In Marvel Comics’ “PunisherMAX,” the publisher’s mature readers Punisher series, the title character exists in world without costumed heroes and villains. Instead, the popular vigilante has been waging a bloody, real-time war against crime since he returned home from the Vietnam War. Over the course of his crusade, Frank Castle has battled some sick, twisted, and powerful opponents, but nothing could prepare him for his current opponent, the MAX incarnation of Wilson Fisk, New York City’s Kingpin of crime.
Castle’s campaign against Fisk began in “PunisherMAX” #1 by writer Jason Aaron and artist Steve Dillon. In the series’ introductory arc, the appropriately named “Kingpin,” the creators chronicled Fisk’s rise to power and the Punisher’s violent reaction. In the second arc, titled “Bullseye,” the Kingpin escalated his war with the Punisher by sending the MAX incarnation of the titular assassin after him, resulting in a conflict which led to the Punisher’s arrest. In the series’ current arc, “Frank,” a physically and mentally scarred Punisher is trapped behind bars in a maximum security prison in the midst of a riot. CBR News spoke with Aaron about “Frank,” which comes to a close on August 10 with the release of “PunisherMAX” #16, and the series’ next arc, which features the final confrontation between Frank Castle and the Kingpin.
“Frank” is a story which has unfolded in both in the present and the past, with current sequences showing readers the Punisher’s various enemies scheming to strike at him in prison, while the flashbacks have allowed Aaron and Dillon to illustrate that Frank Castle’s transformation into the Punisher was slow and gradual, not something that was suddenly triggered by the death of his family.
“I really wanted to show something you’ve never seen with the Punisher. His home life has always been idealized; it seemed like he came home from Vietnam and things were great. Then his family was killed, and that set him on the path to becoming the Punisher. If you look at the stuff Garth Ennis had done, though, especially with the ‘Punisher: Born’ miniseries, that shows you that Frank was certainly on the road to becoming the Punisher before his family was ever killed,” Aaron told CBR News. “So, you have to wonder what his family life would have been like. He couldn’t come home and suddenly flip a switch and become a great father, husband and family man. He may not have had that skull on his chest, but he was the Punisher. He was the guy that’s going to go on to wage a thirty-year war on crime. He hadn’t yet had the sparks that pointed him in that direction that he’s going to go in, but for all intents and purposes, he was that guy, and that guy cannot live in the suburbs, work a nine to five job, and have a wife.
“Back when Frank came home from Vietnam, people knew about shell shock and post-traumatic stress disorder, but I don’t think the treatment for those things was embraced like it is now. There were a lot of veterans that didn’t get the help they needed,” Aaron continued. “I think that’s the theme to a lot of our scenes in the past. Frank doesn’t know how to ask for the help he needs. He can’t even reach out to his wife when she’s right there next to him, or when she’s banging on the door begging him to talk her. He doesn’t know how to talk to and play with his kids, either. That’s the case with a lot of vets, even today. Some guys have no problem talking about the things they went through or did; other guys don’t really want to talk about it or relive it at all. Frank is obviously an exaggerated case. We’ve seen some of the things Frank did in Vietnam. How could even begin to tell his wife about some of those things?”
His inability to connect with his family when they were alive is part of the reason why the Punisher is so driven in his war on crime, Aaron explained. “There’s an element of guilt that’s driving Frank beyond his thirst for vengeance. A lot of that is kind of going through his mind in the present day scenes of him in prison. In those scenes, you’re looking at a Frank Castle who doesn’t know if he deserves to live; who thinks that it may be time to pack it in. He’s struggling with a lot both in the present and the past in these issues.”
An unexpected face appears in “Frank,” both in the flashbacks as well as during the Punisheer’s time in prison — the MAX version of Nick Fury. The enigmatic spymaster approached Frank in the past with an offer, but his appearance in the present comes suddenly when Frank is sitting alone in the middle of solitary confinement. This left some readers to wonder if Fury was really there or if he was just a product of the Punisher’s imagination.
“Certainly, in the flashbacks, Fury is really there. That’s really Nick Fury. There’s one scene in the present in prison where it’s a little more ambiguous as to whether Fury was actually there or not. In the past, though, Nick Fury recognizes what Frank is going through and recognizes that he’s fooling himself and offers him work and a direction to his life. In some sense, it’s a way to save his family. Because Fury knows, if Frank continues down this road, his family is going to get hurt one way or another,” Aaron remarked. “Fury appeared in the past when Frank was having trouble with a local mob boss. I included those scenes because I wanted to show how that period of his life connects to characters like Nick Fury and to show how Frank was having run-ins with the mob even before that day in Central Park.”
