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

The Story: Frank finds himself locked in a battle to the death with Elektra.

The Review: If there’s one this issue shows, and really that goes for the rest of this series as well, it’s that Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon are absolutely fantastic, as well as brutally creative, when it comes to putting together an action scene.  Not only is every blow of the fight between Frank and Elektra wince-inducing, the fight as a whole is excellently paced.  Their duel is more than your regular, bland comic book brawl: there are crescendos and suspense amidst the violence, with the actions actually telling a story more than just filling an action quota.

The best part of this scene is that the fighting styles of Frank and Elektra both say a great deal about who they are.  Elektra’s is cold, ruthless, and efficient, while Frank fights like a self-destructive savage.  Really, they the fight ends is a very creative testament to that.

Beyond the fight, however, it’s amazing to see that in his final three issues, Jason Aaron is still doing great character-work in exploring who Frank is and what the Punisher is.  That is really what pushes the issue into being something truly special.  While it’s something that Garth Ennis focused on quite well in his run, we see Aaron also unpack Frank’s relationship with death as an elemental force.

In heartbreaking fashion, as well as in his fighting style against Elektra, Aaron shows that Frank essentially cannot be killed, but it’s in a flashback to the birth of his first child that Aaron touches on something truly unsettling.  Frank is shown to be so closely tied to death, that indeed, the only thing he can’t seem to stomach or show a weakness towards is life itself.  His reaction to the birthing process is a very, very interesting twist for the character.  In being so good at, and so defined, by death, Aaron paints life-giving as anathema to Frank.

Overall, it’s clear that Jason Aaron is setting up his big finish for the series.  It’s an absolute pleasure to see Frank and Fisk return to their game of cat-and-mouse, as much a battle of wits and cunning as it is of knives and bullets.  Of course, much like the Frank/Elektra physical struggle, the mental chess match between Frank and Fisk also shows their differing personalities – Fisk is a talker, while Frank is anything but.

All told, this is a fantastic issue that manages to delve deeper into the psyche of Frank and who the Punisher is, while delivering taut and well structured action, while also building us up for the series conclusion.  It’s clear that Aaron had a number of goals for this issue – all of them are accomplished.

Conclusion: It’s hard to believe that we live in a world where we have not one, but TWO excellent Punisher books, both of which are among the very best comics that Marvel publishes.  Issues like this validate PunisherMAX’s claim to that title.

Grade: A-

-Alex Evans