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Punisher MAX by Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

“This was the only way Frank’s story was ever gonna end,” Fury remarks in the closing issue of Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s Punisher MAX run. Picking up the threads from Garth Ennis’ celebrated run, Aaron decides to offer a definitive account of the end of Frank Castle’s one-man war on crime. It’s interesting that this is a story that had never really been told before. Even Ennis’ The End was set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future to write an allegorical conclusion to Frank Castle’s campaign of terror.

Aaron might not have as firm a grip on Castle as Ennis, but he has a pretty compelling hook. More than that, though, Aaron’s irreverent and playful style suits the book quite well. Aaron has a tendency to write cartoonish and larger-than-life characters in his mainstream superhero work, and Punisher MAX is decidedly cartoonish and larger-than-life. That’s part of the appeal. In many ways – and not just in his choice of artistic collaborator – Aaron’s Punisher MAX feels rather like Garth Ennis’ Marvel Knights: Punisher run written with the sex, violence and brutality of his Punisher MAX work.

It’s a potent cocktail.

Very armed and very dangerous...

Very armed and very dangerous…

There’s something endearingly trashy and pulpy about Jason Aaron’s writing. There’s a sense that Aaron is perfectly in tune with the absurdity of Frank Castle – the Vietnam veteran who wears a skull on his chest while relentlessly torturing and murdering psychopaths. There’s no sense that the story unfolds in anything resembling the real world – this is a world where a sixty-year-old man can routinely take on larger groups of younger individuals, and keep on moving; it’s a world where Frank Castle can exist without being shot in the head or locked up and forgotten about.

Aaron acknowledges that such a world must run on some comic book tropes and conventions – even if they aren’t as rampant and absurd as they must be in the regular universe. So Aaron takes the more low-key world of Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX and introduces more and more comic book elements into it. He strips away any semblance of reality and just runs with comic book storytelling logic and characters.

Time to go to work...

Copping to it…

Aaron introduces all manner of classic Marvel characters and set-ups into his twenty-two issue run. The most obvious is the character of Wilson Fisk, who serves as the primary antagonist of Aaron’s long-form story. Fisk is “the Kingpin.” He begins as a myth, a ruse to lure Frank out into the open. He is compared, in mob circles, to “the bosses of bosses”, a position that hasn’t existed in reality since the thirties. Even then, it did not exist in a form that resembled Fisk’s stranglehold on the city.

The Kingpin isn’t a gangster, as much as Fisk might have used New York mobsters to ascend to power. He’s very clearly something radically different. He is, according to a digital profile cooked up, “a millionaire spice merchant with countless legitimate business ties and bank accounts in every civilised country in the world. he pays his taxes on time, donates to charities and likes to vacation in the Japanese countryside.” More than that, though, he exists in a world where he can live in a tower in the centre of New York, controls the police and local law enforcement, and enjoys a business relationship with an ancient cult of Japanese ninja.

A family affair...

A family affair…

In short, the Kingpin is a supervillain. He’s a concept so gleefully absurd that he has to begin his existence as a story, a fairytale whispered by mob informants across the city. He is a myth that is willed into being, a dark urban legend spoken of in hushed tones throughout the shadiest corners of New York City. He is not a man who could actually exist, in his white suits and with his canes and in his bullet-proof city centre penthouse at which Frank Castle angrily snipes.

Once you except the Kingpin as a character within the framework of Punisher MAX, everything else makes sense. The existence of the Hand doesn’t seem as absurd as it might in Ennis’ Punisher MAX. Bullseye is a perfect fit in this world, a character who seems just a little bit more ridiculous and over-the-top than Ennis’ Barracuda. Aaron maintains the absolute minimum suspension of disbelief necessary to keep the comic rooted in the real world – the Hand’s mysticism is kept ambiguous, Bullseye keeps his tattoo without his costume – but there’s a definite sense that Aaron is wallowing in the absurd.

Firing on all cylinders...

Firing on all cylinders…

“I heard he’s been talking about hiring ninjas,” a corrupt cop offers when pressed about Fisk. “He’s crazy. You’re all $#!&ing crazy.” This is the world in which Aaron and Dillon’s Punisher MAX exists. Aaron and Dillon even find room to include one of the classic “Kingpin trains in his gym” exposition sequences that have become one of the character’s trademark set pieces, emphasising just how firmly Punisher MAX is rooted in comic book conventions.

(Indeed, it owes quite a debt to Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil, with the Kingpin as a central antagonist, but with Bullseye and Elektra as supporting characters. Some of the character beats wind up feeling very familiar. At one point, Bullseye finds himself in a hospital bed paralysed when an enemy with a gun comes calling to see him. Needless to say, Aaron’s Punisher MAX has a radically different ending.)

