Every comic fan has a hook moment, a single panel in which a casual reader becomes a subscription box filling fan for life. For some people it’s Batman materializing out of the shadows of a rainy alley, or The Hulk wiping out a city block with a gesture. For the romantic crowd, it might be Gwen Stacey dying out in Spiderman’s all too human arms, while for many of the distaff fans, it’s Wonder Woman simultaneously putting a madman behind bars and Superman in his place. But for me, the moment I knew I was hooked was a fairly modest (by comic book standards) exploding yacht. But it wasn’t a laser blast or super powered punch that decimated the boat, belonging to a terrorist gun-runner. It was a well planned, expertly timed jet ski loaded with explosives, piloted by none other than Vietnam veteran turned merciless vigilante Frank Castle – The Punisher. I remember thinking for the first time “Oh, man – you could actually DO that!” It was one of the coolest things that had ever occurred to my fragile nine year old psyche.
The Punisher made sense to me. He was everything the superheroes I came up on weren’t. Lacking superpowers, he had to be smarter than his foes, better prepared, and willing to go to lengths others would not. He was brutal and efficient, killing criminals without compunction and using every means at his disposal to do so, laying waste to legions of drug dealers, pimps, smugglers and murderers with everything from knives and chains to assault rifles rocket launchers and Mack trucks. He didn’t have the luxury of mucking around with wisecracks, one liners, or hand to hand combat. This method of crime fighting also meant that, a few persistent vendettas aside, The Punisher avoided the miasma of personal drama that seemed to drown some characters. This single minded obsession with his war on crime and his black and white sense of justice and the made the character totally terrifying – and utterly compelling. I was hooked.
Last month, without much fanfare or acclaim, Garth Ennis’ epic, eight year run on The Punisher came to an end. Though Ennis can’t be credited with literally bringing the character back from the dead (that dubious honor belongs to Christopher Golden), Ennis reinvigorated the character, among Marvel’s most poorly handled properties. After long, solid runs by scribes like Mike Baron and Chuck Dixon, Frank Castle, like so many compelling Marvel characters of the mid-nineties, took a nose dive in quality. This disastrous handling culminated in an inexplicable switching of sides in which the vigilante became a mob enforcer, taking on superheroes and Nick Fury’s SHIELD in Marvel’s ill-fated Edge imprint before being resurrected at the inception of the Marvel Knights series, now possessed of supernatural powers and tasked by the heavenly host to do what he does best – kill criminals. Each of these attempted revamps puttered and ended up in discount crates along titles like Darkhawk and Sleepwalker for all the right reasons – they mostly sucked, and managed to render a uniquely visceral and exciting character leaving one of Marvel’s most compelling characters to languish.
Until 2000, when Garth Ennis, fresh off his award winning and name making series Preacher, received a carte blanche takeover of the character, five years after his widely panned but now classic What If…? style one-shot, The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe. With the relative freedom of the adult themed Marvel Knights imprint, Ennis and Preacher penciller Steve Dillon brought the same moral ambiguity, finely honed storytelling, over the top violence and pitch black humor that the duo discovered working together on chain smoking, ass kicking archmagus John Constantine in Hellblazer and perfected in the pages Preacher to The Punisher, and fans ate it up. Frank Castle was back, and in the finest of form. He was a cold as ice killer, a badass of few words, using gasoline, grenades, shotguns and the Empire State Building as weapons in his renewed crusade against New York’s crime families, just in the first issue. It was everything we could have wanted and more.
In addition to the comic relief provided by Detective Soap and Lieutenant von Ricthoffen, the hapless and harried two person task force assigned to apprehend The Punisher, Frank was…funny. For the first time, the ultimate vigilante had a sense of humor to match his sense of purpose. Sure, it wasn’t a real “Ha-Ha” sort of funny. More “Oh, man would that hurt!” funny, each issue a sort of dire and deadpan Three Stooges episode. With flamethrowers. It was gallows humor taken to it’s ultimate conclusion. The mission remained, but readers got the idea for the first time that Castle really enjoyed what he did. That this was not just a killer or a crime fighter, but an artist at work with a belt fed M-60, whose medium just happened to be legions of unlucky and underpaid goombas. Some characters shoot people with a rifle – The Punisher conducts a symphony with one.
