Let the Punisher fit the story: The many (weird) versions of Frank Castle

Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

When Marvel’s The Punisher drops at Netflix Nov. 17, rest assured that what’s on screen will be the best of the many versions of Frank Castle that have appeared in the comics.

Frank (né Francis Castiglione) at his core is a fairly generic character, with more than a passing similarity to Don Pendleton’s Mack “The Executioner” Bolan. As an archetype without much of a personality, Frank has always been fair game for ambitious writers to stretch his concept – and the reader’s credulity. As a result, Frank has been presented in some mighty strange ways.

 

ZERO TOLERANCE

Completely ignored today is a short period in Frank’s publishing history when he seemed to embrace the “broken windows” theory with – as usual – a vengeance. That’s the idea that links little crimes like vandalism with more serious crimes, due to theoretical a rise in incivility and respect for law.

Or as Frank himself put it in this 1983 story:

“Crime, if left unpunished, breeds further crime. A man’s crime of battery against his wife today … makes him capable of committing a crime against others tomorrow. I can’t allow that escalation.”

As good as his word, Frank shoots a wife-beater. And a cab driver who runs a red light. And a litterer. “Littering is a crime against society,” he thinks, as he sprays the street with an automatic weapon.

If you think that’s crazy, you’re not wrong. Two issues later, a judge declares Frank insane, which explains this weird divergence from his regular modus operandi. Better yet, by Frank’s next appearance this storyline had dropped down the memory hole completely.

CORPORAL PUNISHMENT

In a 1980 story, Spider-Man discovers Frank using rubber bullets against mobsters. It’s entirely likely that this story was simply a case of Marvel getting cold feet about a “hero” who is a merciless killer.

We used to be so naïve, y’all.

Frank was back to using real ammo soon enough. Even so, The Punisher has since used rubber bullets for plausible, in-story reasons on other occasions – specifically when the character is forced into team-ups with superheroes like Spider-Man or Daredevil. I mean, it’s weird enough that these “nobody dies on my watch” types haven’t gone all out to put The Punisher behind bars (or in a psych ward). So Frank’s careful around them. He doesn’t force them to act by displaying his homicidal inclinations under their costumed noses.

“For Frank to exist in the [Marvel Universe] and do what he does, he’s got to stay below the radar,” writer Greg Rucka explained in a 2012 interview with CBR.com. “I think for Frank to survive, he’s got to know that. He’s got to know that if he keeps his profile low, Thor is less likely to come and hit him on the head with his hammer because Thor is going to be busy hitting other people with his hammer who are trying to eat the Earth.”

Well, yeah. That’s just common sense.

Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

The Punisher became a demon-hunter in a short-lived experiment. 

 

ANGEL OF DEATH

In 1998, Frank had been dead for a while, but was resurrected. (That happens more often than you’d think.) He was returned to life by an angel – the guardian angel of Frank’s family, who had failed at his job and was seeking redemption.

Gadriel, as he was called, gave Frank heavenly weaponry that he could summon from inside his trenchcoat, plus glowing red eyes, resistance to all injury (including bullets and Wolverine’s claws), an Aramaic symbol on his forehead and a new mission. Frank doesn’t seem to mind.

Frank: These guns kill demons?

Gadriel: Of course.

Frank: Let’s do it.

This version lasted a total of eight issues – a four-part miniseries, then a second one guest-starring Wolverine. Because it was the ‘90s, when Wolverine was in everything.

Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

That’s Morbius, the Living Vampire (left) and N’Kantu the Living Mummy (right) building Franken-Castle out of The Punisher and some spare parts. 

IT’S ALIVE!

In 2009, Frank was killed and resurrected. (See, I told you that happens a lot.)

Frank had been killed by Logan’s son Daken, who used his Wolverine-like claws to dismember and decapitate him. Luckily, though, his dead parts were reassembled and brought back to life by Morbius, the Living Vampire, who was hiding with the Legion of Monsters in the sewers under New York City, and given hydraulic limbs and gigantic guns to defend the Monster Metropolis from monster-hunting samurai and Nazi zombies led by a mummified skeleton named Hellsgaard, who sought revenge on all monsters because his family was killed by werewolves.

