No question, Garth Ennis has still got that old Punisher magic. Soviet is a change from most of Ennis’s post—Punisher MAX limited series, which have been military historical fiction with the Punisher inserted, filling out the character, peeling the onion of his tragedy. Soviet’s not about Frank. Soviet is about Frank’s Russian alter ego, one Valery Stepanovich. Stepanovich has tragedies, both familial and military, in the ballpark of Frank’s history—obviously in Afghanistan, not Vietnam—and for a good portion of the series, Soviet’s going to be Ennis’s Afghanistan story.
At least, it’s going to be a Soviets in Afghanistan story from Ennis. Maybe not “the.” I’ve always assumed his trajectory with his war comics writing—it’s been twenty years since he started—was to get to Vietnam without Frank Castle. Soviets in Afghanistan is a stop along the way. But Valery’s backstory is just right to fuel a righteous mission, out to get a Russian crime boss who’s slowly been getting more and more powerful and now seems to be going straight. The boss comes on Frank’s radar because he’s rushing to the legit finish line. The first issue’s got a lot of exposition—Frank interrogating a bad guy, a cop passing Frank information—but once Valery shows up and the erstwhile buddy flick starts… Soviet is a run downhill towards destiny for the cast.
Except not Frank.
Soviet is Valery’s story, it’s the story of the crime boss to some degree, of his kids, of his wives. But it’s not a Frank Castle story. There are occasional acknowledgements of MAX continuity, but new-to-Ennis-Punisher artists Jacen Burrows and Guillermo Oretgo visualize Frank somewhere in his forties or fifties, not seventy-one or whatever. It doesn’t not work out but it’s also an incomplete on whether Ennis can ever get the Frank Castle character development machine running again. At their best, Burrows and Oretgo make it feel like homage to a serious Ennis and Steve Dillon Punisher, which I don’t think ever actually happened. I certainly hope they keep Burrows with it. There’s an interesting contrast in his clean art and Ennis’s quagmire situations.
It does end with an interesting observation about Frank, which is just right for a Punisher comic where he’s just along for the ride. Outside the first issue, everything he does is with his new best friend.
Valery and Frank don’t get a lot of buddy scenes together because Ennis is trying to keep it serious–there’s a truly hilarious joke but then they’re off to talk about Valery’s past and things get serious again. Their buddy arc’s resolution is appropriately sanguine, given the circumstances, and Ennis clearly likes pairing Frank with a capable partner, especially one with a sense of humor.
I didn’t know much about Soviet going in (not the Russian alter ego, not the Afghanistan flashback, not Burrows) and it all turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Well, not pleasant, obviously, but a very welcome success. I didn’t think Soviet would be bad, but I also didn’t think it would be quite so good. Ennis and Burrows make a great team and, while I want for an “older man Frank” series from Ennis, an intentionally indeterminately timed approach clearly works as well.