With the casting of Jon Bernthal as the Punisher for Daredevil Season 2, interest for Frank Castle has spiked among fans of the Netflix series and comic readers alike. Those that have followed Castle’s long and bloody war against crime in the pages of Marvel Comics know that he’s armed to the teeth with enough guns, grenades, explosives and psychological disorders that would make Deadpool blush. Originally making his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #129, the Punisher was hired and subsequently manipulated by the Jackal, a longtime Spider-Man villain and elderly professor with an uncomfortable obsession with the teenage Gwen Stacy (*shudders*), to assassinate Spider-Man. Though Spidey and the vigilante managed to work things out, Castle left an undeniable impression on the Marvel universe that he was someone not to be trifled with, especially if you happened to be a villain.
Since his popular and controversial debut, the Punisher has starred in several of his own series and has been a frequent guest star in many other Marvel books. Below you’ll find several stories that are not only worth your time to read, but also provides many reasons to be especially excited for his debut on Netflix’s Daredevil in 2016.
Welcome Back, Frank
During the 1990s the Punisher and Marvel Comics were in a downward spiral. Plagued by incompetent writers, bankruptcy and an infinite amount of pouches, creativity was at a standstill. However, things started to turn around in the early 2000s when Marvel launched several of its MAX books, which acted as soft-relaunches for their more violent heroes. One of those books was Punisher MAX, which was helmed by one of the best and most famous writers of the time, Garth Ennis.
Welcome Back, Frank, the first story in Ennis’ critically acclaimed run, feels like it could be set in the world of Preacher, with its overtop villains and grim-faced, but likeable heroes. It’s suitably absurd in the best way possible, poking fun at the miserable state comics were in during the 1990s, while reintroducing the Punisher to a modern audience. Welcome, Back Frank has everything a fan of Ennis work could possibly ask for, including the writer’s signature crude humor, gory violence and political incorrectness. It not only acts as the story that reaffirmed the Punisher as one of Marvel’s best and most controversial characters, but it also managed to prove that the House of Ideas wasn’t afraid to take risks with its properties. It also features the Punisher fighting a polar bear, which is pretty cool when you see it.
For those looking to jump into a Punisher story without having to catch up on a dozen graphic novels would do well to read The Cell. Written by Garth Ennis, The Cell follows Castle as he turns himself over to authorities. As perplexed as the police are by the Punisher’s sudden willingness to serve his multi-life sentences, they’re more than happy to send him to Rykers with the very criminals he’s maimed and butchered over the years. Soon after, it’s revealed that Castle’s choice of incarceration and supposed repentance is a ruse, and just a means to get close to the very criminals who murdered his family years ago.
Not only is The Cell a short, contained little story, but it also acts as finale-of-sorts for those seeking an endpoint to Frank Castle’s long life as a vigilante. It wraps up several loose ends in a very satisfying way, and requires only a passing knowledge of the Punisher’s backstory.
Up is Down and Black is White
Many criminals have earned the ire of the Punisher over the years. Some have committed despicable acts that warranted their bloody and horrifically painful end, while others just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mobster Nicky Cavella in Garth Ennis’ Up is Down, Black is White falls into the former. Deciding to dig up the bodies of Castle’s murdered family, Cavealla records himself defiling them and then sends the video to the news media, which promptly broadcasts it for the entire world to see. Obviously common sense is not a virtue in the Marvel universe. The Punisher sees said video and does exactly what one would think the Punisher would do.
The majority of story sees Castle going after Cavella’s entire criminal organization, dismantling it with one bullet at a time. Though not overly complicated, it’s the anticipation of what the Punisher will finally do once he reaches Cavella that keeps the narrative compelling all the way through.
Punisher: Year One
While perhaps not as iconic as Superman, Batman or even Spider-Man’s origin stories, the Punisher’s origin is known by hardcore comic readers and casual fans alike. After witnessing the execution of his entire family by the mob, Frank Castle has waged a war against criminals for decades, hoping to seek some type of justice for their deaths. Though seemingly straightforward, it’s Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s Punisher: Year One that really explores the Punisher’s origins, delving into the psychological trauma he goes through days after the loss of his wife and children.
