As a lifelong comic book fan I strongly believe in the hero’s role as a heroic, even inspirational, figure despite his fantastic trappings of super-powers, magical abilities, high-tech weaponry, in other words someone the audience can root for. Which is why I have held a naked hatred for the Punisher from the moment he first showed up in a 1974 issue of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, a bald-faced ripoff of the pulp novel character Mack Bolan, the Executioner.
How Marvel didn’t get sued for copyright infringement is beyond me; I’ve read several of the early Mack Bolan books, and I swear to god that he’s the Punisher.
Frank Castle, the Punisher, is perhaps the ultimate in adolescent male power fantasies, and in the comic book universe that’s quite a distinction. He’s a fifty-something, harder-than-hard Viet Nam veteran with ultra-lethal capabilities in damn near all areas of warfare from hand-to-hand combat to the latest in military vehicles, can withstand physical injuries to an outrageous degree (he has no super-powers), and metes out fatal, sadistic punishment as he sees fit in his own personal and quite literal war on organized crime or whomever happens to piss him off at any given moment, a war ignited by his family being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being blown away in the midst of a vicious mob hit. He won’t kill cops or civilians, but anyone else is pretty much fair game to the Punisher. Though considered a mass murderer by the police and the government, he’s given a very wide berth by the authorities since he’s able to wipe out the scum of society that seriously needs killing, and also because he would utterly kick the ass of anyone dumb enough to try bringing him in. Totally fearless, armed to the teeth with every kind of weapon you can think of — and then some — and never saddled with a mushy love interest, the Punisher is a 1970’s backyard G.I. Joe adventure brought to four color life, the perfect wish-fulfillment anti-hero for young boys, and unempowered grownup males, both groups that could use a good dose of pussy.
The character most often showed up as a guest star in several Marvel books over the years, and then in a memorable Mike Zeck mini-series that lead to a black-and-white PUNISHER magazine that reprinted the mini-series, then THE PUNISHER and PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL, both color monthly series that proved highly popular during the early nineties, especially among young kids. That was particularly disturbing to me because the kids in the Manhattan neighborhood I lived in at the time loudly discussed the comics they enjoyed while sitting on the stoop outside my building, and the Punisher frequently came up as “cool” because of the admittedly creative ways he’d send his targets to their maker. These children thrilled at the gruesomeness and cruelty, an ugly festival of negativity all going on within the usually much sunnier world of the Marvel Universe. Where kids once rooted for underdogs such as Spider-Man or the Thing, they now admired the “adventures” of a sociopath, a state of affairs that broke my heart and those of my co-workers in the Marvel Bullpen, all of whom grew up with protagonists whose stories stirred a love of heroism within our young hearts, tales that were a far cry from the Punisher’s soulless monthly body count.
As the Punisher’s popularity spread like cancer, Hollywood released a truly suck-ass film adaptation starring Dolph Lundgren (and continuing Academy Award-winner Lou Gossett Jr’s journey through the wasteland of bad movie Hell, following such triumphs as JAWS 3-D, and the IRON EAGLE stinkers), one that actually elicited peals of laughter from the Marvel Bullpen when we checked it out on VHS, and I took that as a harbinger of an inevitable backlash against the character. Eventually, Punisher-mania fizzled out and his books were put out to pasture, once more relegating Frank Castle to the four- color waiting room, his next guest shot a certainty, but his status as an A-lister now a victim of sales and dwindling audience interest.
Then came the Marvel Knights revival under the capable hands of penciler Steve Dillon, and scribe Garth Ennis, two UK lads who made names for themselves with the critically acclaimed, frequently hilarious and always over-the-top exercise in bad taste, PREACHER (NOTE: if you haven’t read PREACHER, run out right now and get the motherfucker, already! The whole thing’s collected in nine volumes from Vertigo, and it’s about to be adapted for HBO, so read it before they fuck it up). They brought their signature vulgar madness to the rebooted Punisher, and while their turn at the wheel retained and even amped up the crazed sadism, the Ennis/Dillon pairing provided the one thing that actually made their version more than the piling up of corpses that one would have expected, and that was a streak of straight-faced humor as black as the depths of a coal mine at midnight. The tone of the mini-series seemed as though the powers that be at Marvel said, “Lads, we don’t give a fuck what you do, no matter how balls-out tasteless, just have fun,” and what resulted was a crazy quilt of jaw-dropping carnage and side-splitting madness, just the jolt that the Punisher needed.
But as fun as the Ennis/Dillon pairing was, Ennis’s PUNISHER work only improved once Dillon moved on; it was a good team, but in my humble opinion it came with too much PREACHER baggage for my liking, and having different artists handle Ennis’s increasingly compelling narratives only added spice to the gumbo.
