The last few pages of Long, Cold Dark, the penultimate story in Garth Ennis’ magnificent Max run on the Punisher, were the single most moving pages I have read in a comic book in the past decade.
Over the years, the character went from a c-level Spider-man villain to the embodiment of action in the late eighties, and had already regressed into a joke long before Ennis got his hands on the character.
After his first Punisher run, which focused on the more absurd aspects of the concept, Ennis took a turn into the dark side with the Max series and ended up creating some of the best comics I’ve had the pleasure to read in the past few years.
The horror that lurked behind the Punisher’s skull face and the awful retribution he brings came to the forefront of the comic, creating a tone that had so much weight, few comics could match it for intensity.
There were still laughs in the darkness and Ennis still managed to find some light in the humanity of the characters that came in and out of Frank Castle’s life. While there were certainly some truly horrible human beings showing up on a regular basis, there were also those who didn’t give in to their own despair, who fought for everything that is good in life, who didn’t go down that long, cold path.
For much if its storyline, Long Cold Dark fits the usual pattern of a typical Punisher story. It sees a returning character push Frank Castle as far as he can go, only to finally fall before the power of Frank’s homicidal tendencies.
This time, Frank isn’t just fighting as part of his own personal vendetta against the scum of the world, he’s fighting for his newly-discovered daughter and for the last slice of his humanity she represents.
And then he gives the baby to a good home and walks away. He knows there is no way she would ever be safe around him. There is no possibility that he could ever step back from his mission to take care of her. Even if he tried, some old enemy would undoubtedly track him down. So he has to give her up and walk away.
This would be tragic enough, but the real horror is that Frank recognises the loss of humanity in himself and the hole in his soul it left behind. He remembers seeing the child’s mother let down her formidable emotional defences, remembers seeing someone who is almost as damaged as he is smile at the simple beauty of a sunrise, still able to recognise beauty in an everyday occurrence, still a little bit human.
And he’s lost it all. For almost the entire storyline, the title seemed to refer to that horrible oblivion Frank brings with his death-dealing, which seemed a bit obvious, but then it turned out to be something else. That hole at the centre of Frank’s soul that can never be filled, his life of darkness that is unlikely to end soon.
To see a character recognise this inside himself and learn to live with it is a heartbreaking tragedy. It’s bad enough that Frank has become this horrible avatar of death, but to know this fact, and carry on with it regardless, is even worse.
Those last few pages did something that I’d never seen before: They made me feel genuinely sorry for Frank Castle. He is a damned soul, and he knows it.
It sounds stupid, but I’m always looking for a bit of emotional intensity in my entertainment, and nothing has hit me as hard as that moment in that comic. There have certainly been plenty of others, including several others from the mind of Ennis, but that one sequence hit me harder than any other.
The Punisher made me cry the first time I read that book, and I still mourn for the misery of this fictional character. I dig stories that are genuinely moving, and comics don’t get any better than this.
That’s not bad for a bloke who wears a giant skull on his chest and shoots people in the face. And not bad for comics.