Punisher MAX: Long Cold Dark and Valley Forge (Ennis): Garth Ennis' latest run on Punisher is one of the highlights of the last decade in comics writing - perhaps its only comparison is Bendis' ground-breaking run on Daredevil.
From the first issue, Ennis redefined, modernized and revitalized one of Marvel's most difficult characters. The Punisher became human, frighteningly sane and indescribably scary. Ennis moved him from a four-color 'bullets never kill' world to a nasty, lethal, intrigue-punctuated, chaotic analogue of the real world - and the Punisher changed from a B-list to something very special.
Despite the ultra-violence, Ennis made this latest Punisher a serious figure (although his goofier, earlier run on Punisher is also worth investigating). Like his work with Preacher, the Punisher was a means of identifying and exploring serious themes - bringing order out of chaos, the limits of sanity, morality vs necessity, and even a bit of old-fashioned Americana.
In this last collection (actually two collections combined), his work with these themes comes to a dramatic conclusion.
The Punisher's nastiest foe - the Barracuda - returns in The Long Cold Dark, and Frank is faced with a villain as clever and as resourceful as he is. Barracuda is the unstoppable force for Frank Castle's immovable object, and the clash between them is truly epic (and not a single super-power is involved...). In a surprising revelation, the Punisher is forced to think about what really matters to him, especially with Barracuda already one step ahead of him.
If anything, The Long Cold Dark suffers from the unholy charisma of Barracuda. In creating an epic villain, this volume jumps slightly back to the four-colour roots of the Punisher comic. It becomes less about the battle between Frank Castle & A Corrupt System (or even Frank Castle & Himself), and more a story of two men battling it out with a lot of guns. Still a good story though.
In the final volume, Valley Forge, Ennis takes an interesting tangent. The government is finally, seriously, out to bring in Frank Castle. By preying on his weakness - his patriotism - they hope to capture or kill him... with soldiers. The Punisher is again caught between what he believes and the horrible facts of his existence. What will and won't he do to stay on the loose? Although not as action-packed as many of the previous storylines, Valley Forge is perhaps the best-written. Ennis has a flair for 'war stories' - for capturing the emotion of soldiers and veterans alike.
Valley Forge is a daring, powerful way of ending his run on the series, and I pity the unfortunate writer that has to follow in his footsteps.