He doesn’t smile, his single super power is that he happens to be ridiculously good at killing criminals and he’s tougher than a $2 steak. For over five decades now, The Punisher has been dealing the most primal justice out to any crook that would cross his path. While other heroes would beat a hoodlum to a pulp and refuse to “waste” a bullet on them, the Punisher is the opposite.
Frank Castle is the kind of killer who says “yes, he’s worth a f***ing bullet”. He’s the kind of underworld nemesis that would put a thousand bullets into a thief just so that he can sleep peacefully at night. He’s also the kind of character who has been through numerous reboots and re-imaginings of his one-man war on crime.
Originally appearing in Amazing Spider-Man #129 as a villain hired by the Jackal, the Punisher has been a vigilante with an agenda, an actual superhero in spandex and even a supernatural guardian angel over the years. But the definitive Punisher is a street-level serial killer who targets criminals. And he’s making a comeback this year in season 2 of Daredevil.
Which also means that it’s time to catch up on the best Punisher stories ever written, ahead of his latest debut:
Welcome back, Frank
You’re going to see the name Garth Ennis on this list several times, and for good reason: He’s the man who saved the Punisher from being an embarrassment. Ennis easily rewrote the character back into relevance, bringing his trademark wit and style to Frank Castle as he resumed his war on crime. Castle had been gone for too long, allowing the criminal underworld to rise again.
Tangling with the Gnucci family, the infamous Russian and an absurd supporting cast, the infamous skull was back and ready to take out the Mafia trash once again. In essence, Marvel finally got its balls back.
Circle of Blood
In the 1980s, comic books were about to grow up. After decades of colourful heroes, simple stories and a definitive line being drawn between good and evil, Fans wanted something darker. Frank Miller gave those readers what they wanted, grim and gritty stories that reimagined the street-level heroics of Batman and Daredevil. And the Punisher was a natural fit for all of this.
Circle of Blood was violent, heavy-going stuff as Castle stepped up his war on crime. This was a massive departure for Marvel, who usually refrained from publishing such violent fare where criminals were offed like goons in a Steven Seagal movie. This is where the groundwork for the Punisher as a Vietnam war veteran was laid, as Mike Zeck’s art and Steven Grant’s story repositioned him as a breakout star in a darker comic book age.
Frank Castle wasn’t born to be a monster and relentless killer. At one point, he was a respected and feared member of the US militarily, keeping the North Vietnam forces from overrunning the south in a war that claimed far too many lives on either side. On his third tour of duty, Castle is a veteran who has fully embraced the horrors of war, but he’s still one final push from being the legendary street soldier that he would eventually become.
And in Vietnam, the Punisher was born.
This is a story about the cost of being a soldier, both mentally and physically. About making a choice and learning to live with the repercussions, which are only properly addressed years later in Punisher MAX. It’s about a chain of command failing the soldiers underneath it, close bonds and the kind of mental fortitue needed to survive the Vietnam war, as Castle almost meets his end in a grisly final assault that starts to build the legend of the Punisher and the internal darkness that drives him on.
After decades of action, the Punisher has killed scores of gangsters, criminals and mercenaries. But what is it that drives him forward still? What is the motivation, behind allowing himself to be locked up in the most violent prison around? That’s a secret that plays out over dozens of pages, as Castle starts a campaign of terror from within his jail cell, all for the sole purpose of targeting several high-ranking Mafia members who harbour a dark secret for decades, a mystery with a price that must be paid.
And Castle has come to collect on it.
Frank Castle is the boogeyman of the Mafia. A murderer who’ll skin them alive if they aren’t careful. But he’s also more than willing to deal with other criminal elements if he encounters them. Yakuza, Bratva and Chinese Triads have all felt his wrath over the years, but nothing could prepare him for the day he took on human sex slave traffickers.
