Garth Ennis's take on Punisher comics is at this point as battle-tested and successful a formula as any of the all-time Marvel runs that get spoken about in more hallowed tones: Claremont on X-Men, Miller on Daredevil, Windsor-Smith on Conan. I have to think Ennis's Punisher would be a lot more revered than it is if it wasn't for the inconvenience of it not being a superhero comic in the slightest. Ennis's masterstroke, which occurred after an overture of sometimes funny, sometimes gaseous spandex-inflected all-ages issues, was to remove the Death Wish ripoff property (always a queasy fit in the Marvel Universe to begin with) from superheroics entirely, instead plunking it down squarely within the bounds of a well-established personal aesthetic. Pre-Ennis, Punisher stories could never really be called good superhero stories. They were instead the comics where the cringey morals codified by the idiom went to collapse completely, either in inanity or the outright objectionable - guilty pleasures at best, unjustifiable at worst.
After figuring out, or maybe convincing the bosses, that Spider-Man guest appearances in a comic about a man whose sole motivating purpose is the extrajudicial murder of any and all lawbreakers was patently absurd, Ennis ditched the capes and cowls - a long overdue and blameless mercy killing. What took greater vision and bravery was Ennis's simultaneous jettisoning of the paramilitary, self-justifying "moral" "code" that had powered the character through its first three decades, the one that's made the emblem of a vigilante killer a de facto logo for white supremacists Law Enforcement Respecters across America. In the Beginning, Ennis's first Punisher story for Marvel's "mature readers" Max line, crests with one of the more chilling moments action comics have played host to, as the title character's psychopathy and innate compulsion to kill is slowly, agonizingly spelled out. In Ennis's hands, the Punisher is not a hero, and does not operate in a world that plays host to such. Rather, he is a very sick man whose mental health has been so irretrievably damaged that he has accustomed himself to the only role society has left to offer him: that of the most prolific mass murderer in human history.
Under Ennis's long and virtuosic stewardship, "Punisher comics" have become difficult to differentiate from "Garth Ennis comics", a tightly circumscribed quiver of crime noir, war stories, riffs on Judge Dredd, nihilistic geopolitics, and ash-black humor. Character and writer have at this point become so entwined that Marvel's misguided attempts to reintroduce the Punisher to its superhero universe in other books read like off-brand bootlegs of the company's own property. But what becomes institutional grows hidebound at an equal rate, and after concluding his run on the monthly series with the dizzying one-two punch of the Long Cold Dark and Valley Forge, Valley Forge stories, Ennis produced his career's magnum opus not on Punisher, but the book's occasional co-star Nick Fury, another Marvel stalwart he'd been able to successfully extricate from superhero world. Fury: My War Gone By shows a sweep and energy that's only absent from the Punisher material in retrospect, but once noticed is missed nonetheless.
Ennis's Fury follow-up, Punisher: The Platoon, was a disappointment. Despite the presence of Fury and the later Punisher issues' masterful artist Goran Parlov, the Vietnam War flashback book feels distinctly warmed over, if not quite a retread, then still nothing essential. It restates many of the themes of the early story Born, and takes a distinct second place to Valley Forge, Valley Forge's shattering - and at the time, seemingly final - statement on Vietnam. In Punisher: Soviet, Ennis takes a second crack at returning to the Punisher, with Parlov left on the bench and another longtime collaborator, Jacen Burrows, taking the reins.
Burrows and Parlov are two very different artists, though both are among the highest echelon of cartoonists currently plying their trade in commercial comics. In a vacuum, Burrows would appear much better suited for the grim, elegiac tone of Ennis's Punisher, but the strength of Parlov's extended run on the character means the crown is his until it's taken. Parlov is a purer cartoonist, born of the Alex Toth school. Fluid and gestural by style, he brandishes a crisp, flowing brush line that approaches braggadocio, but offsets it with a willingness to research and render perfectly stylized weaponry, vehicles, and period costume. Burrows, for his part, is a consummate draftsman, one of a very few action cartoonists to make a virtue out of stiffness. He is firmly of Curt Swan's lineage, with meticulously constructed full figures, backgrounds that are detailed but never fussy, and millimeter-perfect lines of perspective converging to form pages that are both immersive and functional, windows into worlds designed for maximum reading comprehension. At his more fanciful he can recall Frank Quitely and even Winsor McCay in both style and preternatural ability to track movement across a sequence, but total commitment to a bone-dry documentary form of cartoon realism is his greatest stock in trade.
Burrows’ work on Punisher speaks to his recent experience with one of the most demanding tours of duty a comic book penciler can serve: the Alan Moore maxiseries. The lessons Burrows learned from his career-best work with Moore on Providence are immediately apparent: his facial expressions, always a strength, walk the tightrope between understatement and emphasis perfectly, and his action sequences feel more grounded within their environments than ever before. A car chase opening Soviet sees its artist in full throat, pulling off something that's so difficult to do in comics it's almost never attempted. Burrows immediately comes across here as a significantly more skilled version of another frequent Ennis compatriot (and original Punisher teammate), Steve Dillon: a grounded artist who can flip from talking-head sequences to extreme violence and, crucially, make such transitions feel smooth and logical. Burrows is simply a greater artist than Dillon, however: his blocking of dialogue sequences, exploited at great length by Moore in Providence, is smooth and graceful, neatly sidestepping visual boredom or repetition. His ability to render scenes of extreme gore, honed during a long and fruitful association with semi-infamous grindhouse comics publisher Avatar, surpasses that of anyone Ennis has worked with, and always carries a legitimate shock, backgrounded as it is by the quotidian.
I worried that working for Marvel might stifle this special skill of Burrows's, but the very first image of Soviet did much to quell that fear, with a pitch perfect rendering of a dude with his fucking brains blown out front and center. Burrows flashes facets not seen for awhile, or at all before, throughout this first issue, tipping his cap to Parlov with his visualization of the Punisher's black-eyed, slightly Frankensteiny visage, and approaching an Art Adams level of feathery detail in the issue's big gore sequence, the aftermath of a massive IED explosion. The assistance of inker Guillermo Ortego is most apparent here, though in quieter scenes I missed the solid simplicity of Burrows's Providence embellishings of his own pencils. Colorist Nolan Woodard's cherry Kool-Aid colored blood is a strange touch, though his work throughout the issue is of a high standard, downbeat without descending into drabness, with occasional flares of unexpected tones that feel almost lush. This is the best looking comic Marvel has put out in awhile.
As for the story, well, who can say? The commercial comics industry's insistence on ladling out book length stories in 20-odd page chunks makes less sense with every year, and while Ennis certainly shows comfort with this archaic form, it can't be said to do him any real favors either. Soviet's first issue sees the Punisher in a role he too infrequently plays in Ennis's stories, that of the detective, and simply reading his first-person narration again ("Takes experience to hold one of those on target. At full auto it wants to wander everywhere. But: one long burst to put them down. A shorter one to drop the runner. Headshots as required. And no one even got to pull. Good work. Great, even.") is a distinct pleasure. As is obvious from the title, this is a Russian Mob story; a worrying sign after The Platoon's derivative ambience, given that it's another area Ennis has mined hard and successfully before. But with Burrows on board Soviet is all but guaranteed to come out looking better than Mother Russia or The Slavers did, and honestly, there's no real reason to nitpick this one. Garth Ennis is back on Punisher, and there's a reason to visit the comic store every month again.