This hardcover series reprints the Garth Ennis stories run in the Max imprint Punisher title, collecting two six chapter stories per volume. The Max imprint was a way of circumventing the editorial constraints that would otherwise apply to Marvel comics. Individual issues were clearly marked as explicit, and the content within depicted the consequences of the Punisher’s excess in far more graphic fashion than previously. This has both benefits and drawbacks. It could be said that depicting the violence in almost a real-life manner was a salutary warning, while others would consider it gratuitous. It’s certainly the case that the missions of death and destruction that Ennis covered in the series would have been diminished if toned down.

The Punisher’s mission in life is re-iterated and his motivation re-examined in the opening story ‘In the Beginning’. The authorities decide the Punisher has gone too far and he needs to be dealt with. That’s also the opinion of a middle-level Mafia goon, now able to convince a severely depleted leadership to sanction his plan for dealing with the Punisher. Both have assets that may well be capable of bringing the Punisher down.

Artist Lewis Larosa delivers stunning pseudo-realistic art with people that live and move in convincing fashion, yet he’s equally at home with the technological elements and doesn’t stint on backgrounds or crowd scenes. Much of this also applies to Leandro Fernandez, artist on ‘Kitchen Irish’, but his art has a static quality.

As the series progressed Ennis would shift the Punisher far and wide, but both these stories are set in New York. ‘Kitchen Irish’ delivers the deliberate consequences of a misanthropic gangster’s dying legacy: leaving portions of information about the location of his hidden money to assorted factions in the knowledge that they’ll not co-operate and the violence that will ensue. The roots of the trouble can be traced back to the problems of Northern Ireland, and Ennis excels himself in providing an assortment of humanity’s most unpleasant single-minded specimens for the Punisher to deal with.

These stories are far more serious in nature than Ennis’ previous take on the Punisher. There is humour, but it’s very dark indeed, and mostly concerning the fates of individuals who thoroughly deserve them. Here Ennis treats the character as the remorseless peg onto which he hangs cleverly plotted action thrillers, very much in the mode of the Punisher’s 1970s inspiration The Executioner novels by Don Pendleton. Those who’d prefer to read the stories without paying for lavish packaging can pick them up as volumes individually titled In the Beginning and Kitchen Irish, and the series continues in volume 2.