The Punisher: Valley Forge, Valley Forge (2008)

Punisher MAX: Valley Forge, Valley Forge cover

According to Internet lore, Marvel once tried to get George Clooney interested in doing a Nick Fury movie with Garth Ennis’s original Fury MAX miniseries. Clooney pushed it away disgusted.

Makes you wonder if anyone tried giving Morgan Freeman a copy of Valley Forge, Valley Forge, or if maybe Ennis and artist Goran Parlov were just going full homage this time. The Freeman character is Colonel Howe, a regular Army officer who gets mixed up with the cabal of retiring Army brass—basically Dick Cheney guys—who are out to kill the Punisher before they retire from service into the private sector.

None of the cabal actually served in or during Vietnam, which ends up being important, and not just because Ennis structures the whole thing with inserts of a non-fiction book by the little brother of the protagonist from the Punisher: Born series. That series kicked off the whole Punisher MAX thing and Valley Forge is the finish. I thought there was one more story arc and I entirely misremembered Valley Forge. I have this seemingly unintentional thing where I forget a lot about Born because it’s not good and it extends to something peripheral to Born as well, it turns out.

Because Valley Forge isn’t a full story. Sort of. I mean, Morgan Freeman—Colonel Howe—has a full-ish arc, but he’s more present in the story than active in it. There are full issues without him doing much if he even appears. He just happens to get the fullest arc. Ennis is a little more intentional with the Nick Fury bookends, which serve to draw exceptionally clear parallels between Vietnam and the then current Iraq invasion. But mostly it’s about the potential literature of the non-fiction book, which is a bunch of interviews and then some editorializing from the “author.” Quotation marks because the author of the book is as much a character as any of the characters interviewed in the book. It’s not really mixed media—though the series of “snapshots” from Vietnam, courtesy Parlov, are staggeringly effective—and it’s not at all comprehensive. The pages in the book directly referring to the events in Born are missing, which is simultaneously frustrating and reasonable. It’s not even clear Ennis would want to ret-con it (though this story more directly refers to Born’s big problem flex than Ennis has done in Punisher MAX before; he hasn’t even mentioned it since the first story arc I don’t think), but it seems highly unlikely Marvel would go for it. Given when Born came out and who was running Marvel… I’m not even sure I’ve ever heard if the aforementioned flex was Ennis’s idea or from the company.

Regardless, Valley Forge isn’t a do-over of Born grafted to an epilogue for the last outstanding Punisher MAX plot threads. It’s something else.

It’s not entirely successful; there’s a long sequence where we get to see this much talked about confession tape from dozens of issues ago and, while Parlov does an amazing talking head sequence, Ennis “directs” the scene wrong because he’s got to avoid giving away a twist or two. The accompanying but detached book text, which Ennis was wrapped tight with the narrative in terms of narrative and dramatic echoes, also hides the relative simplicity of the comic story. The lengthy talking head sequences with the cabal guys being white imperialists—including the main one who looks like J. Jonah Jameson’s twin brother—is filler. Especially after Ennis reveals, rather late in the story, their flunky is the one to watch. Only we can’t, because Morgan Freeman’s in the room and you pay attention to him.

So, without the accompanying book text, Valley Forge is an incomplete, rushed finish to the series. With the accompanying book text, Ennis gets to realize Punisher MAX in a context closer to what seems to be his ideal—a place where you can take the character seriously. Only this time Ennis raises the stakes even higher, given where he gives the time in the book text. There’s a whole lot about racism. There’s so much about it—particularly because the book author is a white guy from Ohio or somewhere—it bleeds over to the main story and is the most significant tie between the two narratives. The presentation of the text isn’t great (seriously, no one at Marvel knew how to get a book typeset, really?), but it’s exceptionally effective. Ennis takes some wide swings and gets some good hits.

There’s also some good procedural writing when Ennis is filling pages with Parlov.

Parlov doesn’t get a lot of heavy art chores. There are some complex, elaborate fights but they’re not long fights. They’re functional. No Bond villain carping during them, dragging them out. Just point A to point B fights. Those snapshots of Vietnam, however, are haunting, stunning work. Especially when you consider only one of the characters actually appears in the comic portion and the rest are from the reader’s imagination.

Valley Forge, Valley Forge is a big win for Ennis and his war comics. It’s a solid finish for Punisher MAX, but it’s kind of an epilogue so who cares. But Ennis proves his point about taking Frank Castle seriously here. Sure, he’s been proving it for most of Punisher MAX’s fifty-some other issues, but here he hammers it in solid here.

Though it does always either feel too short or too long.

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