Part of me wishes that the “The End” series of Marvel Comics fit into some sort of interconnected series of events the way that regular Marvel Comics do, but instead they seem to be completely divorced from one another. I haven’t read them all, but so far two of them have featured the title character as the last man on a post-apocalyptic Earth, finding their way in a Mad Max-like scenario and setting. Those two being The Punisher and The Hulk.
This story pairs the perfect writer and artist: longtime Punisher-scribe Garth Ennis and gritty indie comic-artist Richard Corben. I know Corben mostly as one of the man who inspired Ninja Turtles creator Kevin Eastman, so right there he comes with a degree of honor to me. He indirectly inspired the creation of something I love. But in addition to that, he has a simple-yet-distinct art style that is immediately recognizable. In an era where comic art wavers between unreadable and all-the-same, Corben has his own style that feels very mainstream and story-driven, yet isn’t a copy and hasn’t been copied to any large degree. The result is that the art never distracts you, but at the same time you could show me any random panel from any of his books and I would be able to tell you that he drew it. There are few other artists like that in comics, save perhaps Jack Kirby and Ariel Marsh.
The story goes like this: the human race has been all but wiped out after a nuclear holocaust. The only survivors, as far as we know, are Frank Castle and a group of wealthy upper-class who survived the epidemic by hiding in a special bunker. The problem is that these survivors aren’t the best of people, many of them guilty of white-collar crimes or perhaps even the crime of not warning more people of their incoming doom, guaranteeing their downfall. Still, no matter their past deeds, it falls to these people to repopulate the human race so clearly Castle will give them a pass, right?
That’s the question at play here, and anyone who knows The Punisher as written by Ennis will already know the answer. The Punisher kills all the humans in attendance as they scream and plead with him, with one pointing out that he is dooming humanity, to which he only responds “I know.” This might seem like fan-service, but it’s actually a very compelling question: how far does Frank Castle’s pathology go? Does he see any gray area, or any situation in which it would be acceptable for him to allow a criminal to go free? The answer, we learn, is no. But the telling of the answering of that question makes for a compelling story.
In the end, having killed all the criminals, Frank is the last man on Earth, and he turns his gun on himself. Is he doing this because having killed all the criminals he has nothing left to live for? Or is it because he recognizes that in killing the last members of humanity he is guilty of genocide and guilty of a crime himself? Does his pathology go that far? We do not and cannot get the answer, so in many ways its up to each individual reader.
This makes for a great bookend to Ennis’s start on Punisher: Kills the Marvel Universe, especially since he technically does kill the Marvel Universe in this book, in that he’s killed the last humans. Well written, well-drawn fiction.