The third story arc of Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s “Punishermax” continues to hum along nicely, exploring two different Frank Castles: the one that tried his best to become a regular guy after coming back from Vietnam, and the one that’s in prison right now, broken down and seemingly prepared to die. That contrast is striking, because neither of those characters has been seen before. Normally, pre-Punisher Frank is a regular guy and a loving husband, not an emotional cripple who would rather be in a jungle killing. The Punisher is a dedicated force of nature, not an emotionally destroyed man who has no fight left in him. It’s compelling writing paired with art that adds depth and a joy to read every month.
Seeing the younger Frank struggle to push down his more violent tendencies is almost heartbreaking as he seems to be winning. He turns down an offer from Nick Fury, he quits a job rather than kill his murdering boss, and only attacks some men because they’re going to kill someone. He’s not where he wants to be, but he’s making progress from where we saw him at the beginning of the story, and, since we know how this story ends, that makes it even worse. The real question: will that progress be taken from him or will he willingly give it up, along with his family?
The present part of the issue is less compelling with Frank in jail and a shell of a man, while another prison conspires to kill him. It’s much more your ‘typical’ Punisher story aside from Frank’s emotional state. That alone is interesting and works because it doesn’t need to carry the entire comic. We get little tastes of that reality between trips to the past, keeping both fresh.
The visual contrast between the two Franks is striking. Dillon takes that gritty, flat-nosed thug that is the Punisher and strips away much of that rage and experience that’s worn down on his features. The younger Frank could sometimes pass for some innocent newlywed, except there’s usually a cold hardness to his expression. In bed with his wife, he tries to comfort her as she cries about his emotional distance, but he shows no emotion and his body language is stiff. You can see that he knows what to do on an intellectual level despite lacking the emotional capacity to feel why. The rest of the time, the younger Frank looks almost angry and you can see his frustration with life boiling just under the surface.
If this issue has one flaw, it’s the ending. By introducing mobsters into Frank’s past, Aaron walks a fine line, one that could undo the fantastic work he’s done on adding depth to the Punisher’s ‘origin.’ That’s something that won’t be known until next issue, but it’s hard not to groan at the ending and immediately conclude that the run was good while it lasted. Hopefully, that won’t be the case.
It’s hard to read “Punishermax” sometimes, because of the terrible reality of the protagonist. He’s a man that was ruined by a war only to find himself a new war. Here, we see him between wars and after he’s lost faith in himself and that new war. It’s unsettling, and Aaron and Dillon play it just right.