Time for more Garth Ennis Punisher. Now I have already covered main sixty issue MAX volume series, but before he started that run we got Punisher: Born, a four issue miniseries with pencils by his "The Boys" collaborator Darick Robertson and inks by Tom Palmer. This tells the story of how Frank embarked on his start of darkness and also depicts the events related in the in-universe book that has extracts published in the final Punisher MAX volume "Valley Forge, Valley Forge" which, if you've read that makes the tragedy of this volume a foregone conclusion. This story shows us Frank in Vietnam, the war that made him realise that waging war was what he always wanted to do. It has an interesting mystical aspect to it as Frank makes a deal to keep his war going but finds that the price is everything he has ever loved, which goes someway to explaining how utterly broken the MAX Frank is. Although not officially part of the main Punisher MAX series this miniseries has been included in the omnibus reprints of the main series and thus has been sanctioned as the prologue to that incredible run. As befits the subject matter, it's grim, sad stuff as we peak into Frank's soul and find the abyss gazing back and offering him a deal and so the Punisher is Born in the fire forged battles of jungles of Vietnam. If you're wondering why I am reviewing this last it's because before the omnibus reprint it cost silly money on Amazon. Anyway onwards.
We begin at the military base Valley Forge on the "First Day" as the soldiers takes bets on a US aircraft plummeting to its doom. We are then introduced to our main narrator, a man called Stevie Goodwin out on patrol with Frank's group. He thinksto himself how he will not die in Vietnam, he's only got "thirty-nine days and a wake-up" before the magic day he steps on a plane and leaves this place.
He will not die here, "I will escape these fields of slaughter". He will not re-up and become a combat junkie "forever jonesing for their next sweet firefight, their lethal speedball of adrenaline and tracer." He will not fall in love with war like Frank Castle.
Stevie: "His dedication to his men is total. Not from love - that word and he do not beong together - but from the same determination to do his job correctly that informs his every action."
Since Frank arrived six months ago the have suffered no K.I.A's (killed in action). The story goes that Frank began his first tour in '68 and showed such promise that Special Forces had themselves a new recruit.
His second tour there were rumours he was involved in wetwork in Cambodia, black ops, assassination and horror stories too outlandish to be true. Now it's late '71 and the war is winding down and no one quite knows what to do with the "predators they have bred". He was sent to Valley Forge because he had to go somewhere, "alas for Captain Castle, he is running out of war."
After a brief interlude where they kill some Vietcong Stevie goes on to ruminate that he will have sons. He will watch them grow with pride and he will take them into the woods and mountains and show them "the good America. The real America. And not this tragic misstep into darkness." And one day his sons will ask him what he did during the war and what he saw, "and I will never, ever tell them."
Ottman just tells him General Padden will be there in an hour for a "surprise inspection". He's going to be "sick" so it'll be Frank's job to show him around. Frank wants to make sure his report is passed along, Ottman says "just like all the others." Now Frank has an hour to get the place in shape before the General arrives.
|Frank makes his report to the uncaring Ottman.|
Frank calmly tells him the last man who tried to restore order "woke up next to a claymore mine." Padden says the fragging of officers is a "myth". Now he wants to know what the hell is being done to restore order there. "Nothing" responds Frank. It's undermanned by fifty percent and what men they do have are "rejects and fuck-ups." They are short of equipment and resupply is a bad joke. The men figure if the brass don't give a shit, why should they? He's managed to put together one platoon of motivated men to maintain their offensive patrols because if they can't do that, what are they here for?
Padden says that once he makes his report Valley Forge won't be there anymore. Frank asks if he's closing the base? Padden says fuck yes. Frank says they are the only outpost watching Cambodia, who's going to keep an eye on the enemy, his resupplying and if he comes in strength - cutting the country in half.
Padden tells him this is not a popular war and soon the conflict and their involvement will end. Charlie will no longer be his concern, they will be shipping him out with the rest of the rabble and if Padden has a say, Frank will be leaving the Marine Corp, "and then the closest you'll get to the enemy will be watching him on the T.V. news".
|Not cool Frank!|
The other men come and collect his body and Frank sits and broods and a voice speaks to him. I'm going to call it the "Dark Voice" as it speaks entirely in black captions. The voice congratulates him but also tells him what the General said was true, "this wonderland of yours is coming to an end." For all his talk of duty when did he ever feel so alive, "so full of fierce black joy?"
The Dark Voice tells him he can fix it so Frank can keep doing this forever, there will be a price to pay but he'll be able to keep on going and never stop. If he just says the word the voice can fix it. "Who am I? Is that what you're asking? Well who do you think I am, Frank...?"
The Second Day comes and Stevie finds his friend, an African-American soldier cooking heroin. Stevie drags him outside saying Frank wants to take the platoon out. A man called Coltrane appears and demands to know "who's going to pay for this jungle bunny's fix?" Stevie said they had a deal, that he wasn't going to let Angel (the black man's name) smoke in his bunker anymore. Coltrane orders his goon Garcia to take a razor to them, but Stevie stands his ground and Coltrane backs off calling them queers.
