The Punisher


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The Punisher #3 © 1985 Marvel Comics. (Cover art by Mike Zeck and Phil Zimelman.)

The Punisher

(pop culture)

Anticipating such “grim and gritty” 1980s superhero fare as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen by more than a decade, Marvel Comics’ Punisher is one of the medium’s quintessential anti-heroes. Created by regular Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway and Marvel art director John Romita, Sr. (and unveiled in Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #129, 1974), the Punisher captures a 1970s vengeance-against-crime zeitgeist best exemplified in the larger culture by the gunplay-laden Dirty Harry films of Clint Eastwood, the Death Wish cinematic bloodbaths of Charles Bronson, and Don Pendleton’s men’s adventure paperback hero, The Executioner. Indeed, the original Punisher concept was for an Executioner-like hero, whom Conway dubbed the Assassin. Both editor-in-chief Stan Lee and the Comics Code Authority, however, vetoed that name as too amoral and violent. The newly renamed Punisher sported a distinctive, skull-emblazoned black costume (designed by Romita) that recalled the garb of the Black Terror, a Golden Age (1938–1954) hero from Standard Comics.

Though originally conceived as an adversary for Spider-Man, the Punisher is no mere garden-variety criminal; rather, he views himself as a crusader against all criminals, many of whom don’t survive their encounters with him. Long before Frank Castiglione first takes up the formidable weaponry and body armor of the Punisher, he plans on entering the Catholic priesthood, only to abandon his clerical aspirations after learning that forgiveness is not his strong suit. Leaving his seminary studies behind, he falls in love with Maria Falconio, and the two are soon married and begin raising a family. Castiglione also enters the U.S. Marines, where (as Frank Castle) he receives training in land, sea, and airborne combat, and becomes proficient in underwater demolitions. Rising to the rank of captain while serving on various combat fronts, Castle earns the nick name “Punisher” because of his tenacious pursuit of the enemy (The ‘Nam #52-#53, 1991), eventually becoming a military training instructor.

While on leave, Castle takes his family on a picnic outing in New York’s Central Park, where they inadvertently witness a gangland execution. The mobsters next gun down Maria and the Castle children, Frank Junior and Christie. But Castle himself survives, deserts the Marine Corps, and brings all of his considerable military expertise to bear in a one-man war against the underworld (the Punisher’s oft-retold origin, which is very like that of the Executioner, who served as his template, first appears in Marvel Preview #2, 1975). Unlike the typical comic book crime fighter, the Punisher utilizes a varied arsenal of both lethal and nonlethal weapons, including an automatic M-16 rifle, pistols, concussion bombs, tear-gas grenades, and a fully armed and armored battle-van. Although Castle never hesitates to use lethal force against the criminals he stalks, he maintains a strict military code of honor that eschews the use of violence against innocent parties, including civilian police forces, which he allows to arrest and incarcerate him (briefly) without resistance. Despite his extralegal, overly violent methods, the Punisher regards himself as a protector of the helpless and the innocent.

Nevertheless, the Punisher’s extreme world-view puts him on an ethical collision course with Spider-Man in their first encounter, back in the 1970s, during which the two stake out highly polarized positions in American society’s eternal law-and-order debate. The wall-crawler sees the Punisher as a dangerous loose cannon who should not be allowed to roam the streets; Castle regards Spider-Man as a foolish idealist who lacks the strength and resolve to give criminals the harsh treatment they deserve. Spider-Man survives this initial clash largely because the Punisher does not entirely believe the bad press the Daily Bugle newspaper routinely gives the wall-crawler (editor J. Jonah Jameson sees Spider-Man in much the same way that Spidey does the Punisher). Probably because 1970s comics audiences (to say nothing of comic-book editors) were not yet ready for the Punisher’s moral ambiguity, the character spent the next several years as a mere guest star, primarily in the Amazing Spider-Man comic.

