Though I rag on mainstream comics, there is much to be said for spectacle done proper. Serialized superheros are the last vestige of the pulp press, and at their best, offer a genuinely unique low-to-middle-brow pleasure of installments on the payment plan. Soon, I fear, this shall be no more; the move across the various tiers of the comics industry is towards trades– only manga will give any sense of what it’s like to receive stories of questionable quality in small, regulated doses, like a King building an arsenic immunity.
This idea has been playing in my head for a while, and as a result, I’ve been reading the recent back catalogues of some of the more overtly pulp influenced titles. The two authorial runs that most stuck out were Brian Michael Bendis on Daredevil and Garth Ennis on The Punisher.
I’ve made fun of Bendis’s work for years, and deservedly so; when the man phones it in, he really phones it in. Worse yet, when he believes that he’s writing something serious and important, every single page lets you know that you’re reading something Serious and Important. (Also, he’s unfunny. Sorry. It’s true.) That said, Bendis’s four year run on Daredevil was pitch-perfect and the best anyone’s ever done with the character. Engaging development married to reasonably plausible storylines that were heavy without being Profoundly Consequential For Marvel. And he managed, as I’m sure all have commented, to do what had been impossible since 1986: not taste like Miller Lite.
Ennis’s writing on The Punisher has spanned eight years, two regular titles, several miniseries, multiple one-shots and god knows what else. By the time of Punisher: MAX and Born, Ennis had thrown aside the many, many crutches that have plagued his body of work (emphasis on scatology + corny attempts at humor) and began delivering what constitutes the best work on a mainstream comic in the last five years. The easiest way to describe his achievement is thus: in all 55 (so far) issues of the MAX series, there hasn’t been a bad installment. Not one.
Ennis’s initial handling of the character– a 12 issue miniseries that reintroduced the Punisher after the ugly years of the late Nineties– was pretty god damned dumb. A regular series (Volume 4) followed, of which Ennis wrote the majority. Again, much of it is really dumb. But it gets better with time, and it’s fascinating to watch the process of Ennis moving ever closer towards a more serious idea of what he wants to achieve with the character.
I’d argue that this vision (the one that continues in MAX) had been present all along. It was right there in the first (and best) issue of the original miniseries, something that is seemingly acknowledged at the end of Volume 4 by a direct & exacting quotation:
(From The Punisher, vol 3, #1. April 2000.)
(From The Punisher, vol 4, #37, February 2003.)
Incidentally, this demonstrates how the serial form can be employed in a way that’s rarely, if ever, seen in the mainstream. Superhero continuity is about Massive Happenstances– like, remember when the Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacey?– that are referenced endlessly. By contrast, these two scenes (ignoring the homicides) are about one quiet moment reminding a person of another– and having the most apocalyptic event in recent American history intrude on both. In theory, this is what long form, multi-part narratives should be about: changing with the tides and sways, and providing a quick, visceral response. Bully capital.
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