Garth Ennis hasn’t really been having a banner by my book. This will be the fifth volume of comics I’ve read from him this year and none of the ones I’ve previously read have been on the level I know he can deliver. They haven’t been terrible comics. They’ve just been a mix of the familiar, the depressing, the workmanlike, and the meandering. Which leaves it down to the writer’s latest return to the world of Frank Castle to remind us of what he’s capable of.
That being said: You would think it would run contrary to expectations for a creator to deliver their best work on a corporate-owned character when they’ve had plenty of opportunities to deliver creator-owned work. Yet that is exactly what has happened here. “Punisher: Soviet” is the best Ennis comic I’ve read this year even if it’s not quite on the level of his best work with the character.
“Soviet” starts out like many “Punisher” stories have: With Castle in a room full of dead bodies. In this case it’s a bunch of dead Russian bodies -- members of the mob that have been dominating the streets of New York for a while now. They’re being run by one Konstantin Pronchenko, someone who initially appeared to be your standard merciless criminal kingpin before he suddenly started displaying more smarts and ambition. That’s what Castle finds himself dealing with when we first see him in that room full of dead bodies. The only thing is that he didn’t kill any of them.
That’s because while Castle’s grudge against Pronchenko’s operation is more of a general one, there’s someone out there who holds something specific against the man. Valery Stepanovich, former Russian Paratrooper has been hunting this man across the world in a way that has made his targets think that the Punisher himself has been taking them out. Upon meeting the man himself, it quickly becomes clear to Castle that Valery is something of a kindred sprit. Both are men who have been trained in the arts of war and had something irreplaceable taken from them. So it’s not hard for Valery to convince Castle to work with him. The hard part will be in convincing the Punisher to keep Pronchenko alive long enough for Valery to have his revenge.
Ennis has written about Russia and Russians before in the pages of “Punisher MAX.” He’s even written about Russians in Afghanistan in there as well. All of these things are present again in “Soviet.” What keeps this story from feeling like a retread of those previous tales is the personal dimension afforded by Valery’s perspective.
He’s something of a rare find in Ennis-written “Punisher” stories in that he’s someone who can hold his own alongside the title character. Usually anyone who teams up with the writer’s version of Castle is either not as good as they think they are, or have no reason for being there in the first place. Valery actually belongs here and is every bit as good as he appears to be, as is made clear in the club firefight the two have against Pronchenko’s goons.
Then there’s his history, which is a brutal snapshot of the colossal cock-up that was the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 80’s. Through Valery, we get to see a picture of the wrong guys fighting for the wrong people, and the opposition who had to become even more clever and ruthless to compensate. It allows for an awful showcase of certain horrors of war -- I don’t think for a minute that Ennis came up with what happens to the Russian soldiers here. He just had to read the war reports. The end result is a brutal but effective means of getting the reader to empathize with Valery’s objective. From there, it’s a bloody, pitiless march to the end as you watch two ruthlessly competent men take down almost all opposition on their path of revenge.
This is as effortlessly compelling as you’d expect from Ennis-written “Punisher.” What keeps it from being the one of the best are a couple things. First is the single-mindedness of the narrative. All of the writer’s previous “Punisher MAX” stories had something going on Castle’s pursuit of the storyline’s villain. Sometimes we’d see what the villains were up to, other times we’d see what happened to other people caught in the story’s wake, rarely we’d see people try to force their way in and try to work things to their advantage. These things helped mix things up and keep the Punisher-centric bits from getting old or wearying. They’re not present here and things do wind up getting just a little wearying by the end.
Then there’s the fact that even though this is a “Punisher” comic, this really isn’t a story about him. In fact, if you told me that this originally started life as a completely different comic before Ennis decided to refit it into one for the “Punisher” I wouldn’t be surprised. Even though Castle’s voice-over dominates the story, it’s clear that this is really about Valery. What he has lost and what he hopes to regain by dealing with Pronchenko. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Valery is a character I liked reading about. It’s just that Ennis doesn’t balance things out by telling us something new about Castle in the process. Though, if I’m being fair, Castle’s presence does keep the story from turning into a (complete) tragedy like everything else the writer has done this year.
Joining Ennis on this story is someone he’s worked with before, to great effect. That would be original “Crossed” artist Jacen Burrows. He’s an artist who’s big on clean, precise linework and that continues to be true here. Every scene has a sharp efficiency to it that’s certainly appealing, if not quite spectacular. Burrows tells the story well, from nailing the expressiveness of the characters to making sure each gunfight is still easy to follow in spite of their chaos. It’s the kind of work that I’d like to see in any story, so it feels like nitpicking to wish that it was better than that.
So if you’re like me and have enjoyed pretty much everything that Ennis has done with the “Punisher,” “Soviet” is an easy buy. Even if it is a bit single-minded in its storytelling, it still has the same efficiency and intelligence that the writer brought to all of the stories involving the character and his gun-toting thrills. Which is a good thing since I’ve heard word that Ennis is working with his frequent “Punisher” collaborator Goran Parlov on a new story featuring the character as well. Normally I’d hope that the writer would jump back into creator-owned work after returning to the corporate-owned character he helped define. However, after the year Ennis has had around here, this is something I’m perfectly fine with.