Purchase Punisher: Soviet at your local comic book store or digitally on Comixology here!
After some mutual war story bonding, The Punisher and his new Russian counterpart Valery Stepanovich decided to take on their mutual Russian mobster enemy Konstantin Pronchenko by first capturing his wife Zenaida Sebrovna. After a seemingly successful operation, the two learned from Sebrovna that Pronchenko had greater plans beyond his transition to the world of “clean” corporate crime: the purchase of a ready and willing sellout U.S. Senator. Before Frank and Valery could act on this knowledge, a tracking device on Sebrovna’s person called in multiple helicopter units and a squad of over forty mercenaries to their location. Sebrovna chose a cliff dive over a death either at the hands of her new vigilante handlers or Pronchenko for talking. Frank and Valery engaged their enemies in a series of firefights that led to the capture of Pronchenko’s three bastard sons and Valery’s own death…after he sacrificed himself to take down a helicopter preventing his and Frank’s escape. Before he croaked, Valery reminded Frank of Pronchenko’s war time crimes of selling out his own troops (including Valery’s own company) to the Afghan Mujaheddin for slaughter and mutilation…and of his desire to keep Pronchenko alive and suffering for said offenses. The Punisher leaving his enemies alive? That’s the mystery of Punisher: Soviet #6!
With Valery driving the majority of the narrative for Punisher: Soviet, it was easy to put The Punisher’s perception of the conflict in the rear view. We knew that Frank trusted Valery enough to join him in combat and we knew that Pronchenko was going to be dealt with. The “how” was the biggest mystery. How could Valery reconcile leaving a monster like Pronchenko alive when his actions resulted in the personal mutilation, skinning and dismemberment of Valery’s own unit and countless other Russian soldiers? How could Frank allow this outcome given his very specific methods and mentality?
Blindsiding readers with the death of Valery last issue, Garth Ennis let that underlying tension between our two protagonists sizzle out and in doing so, opened this conclusion up for an unpredictable and cerebral ending that ended up giving us some surprising insight into Frank Castle’s state of mind.
In reading this issue, I came to reflect on a classic Punisher story, Mike Baron’s “Border Run” (The Punisher Volume 2 #43). In that issue, Frank’s entire plan was to deliver to a woman, the doctor who assisted in torturing her DEA agent husband to death so that she could decide his fate. The twist ending? Frank ends up letting the doctor free, because she didn’t want the doctor’s blood on her hands. It was a very interesting story that raised up the point that Frank may be unjustifiably acting on behalf of the victims of crime for his own benefit and added yet another layer of grey to his war on crime.
The thread from that classic story compliments Punisher: Soviet almost perfectly with Valery asking Frank to hold back and allow him to decide Pronchenko’s fate for a change. Against the Punisher MAX backdrop, this premise is made even more complex by what we know of Frank Castle at this point in time. It’s revealed midway through this issue that Punisher: Soviet takes place in 2017*, making it the most current story in Ennis’s Punisher MAX timeline. By this point, Frank has expressed surprising restraint in the death of a mobster who has literally urinated on the remains of his family in “Up is Down and Black is White” and has equally gone surprisingly overboard in breaking a woman involved in sexual slavery against a bulletproof pane of glass in “The Slavers”. And it’s worth noting that the last time we saw Frank in “Valley Forge, Valley Forge”, his closing chapter involved him facing off against his very own chain of command military villains, a story that tied up threads from his Vietnam war experiences in “Born”. This history and Frank’s connection to and unique sympthy for Valery gave Punisher: Soviet much more unpredictability in what could be expected about Frank’s responses. Ultimately, the manner in which Frank ends up dealing with Pronchenko evolves the character and suggests a more emotional turn.
*Valery mentions that his unit was slaughtered in January 1987 in Punisher: Soviet #2 and Frank states that this occurred thirty years ago.
Frank decides to break Pronchenko psychologically, a man who has never gotten his hands dirty and has only given orders to commit atrocity, by forcing him to skin alive the Senator he was going to buy. It’s a twisted move marking an escalation and anger in Frank’s personality that is shocking even in light of his past actions. If this is the trajectory that Frank Castle is headed for and if Ennis is game for more modern day Punisher tales after this, I can’t wait to see who Frank will face off against next.
As always, Ennis finds a way to get through to the humanity of the story and counterbalances this extreme violence with a simple, beautiful ending of emotion and sorrow: Frank literally pouring one out for the homies in a tavern and having an alcoholic drink for the first time since 1976 a.k.a. the Central Park Massacre! If that didn’t solidify Valery as someone that had significant impact on Frank’s life, nothing will! And that’s just the main course.
Ennis manages to fit in another awesome, black humored sequence involving Frank forcing Pronchenko’s sons to dig up a grave for Valery with their bloodied bare hands and kneel “specifically” at the foot of the grave before executing them. We also get more insight into just how twisted Pronchenko’s wife was with a flashback conversation explaining how she secured the Senator for corruption.
Huge props have to be given to Jacen Burrows for capturing it all beautifully. Burrow’s Frank Castle has only increased in detail and definition as the series has gone on and his history with gore, violence and bodily fluids gives this ending the vomit-inducing visuals that it deserves. In this issue particularly, Burrows shows a real eye for choosing the right still image to bring out the emotion of the script. I particularly note the close up of Frank’s face when Pronchenko’s wife asks “Are there even countries anymore?” giving off a somber patriotic vibe, the awesome rollercoaster ride of reluctant acceptance and defeat on Pronchenko’s face as he realizes he has no choice in skinning the Senator alive and that awesome splash page of Frank calling Pronchenko a “REAR ECHELON MOTHERFUCKER”. There was some also very awesome angles chosen. I loved the imagery of the lighthouse, that weird top down view of Frank walking up the stairs and some of the exterior shots with the guards. Nolan Woodard brings it all to color beautifully given the complexity, closeups and variety of gore in the ending pages.
Paolo Rivera saved his best cover for the last issue with a super detailed awesome big still of Frank against the backdrop of some Soviet and American patriotic imagery. No skull here, only Frank! I’m also happy to see both Rivera and Burrows move towards the historic MAX image of Frank in these last few issues. There’s particularly been a lot of Leandro Fernandez, Lan Medina and John Romita Jr. vibes going on, which is always welcome.
Overall Verdict: Garth Ennis’s return to the world of The Punisher MAX shows that he still is the master of in depth historical war time narratives, thoughtful tactical action, black humor and disturbingly savage violence. Despite apparently saying all that needed to be said about Frank Castle in “Valley Forge, Valley Forge”, Ennis’s deep dives in Punisher: Soviet and Punisher: The Platoon show that Frank Castle is a man with many more layers to uncover.
Next Up: Barracuda comes to the 616 in Punisher vs. Barracuda #1 out April 8th! Purchase it at your local comic book store or digitally on Comixology here!