“Welcome to the Bayou” reads like a Garth Ennis outtake in many ways. In fact, it could be the plot of a Punisher/”Preacher” crossover with Frank Castle running into Jesse Custer’s swamp-residing family and being forced to kill them all to escape. It’s almost surprising that Ennis never did a story like this, actually. The concept has that right amount of serious danger and pure absurdity that Ennis likes to play with, after all: Frank Castle runs into a family of cannibalistic rednecks and has to avoid being dinner.
Victor Gischler, though, doesn’t really combine the absurd and the dangerous as well as Ennis does. Gischler plays the story in this issue a bit too seriously and subtly when it calls for over-the-top gags with Castle as the straight man in this circus of freaks. Instead, the cannibal behavior and gator rasslin’ scenes have the potential for some very funny dark humor that’s never really exploited. While Castle is in very real danger, the danger is so ludicrous and outside the norm that it falls flat treating it like he’s being held by any other group of criminals, waiting to die.
The family that he’s being held by, too, contain some real characters, but they aren’t given a chance to show off their insanity except in the most typical of ways. The big dumb brother/son wrestles with a gator and puts up a fight against Frank, but doesn’t do much otherwise. Nor does the patriarch of the family or the other half-dozen characters. They mostly stand around. The sole woman, who has her eye on Frank, gets a few choice lines and is the sole standout. There are hints of another son who will show up next issue and, hopefully, he’ll have a bit more character to him.
Where this issue doesn’t fall down is in the art department as Goran Parlov, who provided the art for several Ennis “Punisher” stories, returns to the book with this arc and his rough, ‘dirty’ line work is exactly what “Welcome to the Bayou” needs. If there’s any disappointment in the lack of character development for the hillbillies, it’s because Parlov makes them look so real and interesting. The gator rasslin’ scene is very well done as is Frank’s fight to escape.
There’s a lot of potential in this story as Frank Castle is taken out of his traditional environment and placed in the swamp without any weapons or obvious means of escape, but it’s written too seriously. The scenario is so absurd and stupid that there should be several laugh out loud moments in this issue when there really aren’t any. As a result, a lot of this is rather forgettable with stock characters.
I hate to continue the Ennis comparisons, but this plot seems so much like the sort that he would come up with that it’s impossible to ignore. Gischler clearly has talent and he’s paired with a great artist, but he needs to take a page out of Ennis’ book and make with the funny a little. The MAX Punisher title has been trying to escape Ennis’ shadows since he left the book and doing a story clearly influenced by him isn’t the best way to do that, so why not embrace Ennis? There’s a reason why his run was a classic — and this story could be, too.