By page four of Punisher: Platoon #1, Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov have made explicit that they are working in the tradition of a very specific type of American history tale. Call it warts and all, but with a perversely questionable affection for the warts. Michael Goodwin, a journalist who has previously written a book about the Vietnam War and the Punisher, has assembled four members of Frank Castle’s first platoon so he can interview them for his new book on the Vietnam War and the Punisher. Sort of. The Frank Castle Goodwin wants to investigate isn’t the Punisher yet, although this issue and, it seems fair to assume, the entire series, weighs heavily with an implied, stage whispered “...or is he?”
Ennis echoes the question of Castle’s destiny being intrinsic to his character through the broader allegorical framework of America and the Vietnam War. Did the war represent a dark turn in United States history, or was America poisoned from the beginning? Was Frank Castle ever not going to be the Punisher? Is violence baked into the American masculine identity? If this all sounds a little heavy-handed, imagine this conversation taking place between five men in a leather booth under a the glow of an earth toned Tiffany (although in this joint more likely to be a knockoff) glass chandelier while a strapping bartender improbably named Top (!) polishes glasses nearby.
Set dressing aside, this “America Was Never Great” narrative path is a well-trod one, memorably blazed by James Ellroy, among others, in his Underworld USA trilogy. Ellroy’s influence was all over Ennis and Parlov’s Fury: My War Gone By series from a few years back, and like him, Ennis has a tendency to use his cynicism about American self-mythologizing as a moral smokescreen for indulging in violent, macho excess. The nastiness can be exhilarating, but culturally (in both media and real life) it feels like we’re well past the point of saturation for that brand of nihilism, and it makes me wonder if it’s still possible to enjoy these kinds of stories, let alone gain anything from them. This may sound like I’m holding Punisher: The Platoon to an unrealistically high standard, but it would be easier for me to read it as straightforward exploitation fare were the framing device any less naked in its intentions. But when you have characters bludgeoning you with the thematic context of the story every five pages, at a certain point you have to take them at their word.
I wish Ennis and Parlov were at ease with making Punisher: The Platoon a less weighty affair. The mysterious Second Lieutenant with no combat experience showing up to command a platoon stationed at the ass-end of of the theater of war and behaving in a manner both unhinged and opaque is pretty compelling stuff on its own. Parlov’s panels are blocky and forceful to the point of being tight-assed. It's not until you reach the page fourteen and see a panel that is framed through a pair of binoculars that you realize the whole thing seems metaphorically framed through binoculars. The laughably butch impersonality of the layouts reminds me of the scene in Sleepless in Seattle where two men, making fun of the women they're with for crying over the movie An Affair to Remember, fall into mock-weeping over The Dirty Dozen, as though the idea of crying at The Dirty Dozen is completely risible. Essentially the page composition looks like the work of the kind of aforementioned psychopath who would not only manage to remain stoic in the face of Donald Sutherland's death in The Dirty Dozen, but who would proudly admit to it. As a visual attitude, however, it works here.
Ennis and Parlov are clumsier when they attempt to steer away from a masculine American subjectivity. A scene with Ly Quang, a Viet Cong sniper who just witnessed her comrades killed in an airstrike ordered by Frank Castle on dubious grounds, and Senior Colonel Letrong Giap, who eyes her as a protegé, is stilted both visually and in its language. Parlov is comfortable with the faces of craggy men but is at a total loss when it comes to conveying Ly’s expressions; the formality of the dialogue is both awkward and distancing. Which is a waste, because there is a nice parallelism in Ly’s declaration of vengeance against Castle. The Punisher is hours into his new gig, and he’s already made another Punisher, and he isn't even the Punisher yet! It's almost as though war... makes punishers... of us all? Yikes.
I still can’t believe that bartender is named Top.