There is more to superheroes than Superman, Spider-Man and their ilk. Beneath the flying, swinging, swooping and all the other acrobatics of the colorful menagerie of costumed crime-fights sits one man at street level with no powers save his own determination. The Punisher.
Created in a 1974 issue of Amazing Spider-Man as a new villain for Marvel’s resident wall-crawler, the Punisher was one of the few heroes willing to kill those he thought doing evil. Write-in letters by fans pushed the House of Ideas to bring the Punisher back over the years as an uneasy ally to Spidey, Daredevil and even Captain America over the years. It wasn’t until twelve years later, however that Marvel gave the hero his first comic book of his own. The comic was a big hit, spawning several simultaneous ongoing series in the 80s and early 90s, even being home to a future superstar artist named Jim Lee.
But with all that success, it was at the turn of the century that Frank Castle finally came into his own. Much in the way Captain America was a man out of time for his 1940s-era values, the Punisher was a hard fit in the Marvel U until super-hero comics had the breadth (and depth) to fully explore the issues brought up by a character with no penchant for murdering criminals. With the seminal 2000 miniseries The Punisher under the Marvel Knights imprint, Preacher creators Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon made Frank Castle less a super-hero and more a crime-fighter in a riveting ongoing crime drama more reminiscent of Rambo and The Godfather than Spider-Man or the X-men.
With all these stories and all the varied interpretations of the character, stepping into the vast bibliography of the Punisher is like stepping into a minefield: you’ve got to know where to go. iFanboy has put together a list of five solid collections that will give you all you need to know on Frank Castle.
Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank: Although created in the mid-70s, the Punisher didn’t truly live until this 2000 12-issue series. Akin to a person creating guns but failing to know how to produce gunpowder until years later, this Marvel Knights-era story was the first show Frank Castle with the safety switch firmly in the off position. With a mix of gallows humor and dark vigilantism, writer Garth Ennis showed the Punisher with a grim stoicism despite living in a world of cliché mobsters. Steve Dillon’s art works akin to Castle, with a steadied assurance and not relying on tricks to show a man putting a stop to crime… and visit the zoo.
PunisherMAX: Kingpin: Unlike a majority of Punisher’s stories in the past dozen years, this one shows how Frank Castle could work full-entrenched in the Marvel universe. Aaron shows off a more twisted humor than previous iterations of the character, stalking a shadowy crime boss known as the Kingpin. With Aaron’s previous work on Scalped and Wolverine, it’s easy to see why he’d be so good at doing Punisher in the adult-themed MAX imprint.
Punisher: The Slavers: If you’re looking for new insight into his origin, this ain’t the story for you. In a way it’s better than that – it’s simply the Punisher doing what he does, and seeing what pushes him past his normal limits. Comic readers know Frank Castle as a man with a single-minded methodical goal to root out crime and kill the perpetuators, but in this book we see a man most considered already snapped to be snapped again when he runs across a ring of sex slavery.
Punisher: Circle of Blood: The first real story letting Frank Castle step into the limelight, this work was spurred by his expert portrayal in Frank Miller’s Daredevil run and showed how a man could operate as the Punisher does. Writer Steven Grant does the work of his career here, and artist Mike Zeck really cuts to the core of the character as a Vietnam vet who didn’t leave it all on the battlefield.
Punisher: Born: Frank Castle’s origins has been played out countless times, but in this decisive miniseries Ennis and artist Darick Robertson explore the years where Frank Castle became a man; years before the Punisher was born. Under the backdrop of the Vietnam war, Castle’s unit is taken out one-by-one by the encroaching Viet Cong until our hero is on his own. Dealing with a mental breakdown, he instead finds a new sense of self that pushes him to survive and sets him on the path to become the Punisher.