During his acclaimed run on the Punisher title for Marvel Comics' mature readers imprint, MAX, writer Garth Ennis established that Frank Castle had been waging a real-time war on crime. That war began when Castle returned home from his final tour of duty in Vietnam and his family was gunned down by mobsters. So for thirty-plus years, the Punisher has been locked in combat with the criminal scum of the Earth. It's been a war that's featured multiple campaigns, and in November, writer Jason Aaron and artist Steve Dillon, the creative team behind the new "PunisherMax" series sent Frank Castle out on what just might be his toughest campaign yet. That's because they introduced Wilson Fisk, the man who will become the Kingpin of Crime, into the world of MAX. CBR News spoke with Aaron about the series.
When Wilson Fisk was introduced in "PunisherMax" #1 he appeared to be just the bodyguard of a high ranking mafia don named Rigoletto. It's that appearance that has allowed him to place an ambitious plan in action, and by the time, "Kingpin," the opening arc of "PunisherMax," is over, Fisk will have succeeded in his plan.
"I think at the beginning of this story Fisk is definitely somebody who was below Frank Castle's radar; somebody that he was aware of, but not somebody he's ever gone after. The Punisher isn't going to have the wool pulled completely over his eyes, though. He's not going to be completely fooled by Fisk," Aaron told CBR News. "In issue #3 [in stores now], they have a brief little face to face encounter. Now the Punisher has gotten wind of Fisk. Early on in issue #4, there's a beat where Fisk gets a phone call and the voice on the other end tells him to look out the window, and there's Frank Castle standing out in the streets.
"That's one of the fun things about writing a character like Castle," Aaron continued. "He's so laser focused. There's no hesitation or questioning. He sees something and he goes for it instantly. It's so refreshing to write a character with that kind of motivation."
In going after Wilson Fisk the Punisher will also have to contend with the future Kingpin's most trusted ally, his wife Vanessa. "I think you can tell from the beginning that she obviously wasn't clueless as to what her husband was up to. He confides in her and trusts her. She's encouraging him in what he's doing, which is more in line with the recent Marvel Universe version of Vanessa," Aaron said. "It's fun to play with the preconceived notions of what people know about the Marvel Universe versions of these characters. And it's been a lot of fun to tweak some things."
Fisk is married and has an infant son, and in "PunisherMax" #3, Aaron introduced readers to a hitman known as the Mennonite who also has a a wife and children, illustrating that the importance of family is a big part of what the "Kingpin" arc of "PunisherMax" is about. "The first few issues really focused on Wilson Fisk, and I'm trying to set up some comparisons and contrasts between him and Castle. Fisk has a home life and a family, while everything Castle does is driven by what happened to his family," Aaron explained. "So being able to introduce the Mennonite puts another little twist on that. He's a guy whose home life and background is different from Fisk's."
Aaron's inspiration for the Mennonite comes from a combination of Garth Ennis' Punisher work, religion, and the Clint Eastwood movie "Unforgiven." "I needed a good villain for this arc because the big confrontation between Fisk and Castle is not happening yet. This first arc is really the rise of the Kingpin. We've got to put Fisk in that position before he can really start to square off with Castle," Aaron stated. "So I wanted to introduce a good villain in this first arc ,and obviously Garth Ennis' Punisher stuff, from Marvel Knights to his great MAX run, is probably best remembered for the many great and memorable villains that he introduced. I wanted to introduce a character who could hopefully stand alongside villains like the Russian and Barracuda.
"So the Mennonite is in the vein of Eastwood's character from 'Unforgiven,' but with a religious twist. He's an actual Mennonite," Aaron continued. "And as we'll see in the next issue, his religion is very important to him. It has a lot of ramifications for how the rest of his arc and his story is going to play out. I've had a lot of fun with him."
The remaining chapters of "Kingpin" will chronicle Wilson Fisk's rise to power and the Punisher's coming confrontation with the Mennonite. "Considering the title of the arc, you can safely assume that Fisk is going to succeed at becoming the Kingpin, but the ramifications of that may have been more than he's foreseen. And Castle is going to have his hands full with the Mennonite," Aaron explained. "The fight scene coming up between them is a brutal heavyweight bout. These two guys really won't go easy on each other.
"Part of what I want to address in 'PunisherMax' is the fact that, in this book, the Punisher, at his youngest, has got to be in his early 60s. And a guy who has been fighting a war on crime for 30 plus years has been shot, stabbed, and blown up God knows how many times. So that's obviously something that's got to start to catch up with you," Aaron continued. "A battle like the one he's about to have with the Mennonite is not something a guy his age should be able to simply shake off. He's not Batman. He's not supposed to be. This book is more of a real world approach to the character. So when something like this happens, what Castle goes through won't simply be reset come the next arc."
