This is the end, my friends.
In the first half of PunisherMAX - collected in the trade paperbacks Kingpin and Bullseye, which I reviewed together here - Scalped's Jason Aaron impressed the hell out of me with his willingness to develop, on a fundamental level, a classic Marvel character that had been treading water for decades. All of a sudden there were stakes again. Heroes and villains alike, re-envisioned as if they existed in the real world rather than some impenetrable, comic-book bubble. And in the real world, narrative logic often fails to prevail. Good people suffer for nothing. Bad people get away with it, whatever it is, all the goddamned time. Shit happens, we say.
Well, shit happens on almost every page of PunisherMAX, and let me tell you this thing: very little of it is good. But bloody as it is, and unremittingly grim, it's also, equally, absolutely fucking fantastic. If I had thought - for a single, solitary second - that this lamentably limited series couldn't get any better, I'd be eating my words as we speak. Because it can. Because it does. But after Kingpin and Bullseye, I had good reason to expect the best.
Castle, for its part, picks up some time after Bullseye's shocking conclusion, with our bloody, broken and seemingly beaten anti-hero behind bars at last. After "punishing" a corrupt cop and being caught assaulting the Kingpin's impenetrable skyscraper, Frank finds himself locked up in a maximum security prison, surrounded by criminals on all sides... but with no way to make them pay! Instead, he turns inwards, remembering his family, and the sadistic circumstances by which he came to lose them.
Oddly, then, this third volume - of a total of four - is essentially a retelling of The Punisher's origin story, yet ye need not fear: it is not, not by any stretch, the tragic but by now over-familiar origin story fans of the franchise know to the last letter. Superficially, I suppose, the exact same things happen: after a career of killing remarkable even amidst the terrible violence in Vietnam, Frank returns home to New York City, only to find his family caught in the crossfire of a mob shoot-out in Central Park. As they bleed out in his arms one after the other after the other, to add insult to injury, The Punisher takes shape in Frank's fast-hardening heart.
However, where before Frank Castle was a victim of all this, fundamentally a family man driven to a dark place by the wickedness visited upon his nearest and dearest, PunisherMAX isn't so sure of his innocence. The continuity of Aaron's retcon is infinitely more perverse than the clear-cut conflict between the forces of good and the legions of evil that birthed The Punisher in the first. I won't give the game away, but let's say that in a very real sense, Castle implicates Frank in the deaths that have made him the murderer he is.
And Castle is just the calm before the storm, because of course Aaron isn't content to simply lock up The Punisher to rot, and throw away the keys. In Homeless, the fourth and final trade paperback collecting this stunning story arc - indeed the complete series - he breaks out of jail (with some surprising assistance, as it transpires) to wage one last on his arch-enemy: the so-called Kingpin of crime. But this time, they'll fight to the death. By the end, only one man will be left standing... and even then, no-one's truly safe in this series.
And I really do mean no-one.
If Kingpin and Bullseye were surgical strikes of a sort, these two concluding trades represent shock and awe on an epic yet still intimate scale. One senses Aaron is holding nothing back, and the rewards wrought by this no-holds-barred attitude are truly awesome, meanwhile Steve Dillion has never in recent memory been better, or ballsier. With amazing layouts and marvelous clarity, he captures the ugliness of Aaron's bastard cast of characters and the city they lay waste to like no other artist could.
This, thus, is definitive. Never mind Garth Ennis' hallowed run on The Punisher under the Marvel Knights umbrella: PunisherMAX by Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon takes the cake, the pastry... the very dough, damn it. It's so incredibly good that I'm actually sort of bowled over that it exists to being with. After all, it ends; a real rarity in comic books — as discussed in my review of the first two trades. And though The Punisher will live on in other forms - there's already a separate ongoing series, penned by Queen and Country's Greg Rucka... which I'll probably check out eventually - it's hella hard to imagine how anything else bearing the brand at hand could live up to PunisherMAX's unforgettable finale.
I don't care if you've never given a crap about this character. PunisherMAX will make you care. Like so many of Frank Castle's unwitting targets, in fact, you'll have no choice in the matter. Unlikely as it sounds, PunisherMAX is as groundbreaking in its way as any of the medium's other high watermarks. And let's face it: Watchmen isn't half as much fun.