By Kelly Kanayama
As a whole, Garth Ennis’s run on Punisher MAX is kind of heroic, but my God, this issue is the core of it. It encapsulates the physical manifestations of the ideologies that drive the systematic oppression of women and tears those manifestations apart.
Like many of his comics, Ennis’s Punisher is a meditation on violence in a particular sociopolitical context, which in this case is the post-9/11 polarization and “re-masculinization” of America (as I think Susan Faludi puts it). The series heavily underlines, in bold scratchy strokes, the connections between America-fuck-yeah nationalism, toxic masculinity, and the dehumanization of the individual – no mean feat for a comic that asks you to invest emotionally in an angry man who solves his problems by murdering them, and I could go on for many, many pages about why Ennis’s vision of the Punisher is the iteration of the character we need right now, but for now I’ll just say that his Frank Castle is a kind of catharsis made flesh.
It’s a comic where violence is always, always a choice, even when characters are surrounded by it. Participation is never not voluntary, and it incurs a terrible cost.
Punisher MAX #28 comes near the end of the infamous ‘Slavers’ story arc, which pits the Punisher against sex traffickers – former military men who find a new way to profit in the exploitation of vulnerable bodies, plus a female business associate who is basically an avatar of patriarchal complicity. One of their victims manages to escape and find Frank, who decides to take down the traffickers after finding out what she has endured.
What makes this issue stick in my mind is the last two pages, where Cristu Bulat, one of the leaders of the trafficking operation, is horribly mutilated. First there are just panels of pure darkness punctuated only by small word balloons (Frank’s not a big talker, and Cristu… well, you’ll see). Then a light flicks on and we see that Cristu has been disemboweled, his intestines pulled out and strung over the branches of a tree. The terror on Cristu’s face, the theatricality of his brutalized body, is pure vengeance, the kind that makes you curl your lip or clench your fist in triumph.
It’s fucking catharsis, is what it is.
Cristu’s death, and the deaths of his associates (respectively, burned alive and thrown over and over against a shatterproof glass window), are the most brutal in the entire series, which is saying something for a MAX run on a character whose whole deal is being Guns & Ammo Skull Shirt Man. Predation demands punishment. But it’s more than that.
How many times have we seen comics use the sexual assault of women as a mere plot point, something to trot out for cheap shock value or to explain away why these women are sad now, without making any effort to treat them like actual people? How many times have women’s brutalized bodies been pushed in our faces as selling points for a movie or video game or book or TV show or comic or news program, or, or, or? Oh, isn’t it awful what these women go through, especially when they’re sexy and are wearing tiny outfits so that you can crank it to their exploitation while congratulating yourself on consuming such profound media?
Punisher MAX #28 turns its back on all that. Here, the bodies made into bloody spectacle are those of the abusers. Since they apparently love violent exploitation of the vulnerable so much, it’s only fitting that that’s the way they die. Cristu’s wordless fear and surprise when what’s inside him is yanked out for the world to see says everything I could have wanted it to.
Like I said: catharsis.
Punisher (MAX) Vol 7 #28
Written by Garth Ennis
Drawn by Leandro Fernandez
Inked by Scott Koblish
Coloured by Dan Brown
Lettered by Randy Gentile
Kelly Kanayama is a writer and comics scholar who is literally writing the book on Garth Ennis. Don’t believe me? Have a look at her Patreon page here! You can also find Kelly on Twitter here, highly recommended. When she was asked to pick ten books she liked for entry into the Top 100 Comics list, she got overexcited and wrote the above essay all in one go as part of her email submission!