A man takes his family for a picnic in the park. The cruel hand of fate intervenes, and the man and his family are caught in the crossfire of a mob execution. The man’s wife, son and daughter are killed, but he survives. There’s nothing left for him now but to devote himself to killing those responsible, and when that’s done, to kill all the rest, those like the men that killed his family. He’s really not interested in protecting the innocent, it’s more about punishment. Punishing the guilty.
As far as origins go, I’ll say this about the Punisher: it’s certainly the most identifiable. Who among us would not react in much the same way to the murder of our closest loved ones? Does that mean we’re going to drive around in a van and start picking off muggers with a rifle? Of course not. But when the ones you love are taken from you, and those responsible are still walking around, the seduction of the gun looms large. It’s this ease of empathy on the reader’s part that has helped make Frank Castle Marvel Comics’ most successful mass murderer.
First off, mention can’t be made of the Punisher without first at least noting the character’s clear inspiration, Mack Bolan, the Executioner, from Don Pendleton’s extremely popular series of crime novels from the 1970s. Bolan, a Vietnam vet, wages war on the Mafia in retribution for their destruction of his family, and drives around in a specially equipped battle van while making entries in his “War Journal.” Those of you who are already familiar with the Punisher will note how familiar this sounds. Pendleton must not have minded the homage too much, because he was interviewed for an issue of MARVEL PREVIEW which featured the earliest telling of the Punisher’s origin. And who knows, perhaps some money changed hands between Marvel and Pendleton. Nothing wrong with that, and it wouldn’t be the first time.
Regardless, Marvel writer Gerry Conway was a fan of the character, and lobbied Marvel boss Stan Lee to introduce a similar character in their line of comics. Lee reportedly rejected Conway’s first suggested name for the character, “The Assassin,” but was fine with “The Punisher,” and after a snazzy costume design by Marvel’s art director John Romita, featuring a white skull emblem on black tights, the Punisher was ready for his premiere in the pages of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.
Courtesy of writer Gerry Conway and artist Ross Andru, the Punisher made his first appearance in February 1974, in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #129, “The Punisher Strikes Twice!” Here, the Punisher, who’s already made a name for himself as a vigilante waging war on organized crime in New York City, is duped by Spidey’s nemesis the Jackal into targeting Spider-Man for elimination, with the Jackal blaming Spider-Man for the murder of Norman Osborn (who of course, died at his own hand as the Green Goblin, but you already know that, don’t you?). When Spidey reveals to the Punisher that the Jackal was using him, and had already planned for his disposal as well, an uneasy truce is created between the two, one that would be maintained for years to come.
The portrayal of the Punisher in these early issues is pretty consistent: the Punisher has a strict moral code of honor, only targeting the guilty, and only in the proper fashion: to wit, when the Jackal stuns Spidey from behind and knocks him off a rooftop, the Punisher is livid, and backhands the Jackal across the room, furious that Spider-Man was killed in such a dishonorable fashion. The Punisher’s military history is firmly established, with his mention of “three years in the Marines,” as is his motivation, with the following exchange between the Punisher and Spidey.
A word about Ross Andru’s rendition of the Punisher: More so than some of the later versions, Andru’s Punisher always looked more, I don’t know, authentic to me, like a disgruntled middle-aged Italian-American Vietnam vet who had gone just around the bend and taken up murdering criminals as a vocation.
The other consistently appearing elements of the Punisher character, the entries in his “War Journal” and the weapons van, made their debut in GIANT-SIZE SPIDER-MAN #4, another Conway/Andru offering somewhat awkwardly titled “To Sow the Seeds of Death’s Day!” Here, Spidey and the Punisher team up to put an end to a South American death camp where kidnapped Americans are being subjected to nerve-gas experiments. Pretty heavy stuff for Spider-Man comics, even in the early ’70s, and an indication of more of the influence of the Don Pendleton Executioner novels on writer Gerry Conway. There are a few things here that seem very off the mark for SPIDER-MAN, including Spidey’s almost blase response to the Punisher killing a thug with a sniper’s gunshot to the head (uncharacteristically shown on-panel in a jarring bit of violence), as well as Spidey agreeing to go along with a plan that finds him kidnapped, drugged and unmasked, with only a few minor bits of theatrical disguise protecting his identity. The issue’s denouement, in which Spidey seems surprised that the Punisher would murder the story’s villain in cold blood, also fails to hit home as well.
The Punisher’s next appearance, in the black-and-white pages of the magazine-style series MARVEL PREVIEW, provided the first real inklings to the Punisher’s origin and motivation. “Death Sentence,” written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Tony Dezuniga, firmly established the Punisher’s Vietnam War background, and gave us the first look at the murder of his family, as depicted in flashback. The man who would become the Punisher, as well as his wife and two children, are gunned down by mobsters when the family accidentally stumbled upon them in the midst of an execution. Left for dead, the husband survives, but he’s the only one.
The Punisher’s origin is fleshed out in his next appearance, “Accounts Settled — Accounts Due!” in the black-and-white pages of MARVEL SUPER ACTION #1, by writer Archie Goodwin and penciller Tony DeZuniga. Here we get a longer account of the Punisher’s campaign to destroy the mobsters that murdered his family, as recounted as the Punisher tells his story to what looks to be a high-priced callgirl.
