"Punisher: Frank Castle" has been limping along ever since Garth Ennis's departure, and that's no surprise. The series was created so Ennis could do his thing with the character, and all we've seen since then is Ennis-lite, with the real fun with the character being had by Rick Remender over in the mainstreamy side of the Marvel U.
But in this final issue, the MAX crew gives us a few short goodbyes to Frank Castle, and it's not a bad little anthology issue. Some of the stories are better than others -- in this case, much better -- but this is a mostly-good issue, including a couple of stories that are among some of the best Punisher shorts ever told. Or, at least, ever told recently.
Let's start with the bad news first, though: the Charlie Huston/Ken Lashley story is just terrible. It's a tonally and artistically out of place retelling of the Punisher's origin in an issue already full of retellings of the origin. Several of the stories in this issue flash back to that fateful day when Frank Castle's family was caught in the crossfire, but the Huston/Lashley story uses it as the emotional core of a story that looks like a rejected issue of "Wetworks," circa 1994. It's ugly, not in terms of its gruesome content (though it is that), but in terms of Lashley's figure drawing and composition, which gives the whole story a sickly sheen that doesn't measure up to the otherwise excellent art in the rest of the issue.
Because this issue has Goran Parlov. Tomm Coker, Laurence Campbell, and Das Pastoras, four artists with very different styles who make their stories look tragic, sad, moody, funny, or vicious, as needed. They do a great job providing different artistic views of the life of Frank Castle, and Lashley's Extreme Mark Bagley approach looks shockingly out of place.
But the other four stories are good, with the highlights being the Tim Piccirilli/Laurence Campbell opener, in which Frank Castle helps a lost girl while still completing his mission, and the Greg Hurwitz/Das Pastoras 1970s tale, which provides a grotesquely beautiful look at how the Punisher came to be.
None of these are happy, fun stories. It's the Punisher in a MAX comic. But most of them provide enough haunting imagery to make the stories resonate more than the recent tales of Frank Castle running around fighting mobsters.
The issue ends with a preview of the upcoming Jason Aaron/Steve Dillon "PunisherMAX" #1, and the new KingpinMAX is different from what you might expect. Honestly, it may be the best part of the entire issue. But the Campbell and Pastoras stories are certainly worth your time as well.