Last time, in COMICS 101… Last week, we looked at the beginnings of Marvel’s resident vigilante the Punisher, and at the character’s somewhat sad decline before returning to his proper style at the hands of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon…
In Ennis and Dillon’s outstanding miniseries (available collected as THE PUNISHER: WELCOME BACK, FRANK), Castle is back on the streets of New York and in rare form, going after the Gnucci crime family with a vengeance. Ennis comes up with a very cool moment explaining away the supernatural mumbo-jumbo of the previous series, expressed in first-person monologue as the Punisher eliminates the heir to the Gnucci crime family in stylish fashion by throwing him off the Empire State Building. As Gnucci falls, the Punisher reflects on his recent decision to ‘tell the angels where to stick it,’ in reference to his recent undead adventures:
This time, the Punisher’s keeping it fairly low-profile, with no fancy weapons van or high-tech equipment, just a small apartment with a roomful of guns, and a whole lot of bad intentions. Living under the clever alias of “John Smith,” Castle tries to keep his conversations with his new neighbors to a minimum. There’s the tattooed and pierced but friendly punk Spacker Dave…
…the morbidly obese Mister Bumpo…
…and the timid “Joan the Mouse,” housebound and scared of the world.
In time, all three will be drawn into the Punisher’s adventures as his war on the Gnuccis finally shows up on their doorstep. Although the Punisher is playing things less complicated nowadays, his methods are no less brutal, as one of Ma Gnucci’s hired killers, enlisted to whack the Punisher, finds out:
When the Punisher goes after another Gnucci son, he runs afoul of an old sparring partner, Daredevil. Having expected the confrontation, the Punisher stuns DD with an ultrasonic trap, and puts the morally principled Daredevil behind the 8-ball, as he awakes chained to a post, with only one hand free and a pistol taped to it. He can either let the Punisher kill Gnucci, or kill the Punisher himself. No other options.
Ma Gnucci and her goons manage to corner the Punisher in, of all places, the Central Park Zoo, and the ensuing carnage is one of the grimmest, most violent and most darkly funny sequences I’ve ever seen in a comic, as Ma Gnucci and her soldiers are mauled by polar bears. I’m still a little amazed Marvel published it, to be honest.
Ma Gnucci survives the polar bear attack, and increases the bounty on the Punisher’s head. Eventually at the end of her rope, Ma Gnucci calls in the legendary Russian, a supposedly unstoppable killing machine.
True to his reputation, the Russian shows up and pretty much beats the Punisher within an inch of his life, before Castle finds an innovative way to put the Russian down, with a little help from his friends, that is.
WELCOME BACK, FRANK is violent, foul-humored, and occasionally downright mean, and also wickedly funny and one of the best Punisher stories ever told. Highly recommended.
Marvel quickly followed up the 12-issue miniseries with a monthly PUNISHER series featuring primarily Garth Ennis writing and a variety of artists. Ennis occasionally reached the creative standards he set in his first PUNISHER run, but had a tendency to give in too much to his weakness for cheap humor at the expense of other Marvel characters.
In the past few years, the Punisher has been a fairly constant presence in the Marvel Universe, most recently appearing in the latest iteration of Marvel’s THUNDERBOLTS title.
The Punisher has made his way to the big screen three times so far, with a bit more success each time. Dolph Lundgren played Frank Castle the first time around in THE PUNISHER in 1989, a low-budget B-movie co-starring Lou Gossett, Jr. Short of the title and the character’s name, there’s not a lot to link the movie with the comics, as even the death’s-head-skull T-shirt was deemed “too comic-booky” by the film’s producers.
A more faithful translation hit theatres in 2004, starring Thomas Jane as the Punisher and John Travolta as mob boss Howard Saint. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, the film took its cues from such PUNISHER stories as “Year One” and “Welcome Back, Frank,” and did a much better job of capturing the anarchic, vengeful spirit of the comics at their best, even if some of the casting was a little questionable, such as supermodel Rebecca Romijn as Joan the Mouse.
An even better PUNISHER film saw release in 2008 with PUNISHER WAR ZONE, in which Ray Stevenson takes over the role of Frank Castle in the darkest, grisliest and most violent of the Punisher films that’s also the most faithful to the source material.
Highly recommended, although not for the weak of stomach.