The Nihilism of The Punisher MAX

The Punisher presents Marvel with a dilemma. A Vietnam veteran who lost his family during a Mafia hit, Frank Castle transformed himself into the vigilante Punisher to wage a one-man war on crime. His defining traits are his ruthless and lethality. Unlike other superheroes, he is perfectly willing to kill everyone who enters his sights. He is by definition a dark character, but Marvel’s comics are meant for all ages. How, then, can you bring out the full potential of such a character?

Enter The Punisher MAX.

Created in 2004 by Garth Ennis, it promised a darker, grittier take on the iconic character. With the MAX imprint aimed at adult audiences, the series was free to cut loose and present Frank Castle as he truly is: the embodiment of vengeance scything through the dark heart of the underworld. Grim, gory and gruesome, the comics pulled no punches in its depictions of violence.

But in doing so, it plunged into an abyss of ugliness and nihilism.

Maximum Impact

First off, there is swearing on every page. At least one vulgarity, usually more. In fact, in the entire run of 75 issues you can probably count on two hands (or maybe just one) the number of pages without swearing. That is the first warning sign of things to come.

I’m not opposed to the presence of swearing in media aimed at comics. But with everybody–the main man included–dropping F-bombs and C-bombs and N-bombs and every insult and obscenity in between, the swearing lacks punch. It becomes part of the landscape instead of adding emotional weight to a stressful scene. With so many swearwords in sight, the eye just glides over them to get to the rest of the story.

Then comes the gore. The entire series is dripping with blood and viscera. Every gunshot, every slash, every torture scene is rendered in gruesome detail. Just when you think it can’t get worse, the story hits you with even more explicit art. None of the violence is implied; if anything, the series operates under the assumption that bloodier is better.

But it doesn’t work.

For one thing, the gore is exaggerated. One scene has an antagonist shoot a cop in the head with a 9mm pistol, but the explosion of blood and brains makes it look as though he’d shot her with a rifle. Another character has his face shredded with buckshot from a point-blank shotgun blast, when I know (unfortunately) that shotgun pellets don’t spread out far enough at that range to achieve that effect. Where most media underplay violence, Punisher MAX does the opposite and over-exaggerates it.

The imagery is visceral–to most people who aren’t familiar with the horrors man inflicts on man. To someone who holds the weight of such terrible knowledge, the violence in The Punisher Max is comical.

Just to drive matters home, for such an action-heavy series, the weapons handling and ‘research’ is atrocious. From the proper method of deploying a Spyderco knife to the correct stance to aim a pistol, the made-up ballistic nonsense about the calibers used in the Vietnam War to the effective range of a Claymore mine, nothing in the comics reflect the reality of warfare.

The constant swearing and the stylized violence (and the lack of weapons knowledge) might be forgivable if there were more to the story than that. But in every issue and every story arc, there is nothing but an ugly maw filled with jagged teeth, spewing bile and swallowing innocence.

Maximum Darkness

As with the swearing and violence, The Punisher MAX takes every opportunity it can to inject brutality and horror on every page. Again, I’m not opposed to such scenes in adult-oriented material, but the scenes have to carry emotional impact and they have to make sense. Here, they do not.

In the first arc, In the Beginning, a trio of hardened Mafia killers torture a CIA agent and leave him for dead. The agent shows up later, begging for help and alerting the CIA that the Mafia is after them. This makes no sense. The earlier chapters have other characters treating these killers are psychos among psychos, veterans of mob wars and bloodbaths. Such people would have killed the agent and disappeared the body instead of just leaving him there.

But instead, Ennis chose to leave the poor man alive simply to deliver a set of dark jokes and reappear in a later arc.

In that same arc, the CIA is holed up in a hotel, but their security element is situated on a higher floor. This once again makes no sense at all. Standard security SOP is to have the security team as close to the protectees as possible, and never on a different floor. The only reason this occurred is so that one of the above-mentioned killers can cut the elevator cable, leading to a gratuitously gory kill scene.

We can’t chalk this up to early installment weirdness either. If anything, the series just keeps diving deeper into grimdark land.

The Mother Russia arc takes the Punisher to Russia to hunt a bioweapon alongside a Delta Force Captain. The op quickly goes wrong, forcing the Punisher to defend the only means of accessing the command center, a long elevator shaft. The Russians attempt to flush him out.

The easy option is to throw liberal amounts of grenades down the shaft, follow through with smoke grenades, then send soldiers down. Instead, the Russians just throw wave after wave of disposable mooks, all so the Punisher can increase his kill count–and to hide a hand-to-hand combat expert among the dead. Naturally, the martial arts master confronts the Punisher later, and naturally the Punisher fights the guy with his bare hands.