Ennis explored the Punisher’s origins during the Viet Nam conflict in the mini-series BORN — with artist Darrick Robertson’s illustrations dragging the reader into the Southeast Asian hellhole kicking and screaming — adding a mythic element that could have fallen flat on its ass in less capable hands; during his final tour, Frank Castle realizes that he actually thrives on killing and has found the perfect outlet for his homicidal urges as a soldier fighting for his country, while a mysterious voice speaks to him promising to allow him to continue as a one-man holocaust after his discharge. The voice is apparently that of the Grim Reaper (or is it the rage within Frank given voice?), and once Frank gives in to the spirit’s dark seduction, he becomes a man literally touched by the hand of Death, transformed into an agent of remorseless retribution. But any great gift comes with a price, and in accepting the Reaper’s offer Castle unwittingly dooms his wife and children as sacrificial lambs.
The ongoing Marvel MAX line PUNISHER title is a study in escalation, each issue topping the previous for violence and bloodshed, wisely ignoring the superheroic elements of the Marvel Universe and focusing on the all-too-human evil that men do. While the limitations inherent in such a seemingly one-dimensional character could serve to scuttle a monthly body count book, Ennis wisely lets us into Frank Castle’s head — not necessarily a place you want to be, believe me! — showing readers how he thinks and accenting just how driven and clever he is. I no longer think of Castle as insane, in fact I find him to be quite the opposite; he’s a master tactician with a rigid determination to kill as many human vermin as possible in a campaign that he knows is inevitably futile. But like they say about pimpin’, it ain’t easy, but somebody’s gotta do it.
Now, I gotta say I had scrupulously avoided the current run of the Punisher, figuring it would just be a case of Ennis knowing which side his bread is buttered on and continuing to suckle at Marvel’s cash-tit until the book fizzled, but I picked up one of the collected volumes on a whim and was not disappointed in the least. Within the next two weeks I had picked up the full set of collected editions, and here’s the skinny on them.
BORN- darker than Wesley Snipes in a coal mine at Midnight, this is how an origin story should be done, and Darrick Robertson turns in some of the best artwork of his career.
VOLUME 1: IN THE BEGINNING-an engrossing, violent kick off to the new series and a great place to start. Sets up the Punisher’s current status quo, introduces some new continuing supporting characters, and brings back an old friend in a way that you just know will not end well.
VOLUME 2: KITCHEN IRISH-Frank takes on New York’s Irish mob with mixed results. Definitely my vote for the weakest arc in the current run, the story didn’t engage me (sorry, Garth), and the art has an unfinished, amateurish look in which the figures looked like developing fetuses. Skip this and read the exceptional true crime book THE WESTIES instead.
VOLUME 3: MOTHER RUSSIA-the Punisher is recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D. for a recovery mission in the former Soviet Union, and as is to be expected when dealing with those cloak-and-dagger spooks, all is not what it seems. Frank’s interaction with a child character is both touching and revealing, showing us his surprisingly nurturing side and somehow managing to not be maudlin in the least. Depth in a Punisher yarn? Who’d have thunk?
VOLUME 4: UP IS DOWN AND BLACK IS WHITE-a psychotic Mafioso figures out the perfect way to send a “fuck you” to the Punisher, implements it, and, HOO BOY, does that open a can of worms...If you think you’ve seen Frank Castle pissed off, you ain’t seen nothin’, and a truly enraged Punisher is something that simply should never, EVER, be unleashed. When I read the bit where the mob guy puts his plan into publicly televised action, I actually said “You have got to be fucking kidding me!!!” aloud, and when I turned the page to behold Frank Castle’s face, I thought, “Well, I don’t need to read the rest of this book.” I read it anyway, and the shit is FUCKING FIERCE.
VOLUME 5: THE SLAVERS-a young woman escapes from a bunch of scumbags who kidnap girls and sell girls into a most horrible sexual slavery, and runs into Frank Castle. She tells him her story. You do the math.
VOLUME 6: BARRACUDA-don’t you just hate when an author creates a villain of outrageous magnitude that you just love, and it’s a done deal that the motherfucker has to be tits up? Barracuda is one such baddie, and he gives Frank a very hard time indeed, continuing to kick ass even after Frank divested him of the fingers on one of his hands. Goran Parlov’s art is the best in the series so far, and he should be the regular illustrator hands down, so let’s see where that goes. And as if a truly great, human villain wasn’t enough, this arc scores points for intelligent (though inevitable) use of Great White Sharks. Sheer four color bliss.
FROM FIRST TO LAST-a hardcover collection of one-shot stories that relate Castle’s inspiration for appropriately righteous and excruciating vengeance, a carefully planned stint in incarceration that puts a coda on the most personal chapter of his body count, and the flat-out, absolutely final Punisher story. The whole thing is a tour de force, but it especially grabbed me by the nuts thanks to the bookend art chores from John Severin — MOTHERFUCKING JOHN SEVERIN!!! — and Richard Corben, perhaps the cartoonist who is most in tune with my love of the zaftig female figure, and the guy who taught me to draw such loveliness without even knowing he tutored my beige ass.
So get out there and buy the motherfuckers already, or I will track you down and kick your asses up and down a flight of stairs, you Iron-Man-readin’ dickheads!