Frank appears and asks if Angel is clean and Stevie says he is. Frank tells him to keep it that way. He leaves and and a shaken Stevie notes to himself that Castle cuts them no slack and a junkie can't shoot straight, "but Angel can." The platoon moves out, the last twenty-nine men at Firebase Valley Forge who care enough about the enemy to go and find him. They are all there for their own reasons, his is for Angel who shot the V.C. who caught Stevie changing magazines. Stevie could sit out the rest of his thirty-eight at the base and no one would care, but he stays with the platoon.
Stevie: "Some of us are here for our brothers, some of us for our horror stories. Some of us even still believe in duty. Americans through te looking glass, lost in Vietnam."
Frank believes the Vietcong are laying the groundwork for a N.V.A offensive so they whole platoon is out in the hope that there will be strength in numbers. Suddenly one of them takes a bullet to the neck and they all scramble for cover.
|Frank Castle, force of nature.|
Six of them are dead, Frank sustained a wound to an arm. They search the area and find a Vietcong woman about to kill herself. One of them boots the gun away from her head calling her a "cunt!!!" as he does so. His name is MacDonald and he starts to pull his trousers down and lays on top of her about to rape her. The others watch paralysed until Frank appears and shoots the woman in the head telling MacDonald they are here to kill the enemy not rape them.
MacDonald goes to a nearby river and starts washing her blood off his face. Stevie, horrifed at what nearly just happened and composing himself then observes Frank walk up to MacDonald and place his boot on his head, forcing MacDonald's head under until he drowns. The Hueys come to take them home, MacDonald is searched for but not found. Stevie doesn't breathe a word of what he saw Frank do. Angel tells him not to let the "shit wit' the gook... fuck you up. You think to much, man. Always have. This place got zero slack to give."
Later that night Frank approaches Stevie and asks him what made him keep quiet? Stevie says he was scared. Then he asks what made Frank do it? Frank says "I wanted to punish him". Stevie asks about killing the Vietnamese girl. Frank says if he has her flown out of there his men would never trust him again. She would never hand over intel and she'd just end up getting shot in the head further down the line. He then tells Stevie he doesn't have to be scared of him and walks away.
The Third Day begins. Stevie thinks that they cannot lose in Vietnam, although the Generals are stupid, their tactics poor, their morals trampled into a ditch and shot through with heroin and bitter failure and although they face the bravest, toughest fighters in the world, "strange little men with hearts like those of tigers" and although they have made the world depise them and done things that will stain their souls forever while America eats its own intestines over this... "we cannot lose."
When they finally leave Vietnam after the brave little fighters kick them out and they finally lose their stomach for it, no one on South-East Asia or anywhere on Earth will look at what's left of Vietnam "and think it's smart to fuck with the United States."
Stevie then speaks aloud to Angel, wondering why America can't stay out of the rest of the world. They have everything they could ever want so why can't they leave the world alone. But Angel ignores him, watching the planes flying over and wishing he could get "that fuckin' high."
Elsewhere Frank and Colonel Ottman are walking and talking together. Frank also notes the planes are staying low and that means a storm is on its way. Once it hits they'll have no air support, Ottman says they'll have artillery support but Frank notes "There's our own. We're out of range of everyone else's". The crews are too stoned to operate them and the ammo looks like it'll cook off. They haven't had a resupply... Ottman interupts saying he hasn't requested any resupplys.
Ottman: "Look you're the only one that hasn't noticed. So I'll spell it out for you: no one cares about this place. The enemy least of all. Everyone knows the war is almost over."
He opens his hip flask and says that they'll get to go home soon, so long as they don't do anything stupid or raise eyebrows in Da Nang. All they have to do is "shut the fuck up" and they can climb onto a plane and get out of this shithole.
|Frank ponders another executive assassination.|
The Dark Voice asks him what stopped him blowing up Ottman. No one would have known or cared and it would have made him acting commander of the base right when the men need him most. Because it is just the men he cares about and not maybe... wanting to "frag that bastard?" The Voice asks if he is worried that he kills at the drop of a hat, "that urge you have, to give every motherfucker in the world exactly what they deserve?" The Voice tells him if he just says the world "you can kill every single one of them."
Frank approaches Stevie who is cleaning his rifle. Frank praises him for that, saying not many grunts do that. Stevie says many of them don't care about getting home. Frank says it must be soon for him. Stevie says he's got thirty-seven days and a wake-up left. Frank tells Stevie he has a family, a daughter and his wife is pregnant with what he hopes is a son. Stevie says that's great, it gives him something to stay alive for. Frank says "I sometimes think they might be my last chance."