No visitors allowed...

No visitors allowed…

Aaron balances all of this quite well, lending the book an almost surreal quality – set in a demented cartoon world that is only one or two steps away from our own. Aaron only really probes the limit of this set-up in an early issue that pits Frank Castle against “the Mennonite”, an Amish assassin who rides into town in a horse-and-carriage and tries to commit murder using only the most primitive of technology. It’s precisely the sort of absurdity we expect from Aaron, but it’s the only point where Punisher MAX seems to go a little too far into the realm of the surreal.

At other points, Aaron is quick to set the limits on the “cartoon-ishness” of this world. At one point, Bullseye threatens to kill a victim using only a toothpick. It doesn’t work. “Don’t be an idiot. I can’t kill you with a toothpick.” He then shoots him instead. At another point, the Hand reveal that they don’t quite have the same death-and-resurrection and healing rituals as they do in mainstream comics. These sequences seem to playfully sketch the limits of Aaron’s absurdity – Punisher MAX is a demented and grotesque cartoon, but it’s still one that operates according to a certain sense of rules.

A smokescreen...

A smokescreen…

Indeed, one of the more endearing facets of Punisher MAX is the way that Aaron channels Ennis’ version of Frank. There are quite a few continuity references made to Ennis’ run. Early on, Don Rigoletto rhymes off characters from that earlier Punisher MAX series. “Nicky Cavella and his crew. That $%!&-faced Mick psycho Finn Cooley. The goddamn Barracuda.” Barracuda appears in a brief flashback. The first section of the run even takes Frank back to where he began Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX run. “Last time I saw Mamma Cesare, I was shooting her husband Massimo in the head on his 100th birthday.”

However, what’s more striking is the way that Aaron seems to capture Ennis’ voice for Frank. Frank is a man of few words, but Ennis always treated him as the universe’s straight man. Frank Castle could be wry and cynical and sarcastic to beat the band. Aaron’s version of the character has inherited those quirks, with Aaron writing Frank as a character constantly on the verge of collapse. “Be dead, you bastard,” Frank thinks during one confrontation. “Be dead so I can pass the $#!& out.” As his assailant climbs to his feet, Frank reflects, “Don’t hurt yourself.”

The last Castle...

The last Castle…

However, as with a lot of Aaron’s stronger work, this absurdity is cleverly used to disarm the audience. Punisher MAX might revel in its own grotesque brutality, but it contains any number of powerful insights and strong emotional beats. In particular, Aaron populates the book with failed father figures – older men utterly incapable of protecting those under their care. This obviously includes Frank and Fisk, but it also arguably extends to Fury’s feelings of guilt and responsibility for Frank’s current condition.

Even the ridiculous assassin “the Mennonite” gets his own little emotional arc following his broken family. Leaving his dying wife to make a bit of money by murdering Frank Castle, his children are completely abandoned. “Daddy won’t let us down,” they assure one another – unaware that their father is already dead. Aaron’s Punisher MAX is a cavalcade of dysfunctional father-son relationships; stretching back the strained relationships between Frank Castle and his father and Wilson Fisk and his own father.

You come at the Kingpin, you best not miss...

You come at the Kingpin, you best not miss…

Some of these observations are strangely affecting, all the more effective for coming amidst a sea of blood and gore and violence. As much as Frank Castle and the other characters might be larger-than-life cartoons, there’s a sense that Aaron understands each and every one as a character in their own right. Even psycho-for-hire Bullseye is well-developed, getting an almost touching moment with Vanessa Fisk as he explains the cost that murder exacts from the soul. It might be fleeting, but Aaron sells it.

At the same time, Punisher MAX is not nostalgic about its protagonist at all. The book is fairly unambiguous about Frank Castle. Picking up on the threads that Ennis sewed in Born, Aaron makes it clear that Frank Castle was not a man suddenly changed by the loss of his family. He was a terrible husband and a terrible father, and the death of his family was really just an excuse to unleash an anger rooted deep within himself – an opportunity to drop a façade and embrace who he really was.

All shot to hell...

All shot to hell…

He’s grown further from them in time. “See the photos and it hits me,” he muses early in the run. “Son’s birthday was two weeks ago… and I didn’t even remember.” Even now, reminded of his son’s birthday, Frank doesn’t refer to the boy by name. Frank has almost forgotten the excuse that led him to this perpetual conflict, to the point where he subconsciously wanders back to his old house – a place long forgotten.

