Opening in U.S. cinemas today is "Punisher: War Zone," starring Ray Stevenson ("Rome") in the role of Frank Castle. It is the third cinematic outing for the Marvel Comics anti-hero, who has over the last several years enjoyed a kind of ultra-violent renaissance. In this edition of MARVEL MEMOIRS, CBR takes a look at the life of The Punisher; where he's been, where he's going, and his forays into the world of cinema.
In "Amazing Spider-Man" #129 (February 1974), the creative team of Gerry Conway and Ross Andru introduced the world to Frank Castle, The Punisher. A vigilante, murderer, extortionist, kidnapper and torturer, The Punisher employed gangland tactics against the gangsters he hunted, ostensibly on behalf of justice. This made Castle, to say the least, unique in the four-color world of Marvel in 1974.
Writer Gerry Conway was well known for sketching costumes and presenting them to his artistic collaborators. The initial visuals for The Punisher had a small skull on the breast of the costume, and John Romita, Sr. enlarged the skull to cover the entire chest and added an ammo belt to the waist of the character to represent the skull's teeth.
In his first appearance, The Punisher was simply another antagonist for Spider-Man, though one with a somewhat heroic twist. All that was revealed about the character, initially, was that he was a former Marine and that his ruthless tactics were to him necessary to curb the tide of violence and corruption of the Mob. To give a human face to this new villain, The Punisher was portrayed as being driven by rage and was very conflicted about what was right and what was wrong. This made the character sympathetic to both the audience and to Spider-Man himself. Castle began to appear more regularly, teaming up with Spider-Man and Captain America, among others. In Frank Miller's 1980s run on "Daredevil," he used The Punisher as a direct contrast to the title character's attitudes as a defense attorney.
It was eventually revealed that Frank Castle's family was killed by the mob when they witnessed a gangland execution. Consequently Castle began his war on crime as The Punisher. Using his military training, The Punisher first dispatched his family's killers and then expanded his war to include all criminals.
In January 1986, writer Steven Grant and artist Mike Zeck premiered the first Punisher miniseries, "Circle of Blood." Initially planned for four issues, Marvel expanded the series to five after the first issue sold out. In the series, Castle's origins were re-examined and finally given room to grow. The character began to expand into a full-blown protagonist, rather than a simple foil. An interesting piece of retcon was established in the series when we learned that mind-altering drugs had caused Frank to go off the deep end, and that this was the impetus for his incredible rage and more extreme acts of violence.
A year later, Marvel gave the fans what they wanted: an ongoing series. "The Punisher" #1 (July 1987) by writer Mike Baron and artist Klaus Janson began a 104-issue run and produced four spin-offs: "The Punisher War Journal," which ran 80 issues, premiered in November 1988, and "The Punisher War Zone," which enjoyed a 41-issue run beginning in March 1992. "The Punisher Magazine" ran 16 issues, from November 1989 to September 1990, and "The Punisher Armory" went for ten issues beginning in 1990.
Due to his popularity, Frank was scattered all over comic shelves in various one-shots and miniseries, including a cross-company team up with Archie Andrews and a guest appearance in Marvel's Vietnam war comic, "The 'Nam." The Punisher even got his own sidekick in the form of Microchip, a technician who maintained Frank's weapons and vehicles.
Throughout the various series, The Punisher fought every manner of organized crime, from the Mafia to the Yakuza to Colombian drug lords to Neo-Nazis; and every imaginable type of crime was punished, from corrupt officials to pedophiles to thieves to rapists and murderers. No criminal of any sort was safe from The Punisher. Considering the lethal nature of Castle's war on crime, it's not surprising that he had a very small rogues' gallery. But despite his rather final method of dealing with crime, Frank did manage to have a few recurring foes: The Kingpin, Jigsaw, Bushwhacker, the Reavers, and Daredevil's old nemesis Bullseye would cross Punisher's path from time to time and manage to escape with their lives. There were also a large number of guest stars throughout the Punisher books, typically there to juxtapose their form of non-lethal vigilantism with Castle's deadly methodology.