Frank then tells him his friend Angel is down in Coltrane's bunker again. Does he want a hand? But Stevie says he'll deal with it himself. As Stevie leaves, the Voice asks Frank what he was thinking "talking happy-ever-after with the softest heart in the platoon." And his family isn't his last chance, the Voice is his last chance "to be what you want to be."
Stevie goes and drags the stoned Angel out of Coltrane's bunker. They sit and talk. Stevie says he thought Angel was going to stay off the stuff. But Angel tells him "fuck you." Stevie says Angel is getting close to being able to go, he doesn't want to take a smack habit home with him, "you've got far, far too much to live for."
Angel asks how the fuck he knows that. Stevie has everything to live for, "all I got waitin' for me's a ghetto fulla death." Stevie says they shouldn't be here and Angel agrees. Stevie says they are making a mess of the place and screwing up America, this has nothing to do with the real America.
Angel: "Stevie, you are so fulla shit. I keep hearin' you talk 'bout this idea you got... this real America? It's a fuckin' dream man. It belongs in the thirties. The twenties, fuck, the Wild muthafuckin' West. That's the real America right there: back when you was shootin' each other, rapin' red Indians an' callin' me nigga..."
Stevie says that's not true, but Angel tells him to "grow the fuck up". Relentlessly Angel goes on to tell him not to give him shit about there is good with the bad and if people work hard they'll make it. There's good for Stevie and bad for Angel, "ain't no more to it than that."
|Stevie and Angel argue.|
The Final Day begins in battle. It's all chaos and blood as Stevie thinks that there is "Great Beast loose in the world of men". It awoke in dark times, stormed across Europe, moved to the Pacificand crushed the evil it found underfoot. But after it was victorious the Great Beast's keepers found it would not go back to sleep. The Beast has many heads upon which are written names: Lockheed, Bell, Monsanto, Dow, Gruman, Colt and many more, "and they are very hungry".
Stevie: "So the Great Beast must be fed: and every generation, our country goes to war. A war for war's sake, usually. And one that could have been avoided. But there must be blood in extraordinary quantities, and whether it is foreign of American is of no consequence at all. And so today, at Firebase Valley Forge, our turn has finally arrived."
As Frank keeps firing a soldier tells him the can't raise the Da Nang base, but they got a response from an armoured unit. They lost them though but hope they can get them back a relay a message. Frank says to tell them they are about to be overrun they need air and artillery immediately. Ottman however says they can't use the radio, "he keeps saying don't rock the boat over and over." Frank says to shoot him.
|Frank always at the sharp end.|
Stevie takes cover as Frank directs the cannon fire. Then Coltrane grabs Stevie from behind with a raor saying "where's your nigger, boy?" But Frank appears and smashes Coltrane over the head with a shovel. With the command post overrun the gunners bayonetted it looks like Frank and Stevie are the last. We see Ottman sitting dead from a self inflicted gunshot wound and the radio calling them back before a Vietnamese soldier shoots it.
Steve sticks with Frank thinking how he was so sure he'd make it. Above them the planes are dropping bombs. Frank yells at Stevie to "pop smoke! They'll it us too! Pop smoke!!" Stevie fumbles with a smoke grenade when an enemy soldier runs through the fire, bayonet aimed at Stevies stomach. Suddenly the scene changes. The sky is clear and blue. He is yanked inside a civilian aircraft, he is surrounded by beautiful women all calling his name. He weeps as one says "you made it, you silly son of a bitch." The plane flies on.
|Stevie gets his plane home.|
The Voice can give it all to Frank, there will be a price "but nothing's free." If he says no he will be one more K.I.A. on a hill no one cared about to start with. But if he says yes the Voice will give him "what you've wanted all these years". A war that lasts forever, a war that never ends. And Frank, almost more animal than man now, says "YES".
|And The Punisher is born.|
But it's not quite the end of the story. We cut to Frank, smart in his dress uniform, his arm in a sling and using a crutch to walk as he arrives home to his family. His wife, daughter and baby son. She asks him if he's going to go back? He says no.
Frank: "I went as far as I ever want to go, this time. I still don't really remember... but I'm never going away again. I'd be stuid to, so long as I've got you guys. It took me far too long to realise that."
Then the Dark Voice speaks to him. Tells him how he got an early discharge and medal or two for shutting the fuck up about Valley Forge. But down to business. He agreed to the Voice's offer and it delivered. Not everyday you beat two dozen men to death and soak up seven bullets.
And how can it put this? There is a price to be paid. And we see Frank's family looking up at him, smiling. The Voice says it's too late, "things have already been set in motion". But he'll have forgotten about this little conversation soon. He should just enjoy what short time he has with them. But who is the Voice? It says it's in the same business as him and been at it a lot longer. They'll be good friends in the years to come and although they'll never speak again, he'll keep the Voice busy, "and let's just leave it at that." Frank's wife then asks if he is OK, Frank seemed to space out for a moment. Frank holds her in a long embrace saying it's nothing, "hold on tight."
|Oh Frank, what did you do?|