Never mind that at the moment of the confrontation Frank Castle was already aiming his rifle at the pugilist’s head.

The Punisher I know would have just pulled the trigger. He wouldn’t have thrown down his weapon and duel the other guy in a fight he knows he can’t win. That made the fight scene completely pointless, out of character and utterly stupid. It also reveals the slaughter leading up to the moment for what it is: a senseless exercise in carnage.

The Kitchen Irish arc stands out for being among the most pointless and disturbing stories in a series filled with them. One character is cut up alive and sent to his wife in small parts, just because. The man who gave the other coerced a grandfather to do it and forced his grandson to watch, just because. Gangsters knock off people on their own team for minor offenses, just because. In the end, the criminals massacre each other anyway, rendering the Punisher’s presence in the story completely moot. It’s a Punisher story only because he’s there, not because he did anything to nudge the plot in any meaningful direction.

The other story arcs are depressingly similar. Supporting characters who survive their arcs sometimes come back, even more broken than before, and either self-destruct or die or both. Antagonists somehow allowed to live come back to haunt the Punisher later. Everybody indulges in gratuitous swearing and violence, even and especially in moments when diplomacy would have worked–and characters in their position, such as the wives of mobsters or hardened criminals, would know that diplomacy would work but choose to fight anyway, because reasons.

In later episodes, sex is thrown into the mix, never quite reaching the status of pornography, but equally pointless, soul-numbing and consequence-free. The Punisher has sex a few times, but it feels cold and utterly detached and completely out of character. In the Barracudaarc, one character claims he had been raped repeatedly over hours, yet he doesn’t act in a way consistent with rape victims, doesn’t even seek treatment, and doesn’t act like he’s been brutalized. In that arc, the horror of rape is reduced to a throwaway line. Every mention of sex in the series seems to exist solely to break up the monotony of constant killing and torturing and swearing.

Through the entire run, the Punisher MAX takes every single opportunity to display murder and torture and swearing and other ‘adult’ situations. But in truth there is nothing adult in there. There is no moral complexity, no emotional weight, and no drama. When nearly everybody is a monster, including the protagonist, all you have is a gaping abyss of ever-increasing brutality. This isn’t adulthood, with its complex shades of meaning and morality and conflicting interests. This is just puerile portrayals of shocking behaviour, one panel after another like unrelenting hammer blows, until at last the eyes glaze over and the brain switches off.

Maximum Meh

I’m not opposed to dark fiction. The world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and there are monsters lurking inside closets and under beds. The best dark fiction rips away the gild of polite society to expose the maggots squirming in the rot beneath. But properly portraying this requires more than just blood and swearing and violence on every page.

Andrew Vachss’ Burke series is a stunning contrast. Burke is a thief, outlaw and sometime unlicensed private detective who preys on worse criminals, reserving his hatred for pedophiles and child abusers. Burke has no qualms breaking the law or helping others do the same, but he has an unbreakable code of honor and stands by his Family of Choice. Best of all, Burke actually uses his brains.

The Burke series is an unflinching portrayal of the dark heart of man. Here are robbers and rapists, murderers and molesters. But Burke and his family have many positive, even admirable traits, despite being criminals. While there is plenty of violence, it always serves an end, and is usually carefully thought-through and carries heavy consequences. The criminals think and act and talk like criminals do, providing insight into real-world monsters. Sex and swearing is mostly limited to moments where such depictions are emotionally appropriate.

The Punisher MAX by contrast has a void where a heart should go. Frank Castle is a sociopathic killing machine, and everybody around him is the same–or just psychologically torn up. Castle is a loner through and through, with neither friends nor connections, making the moments of human contact utterly alien. Everybody acts in a manner that would maximize the carnage on the page, never mind if doing so is utterly ridiculous or out of character. Here we don’t see the dark heart of man, merely bucketloads of blood splashed over reprehensible behaviour.

Dark fiction shows the reader the evil that lurks within every heart, that the reader can recognize it, see how it leads people to ruin, and guard themselves and their loved ones against it. Nihilistic fiction delights in degrading the reader through unending brutality. The Punisher MAX is a prime example of the latter.

Be wary of any media that claims to be ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’, especially reboots of existing franchises. Without character depth, meaningful action and dialogue, ideals to live up to and people to protect, all you’ll get is simply an all-consuming void.

The Punisher MAX delights in degradation and calls itself ‘dark’ and ‘adult’. But look past the brutality and you’ll see a fundamental hollowness that no amount of bloodshed can fill. This isn’t adult comics; this is puerile edginess that revels in emptiness.

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My own fiction is unapologetically dark, but it also aspires to higher ideals. To find out more, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

The Nihilism of The Punisher MAX
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