In 2000, writer Garth Ennis took his exploration of Marvel Comics' Punisher character in an bold new direction with the launch of a new Punisher series from Marvel's mature reader's imprint, MAX. Ennis quickly established that the Punisher's MAX adventures took place in a much darker and disturbed world than the traditional Marvel Universe, one with no costumed heroes or villains. In this world, Frank Castle has been waging his war against crime in real time, ever since he returned home from Vietnam. The MAX imprint allowed Ennis to craft realistic, savage and brutal Punisher stories that couldn't be told elsewhere And while the acclaimed writer finished his run on the title in 2008, the grim legacy he established for the character lives on in the form of "PunisherMAX," an ongoing series by writer Jason Aaron and artist Steve Dillon.
When Aaron and Dillon began the series, they sought to give their protagonist the ultimate challenge. To that end, they decided to put him against the MAX incarnation of one of his toughest foes from the Marvel Universe, Wilson Fisk AKA the Kingpin. In the series initial arc Aaron and Dillon introduced Frank Castle to Fisk and chronicled how the villain became the Kingpin of New York's underworld. In the series second and current arc, "Bullseye," Fisk escalated his war with the Punisher, by hiring the MAX incarnation of the titular Marvel Universe assassin, to kill the Punisher. "PunisherMAX" #10, the penultimate chapter of the "Bullseye" arc is in stores next week and we spoke with Aaron about the story so far as well as his plans for the remaining chapters of the Punisher's war against the Kingpin of Crime.
Aaron and Dillon launched "PunisherMAX" in November of 2009, they released nine consecutive issues before having to put the series temporarily on hold for Dillon to catch up on his other artistic duties. "At the time, Steve was also working on 'Ultimate Avengers' and he was really under the weather. So it was just a bad confluence of events and we wanted to wait and have Steve be the one to finish this story," Aaron told CBR News. "I'm telling one big story with 'PunisherMAX' and we'd like to have one guy draw the whole thing. Thankfully Marvel was cool with letting us wait until Steve could get caught up. Now we're back on track and we've got a few issues in the can. We know it was a long delay, but hopefully it will be worth the wait and people will be able to jump right back in."
When the story continues, Aaron will be picking up with all of the interesting situations that he left his characters in. In issue #9, the writer hinted that there was more to the MAX incarnation of Bullseye than meets the eye when the assassin gave what appeared to be a deeply personal account about coping with irrational homicidal impulses and the horrific dementia brought on because of them.
"We don't really know Bullseye's story, but we might get to tell it. There has been some talk about a Bullseye special or miniseries. It may happen, it may not. There's a story there, but it's not the same story as the Marvel Universe's Bullseye. We don't really know what this guy's deal is and how he became what he is," Aaron revealed. "Certainly you see in that conversation between Bullseye and Fisk's wife that there's something there under the surface. Maybe there's some sort of tragic figure trapped inside him. We don't know. For the most part though, he's all monster and certainly takes great joy in what he does for a living."
Unfortunately for the psychopathic hitman, Bullseye hasn't been able to take a whole lot of joy from his current assignment. So far, he's found the Punisher to be a difficult and confusing target. "We've established that Bullseye is a pretty crafty hitman. He's the guy you go to if you want to hit the impossible target. He's also bat shit crazy, as we've seen. His methods initially seem to be completely unsound and it seems like there's no way the things this guy is doing could actually work, but as the arc has gone along, you've seen that there's a method to his madness," Aaron explained. "This is certainly the biggest challenge he's ever had, though. Bullseye has a stumbling block when it comes to Frank. There's something about Frank's origin that doesn't make sense. Bullseye is hung up on that. He's locked himself in a room and is going crazy trying to figure it out. There are pieces of Frank's origin that don't seem to fit and he can't go full bore after Frank until he feels he understands the Punisher completely. In this next issue, issue #10, we'll see Bullseye trying to get past that. That sets up the confrontation at the end of the arc in issue #11 as Frank comes calling."
