PunisherMAX by Jason Aaron & Steve Dillon review

PunisherMAX volumes 1-4

Marvel Comics

2010 – 2012

Reprints all 22 issues of the monthly series.

With all the talk of super hero films, I keep remembering the Punisher.  Starting with one of the worst films adaptations in history the Dolph Lundgren version was nearly as bad as the Nick Fury movie.  Thomas Jane gave it a good try in the next installment, but ultimately the film missed the mark.  Ray Stevenson and the rest of the cast in the most recent version, Punisher: War Zone were perfect.  The film was the closest yet to what a Punisher film could be.  It was only let down by attempts at dark humor that played as silly, and a pair of villains that just didn’t work on film.  Everyone involved in that movies did great work, but sometimes that is not enough.  I hope if they try again that they let Stevenson wear the skull, he IS the Punisher on film, as far as I am concerned

The next best thing is the Punisher series that Marvel has done under the MAX imprint.  Garth Ennis had an amazing run on the book and now Jason Aaron has put his stamp on the character.  While the Ennis run was good, the only concession it made to reality was that Frank Castle was as old as he should be, and there were no superheroes or super villains of any kind.  The version of the story that Aaron and artist Steve Dillon have created is darker even than that, but the attempt here is to make this feel a little closer with the mainstream Marvel U version, while making it as real and believable as possible.  Since most of the people who are old enough to read this mature readers series will remember the classic Punisher, having this story touch on some of the other characters, like Bullseye is a very effective way to create an emotional resonance with Frank and the others here.  The origin of Frank is essentially the same, the motivations and the deeper events and attitude surrounding it have changed, making all the difference.  It puts you in a position where the very black and white version you are used to, even in the Ennis version, is viewed through a different lens.  It is hard to like Frank Castle here, but is equally hard to condemn him or his actions, or find the motivations for them unbelievable.  Everyone in comics likes to think that if they were in the position that our heroes are in, that they would do the same.  We would all like to create a fantasy where we avenge the wrongs in the world.  This Punisher though, is punishing everyone, including himself.

As the series progresses, every attempt is made by the writer to cut him open and expose him to both the reader and all the players in the story.  The fact that he has been waging his war on crime for 35 years without ever examining why is the point.  Sure he is avenging his family, but why is he still doing it?  Batman is another character that needs to ask this question, and some writers have touched on it.  One very effective version was Brad Meltzer’s run on the Justice League.  While only briefly hinted at, it is made clear that with Bruce Wayne it is his fear of change, and more significantly his overwhelming fear of loss.  He will force the world into his vision of it so it never changes and no one else will have to lose what he lost.  Not so with the Punisher.  Frank Castle never really felt more alive than when he was killing, be it in the war or as the Punisher.  Even that is not enough for Aaron, though.  That motivation is far too simple and shallow, and what he adds to the story over the run of these 4 volumes (or 22 issues) is flawless.  You believe every beat and don’t ever really start to question it as things are revealed.

The inclusion of MAX versions of the Kingpin, Bullseye and even Elektra work very well here, and I found them to be plausible and even sympathetic at times.  What struck me here in particular was the use of the Kingpin’s wife, Vanessa.  In the regular 616 universe, she was never much more than the MacGuffin.  She is this person that seems to motivate the Kingpin to do whatever he is doing at the moment.  Here she is her own force, and not someone who just sits idly by and has things happen to her.  The only character here that is not very well served is Elektra.  While this may be my own prejudices at work, I don’t think so.  I stopped caring about Elektra the instant Frank Miller was no longer writing her.  He created a deep and interesting person in the pages of Daredevil that you cared about from the very start.  Everyone since, without exception has failed to do anything interesting with her, and most were doing nothing more than bending her over for their own enjoyment, sometimes literally.  Here she is not much more than an obstacle for Frank and her deeper role in the story is never given.  There are hints, but she is not really there as anything other than something to keep Frank busy.  The Kingpin is the real antagonist here, and even Bullseye cannot steal the spotlight away.  Wilson Fisk as written by Aaron and drawn by Dillon is the most interesting character in the series.  His story is told in great detail, and it is far more interesting than anything that has gone before in the main Marvel U.  Both the hero and villain here spend a lot of time in their own heads, but the trip Wilson takes is the road less traveled by the reader, and is a more interesting one.  While Castle’s trips into his memories are filled with new depth and meaning to a story we already know well, the Kingpin’s memories are largely new to the reader.  They show what he has gained and lost on his very brief rise to power, and what he is willing to do to keep it.  The version here is one of the more interesting and surprising I have ever seen.

PunisherMAX is hard stuff.  It is not a happy read or a forgiving one.  It is NOT for younger readers, and the “explicit” tag on the cover should be a warning to anyone paying attention.  What it is most of all though, is the best and most realistic look at a Marvel hero I have ever seen.  That is not always an easy thing to read, but it is well worth the effort.

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