Over the past 11 issues, Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon have put the Punisher into action against a pair of familiar foes by introducing Marvel MAX versions of the Kingpin and Bullseye, and in the next issue, they're touching on another situation readers might recognize from clasisc Punisher stories: Frank Castle goes to prison.

But this time, things are a little different. Every other time we've seen the Punisher in prison, he's gone in of his own volition in order to take out a criminal on the inside. This time, though, he's been brought in after a brutal fight involving sledgehammers, hacksaws, nail guns and more that's left him critically injured both physically and -- believe it or not -- emotionally. Check out our exclusive four-page preview (with commentary), and a look at Dave Johnson's amazing cover!

I don't think it's overselling things one bit to say that Punisher MAX -- a more violent, adult-oriented take on the character than the one running around the mainstream Marvel Universe --is one of the best comics coming out today. Jason Aaron had the completely unenviable task of taking over the character shortly after Garth Ennis's character-defining eight year run with the Punisher, and even though he's collaborating with veteran Punisher artist Steve Dillon, who relaunched the book alongside Ennis in 2000, those are big shoes to fill. But not only have Aaron and Dillon succeeded in filling them, they've managed to take things to an entirely different level.

If there's one thing that defined Ennis's run, it was that he made Frank Castle less of a character and more of a force of nature. His stories were often less about the Punisher than about the villains, illustrating the bad guys in lavish, horrific detail and making the audience hate them for what they'd done before Frank Castle himself showed up to mete out death. It wasn't just a catharsis for the reader, but a necessary step in justifying him as a character, showing us people the way he sees them, and why they needed to die.

For his first two stories, Aaron followed the same path, chronicling Wilson Fisk's rise to his position as the Kingpin of Crime and the depths of complete psychotic madness that Bullseye sank to in order to be an even more efficient killer than the Punisher. Recently, however, there's been a change. It's not just that the Punisher's in prison. Like "the Punisher fights Kingpin," it's not exactly a new idea, and in fact, it's the most old school that you can get with the character. Frank's in prison on the first page of his very first series:

As a quick aside, I just want to say that as a guy who has read every Punisher comic, I love stories about the Punisher in prison. Everyone involved seems to understand what a terrible idea it is to take a guy who only wants to kill criminals and put him in a big room full of criminals, and it's always pretty thrilling. Ed Brubaker did an amazing job with the idea in the pages of Daredevil when Matt Murdock went to prison and the Punisher essentially got himself arrested just so that he'd have some backup. It leads to a great scene where a riot breaks out, and even though Daredevil, the Owl, Bullseye and the Kingpin are all in prison, the Warden's first reaction is "Where's Castle?!"

So yeah, it's a situation that we've seen before, but again, Aaron is putting a new spin on things. It's not just that he's been brutally injured -- you may notice that his left pinky still appears to be missing after Bullseye chopped it off with an axe in #11 -- or even that he was dragged into prison unconscious and beaten rather than walking in with the intention of killing a crook on the inside.

The difference comes from the fact that in the last issue, Bullseye, true to his name, found out the one way to hurt the Punisher the way that no one else has been able to do for ten years: emotionally, in the part of Frank Castle that he himself thought was dead and buried along with his family years ago. At the end of #11, he's suddenly no longer the unstoppable force of nature that is the Punisher. He's Frank Castle again, with Dillon drawing him for what I think is the first time with genuine, wide-eyed shock instead of his usual Dredd-esque frown.

Aaron isn't just sending the Punisher to jail with a thousand people who want nothing more than to see him dead. After eleven issues telling stories called "Kingpin" and "Bullseye," he's kicking off a whole new story. And this one's called "Frank."

PunisherMAX #12 hits shelves on April 13 at $3.99, and is suggested for mature readers.

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