Indeed, Castle's wounds will carry over to Aaron's next "PunisherMax" storyline as his battle against Wilson Fisk will unfold over several arcs instead of one. "That's the most fundamental change from what Garth did. He certainly did tell an overarching story that wove through all his arcs about how Castle evolved as a character, but one of the things I loved about his run was that you could pick up any arc and enjoy it. You could read it in almost any order, even though some villains would pop up again," Aaron remarked. "I wanted to tell a long form story, though. To really up the ante from what Garth did. I wanted to bring in a big villain, and I wanted to build him up to be bigger and more powerful than any crime lord the Punisher had ever encountered. So that demands a long form story."
In "The Kingpin," the Punisher has shared the spotlight with Wilson Fisk, but Aaron's tale isn't just about building up the crime lord and setting the Punisher after him. "In the second arc, we bring in the MAX version of Bullseye, and with that arc we'll start addressing a fundamental part of Castle's character. By the third arc, we'll be going back to the murder of the Punisher's family and learning something which we've previously never seen," Aaron explained. "Since the second arc is titled 'Bullseye,' you can imagine that it's going to be a lot more focused on Bullseye and his pursuit of Castle. And the third arc will focus almost entirely on Castle. So different arcs will have different focuses, and all of them are building to this gigantic climax."
The MAX version of Bullseye will be as dangerous as his Marvel Universe counterpart, but he'll be decidedly less theatrical. "He's not killing people with playing cards or toothpicks, but when he does set his sights on a target, he goes all out to bring them down," Aaron said. "So we'll see him coming after Castle in a way that [the Punisher's] never been pursued before."
The Kingpin and Bullseye may not be the only Marvel Universe characters that get themselves some MAX counterparts in Aaron's run on "PunisherMax." "There won't be any characters like Daredevil showing up. In the 'PunisherMax' world, there are no costumed characters like him," Aaron remarked. "We've seen Nick Fury, though, and we may see him again before my run is over. We also may see another Marvel Universe character somewhere later in my run, but that one will just have to be a surprise."
As Aaron's run on "PunisherMax" unfolds, the writer will introduce some more supporting characters. "In the second arc we'll see some other people from Castle's life," the writer stated. "Frank Castle obviously doesn't do what he does completely on his own. He's going to have some people who aid him, but don't directly work with him."
The tone of Aaron's Punisher run will continue to have the same mix of hard hitting crime stories and brutal action that fans have come to expect, but the writer plans to inject a little bit more black humor into the series. "I think my version of 'PunisherMax' may be a little more humorous than Garth's version," Aaron said. "It's probably somewhere in between Garth's 'Punisher MAX' and his Marvel Knights Punisher work, but that will change from time to time. I think these first few issues are both brutal and a little humorous, and we'll be going back and forth between that.
"Once Steve Dillon signed on to draw the book I felt like I was required to give him a specific quota of weird and perverted stuff to draw each issue," Aaron joked. "Having a 90 something year old mob widow [Mama Cesare] running around naked with a shotgun seemed like a good deal for Steve. You know he'd run with that and knock it out of the park. My idea all along for Mama Cesare was for her to get introduced and then killed off, but I was kind of sad. She was a character I think I could have done a lot more with.
"That's because she was one of those fun characters who are willing to say whatever is on their mind, especially to someone like Fisk. So even though she had to die she was fun to write and I loved writing her little death scene," Aaron continued. "Also she was a nod to Garth's 'Punisher MAX' run. In the first issue of that series, the Punisher shows up at the 100th birthday for a mob figure and guns him down along with scores of other mob figures. That guy's wife was never mentioned, and here she is still alive and kicking."
Currently Aaron feels that he has enough action, drama, and twisted humor to turn his Punisher versus the Kingpin epic into a two year saga. "It could change, but right now we're looking at four arcs with maybe some extra issues thrown in along the way," Aaron said. "And it feels great that people seem to have responded to the story so far. Garth and the creators after him were a tough act to follow, but people really seem to be enjoying this story. I'm excited because we're just getting started. There's still so much more coming down the pike that I can't wait to get to. When everything is finished hopefully I’ll have told a pretty enjoyable Punisher story."
Aaron feels that 2010 is going to be an exciting year for Punisher fans. Not just because of the story he's telling in 'PunisherMax," but also because of the work writer Rick Remender is doing in the Marvel Universe "Punisher" title with it's "Frankencastle" storyline. "Rick and I talk all the time and obviously we're doing two very different Punisher books, but to me that's what's exciting about it. Rick is doing a Marvel U style Punisher story that, as anyone who has read my 'Ghost Rider' work knows, is right up my alley. So hopefully Punisher fans can pick up both books and appreciate them for their differences," Aaron remarked. "I think anybody who looks at Rick's story and dismisses it off hand is making a big mistake. It's not the Steven Grant and Mike Zeck 'Punisher,' but really, is that the direction the story needs to go? I think, thanks to Garth's work, a lot of those stories have evolved into what we're doing in 'PunisherMax.' And I think what Rick is doing is a logical and exciting direction for the 'Punisher' to go in the Marvel Universe. So with both of these books, it's a great time to be a Punisher fan."