And death has come to Netflix. Jon Bernthal’s The Punisher has once again been unleashed on the world and finally, after three live action attempts, fans finally have the Frank Castle they deserve. It’s about damn time, too. You would think the elegant brutal simplicity of the Punisher would have been easy for Hollywood, but no. But here we are, so let the body count begin.
But long hard roads are very familiar to the Punisher. For decades, starting in Amazing Spider-Man #129 by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru, the Punisher has been trying to eradicate crime in the Marvel Universe. In the ’80s and ’90s, his popularity peaked and the character starred in three monthly titles, countless mini series and specials, and tons of guest spots.
In recent years, a murderers row of comic creators have lent their talents to the Punisher saga, adding to the bloody legend of Frank Castle. So without further ado, strap on the Kevlar as we present the finest and bloodiest Punisher tales of all time!
Punisher: Circle of Blood
Before 1986, the Punisher was relegated to frequent guest roles. Now, some of these guest spots were pretty damn awesome, such as Frank Miller’s use of the character in the writer’s unforgettable Daredevil run, but until Steven Grant and Mike Zeck delivered the Punisher’s very first solo series, he never took the top spot.
In Circle of Blood, the Punisher told the New York underworld that he had killed the Kingpin. This resulted in a bloody turf war that allowed the Punisher to rack up the body count. When things got too incendiary, Castle had to clean up his own mess.
Grant created the formula for all Punisher tales to follow while Zeck inspired visual storytelling that would guide the character for decades. And let me tell you, this bad boy still holds up to modern comic standards.
Punisher: War Zone
In the early ’90s, Marvel was publishing three separate Punisher titles. When Punisher: War Zone hit in 1992, you would have thought that the vigilante would have been over exposed and tired. Well, the creative team of Chuck Dixon, John Romita, and Klaus Janson proved that wrong right out of the gate.
In this unforgettable story, Frank Castle goes undercover to systematically take the mob apart from the inside. The only problem is, Frank falls in love with a mobster’s daughter. Sounds like a wacky comedy, but oh dear, it wasn’t. There is a body count and a half as Dixon proves why he is considered one of the greatest Punisher writers in history.
This story was sort of like The Sopranos done Marvel style, but with Frank Castle in the picture, Paulie Walnuts wouldn’t have been cracking too many jokes, he would have just been twitching in a dark alley from a high caliber slug to the guts.
Welcome Back, Frank
Hey, remember when I said there never could be too much Punisher? Yeah, I lied. By the late ’90s, a market glut and piss poor storytelling did what no hitman could ever do, they nearly killed the Punisher. Some of the worst Punisher dreck was published during that period. There was even a series where the Punisher became an angel! As in, an honest to goodness heaven sent angel.
But when Preacher creators Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon introduced their take on the Punisher, fans said yes to Welcome Back, Frank. Welcome Back, Frank was a return to the Punisher’s roots, a hard hitting killing spree that was as brutal as it was funny. Ennis and Dillon introduced a ton of unique characters to the Punisher mythos and reminded fans of why they fell in love with Frank Castle and his bloody knuckled world in the first place. It even featured the Punisher punching a polar bear in the face, and if that won’t sell you on Welcome Back, Frank, nothing will.
Born and Beyond…
Let’s be honest, any Punisher tales with Ennis’ name attached as writer is worth your time. He is the greatest Punisher writer of all time and had a ridiculous long run with the character. When Ennis first started on the Punisher, he presented some action packed but often humorous stories. In the middle of his legendary run, Ennis turned on a dime and shifted tonal gears making his Punisher one of the grimmest and most potently violent monthly comics in Marvel history.
“Born” is an intense Vietnam War story that served as the kickoff of Ennis’ second act as Punisher writer, and the stories that followed took him back to the streets of NYC. This time, though, he toned down the over-the-top violence and humor of the “Welcome Back, Frank” era in favor of more grounded, even more brutal stories that had little to do with the Marvel Universe at large. Kind of like his Netflix series.
Comics just don’t get much darker than this. One story in particular, “Slavers” starts out like a typical Punisher story, but ends as Frank Castle learns the reality of human sex trafficking and vows to bring down Russian sex slavers. It’s one of the most brutally honest and unflinching real world stories Marvel has ever published. If you want comics that have the flavor of the Netflix series, these are the ones to read.
Punisher: Enter the War Zone (2011-2012)
Famed crime and comic writer Greg Rucka’s Punisher doesn’t speak much, but he doesn’t have to. During Garth Ennis’ long run on the Punisher, Frank Castle didn’t have too many interactions with the Marvel Universe. But during Rucka’s time as writer, the Punisher got involved with Daredevil, Spider-Man, and the Avengers, the latter of which tried to bring Frank Castle down once and for all.
These stories introduced the character of Rachel Cole, a woman who used to serve under Frank Castle in the US Marines. Cole’s entire wedding party, including her parents and husband, were killed in a mob hit gone wrong during. This bride of death became one of the richest supporting characters ever to appear in a Punisher comic and her time with Castle was unforgettable. Rucka basically focuses on those the Punisher influencd during his endless war and in doing so, gives readers a realistic idea of what kind of force of nature Frank Castle truly is.