But even in Welcome Back, Frank, Ennis’ seminal and mostly light hearted, if ultra violent, story arc, the seed of something much darker is there, something scarier than even the violent past of The Punisher we know. When Frank finds himself at death’s door once again, his mild mannered neighbor, drawn into the holocaust that is his life, poses a simple question – why does he kill bad people. Castle’s answer couldn’t be simpler. “I hate them.” Gone are the classic pretensions of making the world a safer place, or even of taking revenge for his family, cut down by mob violence. “I hate them,” says Castle. And we believe him. We understand the flipside of the joy Ennis has let Castle find in his grim work. After decades of a mostly solitary life, killing is all he knows how to do anymore. Even the funny moments, watching Frank bemoan Giulani’s newly cleaned up New York City or feed a mob boss to a trio of pissed off polar bears, one gets the sense that Frank enjoys what he does too much, that without the heinous criminals he defines himself against, he’d be lost. Ennis’ Punisher doesn’t just wage war on criminals – he needs it to keep going.
After 37 increasingly dark but just as often hilarious issues of The Punisher on Marvel Knights, Ennis moved the title to Marvel’s adults only MAX line with a four issue miniseries Punisher: Born, which Ennis himself called “…the darkest, most brutal, vicious and uncompromising thing I’ve ever written.” Born revamped the origin of The Punisher, forever transforming the character and leaving an indelible mark on franchise whose only other distinguishing marks are mostly just stains (see also Dolph Lundgren). With an ‘Adults Only’ series, Ennis was free to make the character, and the trials he faced, as twisted, vulgar and violent and as he could, and this series marked the end of one Punisher era and the beginning of another, one that took both character and reader places that simply couldn’t be explored before. Gone was the jaunty gallows humor of the Marvel Knights series, replaced by an in depth character study of a broken man and his lifelong devotion to a gruesome task. Devoid of the sense of dark humor that had buoyed the earlier series, this Punisher is a damaged individual with no aversion to torture, a seemingly limitless capacity for
pain and no qualms about murdering friends and allies should they fail to abide by his strict moral code. In Born and the 60 issues that followed, Frank Castle became something both more and less than human; he becomes a terrible weapon looking for a target, a weapon forged much earlier in the hellish crucible of Vietnam.
Ennis’ Punisher becomes even more misanthropic and hell bent than the characters earlier incarnations. Rather than obsessed with vengeance, or with stopping crime, The Punisher is an extension of the Thanatos instinct, though Ennis himself would probably think me an asshole for framing it in geek-speak. Put plainly, Ennis’ Punisher is a man looking for something to kill. Rather than being a reason for his crusade, the deaths of his loved ones are simply an excuse. With nothing left to live for, Castle became The Punisher not because he was seeking justice for his family, but because it let him kill. Freely, without regret and with only his own shattered moral compass to answer to, Frank Castle pitted himself against the world. He hasn’t stopped since. He can’t.
Ennis’s final story arc, Valley Forge, Valley Forge, brings his run on The Punisher full circle, completing another link in the cycle of violence that began on a desolate hill in Vietnam. Ennis, a war history buff who explored Vietnam and the experience of it’s American vets briefly in Preacher, explores Frank Castle not as a hero, and not even as the hard edged anti-hero he has so often been handled as, but as a terribly damaged war vet, obsessive and psychotic, a brutal and cartoonish exaggeration of the thousands of veterans who have returned from the battlefield but never really came back.
And in Ennis’ swan song on the book, it’s appropriate that the character takes a back seat to the war that created him. Ostensibly the concluding story sets The Punisher on a collision course with a shadowy group of generals who, in their haste to cover up their war profiteering and unspeakable crimes, make him the target of a special forces unit, knowing that Castle, at his heart, is still a soldier, and won’t kill those that he still considers innocent comrades. But this tale shares time almost equally with excerpts from a book about the birth of The Punisher in a doomed encampment in Vietnam. As the arc and Ennis’ run on The Punisher winds down, this story, that takes longtime readers back to the pages of Born, comes to the forefront. The issue 60 finale features a grand total of five lines from The Punisher, whose inner monologues, to be fair, have always been stronger and more prevalent than his chit-chat.
Visually, the arc is tamer than normal, with pages upon pages eaten up by text and Goran Parlov’s blocky, nourish figures going at it with kid gloves on. There are some striking panels, most notably a bas masked, baseball bat wielding Punisher dismantling the forces sent against him. But for the most part, the violence of the present takes a back seat to the violence of the past in Valley Forge, Valley Forge, an arc which eschews gunplay and fireworks for a series of mostly effective if slightly heavy handed emotional gut punches. And while Castle racks up a fair body count in this final arc, his most gruesome work is done off camera. Instead, the reader is treated to TV news clips of the war in Iraq, far more graphic than any the military would actually let be aired. And as these and other soldiers continue dying in new wars, earning new profits for new masters, and continue coming back home to bleaker and bleaker prospects, the forces that created The Punisher will remain. Castle will go on killing, a force of nature running parallel to the worst in us, whose last Ennis penned line is an assurance that his war will go on forever.