Marvel’s most violent anti-hero, The Punisher, has regained popularity in the last few years. Recent on-screen appearances in Netflix’s Daredevil and The Punisher are reminding new and existing fans why they love Marvel’s premier bad-guy killer. These five stories are essential for hardcore fans and newbies to the dark, bloody world of the Punisher.
Let’s start with perhaps the best version of Frank’s transformation into The Punisher. Set during Frank’s final tour in Vietnam, the story documents the downfall of his platoon. As Captain, Frank demands respect but also cares about the lives of his men.
We are shown, through a voice in his head, that Frank enjoys the violence of war and is a highly skilled killer. When his soldiers begin to die as a result of an ambush, Frank faces death. However, a voice inside his head offers him the strength to survive and wage an eternal war, at a cost.
Frank’s deal with the devil, Death or even himself, allows him to go home to his wife and child. But it sets him on a path of vengeance and self-destruction. Writer Garth Ennis said he liked the idea of leaving the ending open to interpretation: supernatural intervention or psychosis. Either way, the story peaks behind the brutality of Frank and gives us an insight into what drives him.
Garth Ennis wrote arguably the most renowned runs of The Punisher, including the Marvel Max series. The first volume, In The Beginning, sets the tone for the rest of the series by establishing a humorless, gritty world where it seems there is no such thing as superheroes.
The story follows Frank as he encounters his old partner, Microchip, as the mob attempts to take him out of the picture once and for all. Ennis’s previous work had boasted tongue-in-cheek jokes and outrageous situations. But this stripped back character-driven story gave us the uncompromising Frank we’re all familiar with.
With more blood, gore, and death than a real war, Frank’s quest to rid New York of criminals is a grim, joyless affair; but, boy, is it morbidly exciting. This is a great stepping on point for new fans who enjoyed the recent TV adaptations, as tonally, this story is very similar.
During the 90s, Frank Castle’s popularity fell victim to a weak phase of cheap, forgettable storytelling. With Marvel wanting to rival DC’s popular Vertigo imprint, Garth Ennis was tasked with revitalizing everyone’s favourite anti-hero.
Unlike the previous entry on this list, Ennis’s used gruesome humor and tongue-in-cheek action to bring Punisher back with a bang. This run was Punisher on crack, with one memorable scene showing Frank punching an escaped polar bear. Showcasing some of the most imaginative and ludicrous ways to kill a criminal, this Punisher was a lot of fun.
The cartoonish artwork gave a twisted childish angle to the ultra-violence seen on its pages. This run also boasted a great sequence with Daredevil, which was emulated in the Netflix series, as well as introducing a lot of eccentric characters and crazy villains. Some of these will be familiar to fans of the Punisher film of the early 2000s, which starred Thomas Jane.
Perhaps the best representation of Garth Ennis’s crude wit and humor (yes it’s Garth Ennis again!), is Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe. This one-shot storyline imagines a world where Castle’s family isn’t murdered by the mob but instead caught in the middle of a superhero/supervillain fight. Instead of organized crime, Frank’s vengeful sights are set on costumed heroes.
What follows is a mad adventure where a one-man army takes down mutants, gods, and goliaths. With a range of ingenious, brutal, and sometimes ridiculous deaths under his belt, Frank realizes he has become something he swore to destroy. This story is fun; pure and simple. If you’re already on board with Frank’s murderous rampages, then this brutal execution of your favorite heroes and villains is a true treat.
Moving away from a very Garth Ennis heavy list, this last entry is a recent foray into the mind of Frank Castle. Taking place after Frank’s stint as War Machine (who gave this guy an armored suit?!), writer Matthew Rosenberg takes Frank back to street-level crime, with a thirst for bigger game. After Hydra’s plan to rule the world has somewhat succeeded, Frank is hunting Nazis, specifically Baron Zemo.
This storyline goes back to the gritty determination that grounds the character and treats Frank like a demon that haunts and destroys the criminal underworld. His actions are what guides the story, with little dialogue to accompany it. Frank Castle has moved from mob bosses to supervillains, and his taste and weaponry and sadism have evolved to meet the challenge. So far, this run is a welcome breath of fresh air in Frank’s long history. As a longtime fan of Frank’s, I hope this story will introduce a whole new generation to Frank’s one-man crusade for justice.
One Batch, Two Batch…
The Punisher is a comic book character that draws a lot of unfamiliar people to the genre. His grounded, realistic approach to crime and loss is riveting to view. Unlike most other heroes, Frank Castle has no redemption, nor does he seek any. He has resigned himself to a life of murder and rage.