Yesterday I had the pleasure of checking out the new film Tron Legacy, which inspired me to do a little video blogging over on my disused Somnopolis account. Feel free to give it a gander. I have no problem admitting that my enjoyment of the film  is mostly due to nostalgia. Tron was a large part of my childhood. Y’know what I did not like when I was a child? The Punisher.

He’s a psychopath. A gun-toting Vietnam veteran who has decided to deal with the trauma of his family’s deaths by slaughtering the criminal underworld of New York. He makes Dirty Harry look like an easy-going guy. He cannot be reasoned with, is almost robotic in his lack of humanity and despite wearing a costume of sorts, is nothing like a superhero.

In fact writer Garth Ennis seems to agree with me. In his introduction to this volume of his initial twelve issue run he writes: Defend the Punisher? Justify what Frank Castle does to people? Condone the actions of a mass-murderer, whose bodycount must run well into the tens of thousands by now? I think not.

And yet. What Ennis does with Frank is to admit all of the excessive violence and inhumanity of his actions, while also poking fun at them. These issues feature endless scenes of murder and death, but also highlights just how ridiculous Frank’s vigilantism is, courtesy of an increasingly cartoonish set of villains and set-pieces. As Ennis concludes “you don’t have to worry about a thing: you can enjoy the Punisher with a completely clear conscience.”

The plot of Welcome Back, Frank concerns a vendetta between Frank Castle and the Gnucci crime family in New York. He has been systematically killing off the members of the Mafia clan and when he kills the sons of Ma Gnucci, she sends out a call for every gangster and hoodlum with a gun to hunt him down.

Since returning to New York Frank has found himself a new apartment in a run-down section of the city. Much of the book concerns his relationships with fellow tenants and the risk his activities place them in. Ennis manages these character building moments with a great deal of pathos, which is not what you might expect amid the blood and thunder of a Punisher comic.

The third thread of the storyline is the influence of Frank’s vigilantism on others. We meet three self-declared defenders of the peace – although their ideas of what that means is contradictory. There’s The Holy, an axe-murdering priest; Elite, a Manhattannite with extreme views on neighbourhood watch; and finally Mr Payback, who targets the wealthy. All three look up to Frank as a source of inspiration, justifying their murderous actions by dedicating themselves to his example.

Despite the bloodletting and brutal imagery, this is a very funny book. Ennis is a master of poking fun at machismo, as seen in his hit series Preacher, a comparison reinforced by his frequent collaborator Steve Dillon’s art. Frank Castle ‘s face carries the same trademark grimace to familiar to Marvel fanboys, but his musculature is not as oversized as the in-house artists insist upon. Dillon has Frank appear as he should – just another anonymous New Yorker wearing a long coat on the streets of the city.

The absurd extremes of Ennis’ script is the source of much of the humour. The villainous hitman known as the Russian wipes out an entire special forces team in Kazakhstan, sending the surviving officer running crying for his mother. There’s a great little sight gag involving Ma Gnucci that references The Empire Strikes Back. And then there is the unfortunately named Buddy Plugg, whose behavioural assessment of the Punisher is rejected as pure psychobabble: “obviously less a man than a force of nature. Have left his own humanity behind long ago, he has become a symbol as stark as the one he wears on his uniform. A spectre of vengeance moving like a virus within the criminal psyche…” In one stroke Ennis satirises every complaint raised against the character. He is, as he insists, only trying to entertain. Any attempt to analyze the meaning of this ridiculous character is doomed to failure.

As such Ennis once again delivers a book that manages to be both funny and disturbing, in equal measures. If you enjoyed Preacher, you’re strongly advised to check out his spin on this Marvel icon.

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