The Punisher in a typical pose. Artists: Carl Potts and Scott Williams.

THE PUNISHER

Original medium: Comic books
Published by: Marvel Comics
First Appeared: 1974
Creators: Gerry Conway (writer) and John Romita (designer)
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Long-time fans of the superhero genre often complain that it's hard to tell the heroes from the villains these days. Of course, that's always been the case to …

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… some extent — The Sub-Mariner was sometimes a good guy and sometimes a bad guy even back in the 1940s — but the actual trend toward villainous heroes (hero-like villains?) began in 1974, when Marvel Comics introduced The Punisher.

Like Luke Cage and Shang-Chi, The Punisher was based on a genre popular in other media, but previously unseen in comic books and superheroized for Marvel's audience. In this case, the genre was a type of he-man adventure seen in paperback books, exemplified by author Don Pendleton's character, The Executioner. Scripter Gerry Conway (Ms. Marvel, Man-Thing), who was writing Marvel's Spider-Man comic book at the time, suggested the company do a similar hero, to be called The Assassin. Editor-in-chief Stan Lee nixed the name (the Comics Code Authority had relaxed its standards, but not to that extent), but as The Punisher, the new character got the nod. Art director John Romita designed a striking black costume with a skull emblem (reminiscent of The Black Terror), and The Punisher debuted in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February, 1974).

The Punisher didn't rob banks or kidnap children or carry out mob hits, or any of that other stuff criminals do. In fact, his mission was to put a stop to those who did. But the methods he used made him not much better than the criminals themselves. Criminals singled out by The Punisher frequently didn't live long enough to stand trial.

Spider-Man lived through their encounter, tho, thanks to the fact that The Punisher became convinced Spidey wasn't as bad as the newspapers made him out to be. The new character went on to guest-star with Daredevil, Captain America and practically everybody else in the Marvel Universe. He probably would have gotten his own comic within a couple of years, but the world apparently wasn't quite ready for a funnybook about a "hero" who behaved that way. He did, however, get an origin story in the magazine-formatted Marvel Preview #2 (April, 1975), tho it was almost a perfect copy of The Executioner's.

Frank Castle (later de-anglicized to Castiglione) learned his combat skills as a Marine in Vietnam. Back in America, he put them to use as a Marine instructor. While on leave, he, together with his wife and their two young children, accidentally witnessed a Mafia rub-out. To eliminate witnesses, the gunmen massacred the family, but didn't do a very good job of it, as Frank survived. The killing of everyone he loved motivated Frank to avenge himself on criminals, just as the killing of family members had motivated the 1940s Daredevil and The Hangman.

The latter, who also used unacceptably violent means to stop criminals, is a particularly close analogy. One difference, tho, is that The Hangman's methods, however ruthless, were never questioned within the comics themselves; whereas a major point of interest in The Punisher is the ambivalence with which other Marvel heroes regard him and the fact that he does, without question, for whatever reason, break the law. In fact, The Punisher once spent time behind bars (because he was at least heroic enough not to fire on an arresting policeman), where he continued his war against crime.

In the 1980s, with public fear of crime reaching a fever pitch (despite the little-mentioned fact that real-world crime rates were down), the world was ready for The Punisher as a comic book star. In 1986, Marvel gave him a five-issue mini-series. It was such a success, the following year, he was on the regular schedule. A second monthly, Punisher War Journal, was added in 1988 and a third, The Punisher: War Zone in 1992. In addition to these three titles, he had quite a few graphic novels and mini-series, some of which co-starred other marvel characters, such as Wolverine and The Black Widow. In 1994, he made two crossovers with non-Marvel characters, Batman and (on the theory that strong contrasts can make a good story) Archie.

In 1989, New World Pictures released a movie version, with Dolph Lundgren (who had played He-Man two years earlier) in the title role. A comic book adaptation of the movie came out later that year, as did the launch of The Punisher Magazine, a regular series of Punisher stories in magazine format, i.e., the format of Mad. (The magazine lasted only a little over a year.)

Readers apparently overdosed on the character, as all three comic book titles ended in July, 1995. But the glut doesn't seem to have killed interest completely, as he's been seen in a steady stream of oneshots, mini-series and guest appearances ever since. In fact, his second movie, starring Thomas Jane, came out April 16, 2004.

— DDM

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Text ©2003-05 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Marvel Comics.