Some stories can be the perfect Rorschach test of what sort of person you are. American Psycho is either a magnificent satire of masculinity and business yuppie culture or a disgusting 2-hours of violence and misogyny. No character is more of a perfect mirror to one’s morality than the Punisher. Many writers including his co-creator, Gerry Conway, find the character too problematic, saying that he is no better than the people he kills. Yet, there is an undeniable appeal to the character. American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan wore Punisher skulls on their uniforms. The most popular take on the Punisher undoubtedly has been Garth Ennis many years writing the character. Originally writing the Punisher in the Marvel Universe, Ennis series found greater comfort in the new MAX imprint. In the MAX universe, Ennis strove for a more heightened-reality than a world inhabited by Spider-Man. The Punisher in The Punisher MAX was the only “superhero” in the universe. The Punisher did not confront C-list supervillains but real-life crime such as the mafia, human traffickers and white-collar criminals. The series was a mixture of a dark and cynical crime drama with occasional moments of black comedy. When Ennis left the series, it floundered between other writers before being re-launched with writer Jason Aaron and veteran Punisher-artist, Steve Dillon. Though many fans will rightfully clamor for Ennis’ Punisher, Aaron & Dillon’s 22-issue run on the Punisher is the greatest Punisher story ever told.
Aaron fully intends the story to be a sequel and eventually a conclusion to Ennis’ run on the Punisher in the MAX universe. But Aaron and Dillon achieve something that is rare in comics. They have created a graphic novel. A true graphic novel is not just a collection of comic book issues into a trade. A graphic novel is a book that can be read in isolation, and tells a complete story where characters genuinely change. Given that almost all superhero stories are never-ending there are few genuine graphic novels in the superhero genre. The first pages of Aaron and Dillon’s Punisher MAX provide all the information the reader needs to know about the Punisher: he has been at war with crime for 30 years, he is no longer a young man, and his family was murdered. Aaron does sprinkle his run with Easter egg references to Ennis’s storylines, but other than one direct flashback to Barracuda, readers can easily pick-up on everything that transpires. Although the Punisher is an established character, anyone can read Aaron & Dillon’s Punisher MAX without fear of feeling that they are missing key stories in the Punisher-mythos.
Just in the opening pages of Aaron’s take on the Punisher is unique as he is firmly established to have been at war with organized crime for 30 years. The Punisher was created as a veteran of the Vietnam War, and the unique experiences of the Vietnam War informed his character, particularly in Garth Ennis’ take on the character. Aaron makes his Punisher be an older superhero who while still a killing-machine is not the force-of-nature he was in Ennis-run. In the superhero world, age is rarely a factor. But the Punisher is in his 60s when this story begins, and his age will slowly catch-up to him. Within the first issue of the Kingpin arc, Castle attacks a meeting of the Five Families. While Castle kills many of the mobsters, Fisk comments that before no one would have escaped, but now they have. Steve Dillon draws the Punisher with magnificent age lines, making him a hardened and sometimes exhausted character. Dillon does a magnificent job of portraying a Punisher who is still a driven vigilante, but his drive cannot overcome his physical limitations. Dillon and Aaron successfully create a sense of urgency as the Punisher seems to be in genuine danger throughout his fight with the Mennonite. The Mennonite is incredibly strong and in the prime of his life, while Frank Castle is painfully aware he is not throughout his brawl.
Jason Aaron’s take on the Punisher began with the intriguing selling point of re-imagining the Kingpin in the more realistic MAX universe. After a decade of Marvel successfully re-imagining their characters in the Ultimate universe, this was not uncommon. Still, given that the MAX universe strived for more “realism”, having the Kingpin could have been a step too far. Aaron, however, gleefully plays with this by having the characters of the Five Families declare that the Kingpin has not been real for decades. Although it is not far-fetched to have a concept of a “boss of bosses”, the Kingpin is an urban myth, with the real Kingpins of New York having been gone for decades. The mobsters of PunisherMAX are aware of the common tropes of a Punisher-narrative, with Wilson Fisk planning on exploiting Frank Castle’s habits to his own gain. As Fisk himself explains in a meta-awareness and deconstruction of the Punisher, Castle typically focuses on a major head of a criminal organization and works his way through soldiers to get to the leader. The mobsters exploit the urban myth surrounding by the Kingpin by creating a fake Kingpin for the Punisher to pursue, all the while hiring an assassin to kill the Punisher.
