The Punisher: The Slavers

[21 August 2006]

By Greg Oleksiuk

Recently I have rediscovered the unintentional humor in bad action movies, including those by Steven Seagal.  During my teenage years, Seagal, Van Damme, and Swartzeneger movies were the greatest thing around.  Today however, most of these movies are laughable, and extremely formulaic.  Good actions movies are rare, and the Punisher’s foray into Hollywood has not been spectacular either.  Granted, the more recent movie incarnation is a lot better than Dolf Lundgren’s mess from years back. 

What does this have to do with The Punisher comic?  Well, like action movies The Punisher, has for years, sucked as a comic.  For years, Marvel Comics’ character, the Punisher, languished in their superhero universe, always touted as a killer, but never really doing that much damage.  He was an answer to the vigilante movies of the ‘70s, and became increasingly popular during the comic craze of the early to mid-90s, headlining in several titles.  Then the rug was pulled out from under him, all of his titles were cancelled, and the Punisher himself, Frank Castle, was killed. 

He reappeared several years later in the now infamous mini-series that saw him as an agent of Heaven, killing demons and the like and it looked like all was lost.  It was not until Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, hot off of Vertigo’s Preacher took over that the Punisher started showing some of his potential.  During this time, under the Marvel Knights’ banner, The Punisher was a dark comedy, using violence and over-the-top situations as forms of humor.  Then Marvel ended that series and started The Punisher over again, this time in their new mature readers line, MAX.  It is here, under writer Ennis’ helm and various artists, that the Punisher came into his own, and it is with the fifth volume in this series, “The Slavers”, that really shows the Punisher in all his brutal glory.

Violence has always been a heated subject within the realms of pop culture.  People and groups are constantly trying to take the violence out of our music, movies, television, comics and video games, and yet, some of the best of each medium are sometimes the most violent, such as shows like The Sopranos or video games like Grand Theft Auto.  Certainly in the comic book world, it has been the censors that have kept the character of the Punisher from reaching his potential.  He’s supposed to be a cold-blooded killer and yet he very rarely seems to have killed anyone.  Within the MAX line at Marvel however, Ennis is able to weave a tapestry of blood and violence that complements the character. 

When Ennis started the MAX title, he stripped Castle down even farther than he had in his previous issues.  Ennis had already gotten rid of the gadgets and sidekicks, but now he decided to age the Punisher.  If he was a Vietnam Vet, like his origin says, than he would have to be over fifty years old.  The artists on The Punisher depict an old, and beat-up Castle, who is as big as a tank, and still as mean as he was before.

“The Slavers” tells the tale of human-trafficking in New York City brothels.  However, rather than turn it into a morality tale, Ennis prefers to use it to show the brutal side of humanity, and the Punisher, as well.  Granted, Ennis seems to always show the brutal side of the Punisher.  For the most part, each story is self-contained, although from time to time, past characters or plot points do pop up.  The biggest fault, though, is that there is no real character development concerning Castle.  While Ennis’ action scenes and dialogue are nothing short of spectacular and certainly fit well with the Punisher, nothing really happens to the character.  For a writer of Ennis’ caliber, one would expect a bit more depth.  Make no mistakes, The Punisher is a fun book, it just is not a very deep one, and that could allow it to get old soon.

The art by Leandro Fernandez and Scott Koblish is quite graphic and can depict some very brutal scenes.  They show the darker side of life and the world that Castle inhabits as he makes his way through the world of people trafficking.  Ennis also does not cop-out in the end and show everything has “happily ever after”.  Actions have consequences, and while he saves some of the women in this brothel, they have to live with the horrors that they faced while they were being held captive.  The creators involved know this is not a book for children, and take full advantage of the freedom that a “mature readers” label affords them.

Recently, Marvel Comics announced that it would be adding a second Punisher title to the roster, The Punisher War Journal.  This would differ from the current title being published in that it would not be a “mature readers” title, and would take place within the Marvel Universe again, and thus have Castle interact with the superhero populace.  Some could see this as a return to the ‘90s, where too much over-exposure (and quite frankly, poor storytelling), lead to the Punisher’s demise.  It could however, allow Ennis free reign of the character, without every worrying about Marvel editorial trying to get him to tone down, or return the character to the Marvel Universe.  Instead, we get well crafted, gruesomely violent, and genuinely fun tales about some of the darker sides of our society.  Let’s just hope some miracle happens and Ennis is allowed to pen the next Punisher movie.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-punisher-the-slavers/