Two Guys, and a Bottle of Whiskey: “Punisher: The End”

It’s a flashback to an Ennis moment from Way Back When. With Hellblazer #63, titled “Forty”, Ennis was approaching the 18-month mark on his scripting duties for the series that arguably established him in the popular imagination. By this time, his acclaimed collaboration with artist Steve Dillon was already well underway.

“Forty” was a just-kicking-back kind of standalone issue; hugely important to character development, but one that appeared between the major politics of two storyarcs. As to be expected from the title, this issue marks the fortieth birthday of John Constantine, the titular Hellblazer. And the issue tells the story of the rumpled, disheveled, curmudgeonly way in which Constantine accepts the surprise party hosted by his magickal compatriots (if not quite friends).

By the end of the party, Constantine’s lucky-spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Pissed, delivers one of the most memorable lines of the entire Ennis-Dillon run. “Even the best of parties ends with two guys and a bottle of whiskey.” The mood is haunted by a whiskey-soaked ordinariness of two guys just trying to get to the end of the day. There is a slightly tinted humor, a sort of working-class happiness to this issue, the same one Ennis has always so skillfully captured in his Hellblazer stories.

By The End, nearly a decade and a half later, Ennis uses exactly the same image, but radically inverts its mood. With Chinese nukes possibly in already inbound, the Warden of Sing-Sing Maximum Security Prison offers his accountant one last drink. Rather than a sullen, half-buried happiness at having survived the day, there is a staunch resilience here. Two guys, staring down the barrel of a genuine apocalypse.

There is something stark to all of this. The panel breakdowns themselves seem perfect, and strangely evocative of another almost-empty page. The mood of seems exactly equal to the opening page of Ralph Steadman’s deeply-moving biography of his friendship and professional partnership with Hunter S. Thompson. It is this page that simply reprints an HST quote: “Don’t write, Ralph. You’ll bring shame on your family.”