Wilson Fisk, much like the Punisher has been portrayed cartoonishly and with grounded emotional realism. In every iteration what remains consistent is Fisk’s Machiavellian-drive and his volatile emotions. Even in the days of Stan Lee and John Romita Sr., Wilson Fisk always was unnerving in his violent outbursts and his coldness. Jason Aaron’s re-imagining of Fisk shows a man who is disturbingly cold, quick to come up with the cruelest possible vengeance on his enemies. The “Kingpin” arc is told primarily through Fisk’s POV. The story details Fisk slowly creating the myth on his Kingpin of Crime and slowly transforming himself into this figure. As stated before, the MAX universe’s grounded realism makes Fisk immediately appearing in a white-suit and a diamond cane seem too preposterous. Fisk knows this and has other gangsters hear the rumors of the Kingpin and slowly Wilson Fisk transforms from Don Rigoletto’s enforcer into a mythic business man who truly has control over organized crime and the police. By the end of “Kingpin” Fisk wearing his iconic outfit is a transformation that parallels Castle’s own transformation to the Punisher. Fisk has made the myth of the Kingpin into a reality.
Fisk commits horrendous atrocities that his wife unequivocally accepts (until later) and even advises him on. Fisk is a family man who is seemingly a doting father to his son, Richard. He personally declares that everything he does is for his family, it is a familiar justification repeated in works like The Godfather and Breaking Bad. But by the end of the conclusion Fisk allows his own son to be murdered so that he can become the Kingpin. Like Walter White, Fisk abandons the pretense and declares, “I always said, this was all for Richard. But now…now I have to admit to myself…this was never about Richard. It was for me. It was always for me.” Wilson Fisk’s journey becomes a deconstruction of the Scarface journey of a low-level enforcer becoming the leader of organized crime. Most gangster stories will have mobsters follow a certain code and have a certain aspect of their personality that makes audiences sympathize with the character. Aaron seemingly does that in detailing the horrendously abusive relationship of Fisk and showing his deep affection for his wife and son. Aaron magnificently subverts audience expectations by having Fisk unrepentantly choose himself over his family, with him giving a hollow apology to Richard before he dies and reassuring his distraught Vanessa, “We’ll have another one.”
The Kingpin arc of Aaron and Dillon is a magnificent deconstruction of the motivation of “doing it all for the family”. Wilson Fisk, the Punisher, and the assassin who dubs himself “The Mennonite” all supposedly do what they do for their family. Of the three, only the Mennonite is sincere, as he is a man who was once a mob hitman that has genuinely reformed, only returning to his dark lifestyle because he wants to save his sick wife. The Mennonite is hilariously absurd with his rule that he will only kill Castle with the tools permitted in his religion. The Mennonite justifies his absurdity by saying that he does not want to revert to the man he was before his wife, and that God will let him do what needs to be done if he is right. In a Ditko-worthy twist, despite the Punisher’s superior firepower, The Mennonite has the upper-hand and only fails because he chooses to abandon his principles. Yet, for all his satirical-qualities the Mennonite’s story is heartfelt. He sincerely wants to save his wife and goes down the slippery slope of leaving his sick wife and causing his children to be orphans. The Mennonite sadly recognizes his mistake far too late.
In contrast to the Mennonite’s sincerity by the end readers know by Fisk’s narration that he truly did not care about his family. Aaron also begins his powerful deconstruction of the Punisher that defines his graphic novel. At the bloody finale to the Punisher and the Mennonite’s fight, Castle sees a photo of his family. Castle realizes that he forgot his son’s birthday was two weeks ago. Everyone with a cursory familiarity to the Punisher always assumes that everything Castle does is in vengeance for the family he lost. But Ennis had previously established with Born, that the tragedy in Frank Castle’s life would not create such a driven warrior like Frank Castle. Aaron would take this concept and develop it further to reveal a humanity and tragedy beneath the single-driven nature of the Punisher. For all the fighting and war that Castle engages, he no longer can remember the small things that supposedly galvanized him to fight. Castle still remembers what happened to his family, but beyond perfunctory acknowledgement, he has truly forgotten his family.