This article contains major spoilers for Marvel’s new Punisher series.
Jason Aaron has written just about every corner of the Marvel Universe. His seven year run on Thor is critically beloved and the foundation of Thor: Love and Thunder. He’s been the architect of the Avengers for 50+ issues now, and put in a brief bright spot on Wolverine and the X-Men in one of the mutants’ darkest publishing times. He’s even got a stint on a Max line Punisher book under his belt. But he really wanted to play with Frank Castle in the main Marvel Universe.
“I’d never really written Frank in a big way in the Marvel U until I did War of the Realms and threw Frank into that,” Aaron tells us in an interview about his new book Punisher, with Jesus Saiz, Paul Azaceta, and Dave Stewart. “I had a lot of fun and that was the first time I started thinking [about] a big story that took everything I loved about Frank that immerses him into the Marvel Universe in a huge way.”
Punisher is a chance to recontextualize Frank Castle within the Marvel Universe. For decades, The Punisher has been in and out of main Marvel continuity: popping up on Earth 616 to serve a function in a story (like his Hydra goon heel turn in Secret Empire) or as a moment of comic relief (like his scene stealing appearance in Secret Wars #1 where he used a fake email from the Kingpin to lure a bunch of supervillains to The Bar With No Name to murder them all as the multiverse exploded, or as the post-Ten Realms war cleanup crew in War of the Realms: The Punisher), before shuffling back to his own separate 18+ Max series to slowly terrorize the underworld of a superhero-less world. Aaron has one of those Max series under his belt, a 23-issue run with comics legend Steve Dillon that won a fair bit of critical acclaim. But this new series is very different.
“I wanted to do a big story that took everything I loved about Frank and how Frank had evolved,” he says. “How do I take all that and do it in a story that immerses Frank into the Marvel Universe in a huge way?”
The series starts to answer that question with a flashback to the day Frank lost his family, drawn (brilliantly) by Azaceta and Stewart and follows with a collage of Frank’s myriad appearances throughout the Marvel U since (with special attention paid to art from legends like Jim Lee, Tim Bradstreet, John Romita, and Steve Dillon), then jumps right to present day: the Apostles of War, a gang of gun runners in nice suits and Hoplite helmets trying to offload a warehouse full of super-weapons to the likes of Hatemonger and Hydra, get briefly and ruthlessly slaughtered by Frank Castle and his team of…Hand ninja?
The collage is a cool little feat of comics structure: “Starting with another perspective on that fateful day in Central Park and leading that right into everything that’s happened between that moment and when we pick back up with Frank already working with The Hand [shows the character’s] long career,” Aaron says.
Beyond the international ninja, this book is steeped in Marvel Universe goodies – the Apostles of War are inventorying Shi’ar sniper rifles, Graviton bazookas, and gamma powered rail guns.
“What I like about this book is it can be all those things wrapped up in one,” says Aaron. “It is dark. It is personal. It’s epic and takes place over the course of many years. It’s got those crazy toys from the Marvel Universe, and we’ll see more of those toys getting thrown into the mix as things go forward.”
The book being issue 1 of a 12 issue series, it doesn’t yet directly spell out why The Punisher is working with a team of supernatural ninja, but it does give the reader a sense of why The Hand wants to work with Frank: later in the issue, he utterly demolishes a team of Hand ninja sent to his basement apartment in Brooklyn to try and recruit him. It’s a long scene and one that is as eloquently brutal as it is terse: save for a grunt here or there, the sequence is six pages of wordless mayhem.
“When I wrote it…I put in a lot more grunts,” Aaron says. “The ninjas are still completely silent, but Frank’s making a lot more grunts. And then when I got the letter copy, I took almost all of them out. I thought it didn’t need any of that. It’s just getting in the way and the art is so absolutely incredible and it just feels more powerful and visceral if we don’t have all that.”
The tension of the story becomes apparent with the reveal at the end of the issue: Frank returns from his mission of Hoplite hammering to Hydra’s base, Frank ends the issue getting into bed with his now very alive again wife. This seems very much like the point of the entire series: what is the Punisher’s mission? What was his life before? What could it become?
“This book is not just about breaking and changing Frank,” Aaron says. “It’s about answering the question: Who is Frank Castle?”
So far, who he is is a master of large scale carnage. And he’ll only get better at it from here.