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On the hunt for Russian mobster Konstantin Pronchenko, The Punisher’s trail has gone cold with new mysteries continually arising. Why has the notoriously violent and brash Pronchenko suddenly turned towards the “clean” world of corporate crime and money laundering? What are Russian ex-Special Forces doing in the Russian mob? Who has been killing Russian mobsters for the past five years around the globe with the same methods and restraint of The Punisher? The last issue ended with Frank Castle learning of the answer to that last question. Enter Valery Stepanovich.
Punisher: Soviet #2 continues to explore Garth Ennis’s return to the world of Frank Castle with restraint and a heavy emphasis on “told rather than shown” storytelling. For all the mystery surrounding Valery Stepanovich and his grudge against mobster Pronchenko, details are doled out mainly in conversation on a particularly limited basis. All we really learn in this issue is that Valery and Pronchenko have had a long history together in the Russian military with experiences therein that have directly led to their current feud. As a specialized grunt serving in a non-commissioned officer status dealing with corruption in chain of command, hostile civilian relations and atrocity, Valery’s war in Afghanistan mirrors Frank’s experiences in Vietnam to a tee. The framework of Valery’s story is engaging enough, but so far lacks detail, anecdote and identity due to the issue length. It’s a problem I’m sure will be resolved with the next issue being heavily focused on flashbacks and a problem that overall wouldn’t need resolution if we had the chance to binge read the series all at once. In short, it’s another set-up issue.
The meat of this issue is Frank Castle and Valery coming to know and “trust” each other. Ennis’s characterization and ability to realistically bring forth a character continues to be second to none and is heavily complimented this time around by Jacen Burrows’s focus on expressions and close-ups. One big criticism to this muted approach is that the action and degree of mayhem doesn’t feel like it warrants the MAX rating at this point. Not to be a gorehound, but outside of language, there’s nothing seen in these issues so far that have been vastly out of line with 616 violence. There’s still an inkling of the badass mean-spirit of MAX missing.
Key highlight moments like Valery choosing to lead the way in a conflict with his back turned to Frank or Frank tossing a grenade to Valery to assist take a backseat in panel space with the majority of the pages used for close-ups during simple conversation. As a positive to this new approach, it pushes the reader to hear Valery out and empathize with him solely through his words and expressions. Passing from laughing at a taxi-related mishap with a civilian to talking about his platoon mates to emphasizing that he wants Pronchenko to suffer alive, Valery shows us wackiness, sadness, pride and that good old Frank Castle psychopathic rage all at the same time and feels more like a human than a plot device for Frank to kill people.
Burrows’s expressions also work well in showing the underlying tension between Frank and Valery. Frank remains silent and stone-faced in Burrow’s depiction but still has enough expression to show his processing and judgment of every word said by Valery. Despite admitting to trusting Valery in his inner monologue, we still don’t know if Frank and Valery will end up allies or enemies at the ultimate end of this series. There’s still the fact that Valery knew to expect Frank and has carefully been hunting Pronchenko using Frank’s tactics for over five years and still so much we don’t know about him. To compliment the characters, Burrows overall draws the environment very well and portrays the action clearly from unique first person angles and some beautiful backdrops of New York. Along with the colors by Nolan Woodard, it gives the book an overall Hotline Miami/Drive feel.
Overall Verdict: With these two issues so far focused on set-up, it still is too early to give a valid opinion on the quality of the series. Punisher: Soviet does slightly feel more like an opportunity for Ennis to dive into war history rather than write another quintessential Punisher story. It remains to be seen how memorable Valery will be and how the current alliance with The Punisher will play out. Nevertheless, things are still enjoyable. I left the issue feeling very much like I was being cut abruptly from an epic tale to be told and am excited for events to come.
- Timeline: This issue confirms that Frank Castle is still a Vietnam veteran. Per MAX canon, Frank was born in 1947. With the first issue prominently showing a smartphone with a touchscreen being unlocked by thumbprint, that would place the timeline of this series as taking place as around late 2013 at the earliest with the iPhone 5S (first capacitive thumbprint activated phone) being introduced in September 2013. During “Man Of Stone” (The Punisher MAX #42), Yorkie mentions that it has been five years since September 11, 2001, putting the series at that point in late 2006 or early 2007. Per Jason Aaron’s MAX run, Frank Castle dies in 2012 at age 65 following a fight with the Kingpin, Elektra and multiple goons.
The next issue comes out on January 1, 2020! Start the decade off right with some PUNISHMENT!