“You’re just one bad day from being me.” And with those words to Matt Murdock, we welcomed Frank Castle to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Frank Castle, more famously known as the Punisher, has been a violent, staple Marvel character since the blood hungry vigilante first appeared in the 1970s. The character has long been a response to contemporary crime and corruption, and a powerful yet simple catharsis to society’s ills. Simply speaking, to Frank Castle, the world’s problems can be solved with one well-placed bullet. So, who is the the Punisher? Sit back and enjoy our incredibly thorough history of the Punisher; you’ll never have to ask that question again. Ever.
Punisher History Quick Reference Guide:
The Punisher’s first appearance.
The Punisher’s first appearance in Daredevil.
The Punisher’s first mini-series.
The first Punisher ongoing series.
The Punisher War Journal series.
The Punisher War Zone and The Punisher Armory series.
The Punisher’s horrifically conceived, first Marvel Knights run.
The Punisher’s brilliantly conceived, Garth Ennis-written Marvel Knights run.
The Punisher MAX series.
The Punisher Born series.
Matt Fraction’s Punisher War Journal series.
Frankenstein Frank Castle (Frankencastle).
Greg Rucka’s 2014 Punisher series.
The future of the Punisher.
At worst, the Punisher is a character that presents the feral, violent impulses of a society fed up with crime. But when handled right, the Punisher is a rich and nuanced character that symbolizes a societal need for solutions to the complex issues plaguing the world. The Punisher has long made a great foil to Marvel’s more moralistic characters, and has also allowed Marvel a character that’s right at home in classic men’s adventure tales. In many ways, Frank Castle is a pulp throwback to a simpler time when bad guys could be stopped by a well-aimed bullet, and all the world needed was a man with the will and weapons to make a difference.
All these aspects have made the Punisher a very popular character in Marvel’s endless pantheon of heroes and anti-heroes, so much so that three different films have tried to deliver the violent wonders of the skull-chested killer to mainstream audiences. The Punisher (1989) starring Dolph Lundgren, The Punisher (2004) starring Thomas Jane, and Punisher War Zone (2008) starring Ray Stevenson all had their merits in one way or another, but each film failed to capture the nuance and power of the comic book Punisher. Now, Marvel Studios is trying again, this time bringing the Punisher to the world of Netflix and Daredevil. Thankfully, it seems Marvel finally found the perfect Punisher to fill Frank Castle’s Kevlar; Jon Bernthal, who portrayed Shane on The Walking Dead, is filling the role of the Punisher. If the first official Daredevil Season 2 trailer is any indication, it looks like Hollywood has finally found an actor intense and grizzled enough to transform into Marvel’s intense killing machine. So, as we wait for Bernthal’s debut, let us took a look back into the crime files of Frank Castle and unravel the fascinating history of Marvel’s most violent anti-hero, the Punisher.
Punisher Version 1
First off, Frank Castle wasn’t the first Marvel character to use the sobriquet, “the Punisher.” In Fantastic Four #49 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, a deadly robot called the Punisher attacked the Fantastic Four at the behest of its master, the planet eating Galactus. The robot returned a few times over the next decade, but other than the killer Kirby design, there just wasn’t that much to this automaton. When writer Gerry Conway wanted to introduce an anti-hero named the Assassin into the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Lee loved the character but balked at the name. Lee suggested using the almost forgotten minion of Galactus’ name and a very violent and bloody legacy was born.
The Bloody Legacy of Frank Castle Begins
Stan Lee purportedly came up with the name, but three other great creators were the fathers of mayhem that gave birth to Marvel’s most violent protagonist. According to a 2002 interview, writer Gerry Conway used to make rough sketches of his new characters to serve as a suggestive guide to his artists. The great John Romita took Conway’s designs for the Assassin/Punisher and enlarged the death’s head chest emblem. The artist of Amazing Spider-Man, Ross Andru, did all the fine finishing details, and with Conway, introduced the Punisher to the world in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974).
