Here's a holiday riddle for you: Why isn't Jason Aaron's name on the cover of this comic?
Answer: I have no idea.
Doesn't Marvel know that Aaron's fans would want to see him write the Punisher? Why would they leave off the cover credits? Baffling. I hope it's a production error and nothing more, because they should know that Jason Aaron is the guy who made "Ghost Rider" thrilling for the first time in maybe ever. And he writes the best monthly book on the market with "Scalped." And, well, given what he's done with those two comics, it seems like he'd be a natural to take over the "Punisher" series. Until that happens, though, at least we get treated with this: Aaron's version of a Christmas special.
It's a whole lot of fun, in precisely the way a Punisher comic book can be, when it plays in the fields of brutal nihilism during this most joyous of holiday seasons.
You want irreverence? You'll get it here. Violence? Check. Ridiculous over-the-top savagery? Well, maybe not. Aaron and artistic collaborator Roland Boschi (whose art looks much tighter here than on "Ghost Rider," and yet its still dynamic and expressive) don't take this comic as an opportunity to yuck it up like a Pat Mills "Marshal Law" comic. This is a brutally violent and no-hold-barred Punisher story, but it isn't a parody of itself. It doesn't take itself in an overly serious way, either, as the opening scene shows Frank Castle gunning down the bad guys while wearing a Santa suit.
Yet Aaron plays it all straight, and by keeping a certain level of realism -- or at least a gritty kind of 1970s Hollywood realism -- the middle of the comic works all the more effectively. When the gangsters shoot up a nursery ward to eliminate the newly born scion of a Mafia family, it's certainly not for laughs. And when they discover that the baby they were looking to kill hadn't even been born yet, the humor comes not from any slapstickery but from the bleak irony as they realize their terrible mistake. The murder of infants has appropriately Biblical undertones for a Christmas tale, and when Frank Castle helps deliver a child in what amounts to a manger, well, in lesser hands the story could take a turn toward the maudlin. But Aaron deftly weaves the Biblical symbolism into a story that's half badass crime fiction and half really badass crime fiction.
Aaron's surprisingly layered story -- it's not surprising for anyone who's been reading his work regularly, but might surprise those that picked up the comic based purely on the title and cover art -- works because the resonant subtext does not overwhelm the surface narrative. It reads as a great Frank Castle blood-and-guts tale, but it also has a meaningful connection to Christmas that goes beyond the tree trimmings and the red fluffy suit.
Once again, Jason Aaron delivers exactly what you'd want and gives you more than you bargained for. If you want to delight and or/offend your loved ones during this holiday season, "Punisher Max X-Mas Special" might make the perfect stocking stuffer.