Frank Castle is dead.
Collapsing at the end of issue 21, Castle died after a string of fights with Elektra, Wilson Fisk’s men, and Fisk himself, all after escaping from prison where he spent his entire stay recovering from injuries incurred fighting Bullseye. That he lasted as long as he did was sheer force of will. The final issue of “Punishermax” begins with Nick Fury watching the autopsy of Castle, providing the narration that carries the issue, tying up various loose ends and laying the Punisher to rest. Or, at least, putting him in the ground with the family he was on the verge of throwing away before they were taken from him. It’s a fitting end to the series, a sequel of sorts to Garth Ennis’s lengthy tenure writing the character.
When Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon launched “Punishermax,” I wasn’t the only one who had their doubts. Ennis’s “Punisher MAX” was a definitive statement on the character, and the attempts to follow him on the book were so uninspiring that it seemed like a better idea to let the ‘mature readers’ version of the character rest and leave future Punisher stories for the Marvel Universe proper where he never ages and never really kills anyone (well, anyone that matters or will stay dead). News that the new title would also feature ‘MAX’ versions of the Kingpin and Bullseye only added to the sense that Marvel was making a mistake. Well, we were all wrong. Aaron and Dillon took the core ideas of Fisk and Bullseye and used them to shed new light on Castle, to further develop the character, and expose some nasty truths that undercut a lot of what we knew about the character.
The title’s third story arc, “Frank,” in particular, delved in Castle’s past, exploring the effects of Vietnam on his marriage and home life when he came home. It wasn’t the picture perfect family that has usually been shown (or alluded to, at least) in Punisher comics. Like many veterans, Castle had difficulty rejoining the ‘real world,’ and seeing him struggle to be the husband and father he was probably never meant to be, and possibly never wanted, both fleshed out a part of the character rarely explored and, sadly, made sense.
What was left is, in part, what Nick Fury deals with in this issue. The Punisher is dead and what does that mean? Shouldn’t it mean something? For Fury, it means someone he fought alongside and respected is dead. It means seeing everyone around him trying to find meaning or misinterpreting what’s happened. All Fury seems concerned with is putting Castle in the ground and letting him stay there. He burns Castle’s ‘War Journal’ and even the Castles’ old house before burying Castle and tying up the one loose end he left from his war with Fisk.
There’s a sense in the issue of Fury, and Aaron, struggling with the idea that there is no big meaning here. Any fancy words and moving speeches would maybe make people feel better or give some sense of closure, but they would be lies. In the wake of Castle’s burial, Fury’s narration sums it up perfectly: “And the truth is, Frank... Truth is you murdered, suffered and died... All for nothing. You didn’t change the world, Frank, You didn’t even change New York City.” It’s a sentiment that flies in the face of what the death of a character like the Punisher should be, but it’s completely adherent to both Aaron’s run on the title and Ennis’s. Frank Castle is no hero, he’s a killer that just happens to kill bad people. There’s no meaning, there’s just that sad truth.
If this issue has one flaw, it’s that Aaron undercuts that idea at the end of the issue with a scene that seems like it was taken out of a comic featuring the death of Captain America or Superman. It’s cheesy and sentimental, cheap and worthless. It alludes back to “Welcome Back, Frank,” the debut Punisher story of Ennis and Dillon, but makes the joke sincere.
The coup of getting Steve Dillon to draw the follow-up to Ennis’s Punisher work paid off throughout the entire 22-issue run of “Punishermax” right up through this finale. His version of Nick Fury is absolutely perfect: receding hairline, slicked back hair, suit and jacket. He looks old, grizzled, professional, classy, and out of place all at the same time. Dillon gets across the conflict Fury has inside over the death of Castle, of his struggle to honor the memory of a fellow soldier without turning him into something more than a killer at the same time. Most of the issue, he looks angry somehow. Like there’s something just below the surface that he wants to let out but doesn’t know what it is.
“Punishermax” ends on a near-perfect final issue. In telling the rise and fall of Wilson Fisk, Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon also exposed Frank Castle in ways no one expected, leading to the only fitting conclusion: his death. This final issue struggles to say what that death means and, ultimately, it doesn’t mean anything. Frank Castle killed thousands of people and died in the process. The war is over.