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PunisherMAX was pretty brilliant, don’t you think? I know I was kept on my toes and battered about the head and shoulders by weighty themes and brutal violence until this final issue, #22 on the stands this week. PunisherMAX ends philosophically, with Nick Fury as sort of a Fortinbras to Frank Castle’s vicious tragedy, bidding the soldiers to shoot one final time in honor of the swath of punishment left behind and pondering just what this all means to the annuls of history.
The last page is a letter from Jason Aaron about his intents behind this series. As well as giving an alternate history to the Kingpin and a great Rise and Fall of Wilson Fisk crime drama, there was the question of how much could Frank Castle take until he was dead. Inspired by Garth Ennis’ issues where the Punisher aged in “real time,” Aaron looked back on the 30-some years the Punisher had fought and killed in his one man war against crime when there was always going to be someone younger and more dangerous waiting in the wing to take their next shot. What does that do to someone and where is the breaking point?
The “Explicit Content” tag in the Marvel MAX label does not do concepts like this any favors. Yes, there will be blood and violence and nudity and swearing, but Marvel MAX books are more than than that. From Alias to Cage to Deadpool and both incarnations of the Punisher this title has seen, there is more to all of them than that label. What Marvel MAX needs is mature readers because that’s who they’re written for. The Marvel MAX imprint is for an alternative look at the Marvel Universe, a more mature look both in direction and expectations. It lacks the safety net of a regular title or ongoing series and there are a lot of negative connotations to the more casual public that makes a Marvel MAX title a little dangerous.
It’s normal to look back and expound on people, places and things once they’re gone, so let’s take a look back at PunisherMAX now that the book is over and the curtains have come down and talk about what makes this a rather exquisite example of what the Marvel MAX imprint can be.
WARNING: After the jump, we discuss PunisherMAX so possible spoilers ahoy. Please grab you copies and read along!
Marvel has plenty of ways to present an alternative to their tried and true 616-style universe. There are the Ultimate titles, the movies and television shows, and then there the Marvel MAX books. Everyone agrees that all these viewpoints remain separate from the original, but we’ve seen ideas float between the Ultimate and movie-verse and our every day comics. Costume changes, character developments, sometimes entire characters (hi, Jessica Jones!) get translated to the standard Marvel Universe so the line does blur from time to time. So why have that separation at all? There’s certainly been mature content in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man or the X-Men, so why make a whole imprint to showcase it?
Surprisingly, it’s the narrow focus of what you can do in a mature readers book that makes it all worthwhile. Regular Marvel Comics titles have to be more grand in scope, more broad in their strokes, because they are trying to reach as many readers as they can. A Marvel MAX title has a specific demographic to reach and can get closer to their readers by changing things around, introducing new ideas and stretching out in new directions that regular comics just can’t. Elektra can show up without a mention of Frank Miller’s original concepts and the reader can get to know her without years of back issues. The Punisher can keep an origin that is several years out of date and let those years of wear and tear be a story point. People can languish in agony in a hospital and take on scars and wounds rather than heal up between the panels so they can make it to their next serial appearance. For a book with a clear and definitive ending, PunisherMAX could take more time with the details, living its own unique life away from the rest of the worlds.
Okay, so we have reasons for new and different alternatives for our favorite heroes and villains; why does it have to be mature? What makes it mature in the first place? Well, aside from any HBO standards, let’s look at it this way: aging characters leads to a certain kind of ‘realism’ that can limit storytelling. Youth and discovery go hand in hand and, especially in serial style comics where one story leads into another and back issues are banked as memories in that character’s life, there’s a sort of suspension of disbelief when it comes to how old Spider-Man really is. Meanwhile, over in Marvel MAX, the Punisher fought in Vietnam. That experience took a very specific toll on his life. Every day he got up to murder the cooked and corrupt was shown in the lines on Frank Castle’s face. There could be a mortal limit to his life because that’s exactly what he was by shouldering the weight of time.
Because the Punisher was mortal, he worked by our rules. If he died, there would no rebirth waiting for him afterwards. Heroism, specifically the Punisher’s, could be debatable when applied to real-world philosophies and laws. The people the Punisher faced had to be worse than just crooks and mobsters, they had to be morally bankrupt people to make a man like Castle have the stones to pass judgement on them personally. Actions have more weight in a mature readers title because we should expect more from them. Not to say that stories in the regular Marvel U don’t have weight or deal with mature themes, but the Marvel MAX line can highlight them in the same way we change the channel to find a different type of story.
Surprisingly, this does not beat a path to the Marvel MAX doorstep. Internal problems aside, there is little to no support for these kind of stories. People don’t pick them up and there is no promise of an ongoing series if sales are high or a movie option if your viewpoint is popular. There is a need to pack every issue with as much story as you can because, hey. It might be your last. I like to think this gave PunisherMAX an edge because of it’s Marvel MAX label; that black and white box said this book was going to be dangerous. This was all you were going to get, so read ‘em now before we crash this story or get cancelled. There was no other writer they could have hired but Jason Aaron, no other artist to show this but Steve Dillon, so you know these were they guys who wanted to tell this story because there was no other creative team that could have. Every single one of Dave Johnson’s covers is a work of art because that was the best advertisement PunisherMAX was going to get. It used Marvel characters, but this felt a like a creator-owned title for the amount of pressure and care this went under. And at the end of the day, when the book is done and the last issue is on the shelves, it is up to us, the reader, to see if any of it made a difference.
It’s difficult not to think of the future when reading comics. Sometimes that’s because the comic is about the future. Other times, it’s because comics look ahead in so many other ways, with editorially designed events to come, landmarks left for the future, the numbers they’ll reach and the issues that come after that. Marvel MAX presents a playground of finality where a particularly focused narrative can bring you closer by conclusion. Characters can get a new coat of paint, the past can be taken day by day without hampering the future of what’s to come and creators can tell as much of a story as they need to, content to share as much as they have and then, simply turn off the light.