Marvel’s MAX Comics imprint, started in 2001 as a name under which to publish R-rated comic books, has produced some memorable works over the years. Alias, which is the basis for both the Jessica Jones Netflix show and recently rebooted comic series under the same name, was published under the umbrella, for instance. Perhaps no character in the Marvel Universe epitomizes the gritty, adult feel the imprint is going for than The Punisher, though. Garth Ennis’ The Punisher is one of the best depictions of the character in history, published under the MAX label.
Volume 6 of The Complete Collection is out, a lengthy tome composed mostly of one-shots featuring writers such as Jason Aaron, Jonathan Maberry, and Jason Latour putting their spin on the vigilante. It’s a lot to go through, and just by the very nature of collections such as these, will likely be hit and miss for many. There are wildly varying artistic styles employed here, as well as disparate stories. The optimist’s view of this, of course, is that there’s something for everybody here, and I certainly found that to be true.
It should be noted that this collection, as with any Punisher MAX collection, is not for the faint of heart–though, if you are perturbed by extreme violence, you probably aren’t seeking out Punisher books to begin with. Still, being a MAX book, it’s so far removed from even Becky Cloonan’s current Punisher run that it can be hard to believe they are published by the same company for the uninitiated. This book is full of excessive gore, constant profanity, and deeply disturbing actions.
Kicking off volume 6 about as brutally as you possibly can, for instance, Jason Aaron’s "Punisher Christmas Special," drawn by Roland Boschi, throws us into the sort of depraved violence you expect from a MAX Punisher story. This one is particularly stomach-churning, though: it involves the murder of about twenty newborn babies. It’s interesting to read a Jason Aaron story from so early in his career; it’s even more interesting to read something so out of his wheelhouse these days. Star Wars and Thor this is not, that’s for sure. But it’s a well written story all the same, even if it treads pretty familiar territory for Frank Castle: he does the right thing, even if it’s in the most profane, deranged way imaginable.
That’s the central theme of most Punisher tales, and this collection is no different. The Punisher, well, punishes some truly bad people with next to no hesitation. The stories range from grim to downright macabre. I’m tempted to call it torture porn, but seeing as how one story ("Naked Kill") is literally about torture porn, the term doesn’t seem to do the depravity justice. That story, by Jonathan Maberry and drawn by Laurence Campbell, is noteworthy because it puts Frank in a situation you don’t often see him in: he is completely unable to use his vast collection of weaponry, and instead is forced to improvise.
These unique types of stories are where the collection shines, as unsurprisingly, the vast majority of this collection starts to feel the same after a while. There are some seriously evil dudes carrying out nefarious plots that are hurting innocent people, Frank takes it upon himself to commit horrifying murders of these people, fin. It’s a premise that’s stretched about as thin as you’d think, though being a collection of one-shots from vastly different writers and artists does manage to freshen up the message a bit. While much of the book is full of the dreary, grim artwork style that evokes The Punisher most naturally, stories like "Where the Devil Don’t Stay," by Jason Latour, stands out from the pack with brighter, less realistic artwork by Connor Willumsen.
That’s not to say the stories told are not evocative, even if they start to become a blur. This collection tackles some seriously heavy topics, ranging from the aforementioned mass infanticide to hard drug abuse to incestuous sexual abuse, which is written smartly by Valerie D’Orazio and drawn in a chilling manner by Laurence Campbell in "Butterfly."
There are no real happy endings in the Punisher’s universe, though, and that’s arguably the point. Though Castle makes the bad people go away, thereby preventing these atrocities from happening again at the same hands, rarely does that solve the problem for the victims who are still living with these disturbing memories every day. And for every drug lord that’s wiped off the face of the planet, there are five more scumbags waiting to take his place. This isn’t Spider-Man swooping in to snatch a stolen purse and give it back to the old lady at the other end of the street. These are heart-wrenching problems with no real solutions. But it’s important to talk about them and think about them, and that’s what this collection does, even if it’s done in a shockingly gory format.
So is The Punisher: The Complete Collection Vol. 6 worth picking up? For fans of the vigilante, of course. This is Frank Castle at his most violent, which is largely the appeal. Such a large collection of self-contained stories can suffer from a feeling of sameness, though, and the incidents can start to blur together. And for people unsold on Frank Castle, this collection of stories featuring him in his element will do little to change your mind. You get what you expect in this collection, which isn’t a bad thing, provided you know what you’re getting yourself into.