In this classic issue, Peter Parker was wanted for the murder of Norman Osborne. On the run from the police, Spider-Man suddenly had a new enemy in the form of a skull-chested vigilante who swore to end crime in New York. Right off the bat in his first appearance, there was something very different about the Punisher. Yes, he was violent, foul tempered, and out to kill the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but he was also torn between his morality and his mission. When the Jackal tried to kill Spider-Man using treachery, the Punisher railed against the dishonor over the Jackal’s actions (c’mon Frank, the man’s name is the Jackal, what did you suspect?). Spider-Man managed to escape the Punisher and even felt sympathy for the psychotic yet-oh-so-human marksman. This new Spider-Man character combined elements of the Charles Bronson Death Wish films, mashed it up against the gritty, street level realism of the Dirty Harry franchise, and thrust it all into the confines of the mainstream Marvel Universe. Not much was revealed early on, but Conway, Andru, and the other comic greats had come up with a very intriguing new archetype for the MU; an anti-hero that was not afraid to take things to the next level in order to satisfy his thirst for vengeance. With the debut of the Punisher, Marvel truly had its first character that walked the line between murderer and hero.
Death Comes to the Marvel Universe
The Punisher was an instant hit, becoming a semi-recurring character in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. It seemed that Marvel had a very rare character type on its hands as the Punisher could fit right into the more fantastical characters and elements of the Marvel Universe (and even grounded some of these concepts). He could also star in a gritty men’s adventure-type story that owed more to characters like the Destroyer than he did any of his comic book contemporaries. The Punisher became a fan favorite, but it was in the pages of Frank Miller’s Daredevil where the character took his next step toward anti-hero excellence. In the pages of Miller’s classic DD run, the Punisher was portrayed as a violent sociopath who fed his need for vengeance through the murders of those he deemed to be criminals. Like no creator before, Miller stripped the Punisher of any and all fantastical elements or moral uncertainly and presented the character in its most visceral form. This became the template for the Punisher moving forward, and one has to suspect that the Punisher appearing on Netflix’s Daredevil will borrow a great deal from this version. In this classic tale, Miller expertly contrasted the classic superhero Daredevil with the modern day anti-hero the Punisher to truly give fans a unique perspective into the vast differences between a warrior of justice and a warrior of vengeance.
By this time, Marvel fans had grown familiar with Frank Castle’s tragic back story. The origin tale was a condemnation of the treatment of Vietnam vets and a spotlight on the effects of PTSD on America’s fighting forces. The Punisher was a soldier in the truest sense of the word, a man driven by duty to be a complete fighting man able to defeat any enemy coldly and efficiently. At the end of the war, Frank Castle returned home and tried to put the machine aside in order to become a husband and father once again. When Castle and his family were caught in the crossfire of a mob hit gone wrong, the former Special Forces operative saw his beloved family killed before his eyes. At this point the man died, and the Punisher was born. This tragic origin was one of the few non Lee and Kirby origins to become iconic as the Punisher became a symbol of the consequences of casual violence by a corrupt society. Castle was shocked that a country that he worked so hard to defend allowed crime to fester, so he donned the Kevlar raiment of the Punisher and declared a war on crime.
This war leaked from the pages of many street level Marvel Comics into the very first Punisher solo series. Written by then newcomer Steven Grant and drawn by Mike Zeck, the Punisher miniseries was a groundbreaking, brutal portrayal of modern day street life and drug culture. 1986 was a watershed year in comic book history, and Grant and Zeck’s The Punisher added to the gritty realism perfected in books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Castle’s brand of swift and brutal vigilante justice was like nothing Marvel fans of the era had ever seen outside of the noir pages of Frank Miler’s Daredevil. The book was an instant hit and fed into the 80 sense of discontent with the corruption of the era.
Body Count Superstar
Zeck and Grant opened the door for the era of Frank Castle. A few years after the mini, the Punisher was given his own monthly series. Before, Frank Castle was a violent afterthought in the Marvel Universe, but now, the skull chested engine of death was front and center, starring in his own best selling comic. This new monthly was not watered down in any way as the book was just as open and honest about violence as ever before. The book established a small supporting cast for Frank Castle, a cast that included Microchip, the Punisher’s own version of Q, and Micro’s son. Early on, Micro’s son was killed on a mission which added a sense of abject tension between the tech genius and vigilante, but it also created a sense for the hundreds of thousands of Punisher fans that in Frank Castle’s world, no one is safe. Where other heroes had established rouges galleries, Punisher villains barely lasted more than a single arc. Only the villainous Jigsaw, a little known Spider-Man rogue, returned to face Frank Castle multiple times. A dearth of living villains aside, The Punisher series grew so popular, that Frank Castle could not be confined to one book.
