Review: Punisher MAX by Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon

I have complicated feelings about The Punisher.

That’s as it should be. The Punisher is a complicated character. He’s normally called an antihero but to me that’s even too light. The Punisher started as a villain and hasn’t ever really stopped acting like one. He’s not even a vague character like Venom who I think I least makes sense as a hero as his utterly wonderful solo film showed. No, the Punisher is a bad guy who only works as a protagonist when it’s played either as dark comedy like in the amazing War Zone or in a comic that’s honest like Garth Ennis’ run.

I’m going to pause to get a bit down about Ennis’ Punisher. I’m on the record as outright hating most things Ennis writes because he’s despicably nihilistic where it doesn’t fit, like his atrocious epic The Boys. But that dark nihilistic cynical energy? Perfect for The Punisher. Ennis wrote the definitive story of Frank Castle in Vietnam with Born and his MAX run is truly a thing of dark, bleak glory. Ennis gets that The Punisher is no hero and that he walks in a world of black and maybe a tiny bit less black.

Ennis did not write this run but it’s impossible to forget it reading this run by Jason Aaron and Ennis’ constant collaborator the late Steve Dillon. For one thing, this run is implied to be a sequel to that run. For another, it feels like a continuation, sequel or not. Tonally this is exactly in line with it. It’s a bit more towards the classic comics but it’s a grungy, bleak comic.

So I’m going to pause once more to discuss Jason Aaron. Aaron is a logical choice to continue from Ennis but also very different. His comics tend towards violence but he’s also deeply humane. His run on Wolverine was a study in a man coming to realize the power of that humanity after a violent life. His works are steeped in the theme of sin and redemption, especially his Thor tun. Add to that his fascination with Vietnam, in part due to his cousin’s book on the topic becoming Full Metal Jacket, he was perfect for this book.

The 22 issue run begins with a rather genius concept. A group of mob bosses, tired of the Punisher coming after them, decide to create a mythical Kingpin of Crime to throw him off their scent. They decide to use one of their bodyguards, a giant who seems like a safe figurehead named Wilson Fisk. The fun of this arc is watching the inevitable happen as seeming pawn Fisk watches and makes his own moves to culminate in him of course becoming the real deal.

But of course there’s a cost. Fisk’s family is destroyed and he makes an enemy in the Punisher who of course genuinely does want to destroy him. Fisk’s wife also turns into a power player, her soul destroyed by the death of her son which she blames rightfully on the Kingpin. Then you add in violent, bloody versions of Elektra and Bullseye that are, shall we say unpleasant figures. Everything stacks in this book.

But even as the plot builds, there’s a very personal thread running as we see constant flashbacks to the period between Vietnam and the birth of the Punisher. It’s material we’ve never really gotten. Even in the mainstream MU, it was obvious Castle was a violent man in Vietnam. How did he have a period of peace between that and the death of his family? Here we learn he really didn’t. He was always haunted. And there may never have been a happy ending for him. And all of this, past and present, it’s building to an inescapable conclusion. The only way it can end.

So I may have complicated feelings about the Punisher but I don’t about this book. This is a brilliant work.

Aaron has written an epic about violent souls that cannot get out. Nobody in this book has a chance. Everybody is doomed in some way. And nobody in it is just straight evil. Aaron has the intelligence to make every major character deeply human so that what’s going on crushes our hearts. It’s a deeply pain filled journey.

Aaron does break from Ennis as he plays with R-rated versions of generally PG-13 characters but he never goes for undue shock value here. His takes on characters linked to the works of Frank Miller don’t even feel as over the top as I suspect Miller would make them. They’re vulgar, sexual, bloody creatures but still very much Bullseye, Elektra, and the Kingpin. This book would read great next to their classic stories.

And I don’t think Aaron is without hope. There is the sense that good men exist here. There are police trying to do right and Nick Fury getting his hands dirty for a good cause. The Punisher is a tormented man which honestly makes this the most likable version ever since we get to see good things about him. The world may be a dark one but right and wrong exist.

I could gush for so long about Steve Dillon here. Dillon died suddenly at only 54 of an inflamed appendix, robbing us of years more of work. This is some top tier stuff. It ain’t his best work as he always shone brightest with Ennis but it’s great. Graphically violent, grimy in its look at sex, and filled with incredible character work. It’s a book to truly take in.

This is a necessary book to read. And this is where I get to get a bit political. Look, it’s no secret The Punisher has been adopted as a symbol by cops and the right. Drive around in Arkansas and you’ll see his skull a lot. And this is where Marvel making the character a hero with three movies and two tv shows shows exactly how hard they failed. The Punisher is not a good person! He is not a hero! And that’s why his mainstream stories fail. He’s a violent psychopath. Aaron and Ennis get this. It’s why their runs shine.

Reading this book in this climate felt like a detox from a poisonous era for the character. It was a reminder of who he truly is. A truly vital, powerful book.

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