Saving a young girl from a life of forced prostitution and drugs, Castle listens in heart-breaking detail to the fate that awaits various other young women who’ve been abducted and sold into a short life of slavery. It’s gritty and grim story, one that is painfully all too true as these details are told with no punches pulled.
But it’s also massively satisfying as Castle prepares to systematically eradicate an entire ring of sex slavers from his city, delivering the oldest form of justice in a manner that is darkly poetic.
Frank Castle has tangled with a fair share of violent and brutal criminals in his past. But when you’re facing a mountain of muscles who happes to have “F*** YOU” engraved into his own teeth, you know you’re about to watch two very different monsters collider. Barracuda was in many ways, Frank’s ultimate nemesis, a remorseless killer with a smile on his face that offed people for the sheer joy of it.
Beyond one of the most brutal fights in Punisher history, the Barracuda storyline also threw in intrigue, corporate shenanigans and a certain familial revelation that rocked Castle to his core as he faced a villain that became one of his defining adversaries.
We’re cheating a little here, but the entire run of Punisher MAX is just so damn good, from beginning to end. And that’s because this is a series which had an end-goal lined up as Frank tackled the most vicious of street crimes. From the rise of the Kingpin, being attacked by an Amish super-soldier, dealing with a sadistic Bullseye who managed to get under Frank’s skin and an Elektra who most definitely was not on the side of angels, Punisher MAX pulled no punches.
This was an older Frank Castle, worn down by decades of a never-ending war on crime, and feeling that the end was near. An exploration of the forces that drive Castle on to be a killer without mercy, Punisher MAX is a heart-breaking story of revenge, redemption and trying to escape a violent cycle of hate and pain.
Ah year one. Home to heroes who are rookies, green and don;t exactly know what they’re doing. Unless you’re the Punisher that is. With his family now freshly-dead, Castle’s year one story focused on the days after the tragedy that turned him into a vigilante and the war on crime that was to come. Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, with art by Dale Eaglesham, Year One recounts his suicidial thoughts and his futile efforts to get the corrupt NYPD to prosecute the murderers responsible for his pain.
It’s only after the legal system fails him, that Castle takes the law into his own hands and embarks on a quest that involves a run-in with the infamous Jigsaw. What makes this series so different, is that Castle isn’t the monster he eventually becomes. He’s a broken man, looking for the law to make things right and finding it wanting.
Where the law fails, justice prevails as Castle looks for a more natural form of revenge and punishment.
Up is down, black is white
When your biggest concerns in life are making ends meet on a cocaine shipment and keeping an eye out for a homicidal maniac who wears a skull on his shirt, you know you’re a criminal whose days are numbered. People fear the Punisher, and rightfully so. He isn’t just efficient, he’s also prone to letting the punishment fit the crime. So you’d have to be a special kind of crazy to go out of your way to properly piss him off.
Which is just what Nicky Cavella does as he attempts to whack Castle in a power-play that would see him take significant control of gang territories in the US. From digging up Castle’s buried family to broadcasting his desecration of their remains by pissing on them, you just know that by the time this story ends, it’s going to do so in a particularly gruesome manner as the Punisher starts a systematic campaign of revenge and terror that leaves New York burning.
The Punisher vs Wolverine
Ol’ Logan is the best there is at what he does. And what he does is end up being a bullet sponge for Castle as the vigilante dishes out unbelievable amounts of abuse on an inebriated and drunken X-Man in one of the most joyfully ridiculous and funniest Punisher stories ever written. Garth Ennis is clearly pushing his sick humour to 11 in a tale that also includes midget mafia goons and a revenge scheme that falls short, while Darick Robertson’s Wolverine is a hairy berserker who just can’t stop monologuing.
Not a shotgun blast to the face, the obliteration of his mini-weapon X’s or being run over with a steamroller can stop Logan from swearing all manner of revenge on Castle, as Ennis and Robertson gleefully fashion a tale that is part ludicrous, and part Wile E Coyote in its construction.
Last Updated: March 10, 2016