When Frank confronts Bullseye, he won't be happy. So far his confrontations with the Kingpin and Bullseye have robbed him of his arsenal while placing him in the crosshairs of the NYPD. "When we pick up with this new issue, you see that Frank's safety net has been taken away. His safehouses are gone. His storehouses of money, weapons and ammunition have all been seized by the police. And the police aren't his friends any more now that he's killed a dirty cop," Aaron remarked. "So Frank is in as bad a spot as we've ever seen him. Of course that's not going to discourage him from pursuing his ultimate goal, which is to kill Fisk and kill Bullseye."
Killing a dirty cop may have incensed the NYPD, but they need to be careful how they handle the Punisher. In "PunisherMAX" #9, some uniformed officers thought they could use the Punisher's stance against killing cops to detain him at gun point. Castle responded by shooting them in the knee caps and escaping.
"Frank always drew the line at killing cops. In this arc, though, we saw Frank step over that line and kill a cop. Now, it was a dirty cop in Fisk's pocket, but the police don't really see it that way. If Frank kills one of them, it's a slap in the face. So we see at the opening of issue #10 that the police are done tolerating him," Aaron said. "Frank, of course, takes offense to that because he feels like he's been the one who was tolerating them. So he's just not going to do that anymore. That doesn't mean he's going to be running around shooting cops in the head, but Frank wants what Frank wants and when he's focused on a goal nobody better get in his way. If that's the entire police force, then so be it. He's not going to stop doing what he does."
Wilson Fisk has also experienced some setbacks and suffering during the past chapters of the "Bullseye" arc. In those earlier installments, Aaron illustrated how Fisk's quest to become Kingpin ultimately cost him his family. "He's the king of New York, but he's sitting up in his castle all by himself now. His family is gone," Aaron stated. "The scene in issue #9 with Bullseye and the Kingpin's wife, Vanessa Fisk, will have ramifications going forward. So we will see more of Vanessa in the next few arcs. Her story is not done and certainly Fisk is finding that the thing he had always dreamed about is not as rosy as he hoped it would be."
The Punisher's battle against the Kingpin and Bullseye may have been brutal so far, but soon things will escalate to a whole new level. That's because at the end off "PunisherMAX" #9, readers saw that Frank Castle had acquired chemical weapons and was getting ready to use them against Fisk and his forces. "Frank is basically saying get out of my way to the police and the entire city of New York and nobody feels like standing in his way," Aaron said. "So you'll see him come at Fisk and Bullseye in a very big way. It's a plan that will have big ramifications for Frank going forward."
In April, Aaron and Dillon kick off their third arc of "PunisherMAX" with issue #12. Like the first arc titled "Kingpin" and the second arc, "Bullseye," the third arc will have the simple descriptive title of "Frank."
"The first two arcs have focused a great deal on the villains of the piece, but the third arc is all Frank. It's all about diving inside Frank's head. Part of the story takes place in the present, but a big chunk of it flashes back to the past. We really see Frank's story as a newly returned Vietnam vet. We see what he lost when his family was killed. What was his family life like in the time leading up to that fateful day in Central Park?" Aaron asked. "We see all of that. We see Frank trying to be a family man. We see him trying to be something other than what he had been and what he was going to become. He wasn't a guy who could come home from the things that he had done in Vietnam and shake that off to have a happy, carefree life of tee ball and backyard barbecues. So a big part of the 'Frank' arc is exploring that chunk of his past and seeing how it impacts Frank in the present as he's trying to climb up from the bottom of a very deep hole that he's found himself in."
Aaron's Punisher versus the Kingpin story is an epic saga that will have a beginning, middle and yes, an end. Readers are currently in the middle portion of the story, so Aaron couldn't reveal too much about his long term plans, though he was able to hint that before his story is over, readers would be meeting another MAX counterpart to an established Marvel character. "It won't be any of the Enforcers. We mention Fancy Dan and Ox in this arc, but that was just a little Easter Egg," Aaron stated. "We'll likely see this character in my last arc on the book. I'm going to have to keep their identity a secret for now."
Aaron is very grateful for the readers who have stuck with "PunisherMAX" during it's long hiatus, and now that the series is back on track, he hopes to reward their patience. "I'm glad we're back in the saddle and everything looks to be full speed ahead," the writer remarked. "We're sorry about the long delay, but hopefully people will jump right back into the book."