Friday, December 23, 2011

The Punisher MAX X-Mas Special (2008) by Jason Aaron and Roland Boschi

The Punisher MAX Christmas Special: And on Earth Peace, Good Will Toward Men

This cover really has no bearing on the actual contents of the story within. However, I love Chris Bachalo's artwork nonetheless.

I’m not a fan of holiday-themed stories, but Jason Aaron’s Punisher MAX one-shot is outstanding. It’s my favorite Christmas-themed comic book and probably one of my favorite single stand-alone issues in general.

A whole lot of holiday-themed stories just feel gimmicky to me. They tend to be hard to read out of season. Even the ones that aren’t downright bad tend to feel a bit disposable to me.

To some extent, this Punisher special is a bit gimmicky due to the Christmas theme, but Aaron and Roland Boschi, the artist, make the best of the opportunity to tell a single issue, done-in-one story about one of Marvel’s top characters. As a result, even though it’s a holiday special, the story doesn’t rely on the holiday to make its point; on the contrary, the story takes advantage of its Christmas gimmick, using the holiday theme to make a lasting statement about Frank Castle, the Punisher.

It’s a simple premise: There are two warring mobs. The wife of Johnny Castellano, the boss of Chicago, is getting ready to deliver a baby. Don Maranzano wants to kill the newborn infant. Obviously, Frank Castle is out to destroy all the mobsters. And the story takes place on Christmas Eve.

Basically, it’s a Punisher-style Nativity.

The comic begins with a priest in a bar. He gets a little wrecked and complains to the bartender and to a Santa at the bar, nursing a drink of his own, about how Christmas doesn’t belong to Jesus anymore, how people have placed Jesus in the same tier as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, and basically just don’t believe in the Bible. He knows this because he’s listened to a ton of confessions.

Eventually, the priest ends up mouthing off to some of Don Maranzano’s men, who are sitting in a corner of the bar, and he calls them out for being dirty mobsters. They kick him outta there, of course, and then Santa reaches into his bag of gifts, yanks out an assault rifle, and blows away all the mobster scumbags.

What a great introduction to Frank Castle.

Across town, more of Don Maranzano’s men go to the hospital where Castellano and his wife will have their baby. Just like Herod, Maranzano orders the execution of all the infants. Brutally, a mob gunman just mows down all the newborns in the infant ward. It’s even more twisted when we learn that Castellano’s wife hasn’t even had the baby yet, that she and her husband are trying to escape the hospital.

Frank, who’s arrived on the scene, sees the Castellanos, with the pregnant wife struggling not to give in to her contractions. He tells them to go with him, because he wants to save the baby. They end up in a race horse track to hide out from Maranzano’s men; the Don has three hired hitmen (from the East!) to assassinate the Castellanos. Meanwhile, a group of thugs (led by a guy named Shepherd!) wants in on the bounty on the baby, too.

Everything comes to a head in the horse stables, of course. Being a Punisher comic, it should go without saying that Frank manages to ice all the killers heading his way. It’s all done very creatively, though. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of any good Punisher story. You know Frank is going to kill people, but is he going to do it in a way we haven’t seen before? Violence is good, but it can also be very lazy. Even I could write a scene where the Punisher stands across the street and shoots a buncha guys in the chest. Now, clever violence? That takes some imagination, and Jason Aaron doesn’t disappoint.

In the end, Frank successfully delivers the child. It’s a boy! Born in a manger, indeed.

The boy’s parents are elated, of course. Johnny experiences a few panels of joy before Frank shoots him in the face. The mother, still exhausted, lies on the floor and begs for a chance to at least hold her baby. Frank kills her, too. What, did you think he’d have mercy for a killer?

The story ends on Christmas morning. Frank places the newborn (and a buttload of cash) inside an empty ammo container and leaves him at the footsteps of a church. The priest from the bar finds the infant, the money, and a note that reads, “Give this child something to believe in.” Across the street, Frank Castle grimly walks away.

Wow. A Punisher story that touches on faith and perseverance, universal themes that work no matter what holiday gimmick surrounds them. In 34 pages, Aaron and Boschi deliver a truly satisfying tale that other creators might not be able to accomplish in six entire issues. This comic has just the right amount of action, gallows humor, and thematic depth to stand out as something eminently re-readable. Boschi’s artwork is grounded in realistic details and very expressive. Dan Brown’s colors also do an excellent job in setting the mood of various scenes; just check out the opening sequence in the bar and contrast that to the lighter tone in the final panel.

Is there a better a Christmas-themed (or any holiday, really) comic book issue out there? I sure can’t think of one. This Punisher comic book is my favorite comic book Christmas story. It sure brings me cheer whenever I read it.

Merry Christmas, True Believers!

I have nothin' but love for Chris Bachalo.

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