Here we also get for the first time a name put to the killers, as the Punisher targets the crime family of Frank Costa, the brother of the man who led the park execution that resulted in the murder of the Punisher’s family.
A word here about names: throughout all of these appearances, and for years to come, the Punisher’s real name was never revealed, in an effort to more clearly delineate his old life from his new — the man he was died that day in the park with his family, and all that he was now was the Punisher. Also, not revealing his name was a subtle way to reinforce the Punisher’s connection with the reader: but for the grace of God, the Punisher could be any one of us.
Going back to the origin story, the Punisher murders practically the entire Costa crime family, and finds that it’s never enough. Naturally, the callgirl turns out to be a Mob assassin as well, but that’s no surprise to the Punisher.
For the next few years, the Punisher made his way through various guest appearances in books like AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, DAREDEVIL and PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN. For the most part, the appearances were fairly solid if somewhat unremarkable, with the exception of Frank Miller’s excellent handling of the character in DAREDEVIL, and Bill Mantlo’s rather serious misunderstanding of the character in PETER PARKER, in which the Punisher, having escaped from prison after being wounded by Daredevil and captured in the Miller story, descends into madness and begins punishing civilians for considerably more minor infractions, opening fire on litterbugs and traffic violators.
Even worse, when the Punisher is recaptured, he’s shown breaking down at his arraignment, mumbling about how the doctors at the mental hospital don’t see things the way he does. It all just comes off poorly, and very much out of character. The Punisher may have had momentary doubts about his own sanity from time to time in his early appearances, but there was always a sense in the writing that he was in command of his facilities, just pushed to the absolute edge by grief.
Luckily, Steven Grant came along and fixed all that.
In the 1985 THE PUNISHER miniseries written by Grant and drawn by Mike Zeck, it was revealed that the Punisher’s dementia had been artificially induced by drugs slipped into his food in prison, the handiwork of an old enemy of the Punisher’s, Jigsaw, a criminal kicked through a plate-glass window by the Punisher, resulting in the punk’s face being horribly disfigured by the shattered glass. In the PUNISHER miniseries, the Punisher hooks up with a vigilante organization called the Trust, which arranges his escape from prison and gets him equipped and back on the street. The Punisher’s first target is the Kingpin, and although his assassination attempt was anticipated by the ganglord, the resulting explosion makes the world at large think the Kingpin is dead, setting off a gang war that the Punisher is all too happy to take advantage of.
In the end, the Trust turns out to be using the Punisher, creating an army of brainwashed ex-cons who all think they’re the Punisher, with intentions of turning them loose on criminals everywhere. Naturally, the Punisher quashes this plot with extreme prejudice, and forces the Trust to expose themselves to the press, ending their vigilante activities.
The Grant/Zeck PUNISHER miniseries was a big success creatively and commercially (as well as finally giving the Punisher a real name: Frank Castle, an Americanization of the Italian name Castiglione), and it set the tone for the Punisher’s regular monthly series, which followed in 1987. This was the beginning of the Punisher’s boom period, which would eventually lead to two spinoff series, PUNISHER: WAR JOURNAL and PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. Writers such as Mike Baron, Steven Grant, Chuck Dixon and Carl Potts handled the Punisher’s adventures, and the need to pump out so many monthly stories seemed to exhaust the character’s creative potential, as he was soon subjected to increasingly gimmicky plots, such as when the Punisher underwent radical facial surgery and was briefly a Black man. Seriously.
Also, to give the Punisher someone to talk to, he was given a sidekick, Microchip, a hacker and engineer who provided much of the Punisher’s intel and equipment. The Punisher and Microchip were also assisted by Microchip’s son — you guessed it, Microchip Jr. Yeesh.
Eventually, both Microchips Senior and Junior wound up getting killed off in the line of duty, and the Punisher was back on his own again, which is really how the character works best. Still, the gimmick storylines continued, including such doozies as the Punisher briefly taking over the Mob, as well as being brainwashed into killing SHIELD commander Nick Fury (but like the bad penny, Fury always turns up again, with the murder eventually revealed as a fake) and subsequently hunted by a large part of the superhero community.
By 1995, all of the Punisher’s books were cancelled and he was sent to the electric chair. You’d think that’d put most people down, but not our boy Frank. Turns out the execution was faked, leading up to the Punisher’s new series by writer John Ostrander and artist Tom Lyle. That series only lasted 18 issues until cancellation, at the end of which, the Punisher had been killed off again, and this time it looked serious.
Not to worry, though, because you can’t keep a good vigilante down. In one of the dopier revisions of the character, Marvel’s new Marvel Knights imprint gave us in 1998 a new Punisher miniseries by writers Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegoski and legendary horror artist Berni Wrightson in which — wait for it — a resurrected Punisher was returned to Earth from the hereafter by angels, bearing a mystic sigil on his forehead and carrying around holy machine guns. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Fortunately, “Zombie Punisher” did not catch on, and the character received a much-needed “back-to-basics” treatment in 2000 with a 12-issue miniseries from writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, fresh off their critically acclaimed series PREACHER for DC’s Vertigo imprint. Which we’ll look at next week. See you then.