With The Punisher getting his very own Netflix show starting this November and San Diego Comic Con happening any day now, it’s only fitting we take a look back at the history of the character, the failed attempts to fully capture him on the big screen and what we can expect from the TV show, Comic Con and any future offerings. First, like all good things, a bit of a history lesson…
Francais “Frank” Castle (born Francais Castiglione), aka The Punisher, is a Marvel character created by the Amazing Spider-Man’s writer Gerry Conway and artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru. After getting Stan Lee’s stamp of approval (and character name), The Punisher would make his first appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 which came out in February 1974.
The Punisher was initially an antagonist to Spider-Man’s hero persona who at first was portrayed as an overtly violent vigilante who has no reservations about killing gangsters, something that in the 1970’s, wasn’t depicted or represented by the current superheroes of the time. All of this rage stemmed from the murder of his wife and two children, at the hands of the New York City mob for witnessing a violent crime.
Conway was caught off guard by the character’s instant popularity as second tier characters of the time weren’t generally a hit with readers who preferred the earnest heroes of the time. So much that he started to appear on a regular basis, not only teaming up with Spider-Man but the likes of Captain America and Nightcrawler as well. When The Punisher caught the attention of Frank Miller, he used him quite often during his very popular run on Daredevil stating he liked Frank Castle’s…
“…contrasting attitudes and version of vigilante justice between him and the more liberal minded Matt Murdock.”.
Providing a stark contrast from the other superheroes of the time, The Punisher’s violent nature and callous attitude towards killing made him a popular character in mainstream comic books in the mid 1970s. He ushered in the era of the “anti-hero” and by the late 1980s, along with The Watchmen and the edgier Batman stories, was an important part of a new form of emotionally damaged protagonists who fans were eager to scoop up.
It took some effort to convince new Marvel editor-in-chief Carl Potts, but the first Punisher standalone series would be a 5 part mini-series released in January 1986 by newcomers writer Steven Grant and artist Mike Zeck. A year later in July of 1987, he would then get his own ongoing monthly series again called, The Punisher, however this time it was written by Mike Baron and illustrated by Klaus Janson.
This series would run 104 issues until it ended in July 1995 but not before it spawned other Punisher titles such as The Punisher War Journal (Nov 88′ – July 95′), The Punisher Armory (1990) and Punisher War Zone ( Mar 92′ – July 95′). He would also appear in several “one-offs” and miniseries, and made frequent guest appearances in other Marvel comics.
Due to poor sales with The Punisher and comic books in general (thanks Death of Superman), Marvel canceled all three ongoing Punisher series in 1995. Several re-launches have occurred over the years with writers trying new things with Frank Castle, even going as far as to make him a supernatural being and a member of the mob in another instance. None matched sales figures from the original run in the mid/late eighties.
The Punisher would have some re-occurring allies over the years in his battle against crime but none more important than Microchip, first introduced in The Punisher #4 released in November of 1987. Microchip would assist Castle by building and supplying weapons and technology, including his battle vans, and providing friendship and counsel on occasion.
He would fight virtually every form of organized crime syndicate and criminal element from around the entire world but the main thorns in his side would be mob enforcer Jigsaw and of course Kingpin, whom he inherited from his time alongside Daredevil and Spider-Man. Several guest appearances and mash-ups would occur throughout the years including Spider-Man, Captain America, Wolverine and Hulk.
Entertainment magazine Empire calling him, “the grimmest and most compelling of character”, placed him 19th in their greatest comic book characters of all time list. They additionally praised the work of Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX series.
Other news outlets such as IGN and Wizard Magazine have both ranked Punisher in their all time comic book character lists as well, 27th and 39th respectively.
Not all have enjoyed his no-nonsense violent approach to dealing with criminals however. In fact his nonchalant way of disposing of his enemies caught the ire of writer/director Joss Whedon who referred to the Punisher as a coward. He would go on to say in an interview with EW that:
“I miss the idea of… heroes who stop that kind of thing from happening. Here’s why I’m not running Marvel: If I was, I would kill the Punisher. I don’t believe in what he does. The Punisher just shoots up places. And if you’re telling me he’s never hit an innocent, then I’m telling you, that’s fascist crap”.
Despite Whedon’s opinion, The Punisher remains a very popular character in the world of comic books and superheroes and it’s exactly that cold-blooded uncompromising way that connected with fans in the first place. Characters who face an internal struggle with morality and pain are appealing to so many because we ourselves struggle with those same emotions from time to time. Its a counter balance to so many of the comic book heroes that we simply cannot relate to, these perfect “gods among us” that we all know so well. And besides, these “devilish” characters keep the rest of us in check right? After all, the devil indeed does get the best lines…
Next, we’ll take a look at the sometimes disastrous results that have come from the movie industry’s attempt at bringing this character to the big screen, starting with everyone’s favorite Dolph Lundgren 1989 version!
Till next time…