Year One does not start with a man many come to view as cold-hearted sociopath, but a man on the edge of suicide, so broken that he has lost so much, and so completely overwhelmed by the fact that no one seems to really care. It’s a tragic story about evolution and devolution, a story that doesn’t mind analyzing Frank before he makes his final decision to abandon what he once was, and lose himself in the battle that will consume him for the rest of his life.
Anyone familiar with Ennis’ work knows that he’s anything but subtle, tackling taboo subjects and reveling in making people feel as uncomfortable as possible. He does just that with The Slavers, a story that has Punisher attempting to break a sex-slave ring. After rescuing a young girl from being raped, the Punisher listens to her tale of abuse, humiliation and enslavement by sex traffickers. Becoming understandably angry, the Punisher makes it his number one priority to end the lives of everyone involved in the sex-slave ring and to rescue the other women that are still enslaved.
What’s great about this particular story-arc is not only the satisfying retribution that each criminal receives, but also the surprising amount of sensitivity the Punisher displays in regard to the women he’s trying to save. As many fans of the Punisher know, Frank Castle isn’t exactly the most affectionate man, however, it’s the scenes where Frank offers his hand in mutual understanding to someone in physical and emotional pain that makes The Slavers a must read for those interested in the Punisher.
The Devil in Cell Block D
Though technically not a Punisher-centric story, Ed Brubaker’s The Devil in Cell Block D features probably the best interaction between the Punisher and Hell’s Kitchen’s horn-headed superhero, Daredevil. Those who’ve read stories featuring both characters know that the two vigilantes have rarely gotten along, but Brubaker introduced a scenario during his critically-acclaimed run on Daredevil that forced Matt Murdock to not only rely on Castle, but to trust him.
Picking up sometime after the finale of Brian Michael Bendis’ tenure on the book, which ended with Daredevil locked away in Rykers Prison with many of his deadliest enemies, the Punisher takes it upon himself to be caught by authorities in order to protect Murdock while serving his lengthy sentence inside the maximum security prison. Though they have never displayed any sort of admiration for one another before, the Punisher reveals to Daredevil that he respects him and doesn’t want to see him become a murder. It’s a surprisingly honest moment between two bitter rivals that not only managed to change the monotonous nature of their antagonistic relationship, but also gave readers a glimpse as to what the Punisher’s thoughts are on superheroes and other vigilantes. There’s also some morbidly-humorous scenes as Rykers security guards react to Castle during a particularly nasty prison riot. Let’s just say the Punisher enjoys reading a good book after a murder or two…..or five.
Arguably the best Punisher story ever written, Born follows Frank Castle during his third tour in Vietnam. Not yet wearing his signature white-skull shirt, Captain Frank Castle is viewed among the men the commands as one of the most dangerous and violent marines in the entire country. Examining the horrors of war, of which Garth Ennis is more than happy to do, Born acts as both an origin story for the Punisher and a character study of a man choosing to let go of his humanity to survive.
Though known for his skills as a soldier and his ability to completely obliterate any military force in front him, Born sees Castle on the edge of insanity. After consistently witnessing the deaths of his men and civilians, and being completely overwhelmed by the encroaching Viet Cong, Castle is confronted by a voice in his own head, which offers him the ability to survive a never ending war. Castle strikes a deal with the mysterious voice, but not before agreeing to pay for it with an unknown price. Though Castle does make it back home to his loving family, he later realizes the horrible price he has to pay.
Probably more than any other story, Born is perhaps the most important in the Punisher’s history. It provides the reasons and motivations for what the Punisher does, while expanding on the events that shaped his choice to start his war on crime in the first place. It’s not an easy read, nor is it particularly fun, but it acts as an excellent glimpse into the mind of Marvel’s most tragic anti-hero.
What about you reader? Do you have any favorite Punisher stories? Excited about the casting of Bernthal as the character for Daredevil? Let us know in the comments below!