In the 90s, Marvel superstars like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Daredevil, and so many more were the stars of just one title. It took a special breakout star to warrant multiple titles, heroes like Spider-Man, the X-Men, Wolverine, and after the success of his first regular monthly, the Punisher. In 1988, Punisher War Journal hit the stands and was readily snatched up by fans eager for more Punisher mayhem. Such A-list comic superstars like Carl Potts, Mike Baron, Steven Grant, Mark Texeira, and many more all turned the Punisher’s second mag into a quality title that never flinched from the mayhem. Chuck Dixon also wrote the title for a good long while, crafting a master’s class in how to tell a Punisher story; some of Dixon’s work stands as some of the finest Punisher yarns ever written. The great Jim Lee penciled an unforgettable tale that featured the very first meet up between Marvel’s most violent heroes, Wolverine and the Punisher. Fans could not get enough as both Punisher titles set the standard for gritty military action.
War Zone and Beyond
Frank Castle’s popularity grew so much that Marvel had to accommodate the chaos by creating a third title in 1992, Punisher War Zone. With awesome art in the opening arc by John Romita Jr., War Zone was also a hit. It seemed that the Punisher now could not be contained in three monthly books and the character began to appear throughout the Marvel Universe. It was very rare that a month would go by without Frank Castle bringing his trademarked body count to one of Marvel’s more traditional titles. The Punisher was everywhere from the Pages of Ghost Rider, to the multiple Spider-Man titles and even to books like Darkhawk. It was as if nothing could satisfy the bloodlust of Marvel fans. Even more Punisher titles were offered after War Zone. Marvel indulged in a black and white magazine, simply entitled Punisher Magazine, that featured choice Punisher reprints. There was a Punisher 2099 and insanely, there was even a ten issue series that simply focused on splash pages and descriptions of the Punisher’s weapons. The Punisher Armory hit stands and 1990 and now everyone could see masterful renderings of the Punisher’s glocks and rocket launchers. The NRA must have loved it!
Overexposure and Decline
With more Punisher on the stands than just about any other comic character, fans of the mid to late 90s began to tire of Frank Castle. All three titles soon ground to a halt as did the magazine and self indulgent Armory. The Punisher’s three series were replaced by a single monthly, but it was a good one. Written by John Ostrander, the fabled creator of DC’s Suicide Squad, Punisher hit the stands in 1995. The industry in general and Marvel in particular were not in a good place creatively or economically in the mid-90s, and despite a potent story detailing Frank Castle’s rise as a crime boss, the book was canceled after eighteen issues. Even the great Ostrander could not break through the Punisher ennui that had engulfed Marvel’s dwindling fan base. The character was at an impasse, and sadly, the Punisher’s next move would be so wrong-minded, it almost did what countless mobsters, thugs, and killers could never do – kill the Punisher.
Send me an Angel-Not Now!
In 1998, famed sci-fi novelist Christopher Golden revived the Punisher for the new Marvel Knights imprint. Marvel Knights already created fascinating new directions for Daredevil, the Inhumans, and Black Panther, and now, it was Punisher’s turn. In fairness to Golden, due to extreme overexposure, the Punisher was reduced to a joke, a symbol of the excess of the 90’s comic book scene. Seeking a fresh new take on a tired character, Golden reimagined Frank Castle as an angelic agent of good, resurrected to battle literal demons that plagued mankind. This new angel Punisher had really shiny weapons made of goodness or something and really, no one bought into this new direction. No one wanted a Punisher not grounded in a gritty reality and angel Punisher became a curious if wrong-minded footnote in the history of the character. When the brain trust behind Marvel Knights tried it again with the Punisher, the new direction would become the most beloved era in Frank Castle’s bloody bullet riddled history.
Welcome Back Frank
Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon already made comic history with their awarding winning Preacher for Vertigo Comics, so when it was announced that the creative duo would take over Punisher, fandom knew that it was in for a treat. The first issue of Ennis and Dillon’s Marvel Knight’s Punisher was published in 2001, and instantly it was clear that this was a return to form for Frank Castle. “Welcome Back Frank” was a back to basics approach to the Punisher that did as much right as the angelic Punisher run did wrong. The arc introduced a comedic element to the book in the form of a new supporting cast that included Frank Castle’s freak show neighbors, but Castle himself was not watered down in any way. The series saw the Punisher go up against the evil mob matron Ma Gnucci and was as disturbingly violent as it was hilarious. Ennis and Dillon stripped down the excess of the 90s, the angelic nonsense of the first Marvel Knights attempt and found the essence of the Punisher once again.
