by Jason Aaron (writer), Steve Dillon (art), Matt Hollingsworth (colors), and Cory Petit (letters)

The Story: In a final desperate bid to stay alive, the mob creates a final scheme to kill the Punisher – Operation Kingpin.

What’s Good: How much do you like Garth Ennis?  Your answer will largely determine how much you like Aaron’s approach to Punishermax.

That being said, even for readers unfamiliar with Ennis’ work, this is far, far from a bad comic.  It’s got all the desperate scheming, outrageous gore, torture, and general nastiness that you’d expect from the Max line.  However, for those die-hard Ennis fans like myself, this book is a real treat, one part love-song and two parts nostalgia trip.

This book literally feels like it fell out of a time machine as Jason Aaron channels Ennis so effectively, you’d think it was the man himself.  In fact, Aaron starts the series off right with a scene that is outrageously gory.  So gory is this display that it borders on being slapstick.  Then, in a manner that is straight out of Ennis’ playbook, this grotesque sequence leads to a joke that is both ridiculous and uproarious.   It’s so appalling that it shouldn’t work, and yet it does for that very reason.  This humorous sequence alone shows that Jason Aaron knows how to work this series: it’s all about pushing those boundaries so far past the brink that one can only laugh and gape simultaneously.

The scene also reminds us that Wilson Fisk is a bad, bad man.  When I first heard Aaron’s decision to bring in an alternate-universe Kingpin, I was concerned.  However, I actually found myself enjoying the character.  He’s devious, imposing, and though he speaks little, every word he says counts.  Taking him out of the Marvel Universe also gives Aaron the freedom to explore the character in ways otherwise not possible.  Seeing Fisk fly under the radar or catching a glimpse of him as a family is uniquely enjoyable.

One also can’t downplay the impact of Steve Dillon.  Without him, this comic would not have been the rousing success that it is.  It’s thanks in no small part to his efforts that this book is the callback to the glory days that it is.  The man has not lost a step.  This is clearly the guy behind Preacher and he makes no attempt to disguise that fact.  Dillon’s performance can simply be described as one thing: giving the hardcore Punisher fan what he/she wants.  And of course, Aaron’s gory sight-gag would not be possible without Dillon, who’s probably got a doctorate in that sort of depravity by now.

What’s Not So Good: This book succeeds at establishing its world, but it comes at the cost of Frank Castle’s presence.  The Punisher just isn’t in this book as much as you might expect, what with half the issue being spent on a single conversation between the various mob bosses.  Frankly, you’d expect a first issue to see more Punisher-related awesomeness, but it never really comes outside of an admittedly gruesome torture scene.  Even when the Punisher does get some combat in, he’s relegated to shooting a few baddies in the background while the focus remains on Fisk.  I expected him to be a little more front and center, or get a bit more page-time than he did.

Honestly, I was just hoping for a little more excess and mass murder out of Frank.  Is that too much to ask?

Conclusion: Welcome back, Frank.

Grade: A-

-Alex Evans