But the Punisher was not destined to languish for long on Marvel’s back bench, and arguably owes much of his far greater success in the 1980s to two influential men: Ronald Reagan, the embodiment of the nation’s tough, rightward swing during this period; and Frank Miller, the innovative young writer-artist who began using the take-no-prisoners Castle as a foil for his gritty, film noir version of Daredevil (which he introduced in Daredevil vol. 1 #182-#184, in 1982). Miller’s Punisher is still clearly a criminal, though treated sympathetically; his code of honor and his calculating nature receive more emphasis than do his violent, vengeance-inspired lawbreaking. But Miller makes no bones about the Punisher’s goals. “The Punisher is an avenger,” said the cartoonist. “He’s Batman without the lies built in. They come from the same root. They’re created by the same fears. The same kind of fear that I feel every time I ride the subway.” Portrayals of the character by writers other than Miller varied widely during this period; for example, Spectacular Spider-Man #82 (1983) portrays a Punisher who is so maniacally obsessed with small legal infractions that he shoots at litterbugs and red-light runners (happily without hitting them).

As a (largely unfounded) fear of increasing street crime gripped the nation throughout the conservative Reagan era, comics audiences were increasingly receptive to the lethal vendetta of the Punisher, who finally landed his own five-issue miniseries in 1986 (cover-dated January-May). Marvel followed this successful effort with The Punisher, an ongoing monthly title debuting in July 1987. Such was the character’s expanding success that November of the following year saw the introduction of The Punisher War Journal (a new monthly title); a third series, The Punisher: War Zone, began its run in March 1992. The Punisher also headlined a plethora of miniseries and graphic novels, some of which featured as guest stars such popular Marvel characters as the Black Widow and Wolverine. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a Punisher guest appearance in any sluggish-selling Marvel title all but guaranteed significant additional sales. The Punisher even graced the pages of two intercompany crossovers with DC Comics’ Batman (Punisher/Batman: Deadly Knights, and Batman/Punisher: Lake of Fire, both in 1994)— and even turned up in a crossover with Archie of Riverdale High (The Punisher Meets Archie #1, August 1994)! The Punisher’s vengeful legacy even survives into the far future with the monthly Punisher 2099 series (its thirty-four-issue run began in February 1993), in which Public Eye Special Operations agent Jake Gallows wages war against criminals as an armored, high-tech vigilante.

During this period of intensive Punisher publishing, the character achieved increasing complexity, revealing more of his inner motivations. Not only does Frank Castle harbor a hatred for criminals of the sort that slew his family, he also hates being the Punisher—just as he despises himself for having failed to protect his family when it mattered most. But Marvel’s overexposure of the character clearly took its toll as readers seemed to tire of Castle and his grim mission. July 1995 saw the end of all three of the main ongoing Punisher series. Still, the Punisher subsequently made a comeback as part of the highly successful Marvel Knights superteam series (vol. 1), which began in July 2000, and can also be seen in numerous miniseries, one-shots, and guest appearances since the turn of the millennium.

Garth Ennis wrote three new Punisher series, starting in 2000, 2001, and 2004, the last being under Marvel’s new MAX imprint, which is aimed at mature readers. A new Punisher War Journal series, initially written by Matt Fraction, debuted in 2006.

The Punisher made it to the silver screen in 1989 (courtesy of New World Pictures) with Dolph Lundgren starring, fresh from the role of He-Man in Masters of the Universe (1987). The movie’s quality and fidelity to the original were lax—the hero’s skull-emblem was removed because the filmmakers deemed it “too comic-booky”—though it spawned a Marvel comic-book adaptation (The Punisher Movie Special, June 1990) and the premiere (in September 1989) of The Punisher Magazine, a large magazine-format monthly series that lasted only sixteen issues. The Punisher’s cinematic future includes a second feature film (co-written by Punisher co-creator Gerry Conway) released in 2004, with Thomas Jane (of Face/Off, Boogie Nights, and Dreamcatcher fame) starring as the eponymous, artilleried avenger, proudly displaying the skull emblem across his chest. Produced jointly by Artisan Entertainment and Marvel, the film’s teaser campaigns describe the Punisher as a former U.S. Marine and special agent turned vigilante, emphasizing his real-world superheroic skills, such as his finesse with explosives, large caliber guns, tactical weapons, and hand-to-hand combat. Another film, Punisher War Zone, followed in 2008, starring Ray Stevenson in the title role. —MAM