In 1989, The Punisher made his film debut with Swedish actor, martial artist and, yes, chemical engineer Dolph Lundgren in the starring role. The movie portrayed Castle as a police officer whose family had been killed by the Mob. Living in the sewers, Castle and his sidekick, a homeless drunk named Shake, fought the bad guys and tried to save the lives of the children of gangsters while a war erupted between the Mafia and the Yakuza. The film was not well received by either fans or critics, and the trademark Punisher skull did not appear on Castle's clothing.
In 1995, as the days of the grim and gritty anti-hero began to wane, all three ongoing Punisher titles were cancelled due to poor sales. The new Marvel Edge imprint took the next shot at a Punisher series in November of 1995, with writer John Ostrander at the helm. In the new series, which ran 18 issues, Frank took over his own crime family and came into conflict with Nick Fury as well as the X-Men along the way.
In a desperate attempt at re-branding the character, The Punisher returned in November of 1998 in a miniseries that saw Frank die and return to the land of the living as a supernatural force, with the command over a variety of angelic and demonic creatures.
Realizing their serious error, Marvel went back to basics with Frank Castle. In April of 2000, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon launched a 12-issue miniseries under the Marvel Knights imprint and breathed new life into the character. Sales were sufficient to birth yet another ongoing series in August 2001, also with Ennis and Dillon. The title ran for 37 issues as a Marvel Knights book before re-launching under Marvel's mature readers imprint, MAX Comics, in 2004.
"The Punisher MAX," as it was known, took Frank Castle back to streets. As with many books by Garth Ennis, the series was violent and filled with very dark humor. Gone were all the trappings of a traditional superhero; Frank wore a t-shirt with his skull logo, black battle-dress uniform pants, combat boots and a leather trench coat. Throughout the series, The Punisher was once again a man on a mission, and his mission was simply to kill criminals. A novel element of the series was that unlike other Marvel characters, Frank aged in real time; he was still a veteran of the Vietnam war and had been active as a vigilante for 30 years and had killed over 2,000 criminals. The series went so far as to establish Castle's birthday as February 16, 1950, although the date was removed on subsequent printings to avoid making it canon.
Ennis wrote a spinoff miniseries called "Born" that was set during Castle's third tour of duty in Vietnam. In the story, we see an assault by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese against Frank's fortifications. During the bombardment, there was a definite mental (and possibly supernatural) transformation from Frank Castle to The Punisher.
For those that had forgotten about Frank's old buddy Microchip, Ennis had the character return as a part of a CIA plan to get weapons and heroin out of Afghanistan. The Punisher discovered this connection and gave Microchip a chance to give it up and run. Micro, assuming his old friendship with Castle would save him, refuses. Microchip tried to explain his actions and The Punisher shot him in the face with a shotgun.
A bigger budget and bigger stars brought Frank Castle back to the big screen in 2004 with another film entitled "The Punisher." In this outing, Thomas Jane played the role of Frank Castle, who was an FBI agent on his final assignment when the son of Mob boss Howard Saint was killed. Saint, played by John Travolta, blamed Castle for his son's death and slaughtered Frank's entire family. Frank survived and took the law into his own hands, becoming The Punisher. The trademark skull was in place for this film, and the costuming is identical to the outfits worn in the MAX series.
In November 2006, The Punisher returned the Marvel Universe proper with "The Punisher War Journal" volume 2. The series was written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Ariel Olivetti and tied directly into standard Marvel continuity, crossing over into the events of Civil War, World War Hulk, and Secret Invasion. Wearing both his classic costume and the street clothes from the MAX series, Frank fought supervillains rather than the Mob, although he still killed the supervillains.
"Punisher War Journal" will in January 2009 be re-launched as "Punisher," with the MAX series continuing as "Punisher: Frank Castle." Additionally, a new six-part weekly miniseries by the classic team of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillion will appear in comics shops starting December 10. Like the all-new Punisher movie of the same name, "Punisher: War Zone" is another sure sign that Frank Castle's star is on the rise, and that The Punisher has once again turned his one-man war on crime into a one-man comic book empire.