‘The Punisher:’ A Villain Turned Antihero

By: Henry Hanks, Contributor     @hankstv / tvshenry@gmail.com

When Frank Castle made his first Marvel Comics appearance in “Amazing Spider-Man” #129, few would have anticipated what a major character he would become.

Gerry Conway, Ross Andru and John Romita Sr. introduced the heavily-armed vigilante, who posed a threat to Spider-Man in that 1974 issue.

Frank called himself the Punisher, a man who takes no prisoners and will stop at nothing to accomplish what he sees as justice. 

The Punisher returned in several Marvel stories over the ensuing years, increasing in popularity each time. Readers would learn that he was a veteran, trained in combat, whose entire family was murdered, something that drove him over the edge (The Punisher’s first appearance would pre-date Charles Bronson in “Death Wish” by just a few months).

In the late 1970s, the Punisher starred in some issues of “Marvel Super Action,” a black and white magazine-style book aimed at a more adult audience.

The Punisher then got his own limited series in late 1985, which Marvel management was apparently less than thrilled about. Even so, it was a hit, and it fit with the ultra-violent zeitgeist of the era, as the Punisher was reminiscent of movie characters like Rambo and the Terminator. Fun fact about this initial mini series, the creators appear to have been unsure of how long it would be, as the series ends up being 5 issues long, but on issue 1 claims to be 1 of a 4 part series...

By 1987, the Punisher had a self-titled ongoing series, whose popularity led to the kind of spinoff series usually reserved for characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men. By the early 1990s, there was “The Punisher War Journal,” “Punisher War Zone” , Punisher even had his own representation in Marvel's "2099" universe, there were also more black and white stories exclusively featuring the character.

His popularity waned somewhat by the mid-1990s, leading to the cancellation of all of these series in short order.

However, the Punisher’s time in the sun would return, with the arrival of the Marvel Max series of titles (from which came “Alias" AKA Jessica Jones), its answer to DC’s Vertigo for mature audiences. Acclaimed writer Garth Ennis was at the helm of this new Punisher series, starting in 2004.

Other “Punisher” titles were relaunched in the ensuing years, mostly under the Marvel imprint, proper. In 2014, the team of Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerads moved the Punisher briefly to Los Angeles. Of course, this being Marvel Comics, the Punisher has since died and come back to life in recent mega-story arcs.

Hollywood saw fairly early on that there was potential for the character. There was a low-budget, barely-released 1989 film with Dolph Lundgren, then two more attempts to bring him to the big screen in 2004 and 2008, both of which weren’t box office successes.

For many fans, the best live-action interpretation of Frank Castle has been Jon Bernthal’s portrayal in the second season of the Netflix series “Daredevil.” Where his performance is sure to evoke emotion from any parent that dreads the horror Frank is forced to endure. 

This past week saw the debut of the spinoff solo “Punisher” Netflix series, and fans and critics have praised its first season as well as Bernthal’s performance. It looks like Frank has finally made it to the big time.