Tuesday 13 March 2012

Comic Book Review | PunisherMAX Vol. I: Kingpin and Vol. II: Bullseye

The Punisher is Frank Castle, a Vietnam vet who witnessed the brutal slaying of his wife and children in Central Park... collateral damage in the mob's war on law. Haunted by his horrific history, and reeling from this latest, greatest loss, Frank Castle grieved as only a born killer could: he got himself a long leather trenchcoat, a shirt with a sweet skull on, some guns, and murdered his family's murderers.

Since then, I suppose he's mostly been keeping up appearances. Killing, kidnapping, torturing and extorting his way to the top of the food chain, such as it is in the hive of scum and villainy that is New York City... as per The Punisher, at least.

Now it's not a bad origin story, that - there are certainly many, many worse ones - but it's hardly tailor-made for a medium in which codes of conduct and content have historically restricted creativity. No surprise, then, that The Punisher has been badly mishandled in the years since its inception in the 70s. 

Which isn't to say I've steered clear of it, as perhaps I should have. Oh no. In my younger years, during my first fling with comic books, I read rather a lot of The Punisher. What can I say? In those halcyon days, bargain bins everywhere overflowed with coffee-stained copies of War Journal -- perfectly price to match my dinner money, it seemed to me. And I didn't want dinner. I wanted comics! And by god, I got comics.

Obviously not the ones I should have, because I lost my a lot of my love for the medium thereafter, and perhaps that was in part because of The Punisher. Now that I've been pulled back in, it made a certain amount of sense to see whether it had changed, or simply stayed the same. And I can hardly say how glad I am to have given this character another chance.

Not coincidentally, PunisherMAX concluded just last month, after a 22-issue run -- a fact that makes my heart abstractly glad. I like to be sure the things I begin will end eventually, and in comics that's rarely the case. To know that this story has been told on its own terms from one end to the other, to great critical acclaim to boot, thus without any obvious intrusions either... I'll admit it: starting in on the first collected volume of the series, I had - of all things - hope.

Well I've no hope now, but not because PunisherMAX disappointed me in any sense. I've no hope because this is a truly hopeless story: bleak as the inner city and black as long knives at night. But for all that... brilliant. PunisherMAX is a whiplash-fast, smartly characterised comic book, finely toned and heroically honed: Jason Aaron's scripts are tight but not terse, explicit without seeming attention-seeking, and paced perfectly.

Each of PunisherMAX's four story arcs runs for five or six issues, and chronicles, in effect, an origin. In the first, collected in Kingpin, we learn of the rise and rise of the fabled boss of mob bosses. Wilson Fisk means to make the mantle his own, and as he goes from convict to henchman to criminal mastermind, he leaves a bloody trail in his whale's wake that The Punisher cannot bring himself to believe. Fisk's rapid ascension is not without its own cost, of course, and initially Aaron is as interested in this - in the tragedy of the Kingpin - as he is in his creaky old anti-hero, which gives the narrative an excellent sense of balance.

This impression persists in PunisherMAX Vol. II: Bullseye, which brings the master assassin into the fold, under the Kingpin's wing. But Bullseye, being a bit of a lunatic - and that's putting it politely - doesn't just want to kill Frank Castle: first, he has to understand him. Before putting finger to trigger, Bullseye intends to get inside his head, the better to see what makes this vigilante tick. Meantime, The Punisher has a whole lot of catching up to do. His skepticism about the existence of a kingpin of crime has meant he's late late late to a very important date, and now that there's no doubting it, it's practically impossible to get near Fisk.

Among the most admirable aspects of this eminently accessible series is its structure. Kingpin is a tale unto itself - as is Bullseye - but one lays the foundations for the other, and the other builds atop the last chapter's narrative in readiness for the next. The only sensible place to jump on board is with the first  collected volume, but from there on out PunisherMAX doesn't stop, and to my point: you won't want it to.

All these letters later, it occurs to me that I haven't even mentioned the art of PunisherMAX. That's my bad entirely, because it's anything but. Assisting Jason Aaron through these two trades - and indeed the two concluding volumes to come - is Garth Ennis co-conspirator Steve Dillon, whose clear and present pencils took me back to the good old days. Of Preacher, I mean. More meaningfully, Dillon has a preexisting history with The Punisher, and it's evidenced in every panel he and the other iconic characters that figure into this series appear in. Dillon's layouts are plain yet perfectly poised, whilst his Frank Castle is grizzled and relentlessly grim. Exactly what you'd want, in short.

The shocking conclusion of Bullseye falls exactly halfway through the whole run of Jason Aaron's PunisherMAX, and much as I can get behind a good ending at the right time rather than a sudden conclusion well after the fact, at the moment I don't want this series to be over ever. But there's no going back now, and that's probably for the best, because without the worry that this series will have to sustain itself indefinitely, the creators can truly let loose. Thus, the first half of PunisherMAX is incredible - powerful, exhilarating and ambitious from the offing - and I can't imagine it going out with anything less than an almighty bang.


  1. Great review sir. I especially enjoyed your retelling of the Punisher's origin story.

    I haven't yet had a chance to read anything by Jason Aaron, but have heard great things about him and his Vertigo title, Scalped. I have the first volume on my shelf, just need to find time to get to it.

  2. If you haven't read the second half of Jason Aaron's Punisher Max run, then stand by to be stunned. Punisher Max #21 was the best single issue I've read last year. I didn't think that it was possible to follow Garth Ennis' legendary run, but Aaron manages to pull off an amazing conclusion.

  3. I was just looking at these two books in my local comic store this afternoon... I may have to move them up on my to-buy list.