I hope that sentence was as much fun for you to read as it was for me to write.

This updated version of Frank was immediately dubbed “Franken-Castle,” which eventually became the name of the book. But obviously it didn’t last. Two months after the last issue of  Franken-Castle,” Frank was back to his old self in a new series.

Needless to say, he doesn’t talk about this much.

 

WEIRD WORLDS

Some Punisher stories aren’t “canon” – that is to say, they take place out of the regular history of the character, but use the same basic premise. They can be a little, um, over the top.

Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc., Archie Comics Inc.

Yes, The Punisher teamed up with Archie in “the crossover you’ve been dreading!”  

* Archie Meets The Punisher (1994): Frank pursues a criminal to Riverdale who bears a startling similarity to Archie Andrews. Hi-jinks ensue.

* Batman team-ups: Frank met Batman at rival DC Comics twice in 1994 – but not the same Batman. In Punisher/Batman: Deadly Knights, he teamed up with the Bruce Wayen version. In Batman/Punisher, he met a fellow named Jean-Paul Valley, who filled in as the Dark Knight when Bruce’s back was broken by Bane. (Spoiler: He got better.)

Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

In Marvel’s mangaverse, “the paddling Punisher” is Tokyo’s kinkiest superhero. 

* Marvel Mangaverse: Punisher (2002): Marvel tried its hand at manga-style comics using their traditional characters in the early aughts – and let’s call the results mixed. In the mangaverse, The Punisher isn’t even a man – she’s Sosumi Brown, a girl’s school principal by day who becomes “the paddling Punisher” at night. She’s called “Tokyo’s kinkiest superhero,” because she eschews firearms for more interesting forms of punishment, such as whips, spanking and tickling a crime lord’s feet with a feather. As you can imagine, this version only lasted one issue.

* Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe (1995): The set-up of this one-shot is that Frank’s family gets killed not by the mob, but as collateral damage in a superhero-supervillain battle. Naturally, this inspires Frank to murder everyone in a costume. Highlights include shooting Captain America in the back, dropping a nuke on the X-Men and killing Dr. Doom with a sledge hammer to his metal face mask (“Klang Klang Klang Squitch”). Not for the faint-hearted.

* Punisher: A Man Called Frank (1994): This one-shot features Frank in the Wild West. It’s exactly what you think it is.

 

BACK TO BASICS

All of the above should serve to make us grateful that Netflix chose to use the most enduring and popular version of Frank. That’s the one best exemplified by the 12 issues written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Steve Dillon in 2000-01, returning the vigilante to his pulpy, noir roots. It’s collected in a trade paperback titled Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank, and if you only read one Punisher story in your life, that’s probably the one you want.

Or you could wait for November, when Frank returns in a new series wielding the War Machine armor in his crusade against criminals. I kid thee not. Writer Matthew Rosenberg told Newsarama.com in August that the series is about what happens when James Rhodes’ Iron Man-style armor “falls into the wrong hands.”

And are there any hands wronger than those of Frank Castle?

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Why would they need to explain it? He's a pretty fascist character.

Randy Jackson said:

So how do they plan to explain the Punisher joining Stevil during Secret Empire?

No matter how I try, I absolutely can't read the title of this topic without breaking into song (in my head).  So ... congratulations?

I will destroy America one earbug at a time!

I could take the Punisher in small doses because, let's fact it, he's revenge fantasy.

The whole "mercy bullets" thing was a way to get him to work within the Spider-titles without having Spidey condone killing crooks, though the Punisher always missed the big names like the Kingpin or Hammerhead.

But what I hate, absolutely loathe the most about him is the opinion of his writers and fans that he could beat Captain America, Spider-Man, Wolverine and even be able to escape the Avengers because of his battle experience, combat skills and his will to survive! 

