finally crossed, even if only in The Punisher’s mind, and it’s why Garth will always be, in my opinion, the ultimate writer for the character: he wanted to truly understand his motivations, and was willing to go into dark, dark places to do so, and equally willing to settle into those dark places without any answers.

The story veers slightly off the path when trying to justify the way certain characters are tied together: Rawlins from the Russian arc and Cavella; Pitsy’s sister and Cavella.  Garth gets in a few jokey jabs in each scenario which acts as a reprieve from the doom, but that’s not something that’s preferred with the way, overall, he approached his MAX run.  Thankfully, those interactions do end up being tied into the story as motivators for subsequent actions.

And with the return of Leandro Fernandez on pencils, Garth also found an artist who was able to balance a sense of grit with ace comic book-page draftsmanship.  Paired with Scott Hanna’s tight inking and amazing diffused coloring from Dan Brown – following in Dean White’s footsteps from arc one, but with more restraint – these issues are 100% dialed in to a look that perfectly matched the tone.