Francis Castiglione blasted onto the pages of Marvel comics in Amazing Spider-Man #129 with our favorite web-slinger already in his cross-hairs on the cover. Though he was introduced as a villain manipulated by longtime Spidey foe The Jackal into attempting to kill the wall-crawler, no one could guess that the character would take off in such a significant way, launching several of his own titles and being one of the first Marvel comics characters to appear on the silver screen. He’s also one of the most divisive characters in the medium, with many writing him off as merely a vapid attempt at being XTREEEEEEEEEEME (to the MAAAAX!) or even “the guy with guns,” but as I’ll reveal in this article, there’s a lot more to The Punisher than his debut may have suggested.
After achieving a huge amount of popularity, and three of his own titles, Frank Castle’s popularity declined, in part because of the difficulty of an ongoing hero who kills his antagonists, thus limiting their ability to be recurring, and in part because, beyond his interesting origin, he wasn’t being very fleshed out. Attempts to make him an angelic assassin had failed to revitalize the character, and it appeared that Castle might join the ranks of MarvelCharacterObscurity.== TEASER ==
That is, until a hungry writer by the name of Garth Ennis got ahold of him and completely revamped the character. He kept the iconic skull imagery, and even the costume that didn’t make a great deal of sense, but he made the character harder edged, more introspective, and most importantly: introduced an element of dark humor. Very, very, VERY dark humor. Castle was trapped in a world of men dressing in tights and battling evil, strange mobsters who hired gargantuan superhero-obsessed hitmen, and madmen who all wanted to BE the next Punisher. And he wasn’t amused one little bit. He was the straight man in his own comedy bit.
After the series ran its course, Ennis took the character one step further onto Marvel’s MAX imprint, thus removing the character from mainstream continuity and also removing most of the humor. The Punisher existed in what was essentially the “real” world in this book. This achieved a measure of mature storytelling that could actually make the reader extremely uncomfortable, in a positive way, while reading the book as Frank dealt with real-world issues like modern slavery, white-collar crime and in addition to allowing Ennis to show at least SOME of the consequences of the horrific violence that Castle inflicted on his enemies. There was certainly no room for “mercy bullets” in this Punisher’s repertoire of weapons.
He also re-told Frank Castle’s origin as a sergeant in the Vietnam War where he’s taunted by a strange voice, that may or may not be real, offering him a war without end. He even went as far back as the Punisher’s childhood, seeing an older boy take brutal revenge on the son of a mobster.
These events fleshed out The Punisher and gave him a motivation beyond the simple desire to murder or the need for revenge. He became an avatar of vengeance, almost crossing into the supernatural, but pulling back just enough to make the reader wonder if perhaps Frank’s simply insane and always has been. The Punisher we see in the MAX series is in his late fifties or early sixties and Ennis introduced a revolving door of supporting cast and antagonists that spanned ten volumes of mostly contiguous and connected plots. This was one way to make the Punisher a more readable character: make him 100% serious, give him a certain self-awareness of the futility of his life’s work, and tell realistic, grounded stories. With a Punisher like this, was there even a need for a more humorous version? Matt Fraction certainly seemed to believe so.
Frank Castle re-emerged after a few years lying dormant in the mainstream Marvel Universe in the event book Civil War, but it would be Matt Fraction who would spearhead the Punisher’s return to his own series. I was able to ask Fraction a question about the series because I suspected that he had taken Ennis’ style of humor and ramped it up to its logical extreme, and wondered this was intentional. He confirmed that he saw Castle as a character who had appointed himself judge, jury and executioner, a person who took absolute morality into his own hands, and how would a someone like that react in a world where a man dresses like a rhinoceros and robs a bank.
Punisher was still very serious in a world that can’t really be taken seriously, and that led to some of the most legitimate laughs in the character’s history. Between blowing up the villain hangout “The Bar With No Name” and punching Rhino out using Baron Strucker’s Satan’s Claw, Punisher had decided to use superheroes' own tropes and weapons against them. At it’s most basic level, the biggest difference between these two interpretations of the character is that one is more easily identified as “Frank Castle” (Ennis’ version) and one is more accurately known as “The Punisher” (Fraction’s).
Rick Remender would go even further, having Daken kill Punisher and bringing him back as a patchwork monster called Frankencastle. Now Punisher had become the thing he despised: he was a crazy, exaggerated, comic book character. He fit right in with all the other crazy folks running around in colorful spandex and there was definitely the notion put forth that he wasn’t terribly thrilled with the idea. This was, of course, a temporary change and now Punisher is back doing what he does best: pointing out the absurdity of the medium while engaging in it wholesale.