Philip Portelli said:

I could take the Punisher in small doses because, let's fact it, he's revenge fantasy.

The whole "mercy bullets" thing was a way to get him to work within the Spider-titles without having Spidey condone killing crooks, though the Punisher always missed the big names like the Kingpin or Hammerhead.

But what I hate, absolutely loathe the most about him is the opinion of his writers and fans that he could beat Captain America, Spider-Man, Wolverine and even be able to escape the Avengers because of his battle experience, combat skills and his will to survive! 

Agreed.

It's the same kind of nonsense that's turned Batman into some kind of demigod who can beat Superman and the entire Justice League because he "prepares," when we all know Captain America can beat Batman any six days of the week, and twice on Sunday.

Amusingly, BatMan is supposedly more "realistic" than Superman because he has no actual superpowers but he routinely is shown doing things that no real person can actually do, including swinging from buildings with his Batrope (and no, it doesn't make much sense for Daredevil either).  In many ways, BatMan is as preposterous as Superman except that while Supes relies on multitudes of powers he attained as an alien living on Earth, BatMan has to rely on acrobatic skills, normal human strength and whatever gimmicks he (or his writers) can imagine and fit into his utility belt or BatMobile and can be pulled out of seemingly nowhere as the story requires.

As to the Punisher, I never purchased any of his solo stories, only those from his intro in ASM #129, which I bought off the rack for 21 cents at a mom & pop store in Salt Lake City, to his appearances in Captain America and Daredevil in the early '80s.  I might yet check out the Ennis/Dillon series but if I do it would be for Ennis' reputation as a good writer rather than because of any particular interest in the character.

Seems to me, in retrospect, that with the Dark Knight series in 1986, Miller made BatMan more like the Punisher and it was in the wake of that landmark series that the Punisher and Wolverine became ever more popular as take no prisoners style anti-heroes in their own series. As a more mainstream hero, BatMan couldn't go that far and he certainly never became widely known for using lethal weapons like guns or razor-sharp hard-metal claws on his opponents, but TDK led the movement towards the darker turn of comics in the post-Bronze ages.

There was a great bit in JLA/Avengers where it's heavily implied that Batman demolished the Punisher.

Batman does NOT approve of guns or gunmen!

I haven't seen the Justice League movie yet, but it always jumps out at me when they have Batman firing machine guns, which I guess originated in the 1989 Batman movie.

Maybe he's using mercy bullets!  photo tongue.gif

And you're right, Fred, that 1986 is reckoned as a turning point by a lot of comics historians. Not only did Dark Knight Returns come out, but so did Watchmen. Plus, Crisis on Infinite Earths ended in '86, which ended DC's Silver Age continuity. It was the certainly the end of Earth-One, and all the whimsy it represented.

After 1986, comics were noticeably darker. Characters like Punisher and Wolverine had anticipated this turn, but "grim 'n' gritty" really took over after that year. 

By 1986, after having collected dozens of series for well over 10 years, I dropped down to a very few.  Part of it was due to working two jobs and having so many other things going on that I just didn't have time to read so many comics any more so my pile of unread comics was increasing and then when I did peruse a few I found most of them increasingly dreadful.  My trips to the comics stores decreased from about once a week to about once every few months.  The comics were changing and so was I.  At some point in the early '90s I came across the Sandman series and something about that really appealed to me, and in later years I also got into Morrison's Doom Patrol & Animal Man, Robinson's Starman, and Fables, but I was mostly done with standard superhero comics as well as the floppies.  I haven't grown out of the medium but my tastes have shifted from that of my youth, although I still enjoy perusing through many of the comics I regarded as highlights from 40-odd years ago, such as Starlin's Warlock; Gerber's Defenders, Howard the Duck & Man-Thing; Moench's Master of Kung Fu; and Claremont's X-Men, to name a few.  Yeah, I"m nostalgic.  The past wasn't all great but there were a few diamonds amidst the garbage heaps, to steal from one of Starlin's images.

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