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

The Story: The Punisher and the Mennonite’s battle comes to its brutal end while Fisk and Rigoletto lock horns.

What’s Good: This may very well be the best issue of Jason Aaron’s Punishermax series thus far.  It gives you everything you could possibly want in a Punisher comic or a MAX comic.

As might be expected, the action is something too ugly and brutal to really be called “action” in the conventional sense.  The violence is absolutely unflinching and in a way, I respect Aaron for his willingness to live up to the MAX promise.  Horses are decimated and there are innards aplenty and a child meets a gruesome end.  In both cases, the bloodshed is shown to the reader upfront, without any cutaway.  After all, this is a MAX comic and any such thing would be an act of self-censorship.  Aaron does not shy away from any of it and Steve Dillon certainly obliges him.

A real star this month though is Aaron’s take on the classic Frank Castle monologues.  Those who have grumbled about the lack of focus on Frank should be satisfied this month, as Aaron’s textboxes fully encapsulate everything that is awesome about Castle.  We get that badass fanaticism and refusal to die, we get the gruesome, almost over-the-top descriptions of pain and injury, and we even get that sense of poignant personal tragedy integral to the character; essentially, Aaron touches upon every good thing that can be done with a Frank Castle monologue textbox.  Through them, Castle feels fully realized, with various aspects of his voice from the Ennis MAX days being visited.

And then there’s Fisk.  Aaron’s take on the villain is more unforgiving than ever, as he almost seems to chastise the reader for ever having sympathized or rooted for him.  There is a significant emotional shift, or self-realization, in this issue that is very well-done.  Fisk’s coldly and objectively calculated response to his son’s being held hostage is stunning, and his words of comfort to his grieving wife after the ordeal are absolutely chilling.  Much like Castle, Fisk also receives some great internal monologues this month, touching on his history while suggesting his ideals of fatherhood, valued up until this point, are a facade.  It’s stuff that’s as brutal and real as the physical violence on the page.

As a small point, I also really loved the ending of the brawl between the Punisher and the Mennonite.  The conclusion of the fight is just perfect in that the brutal acts of violence that lead to it are strangely metaphorical.  The Mennonite’s downfall in the fight parallels his downfall in life while the Punisher’s final weapon is essentially a physical manifestation of his own trauma.  It’s just so strange to see brief acts of over-the-top violence be so directly referential to points of emotion or character.

It also bears being mentioned that Steve Dillon does an amazing job on this issue given that the book is completely and utterly devoid of humor.  Usually Dillon seems a bit out of sorts without at least a little slapstick or crudeness, but he succeeds this month without either.

What’s Not So Good: I can’t really think of anything, to be honest.  This is about as good a Punisher comic as you’re liable to get these days.

Conclusion: Forget that Frankencastle foolery. This is a Punisher comic.

Grade: A-

-Alex  Evans