By Steve Morris
Spoilers below, of course: we’re talking about the last issue of the run!
A lot of people have spent inordinate amounts of time trying to write about why Frank Castle became the Punisher, and what his one-man war on “bad people” actually means. In Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s run of Punisher Max, which tenuously follows on from Garth Ennis’ previous run with “apparently” the same character, that question becomes an obsession for the creative team to taunt the readers with. A strange mix of the original cathartic, nihilist tendencies of Ennis’ run against the interconnectivity and “hey! It’s that guy!” nature of Marvel’s superhero universe (each arc features a recognisable guest star like Kingpin, Bullseye and Elektra), the series uneasily dangles that it knows the “answer” to the question: why are you the Punisher, Frank?
And after a long tease, the final issue arrives alongside another familiar guest star – Nick Fury, who at this point is an old and grizzled veteran who’s seen it all before. Fury shows up to pass a eulogy for Frank Castle, and define the legacy that the old bastard leaves behind. His verdict is a surprising one, but feels refreshingly honest. What was the point of all this violence, death, and trauma? Absolutely none.
Fury, given narration duties for the issues, concludes that this was all absolutely meaningless. Frank’s kick-ass kill-spreeing was facile, small-minded, and failed to see the bigger picture: it was a waste of everyone’s time. He buries Frank with the sparse eulogy: “you were a helluva soldier, Frank. Best I ever saw” and leaves it at that. Clearly our last moments with Punisher Max are intended to make us feel that Frank Castle’s tenure as The Punisher was just one man lashing out at the world in the most personal fashion he could, a suicide run which took down as many bad people as possible in the process but was never intended to inspire anyone or make a real difference in the wider world.
Frank’s perspective is basically gone from the issue, which fits the small-picture condemnation of the character. Whilst he’s alive he threatens every criminal in New York: in death, nobody really needs to care or worry about that particular problem anymore. He didn’t break the system, end the cycle, or do anything which would ensure actual and lasting change. Instead he shot a bunch of people, then got shot, and now he’s cold dead in the ground.
However, while serving the nihilistic form of Ennis’ run, this revamped series also has that Marvel Universe tendency to want things wrapped up neatly and nicely. While the subtext within the issue offers up the idea that Fury is a bitter old man who has realised his own obsolescence, it ultimately cuts that in favour of a happier ending. He wanted Frank to join him, and now he sees Frank’s dead body he finally understands that his tenure was just as pointless as The Punisher’s trail of bodies, regardless of how big-picture his bloody, decades-long war felt at the time. There’s neat symmetry in that, a recognition of the pointlessness of having superhero characters try to take on crushing real-world criminality.
But the last page of the series offers hope, and breaks the finale as a result. Fury watches TV in a bar, thinking about his pointless life, when he sees news reports of vigilantism in the city. People dressed as Punisher have started fighting back against the gangs who own their streets, and the corrupt powers-that-be. It’s intended to be a salve for Fury, that the good people of the general public are standing up for themselves and taking up the fight on behalf of all the fallen “soldiers” like Frank or Fury. At the time it was too neat for the comic itself, too happy an ending… but in years since, and the rise of alt-right co-option of the Punisher logo, it now also feels hopelessly, dangerously naive.
One of the big turning points in this run came when Frank killed a police officer for the first time, which turned the NYPD against him, where previously they’d turned a blind eye to his activities because they secretly supported him and wished they could kill “bad guys” too. In the real world the same is true, with Punisher’s iconography extremely popular with actual police officers in, particularly, America. The legacy this issue sets up for Frank is that of a vigilante who worked for the greater good, and inspired people to take up arms against the system: in reality, his legacy is to bolster the confidence of people upholding the system, who take up arms against anybody they feel deserves it.
If this final issue had ended without trying to offer any kind of happy ending, it would not only have landed far more strongly for readers – it also wouldn’t have become so dated by modern events. You can find a lot of writing online about how Marvel’s media empire emboldens society in negative ways: how the Iron Man movies inspired war profiteers rather than philanthropists; how the Captain America films led to people signing up for the army, and so on. Punisher Max, in trying to give Frank Castle some kind of hopeful legacy, becomes another example of that naivety. Rather than standing behind Frank’s pragmatic approach to survival, or by Fury’s relentlessly bleak outlook on death, the series instead wants us to mindlessly believe in the inherent goodness of humanity; of the world; the strength of our societies and our collective ability to overcome corruption and justice?
It’s like nobody learned anything from Frank at all!
Punisher Max #22 “War’s End”
Written by Jason Aaron
Drawn by Steve Dillon
Coloured by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Cory Petit
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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The MAX Punisher run was, in my opinion, the best take on the Punisher. I wish someone would continue in similar fashion, if not with Frank Castle, then Nick Fury. Ennis had it right.
I’m a huge fan of Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s run on Punisher Max and I love the way they challenge the readers with the question of why Frank Castle chose to become the Punisher. It’s a great mix of the Ennis’ nihilistic approach to the character and the more interconnected universe of Marvel’s superheroes. I’m curious though, how did the creative team reconcile the two ideas? Is there a way for the Punisher to exist in both worlds?