It’s no spoiler to say that the flashback sequences of “PunisherMAX” #16 will show the events of the day that finally drove Frank Castle to take up arms against the forces of organized crime, something readers have been expecting since the arc began. “Everything kind of comes to head in this issue. As we see at the end of the most recent issue, the family is packing up for a day at the park. Of course, we all know how that ends. What we’ll be focusing on and what we don’t know is what was running through Frank’s head in those last moments before the shots rang out. That’s what we’ll see. That’s what Bullseye whispered in Frank’s ear at the end of the previous arc. Fans have wondered what Bullseye said to him; what Bullseye figured out about Frank and his last moments with his wife. We’re going to find out next issue,” Aaron said. “Then, in the present, Frank is obviously in a pickle. Things seem to be closing in around him. The prison is in the middle of a full scale riot, and on the final page of issue #15, one of Fisk’s assassins posing as a prison guard threw a grenade into Frank’s cell.”
Normally Frank Castle would spring immediately into action when faced with this sort of situation, but when “PunisherMAX” #16 begins, Castle will be hesitant. “Frank seems rather immobile — he doesn’t know if he wants to fight back or try to save himself,” Aaron said. “Even if he does throw the grenade that was tossed is his cell back out, there’s an entire raging prison between him and freedom. So no matter how things work out next issue, it won’t be simple. It won’t be easy. There’s a twist to what’s going on inside those prison walls. It’s probably not what our readers are expecting.”
It’s unclear how that twist will impact the life of the Punisher, but in September’s “PunisherMAX” #17 he will be out of prison and back on the streets — not that this will make his life any safer. “As we saw in the ‘Bullseye’ arc, the police had finally gotten tired of Frank after he killed a cop. It was a dirty cop, but it was still a cop. So they took away his safe houses, his arsenal, his money and really everything. Frank does make it out of prison, but he’s up against the biggest and most powerful enemy he’s ever faced in the Kingpin, a guy who now completely controls New York City. And Frank is starting this war from ground zero. He’s got nothing. He doesn’t even have a gun. So it’s quite a climb for him to realize his ultimate goal of killing Wilson Fisk.
“This next arc will be a darker story, like ‘Frank,’ but there will be a little more action as the conflict between the Punisher and the Kingpin explodes onto the streets of New York City,” Aaron continued. “There will be a little more humor in this story, too. Most of the black humor from previous stories revolved around Bullseye, and you’re going to get at least a glimpse of him again in this next arc. So don’t think he’s dead or off the table.”
Each arc of “PunisherMAX” has followed a different point of view character. In “Kingpin” readers saw things from both the Punisher and Wilson Fisk’s perspectives, while in “Bullseye,” the focus was shifted to the titular assassin and for the current “Frank” arc, Aaron is following the Punisher’s point of view. In the arc that begins in September, the perspective will once again be split between the Punisher and the Kingpin, but a new character will be added to the mix , making a big impact on both Fisk and Castle.
“This arc will feature the introduction of the MAX version of Elektra. Wilson Fisk is still holed up in his glass tower, terrified of Frank Castle. He knows that Castle is gunning for him. So he brings in a new bodyguard in the form of Elektra. I’m not sure how much we’ll dig into her backstory, but certainly, she’s more than just a simple bodyguard,” Aaron said. “By this point, we will have delved into Wilson Fisk’s family life. We saw how that worked out in the first arc. We saw the death of his son and the erosion of his marriage. And in the most recent arc, we saw the death of Frank Castle’s children and the erosion of his marriage. So these two guys have a bit in common. All of that back-story will come into play in this arc. This will be the final confrontation between these two characters. It’s one that won’t have an easy clear cut ending for either guy.”
Aaron may be bringing the war between the Punisher and the Kingpin to a close, but that doesn’t mean he’s ending his run on the series. “This is the culmination of the Punisher/Kingpin story, but it’s not my last story on the book,” the writer said. “There are definitely plans in place after this next arc, but I can’t talk about them without spoiling what’s coming up.”