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Retro Thursday: The Punisher

by Matthew Price Published: December 4, 2008

Written for the April 2004 release of ”The Punisher,” starring Thomas Jane, I thought this article might be an interesting recap for “Punisher War Zone,” opening Friday.  And look for a similar article, updated for 2008, in Friday’s The Oklahoman.  

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When the mob killed his family, Frank Castle became the vigilante known as The Punisher, becoming judge, jury and executioner for those who crossed ways with the law. Thomas Jane brings The Punisher to life in the film this weekend, but the character sprung from the pages of Marvel Comics, where he was first introduced as an anti-hero to serve as a foil for Spider-Man.

In 1974, writer Gerry Conway and artist Ross Andru introduced The Punisher in “Amazing Spider-Man” No. 129. The Punisher’s death’s-head costume, with the teeth of the skeleton formed by his cartridge belt, was designed by then-Marvel art director John Romita.

The Punisher declared war on crime, shooting down those the law couldn’t apprehend. He clashed with Spider-Man when the Punisher was misled into believing Spidey was a villain.

The Punisher was a popular guest-star, popping up in the pages of “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Daredevil” and “Captain America.”

Writer-artist Frank Miller used “The Punisher” to good effect in “Daredevil,” contrasting the Punisher’s desire to see the guilty punished with Daredevil’s desire to work within the law. It’s a contrast future writers of both the “Daredevil” and “Punisher” series have returned to on occasion.

The Punisher first starred in his own series in 1986, written by Steven Grant with art by Mike Zeck. The Punisher is imprisoned as the series begins, but his release by a shadowy organization begins a blood feud among New York’s crime families.

Mike Baron, who wrote several issues of “The Punisher” series, talked about impact of “The Punisher: Circle of Blood” in the afterword in the collected edition of the series.

“The Punisher came into his own in the Grant/Zeck miniseries that premiered in 1986. That first double-sized issue hit fandom with the force of a magnum. Grant put the Punisher in Ryker’s Island and infused him with a new realism. This wasn’t the nostalgic black-and-white prison of old Cagney movies; this was an ugly, brutal terrifying world where the big fish eat the little fish, and big fish get blown away by crazy little fish who have nothing to lose,” Baron wrote.

Baron, Chuck Dixon, Carl Potts and others wrote the Punisher’s adventures throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, with artists including Jim Lee, John Romita Jr. and Whilce Portacio. The Punisher for a time supported three ongoing series and a host of miniseries. By 1996, however, the character’s overexposure led to his cancellation.

Marvel Knights editors Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti thought the Punisher was ripe for a revamp in 1998. They brought on writer Chris Golden and artist Berni Wrightson to create a supernatural version of the Punisher who fought demons. This proved to be too far afield for many Punisher fans, and the concept was abandoned.

Quesada later brought in British writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, the creative team behind the DC-Vertigo mature readers hit “Preacher,” to breathe new life into the character.

Ennis brought back the killing machine of the mid-1980s, but infused the title with a black humor that made the Punisher a must-read again.

Ennis’ first story, “Welcome Back, Frank,” was released as a 12-issue miniseries. It influenced the filmmakers, with characters introduced in that series finding their way into the film that opens this weekend.

Following “Welcome Back,” Ennis wrote 37 issues of “The Punisher” in a monthly series. “The Punisher” was recently relaunched in the “Marvel MAX” line for mature readers, still written by Ennis.

The Punisher’s appearances prior to the first issue of the 1980s ongoing series have been reprinted in “The Essential Punisher.”

“Welcome Back, Frank” is available in trade paperback and hardcover formats.

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by Matthew Price
Features Editor
Features Editor Matthew Price has worked for The Oklahoman since 2000. He’s a University of Oklahoma graduate who has also worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern for the Dallas Morning News. He’s...
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