Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Trade Waiting – PunisherMAX – Kingpin

When Garth Ennis left, people thought the Punisher as a MAX comic was dead and buried. And they were nearly right but then Jason Aaron stepped up to the plate. The series has suffered delays recently but the first trade is out in paperback and ready for your consumption. It shows Wilson Fisk setting himself up as the Kingpin and it’s definitely worth a read; hit the jump to find out why.

PunisherMAX – Kingpin

Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Steve Dillon

The series feels like kind of a reset compared to current Marvel continuity because Wilson Fisk is just a guy making his way up the ranks. This is the start of something we know ends up big, or at least does in 616 continuity (the general Marvel universe). Juxtaposed against this is a Frank Castle who is slightly older than we’re used to, he’s been doing this for years and he’s wrinkled and tired, but nonetheless determined. It’s a cold entrance, and is tied to the Ennis run without ever really making overt mention of the fact. It’s just another tale in the world of a man who has many tales told about him.

The storyline shows us the heads of the local mafia families, or at least the guys who have become the heads as Castle has wiped most of the real power in town out. They’re doing what they can to stay alive, and they’re obviously fearful of their odds, so they’ve hatched a plan. For years there has been a myth about a Kingpin, a boss of the bosses, so they’re going to make it look like it’s coming real. While this distracts Castle, they’ll go about their other business. They’ve got a young buck to fill the fake role, Fisk, and they’re all happy to get the ball rolling on it quickly.

It’s a great plan, except for the fact Wilson Fisk, the secret brains behind the whole idea, is going to use the situation to actually set himself up as the Kingpin. It’s a hostile takeover committed in broad daylight and right in front of them. A daring move but one that makes sense for the situation all the families are in.

On the other side, we have Castle slowly winding his way closer to getting to this new Kingpin. It’s a cat and mouse game and a third stranger is thrown into the mix. I still don’t know exactly how I feel about the man known as the Mennonite. He’s a bull strong killer who turned to religion and had a family but is dragged back into the game and unleashed onto Castle by Fisk’s boss. The character feels interesting but underdeveloped and utilized. I would have liked to see a bit more exploration, the sort of thing Aaron does so perfectly in his other title Scalped. Instead, we get this character very quickly into the action and it’s interesting and moves the story but also feels kind of jarring and sudden.

Without getting into spoilers, that’s pretty much the story. Fisk makes a power play. Castle does his best to punish. The Mennonite enters the scene to even the stakes. Mob families do their best to survive, which is never really that good. It seems simple enough, though there is a fair degree of meat to this tale, but this title isn’t just about the narrative. It’s about the flavor.

Jason Aaron does an excellent job of making a lot of the twists and characters a bit more interesting by utilizing all the different factors he can think of to make this a true MAX book. There’s blood and violence and plenty of swearing, and just a little bit of sex. But it’s not simply gratuitous or because he can or feels he should. It is all still narrative tied and usually something you haven’t seen before. At times it feels like it can go too far but when you really think about it, it’s a Punisher MAX book, it can’t go too far by pure definition.

These moments are usually pretty great moments, though not for the squeamish. The opening issue shows a man suffering from pressure causing ocular discomfort. Later, hands get sliced up and salt gets rubbed in the wounds. Hookers are shot dead. Someone gets beat up pretty bad with a sledgehammer and someone else gets stabbed in the junk with a shoe blade. There’s plenty of fist fights, an old lady gets gunned down, and a falling safe obliterates someone else’s head. This sort of violence peppers each issue within the trade but if you didn’t pick this up wanting that sort of thing then I don’t know what you were looking for. Aaron does the gross out violence pretty well and it suits the exact tone he’s going for.

The best thing about Aaron’s work on this title is his ability to push boundaries and set up brutal back stories. Wilson Fisk remembers the moment he became an adult when he disabled his father, put cheese in his mouth, and tied a sack of hungry rats to his head. This sort of thing shows that Aaron is able to go to new lengths of depravity just to motivate a character. Looking at how Fisk got started in the business, both his first prison raping and his first heist gone wrong, are great sequences. It’s nothing you’ve ever read before, nor ever known you wanted to think about.

It’s interesting, then, with all the talk of prison shower scenes and retribution via ultraviolence, that the heart of this comic is present and hopelessly desperate. This comic is about bad fathers, when you really look at it. Fisk is informed by his own terrible patriarchal influence. While he has deluded himself into thinking he’s always going to be better, when he is pushed to prove this he cannot. Fisk is a selfish man, a self-made man, and there’s nothing he won’t sacrifice. It’s a jolting extreme that even I wasn’t expecting, not even from the villain of the piece. Though it is probably Fisk’s reaction after the fact that is the most chilling. It’s harsh and well written and proves that Aaron isn’t just here to be juvenile. He’s crafting a story no matter what you might have assumed.

We also see the flip side that Castle is a terrible father too. He started his whole punishing crusade to avenge his family, the dead wife and kids he’ll never see again, but this far into the game he seems to have forgotten this. He’s stuck in the cycle of the hunt and he’s forgotten why he’s doing it all. He’s not that different from someone like Fisk and what does that say about them both as they circle each other like sharks in very bloody waters?

Even the Mennonite deserts his fatherly duty to join into the fray. Perhaps it’s not that these men are bad fathers but rather that violence isn’t something that can be reconciled with also being a father. You’re either a violent man or a father, and never the twain shall meet. It’s a heady concept to tackle and one that you might miss unless you’re really thinking about it all.

Steve Dillon’s art is great, he tells the story well and the action flows loosely. The pain and injuries look real and yet it’s all still cloaked in an almost cartoony buffer that makes it slightly less confrontational. I can tell that he’s done a great job here, it’s obvious, but I just don’t like his art. I can respect it, and it doesn’t detract from the story for me, but I just don’t like it. I never completely have. Personal preference, completely, so feel free to enjoy the art yourself. I just can’t even understand why I don’t, I always get the feeling that every character generally looks the same, or very similar, and I can never stop looking at lips as Dillon draws them. They distract me.

Dave Johnson’s covers break up the issues and I’m thankful for their inclusion. He’s one of the best cover artists in the business and he’s done nothing but awesome work on this series. It’s a stylish mix of narrative, branding, and design. These look like little posters and give you a sense of the character and tone this series captures perfectly.

Verdict – Buy It. I wouldn’t call this a perfect comic, but it is a whole stack of fun. If it’s a Buy It comic then it’s the very top of that category. This is a fun and nasty comic packed to the brim with fantastic moments. The narrative might fly a little thinly but the characterization on display is the true key. Aaron is definitely starting something special on this title and the first trade is a great taste. If you think you want some more Punisher MAX then you need this title. It’s just a blast, from start to finish, and you’ll definitely leave it wanting to read what comes next.

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Dennis N said...

PunisherMAX has been great, but after reading the series, I see the characters in all of Steve Dillon's art elsewhere, especially in Ultimate Comics Avengers 3. It's very distinctive, and seeing Captain America as Bullseye for example, weirds me out. Very different from Preacher, which I haven't read, but I've flipped through.

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