Many, if not most, fans of the Punisher consider Garth Ennis’s tenure with Frank Castle to be the very best Punisher stories available. His work, under both the MAX and Marvel Knights imprints, has been routinely cited as a source of inspiration for film, TV, and even video game adaptations of the character. Ennis’s opening salvo of Punisher stories, alongside Preacher co-creator Steve Dillon under the Marvel Knights banner, is now presented in trade paperback form with Marvel Knights Punisher: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 — collecting the entirety of the 2000 maxi and 2001 mini series from the duo in addition to Ennis’s Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe. This 456 page collection is a tale of two series: one an incredibly enjoyable, darkly comedic, and unapologetically over-the-top story and one that is simply too irreverent for its own good.
One thing is clear after finishing the 18 issues jammed into this hefty paperback: these are the most influential Punisher stories of all time. Fans of the character who have seen the 2004 titular film, played the 2005 video game, witnessed the oft-forgotten (and possibly overlooked) 2008 movie Punisher: War Zone and caught season two of the recently cancelled Daredevil Netflix series will instantly recognize iconic scenes, characters, and set pieces used in these adaptations peppered throughout Dillon and Ennis’s run.
These stories serve as inspiration for good reason; as a whole, they’re fantastic. Ennis and Dillon manage to deliver an eclectic amount of unforgettable sequences — from poignant rooftop discussions of the nature of law and order to Frank’s absurd weaponization of Central Park Zoo animals — without derailing the larger story or making the book feel too all over the place. The most impressive thing about Ennis and Dillon’s work is how they can deftly weave extreme violence, ludicrous comedy, political commentary, and layered character work into one cohesive narrative without it feeling overstuffed or inconsistent. This is all especially true for the initial 12 issue maxi-series that makes up the bulk of this trade. On paper, this book shouldn’t work — there are too many drastically different themes at play. Yet, just as they did with Preacher, Ennis and Dillon make it work, almost inexplicably so.
Fans of Preacher will feel right at home with this take on a Punisher story, especially in terms of writer Garth Ennis’s injection of irreverent comedy. In a way, it’s almost jarring to read a Punisher story that is actively trying to be funny, and it certainly will take getting used to for readers more accustomed to the stoic, unflinching nature of most Punisher stories. The comedy in the initial 12-issue maxi-series is nearly perfect, rarely being too over-the-top nor made the focus of an issue, but used enough to provide adequate comic relief and provide a welcome break to the insane action.
In all actuality, those 12 issues are amazing, serving up a wonderful mix of unbelievable action, classic moments of Punisher brutality, wonderful character progression (especially in the unexpected array of auxiliary characters), heartwarming instances of neighborly love, and quirky yet appropriate comedy all tied into an expertly paced story best read in one sitting. Reading through the initial maxi-series will make it abundantly clear to new readers why Ennis and Dillon are so well renowned for their Marvel Knights run. If only the same could be said about the ensuing five issue collection.
The incredible quality of the first 12 issues makes the five issue mini-series followup feel so lacking, and placing it directly after that initial run in this trade just makes matters worse. Whereas the first series usually invoked irreverent humor to great effect, the second takes the weirdness and cranks up the dial so high it broke and can’t be turned down. The first volume elicits interspersed exclamations of “what the f--k is going on” in between belly laughs, while the second volume implores the same reaction just devoid of laughter and with far more disdain.
In fact, the second series in this collection is so unexpectedly weird and uncomfortably not-funny it almost fouls the experience of the first 12 issues. The five issue mini is almost a chore to get through, falling well short of the expectation set for it by its predecessor. The first series is memorable for nothing but good reasons, whereas nothing is notable about the second series except for how unbearably weird and uninteresting it is.
One thing that remains consistent throughout this entire collection, save for the randomly included Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe one-shot, is the incredible art by Steve Dillon. In an an age where Marvel never settles on an artist for more than a few issues, reading a 17-issue run with one, singular artist is a breath of fresh air, especially when the art is as crisp as Dillon’s.
Dillon is a master of character models and page layout, making this book a true visual treat. Dillon captures the emotion of each character wonderfully in a way that heightens every scene, and his action scenes are easy to follow and not to chaotic thanks to very coordinated and clean page layouts.
Despite the lackluster five-issue miniseries, it’s easy to see why Ennis and Dillon’s work on The Punisher has influenced so many. It’s an exquisite blend of genres and styles that shouldn’t work, yet somehow do — at least in the 12 issue maxi-series. Whether your a die-hard Frank Castle fan or not, this is a collection worth picking up simply for that 12-issue maxi-series.