Aaron’s version of Frank Castle is a monster. He’s a brutal individual who clearly takes some measure of satisfaction in his brutality, and who doesn’t adhere to any real standards. At one point, he kills an arms dealer who has been helping him, because the arms dealer refused to sell to him in the future. At another point, he reflects that his decision not to kill corrupt cops was never grounded in morality, but in an understanding that the New York Police Department effectively enabled him.

A little worse for wear...

Holding it all together…

This raises some intriguing questions. If Frank never killed corrupt cops for fear that society would not tolerate it, does that mean that he only preys on criminals because he feels that society will tolerate that? Is Frank Castle only the Punisher because it makes it easier for him to continue killing? If he were a simple spree killer or serial killer, he would be arrested by now; his choice of target makes it easier for the city to passively enable his violence. Is Frank killing based on opportunity and pragmatism more than any principle?

Once the cops come after him, Frank affords them no quarter. “They’re all just in my way now,” he reflects. He doesn’t kill any more police officers, but one suspects that he doesn’t want to escalate the situation further. Aaron heavily implies that Castle is an addict who is addicted to murder, and who has discovered a sustainable method of feeding his habit. He will do whatever it takes to get his fix.

Falling down...

Falling down…

At one point, Frank pauses to consider the first woman he killed. She had been arrested and convicted to life in prison, but Frank saw the need to kill her using a sniper rifle. His reflection is deeply unsettling. “To this day, I don’t know if it was an accident or not that my first shot missed her head and instead tore through her throat,” he confesses. “All I know is, I did stop for a moment and watch as she squirmed. But just a moment.”

“Some of the people in the media who’d been on my side up until then turned on me after that,” he reflects. “Not that I gave a sh!t. Don’t know why they were the least bit surprised, though.” This is a nice condemnation of a media double standard – female criminals are somehow worth more than male criminals. However, it also reflects on the relationship between Castle and the media. As long as Castle can claim to be killing bad people, he can count on some measure of support, and he gets to continue.

Face/off...

Face/off…

“He kills without reason,” Frank explains of Bullseye. “Delights in murder. Takes real pleasure in it. I knew men like that during the war. I’ve killed men like that since. They use their insanity as a weapon. Use it to make them stronger. Unpredictable. Clever.” That’s a perfect description of Frank. Aaron cleverly mirrors Castle, Fisk and Bullseye – all psychopaths looking to fill a hole in their psyches. Bullseye was also a soldier, just like Frank. He is just as ruthless and resourceful. The only difference is that Frank maintains a better façade.

Steve Dillon provides the art for all twenty-two issues of Punisher MAX. Dillon might just be the definitive Punisher artist. Dillon’s faces are wonderfully expressive and invigorated, and he’s the perfect collaborator for Aaron on this project. His Frank Castle looks and feels older, the lines on his face charting untold injury after untold injury. Dillon is perfectly capable of drawing everything that Aaron throws at him, keeping it all grounded and rooted in the characters. You can tell what any of Dillon’s characters are feeling at any given moment.

It's time to answer the tough questions...

It’s time to answer the tough questions…

He also has a wonderful sense of movement in his art – a knack for choreography and pacing. Afforded the freedom of working on an age-restricted book, Dillon is able to craft a wonderfully graphic and uncomfortable fight sequences. There are brawls where it feels like anything goes. Aaron and Dillon work well together, and each seems to understand what the other wants. There’s a remarkable consistency to the book.

Aaron and Dillons’ Punisher MAX is a wonderful twenty-two issue story that manages to find something novel to say about its protagonist. Givne how many Punisher comics have been published, that’s saying something.

6 Responses

  1. This rendition of Frank looked like Sylvester Stallone.

    It was distracting.

    Anyway, Aaron also did the second MAX Christmas Special (the one with the presumably intentionally disarming cover depicting Frank and a shackled babe fighting an army of evil elves).

    • I actually think Dillon works well for the Punisher, but I’ll freely admit that’s my own preference at work. Slightly cartoonish, but with a good grasp of body language and facial expression. More “grounded” (perhaps) than most comic book art, but without any attempt at photorealism.

      • Yeah, I like Dillon, especially on the Punisher, and similar franchises (he’s admittedly a bit… weaker when it comes to more fantastic settings).

        Just a weird little nitpick I had here.

      • Hey, trust me. As a guy who prefers Ennis’ Marvel Knights to his MAX, I know all about weird Punisher nitpicks! 🙂

  2. I just finished Aaron’s “Punisher MAX” this morning. Without knowing anything of your blog, this is just the article that I was looking for.

    I’m going to need some time to reflect on this series (and the Ennis series that I reread before), but I know I agree with a lot of the points that you make here. Also, Steve Dillon took way more crap than he ever deserved. I’m going to miss his work a lot.

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