It almost seems as if the stars aligned perfectly for me to want to check this out, and I suspect I’m not alone. Having never really been that interested in Frank Castle, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued by events in his Dark Reign: The List special that a new #1 by a quite impressive creative team (a bona fide rising star of writing alongside one of my favourite artists in comics) looked specifically designed to draw in people like myself. And that lovely cover even detracts from the fact that (as I’m not the first to point out) it’s impossible to look at the book’s title without being reminded of Adam & Joe.
As a new reader, mind, the setup initially confused me somewhat – I had no idea that there are essentially two versions of the Punisher; the regular MU version (you know, the one that’s currently residing in multiple little pieces) and this alternate-universe version (indeed, I had no idea that there were MAX books that weren’t a part of the Marvel universe). Initially, I took this issue to be the beginning of a flashback tale, telling as it does the origins of Wilson Fisk – but no, apparently, it’s not really part of the MU at all, existing in its own timeline. An interesting conceit, although one that could perhaps be a little better communicated for those of us who never read the Ennis run (and of all the characters you might expect to have multiple versions of running around, is Castle really up there?)
Still, despite not having read Ennis’ run on this particular title (or, at least, its predecessor), I have at least read enough comics by him to know how similar this is to the Ulsterman’s work – very. It’s not so much that I think Aaron is aping his style, so much as I think they share a somewhat twisted sense of humour – and a scene involving eyeballs manages to be almost slapstick-funny at the same time as it’s really rather horrendous (and very Preacher-esque). Aside from that sequence, mind, the book is almost unrelentingly grim – not in the way that the main MU series was (i.e. by bringing all manner of unpleasantness down upon Castle), but in the sheer brutality of its lead character, torturing a nothing hoodlum for information in an almost needlessly cruel way. It’s telling, and a neat trick by Aaron and Dillon, that we don’t actually see his eyes during these pages.
Of course, it’s hard to deny that the other main reason for comparison to an Ennis comic is down to the identity of the artist – and indeed, you wonder if, at least when you consider that it automatically invites said comparison, he may not have been a wise choice, as this book should be allowed to stand on its own without being held alongside the previous run. But you can’t ever argue with the quality of the man’s work (and he draws a gratuitous head wound like nobody else), and it’s a style and tone that he’s perfectly suited to. It may be true that neither half of the creative team are firing on as many cylinders as they’ve been seen to in the past, but they’re both strong enough talents that they make this worth a look – and while one may be moved to wonder just how much more can be done with the concept of an violent, uncompromising, mob-targeting vigilante, the fresh interpretation of the Kingpin at least means that this isn’t really something we’ve seen before.