Ennis’ comedic but hard-hitting take on the Punisher continued for some time. When the often cartoonish world of the Marvel Knights Punisher ran its course, Ennis turned his attention to the dark realism of the character. Marvel moved the Punisher over to its adults- only MAX imprint and Ennis took advantage of the situation by transforming the title into one of the darkest crime titles the comic market had ever seen. Most of the Punisher’s foes in the MAX series were ripped from the headlines of the day; from radical Muslims to sex traffickers, the book was not afraid to tackle any topic head on. The laughs were over but the body count was greater than ever as Ennis told some of the hardest hitting Punisher stories of any era. It seemed that Ennis was made for the Punisher and the character that was often so one note became a fully realized, complex killer under Ennis’ capable pen. This version of the Punisher was so potent, that it seemed like the hero could never return to the regular Marvel Universe as Ennis endued the character with an impenetrable veneer of realism.
During this era, Ennis also presented Born which was billed as the definite origin of Frank Castle. Turns out, Born was just that plus, it was one of the most powerfully honest stories set in the Vietnam War that one could ever read. Under Ennis, the Punisher was a comedic foil; a powerful symbol of modern day anger; a perfect crime drama protagonist, and a tragic war hero. Ennis truly did it all and took the Punisher to heights undreamed of.
The Body Count Doubles
Under Ennis, the Punisher stayed in his own MAX Universe, never really interacting with mainstream Marvel. This status quo became official when Marvel launched a new volume of Punisher War Journal. Under the auspices of writer Matt Fraction, this new title tied into Marvel’s Civil War event and plunked Frank Castle back in the middle of major Marvel Universe happenings. Now, fans could choose whether they wanted Ennis’ take on the Punisher or a more mainstream MU Punisher. Punisher fans were thrilled to have either as both titles continued to deliver excellent, albeit very different, Punisher stories.
Frank Castle R.I.P. x2
There were now two popular versions of the Punisher published by Marvel, and strangely enough, in 2009-2010, they were both soon to die. After Punisher War Journal was re-titled simply, The Punisher, the Marvel Universe Frank Castle was killed and dismembered by Daken, the son of Wolverine. In one of the strangest twists in the character’s history (and keep in mind, the dude was an angel for a time), Frank Castle was rebuilt by Morbius the Living Vampire into the monstrous Frankencastle. This strange new version of the Punisher was created by writer Rick Remender, and while this new direction was unpopular with traditionalists, it was a fascinating dark tale that tied in with many of Marvel’s classic monsters. Meanwhile, over in the MAX title, writer Jason Aaron joined Steve Dillon to present the last days of the mature readers version of Frank Castle. Aaron presented a prolonged war between Castle and MAX versions of the Kingpin and Bullseye, a feud that saw the MAX version of the Punisher finally killed in action. Of course, when the smoke cleared, this Punisher took all his enemies with him and for this Frank Castle, the war was finally over.
Despite being turned into a patchwork monstrosity, Frank Castle would recover from being Frankenscastle and return to his roots in 2010’s Punisher: In the blood mini-series. From there, famed comic and crime writer Greg Rucka would present his version of Frank Castle in 2011’s Punisher. This run was particularly memorable as it saw Frank Castle lose an eye at the talons of the Vulture and also featured an intense team up with Daredevil and Spider-Man. Rucka’s take was all too brief but it continued the tradition of quality writing on The Punisher. Marvel would follow up Rucka’s run with a 2014 Punisher series that rolled out as part of Marvel’s “All New Marvel Now” imprint. This book was written by Nathan Edmondson and illustrated by Mitch Gerads and saw Frank Castle go up against a drug cartel in Los Angeles.
As part of the “All New All Different Marvel” roll out, the Punisher will soon have his own title once again. Written by Becky Cloonan, the first female writer even to tackle a Punisher monthly, this book promises the same mayhem and quality narrative brutality that has defined the Punisher for generations. Of course, fans also await Jon Bernthal’s arrival as the Punisher on Netflix’s Daredevil. With this new title on the horizon and the Punisher’s TV debut imminent, the future of the character has never looked…darker.