This concludes the Jason Aaron/Steve Dillon run on the title, and effectively closes the door on the story of the “MAX” version of the character as well. The “Untold Tales of Punisher MAX” doesn’t count because it comes off as an inventory-clearing initiative than an actual effort to expand the title’s audience. Now that this is the end, it’s safe to say that Aaron did do a worthy job of making his run distinct from Garth Ennis’ definitive take. Even with its heavy-handedness at the inevitability of it all, this last volume also delivers a fitting end for the character as well.
Frank Castle is back on the street, but things have changed since he went inside. Not only has Wilson Fisk’s power grown and the man become utterly untouchable, the Punisher’s rep isn’t as solid as it once was. Word is going around that Bullseye really got to him, that prison wore him down, and that his age is finally catching up to him. Funny thing is that he thinks they’re right on all counts. As for Fisk, he’s a virtual prisoner in his ivory tower which is why he has asked the organization known as the Hand to take Castle out. While their response to his request is amusing in its originality, they do provide him with the use of their best assassin, Elektra, for his protection. Problem is that she’s currently sleeping with someone very close to the Kingpin who wants him very dead as well.
Seeing it from the end now, it’s impressive how well Aaron has set up Castle’s decline. The fight with Bullseye not only nearly crippled the man and made him appear weak to the other inmates in prison, but it also got to him mentally and caused him to question his own mission. Bullseye also managed to figure out where Castle’s stashes were hidden across town, so now the Punisher is back to square one as far as his arsenal and preparedness are concerned. His weakened state plays out over the first three issues as we see him clash against small-time crooks, watch his back, and scrounge for food in trash bins. In Dillon’s hands, though the Punisher still has that same, determined and angry scowl on his face, his body language lets us know that it’s all getting to him.
It all culminates over the last two issues as the character faces off against Elektra and then Fisk when his world starts slipping away and the past starts rising up to meet him. We see Castle’s life story unfold in jagged, non-linear flashbacks that does come off as initially confusing, but once you figure out what this is all meant to represent, it falls into place. The flashbacks themselves are also interesting as a good deal of them show us what Castle was like pre-Vietnam where he comes off as remarkably normal. There’s also one panel which definitively ties this run to Ennis’. Fans of the writer’s work on the title will know it when they see it.
Castle isn’t the only one who gets put through the wringer here as Fisk has much the same problem. Thought to be weak in the face of the Punisher’s latest onslaught, the man realizes that he has become a virtual prisoner to his success. His only way out? To leave it all behind. That approach winds up being a salvation of sorts; albeit, a temporary one at best. Though Elektra fulfills a role similar to how she initially came to fame under Frank Miller, she doesn’t wind up being as well-defined or memorable as Bullseye was (who winds up making a brief, but memorably creepy cameo here). Her role is most noteworthy for her exit than anything else, as it would be almost heartbreaking to watch had the audience been able to empathize with the duplicitous bisexual.
The final issue is a Nick Fury solo affair as he puts the run into context. There are parts where Aaron lays on the commentary a bit thick, and while there are a couple good scenes that don’t sledgehammer the point, I was just going to shrug and be done with this. Then the “eulogy” comes and it made me think. On the surface, it’s a validation of everything Castle fought for, but at the same time it’s also utter chaos. Mob violence taken to the extreme. Though the news reported the objectives of the crowds, you can’t help but wonder about the collateral damage, score-settling, unrelated killings, looting, that went along with all this. To me, at least, it speaks to the fact that only one man was capable of doing the work of the Punisher, and that was Frank Castle. All else is chaos.
In bringing elements of the Marvel Universe into the MAX realm, Aaron found a way to make his work with the character distinct. He didn’t just bring them wholesale, but he found new and interesting ways of looking at them that (mostly) didn’t trade on shock value or sex and violence. I guess the real question is that if you’ve read through everything from Ennis, do you need to read this as well? Aaron isn’t as nimble a writer as his predecessor, mind the “sledgehammer” remark above, but between the two of them, their issues make for a good “You don’t need to read anything else with the character after this,” argument. (Though I’d throw in a recommendation for Duane Swierczynski’s underrated “Six Hours to Kill.”)