With three feature films and hundreds of comics under his ammo-filled belt, odds are you can at least identify the Punisher out of a lineup. His skull logo is one of the most iconic symbols to ever appear on a superhero’s chest, after all. But there’s more to Frank Castle than what’s been seen on the big screen or on t-shirts. Marvel’s most extreme vigilante has a starring role in Season Two of Netflix’s “Daredevil” TV series, meaning we’re likely going to get to spend a lot more time in Frank Castle’s head — and in the Punisher’s crosshairs — than we ever have before.
If you want to learn more about the Punisher before Jon Bernthal’s uncompromising take on the classic Marvel character arrives on March 18, there are a few comic book story arcs that might give you a preview of what to expect when the skull clashes with the devil. Beyond Frank’s debut in 1974’s “Amazing Spider-Man” #129 and the original telling of his origin in the following year’s “Marvel Preview” #2, here are five stories to read before “Daredevil” drops on March 18.
Punisher vs. Daredevil
While their names aren’t often mentioned together, the Daredevil and Punisher match-up we’re about to see onscreen actually has plenty of precedence in the comics. The pair first crossed each other’s paths in 1982’s “Daredevil” #183-184. After a girl dies from a drug-induced fall, both the Punisher and Daredevil become hell-bent on bringing the dealer to justice — although each vigilante has their own definition of what that word means. This stretch of issues, from writer/artist Frank Miller with Roger McKenzie and Klaus Janson, establishes the integral conflict between these two characters. Daredevil believes in letting the law handle criminals while Punisher has branded himself as judge, jury and executioner. As evidenced in a scene from “Daredevil,” this conflict will carry over into television.
Circle of Blood
Frank made the leap from one-off villain and supporting character to a full-fledged series lead with this five-issue series from 1986 by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck. The series puts Frank up against a group of brainwashed criminals called the Punishment Squad that wear his costume. He then becomes entangled in a mob war, one that he realizes will take out more innocent lives than guilty ones, and struggles with a mysterious organization called the Trust. This series cemented Punisher as a solo star and led to the launch of an ongoing series — one that would run for over a hundred issues — a year later.
The Punisher: Year One
Twenty years after his debut, writers Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and artist Dale Eaglesham really dug into the Punisher’s psyche by retelling the character’s tragic origin story in a more nuanced and detailed fashion. Following the murder of his family by the mob, Frank Castle does everything in his power to get the NYPD to investigate the case and bring the murderers to justice. Soon, the grieving and traumatized father and husband realizes that he has to take justice into his own hands — and “Year One” guides you through every step of Castle’s journey towards becoming the Punisher. If you’re looking for the most detailed recounting of the Punisher’s origin, this is where to begin.
Welcome Back, Frank
To say that the Punisher lost his way in the ’90s would be an understatement. Unsure of how to market the character to an audience obsessed with “X-Men” and Image’s “Spawn,” Marvel reintroduced the Punisher as a supernatural angel of vengeance. The 2000 “Punisher” series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon served as course-correction, jettisoning the angelic status quo for a no-holds-barred, grisly take on the character packed with bullets and black humor. This 12-issue series marks the start of Ennis’ eight-year run on the character, which spans three ongoing series and even more limited series. There’s no other writer as closely associated with Punisher as Ennis, and since over half of his run with the character was published under Marvel’s mature MAX imprint, no other writer has taken him to darker places.
Speaking of Ennis, the writer tackled Castle’s final tour of duty in Vietnam in this four-issue Marvel MAX series from 2001. Ennis and artist Darick Robertson created an unflinching depiction of the hell of war, told through the eyes of a young Marine serving under Captain Frank Castle. The story takes place over a tense four-day period wherein Castle’s platoon is stationed at Firebase Valley Forge. The series, widely regarded as one of the best Punisher stories ever told, ends with a violent firefight that serves as the first step toward the Marine’s transformation into the Punisher. The series closes with Frank returning home to his wife and kids and a haunting ending that has left fans guessing.
To learn more about the Punisher, CSBG is counting down your picks for the best Frank Castle stories ever told.