Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Punisher MAX: Kingpin Review (Jason Aaron, Steve Dillon)


Garth Ennis’ run on The Punisher is THE definitive version of the character in the same way that Ed Brubaker/Steve Epting’s Captain America and Matt Fraction/David Aja’s Hawkeye are the pinnacles for those characters - nobody did it better, before or after, and those characters were completely changed (for the better) after those creators left. 

That is until Jason Aaron stepped up to the plate and began a limited series on one of Ennis’ best-loved Marvel titles, The Punisher MAX - and, shockingly, matched Ennis for powerful and brilliant storytelling, knocking all expectations out of the park! 

Kingpin is the first arc in this four-volume series. Instead of taking the established character of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, and throwing him and Frank together, Aaron takes us back to the beginning. This is Kingpin’s origin and I don’t know enough about the character to say whether this is canon or not, but it’s a pretty damn amazing one either way. 

In Aaron’s MAX version, Wilson Fisk is a mob enforcer with a plan to distract Frank while Fisk’s boss calls in a “miracle worker” to kill the Punisher: create a Kingpin, a boss of mob bosses. The idea is that Frank will take his attention away from the real bosses of the five crime families in trying to figure out who this fictional Kingpin is that Fisk will create. 

The thinking behind it is that Frank focuses on killing the head before working his way down the body and will decide to stop trying to get to the five bosses in order to get the Kingpin. And that plan is one of the few criticisms I have about this volume because it’s a bit stupid. Why would Frank ignore the existing five mob bosses to focus on the Kingpin? Wouldn’t he target them as a means of getting information on the Kingpin? Wouldn’t they be the exact right people who would point him in the direction he needed seeing as they would be hypothetically working directly under him? 

The other aspect of the book that irked me was the secondary threat to Frank (not sure why that was needed but there we go): the Mennonite. I don’t remember him from Ennis’ run and I’m not sure if he’s a major antagonist from other Punisher books - but, really, a Mennonite hitman? The fucking AMISH? WTF?! 

Otherwise: holy cow, what a comic. It’s as incredible reading it the second time as it was the first, back in 2011. I picked it up wondering if I was in the mood or not, read a couple pages and then couldn’t put it down until it was over - honestly, it’s that good! 

And, wow, does it live up to the MAX title! Marvel’s MAX range is intended for adults only. That means all the swearing, sex, drug use and extreme violence you don’t see in the regular Marvel comics appears here unedited. Be prepared for very, very graphic scenes as Wilson kills his way to the top and Frank follows, torturing information from the criminal rank and file. And what better maniac to draw such horrors than Steve Dillon, the definitive Punisher artist?

Kingpin is a dark, brutal read about hard, hard men (Aaron’s speciality). It gets to a point where you realise there’s actually no “hero” is all of this - obviously Frank’s meant to be the hero and Wilson the villain but they’re both too terrifying to root for (Aaron and Dillon also emphasise this duality in the panels)! Wilson in particular though - that choice he makes at the end reveals him as a monster, not a man. 

Like Ennis, Aaron knows some of the greatest Punisher stories have Frank as a supporting character rather than the main, despite being the headliner. Frank can be most effective waiting in the wings, coiled and ready to spring into action. Which means if you choose this approach your main focus better be compelling - and Wilson Fisk’s story certainly is. 

I remember picking this up for the first time wondering if Aaron (and I think this was also my first experience reading the guy’s work too) would bring the same intensity to The Punisher MAX that Ennis had - and being happily surprised and blown away that he absolutely did. Years later, Kingpin still has that potency to fully enthral. This is an outstanding start to an exceptional run on The Punisher.

This is the antithesis of what most people think of when they think “Marvel” in terms of subject matter and tone but it bears the hallmarks of the best Marvel books: great storytelling and characters within a shared universe, and in that sense it couldn’t be more Marvel. It’s a pitch-black story not for the faint of heart but it’s a totally compelling comic that I fully recommend to anyone looking for an awesome Punisher book. 

The Punisher MAX: Kingpin

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