Welcome to the five hundred and sixty-seventh in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the first five hundred (I actually haven't been able to update it in a while). This week, in honor of the Punisher's TV debut this week on Netflix's Daredevil series, I thought we'd take a look at both the origin of the Punisher and one of his oddest moments of all-time. Who was the inspiration for the Punisher? Was Mike Baron forced to write the "Punisher becomes a black guy" storyline? And did Marvel have a special "black dialogue" writer on the storyline?
NOTE: The column is on three pages, a page for each legend. There's a little "next" button on the top of the page and the bottom of the page to take you to the next page (and you can navigate between each page by just clicking on the little 1, 2 and 3 on the top and the bottom, as well).
COMIC LEGEND: The Punisher was inspired by Death Wish.
COMIC LEGEND: The Punisher was inspired by The Executioner book series.
As you all may have noticed by now, when it comes to "Character X was based on ____" legends, I take a pretty hard line on proof. Simply "they're similar!" isn't enough for me (so long as said similarities couldn't reasonably be explained any other way). And thus, for years, I have remained fairly agnostic when it came to whether the Punisher was based on Don Pendleton's The Executioner.
This first came up on the site a few years back when I did an Easter Eggs column where Erik Larsen drew a character that looked like Charles Bronson as a villain in a Spider-Man comic guest-starring the Punisher. Commenter Sean said in response to my point that it was odd to see Bronson there, "Wasn’t The Punisher himself based on ‘Death Wish’? That would seem to be the connection."
Another commenter, Antonio, suggested I do a legends on it, and Antonio also pointed out the main point I would use to show that Death Wish was an unlikely inspiration for the Punisher. The original Death Wish novel was released in 1972, but it was not very popular. It was when it was made into a film in 1974 that it exploded in popularity. The movie, however, came out eight months after the Punisher's debut in Amazing Spider-Man #129...
So I think it is clear that Death Wish wasn't an influence.
Trickier, though, was Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan, star of the Executioner series of novels, about a Vietnam War veteran who fights a war on crime after his family is killed. This book series, which began in the late 1960s, WAS popular at the time.
It certainly SEEMED to be an influence.
And as the Punisher kept appearing early on, Conway clearly DID adapt elements of the Executioner, like in Giant-Size Spider-Man #4 (Punisher's fourth appearance - art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito), Conway adopted Mack Bolan's "Battle Van" and his war journal style of exposition...
But while Conway obviously adapted the character to match the Executioner in some ways, it doesn't mean he was CREATED with the Executioner in mind. It doesn't mean he wasn't, either, but I'm not going to make a "ruling" unless I have something else to go on, as "War vet fights crime" is such a generic baseline that I don't think it would be outside the realm of realistic possiblity that Conway came up with the idea independently and then just added in the Bolan influences later.
The problem for me is that while I have read many, many, many Conway interviews about the creation of the Punisher, I never came across him actually referencing Don Pendleton. But then, just this week, a reader named Jim S. filled me in on two good sources.
In 1987's Comics Interview #75, Conway spoke to Lou Mougin about the Punisher's inspiration:
I was fascinated by the Don Pendelton Executioner character, which was fairly popular at the time, and I wanted to do something that was inspired by that, although not to my mind a copy of it. And while I was doing the Jackal storyline, the opportunity came for a character who would be used by the Jackal to make Spider-Man's life miserable. The Punisher seemed to fit.
And then in 1997's Marvel Vision #15, in an article about the Punisher by Pat Jankiewicz, Conway noted:
I liked the idea of the Punisher, a loner, operating on the outside of the law and society, in a war to destroy all crime. I thought it would be interesting to have him go after Spider-Man, because the Daily Bugle had been calling him a criminal. The Punisher was a tough, unpredictable character. My inspiration was "The Executioner" series...the paperback books by Don Pendldeton. They're modern equivalent of the pulps. That's what gave me the idea for the lone, slightly psychotic avenger. he's a character lik the classic pulp heroes. There's even a little of the Shadow in the Punisher.
So there you go, Conway is pretty explicit about it all.
Thanks to Sean, Antonio, Jim, commenter PB210 (who brought this up a number of times over the years, as only he could) and, of course, Lou Mougin, Pat Jankiewicz and Gerry Conway for the information!
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