The longest lived beneficiary of Marvel’s Max imprint was the Punisher. The adult labelling permitted a more realistic depiction of the violence that crime generates, and the language used, and with better creators it resulted in grittier crime dramas. So it is with these five Untold Tales.

All writers but Nathan Edmondson are sparing in their use of the Punisher himself, concentrating instead on creating distinctive voices for those he eventually meets. In some cases these are low level criminals, the Punisher arriving to sort out the messes they create, in others it’s people with a greater innocence about them. Two themes unite all five stories, that of someone over-reaching themselves, and a point where there’s a balance that could tip either way depending on what decision is made. Survival is generally the prize.

Jason Starr and Roland Boschi follow a compulsive losing gambler given one final chance to clear his debts, yet instead unleashing a beast. Effective whiny, self-justifying captions reveal his sense of entitlement and lack of spine. Jason Latour and Connor Willumson’s is the bleakest story, a bunch of country hicks having captured the Punisher before they begin to fall out with each other. The youngest is barely into his teens, and Willumson’s distinctively styled art (sample spread left) really sells the sweaty squalor. The paths open to another teenager are investigated by Skottie Young and Mirko Colak (sample spread right), this a kid whose father has just died learning from someone who’s been through similar circumstances why vengeance is rarely the best response. It’s tidily constructed. Megan Abbott and Matteo Buffagni’s contribution looks good, but seasoned crime readers will find it predictable, and the Punisher’s involvement is questionable.

It’s only Edmondson and Fernando Blanco who supply the traditional story led by the Punisher and his mission. It’s also the weakest story of the five for being the only one to stick entirely to a template of the Punisher being set on a path and remorselessly working through a gang to the top. Blanco draws it well, and there is a surprise from Edmondson, but it’s not a big enough surprise to compensate for the previous known territory.

All the art is good, three of the stories match it, one is okay, and it’s not that Edmondson’s contribution is poor, just familiar. Untold Tales is a readable collection, or alternatively it’s gathered with several Punisher one-shots as the sixth volume of Punisher Max: The Complete Collection.