Well, the day has finally arrived. The last Greg Rucka Issue of Punisher. Punisher War Zone #5 came out yesterday and it leaves me with both a happy and sad heart. Happy that Greg stuck to his guns over editorial choices and walked away without compromising the story he was telling with Frank Castle. Sad that it might be a long time before we see a Punisher series this good come around again. This was a truly inspired run for our favourite vigilante and the character is better off now than he has been in years. So on this solemn day, I thought I’d pay tribute to Rucka’s last issue by taking a look back on some of the greatest Punisher stories to ever grace the page. And don’t worry, there won’t be any of that Punisher becoming a mafia don stuff from the mid-nineties. I think some things are better left forgotten. I’m sorry if I just gave anyone flashbacks. What follows are 7 of the best Punisher stories in his varied history. Some are classic tales. Others, hidden gems. All are MUST reading for any fan of the Punisher out there. So take a look, dear readers. You might just learn something.
Circle of Blood (Punisher #1-5 Vol. 1)
Creative Team: Steven Grant (writer) Mike Zeck and Mike Vosburg (artists)
What’s the Story?: This was the premiere Punisher limited series in which a citizens’ organization called the Trust springs Punisher from prison so that he can fight his war on crime with an army of brainwashed criminals that they’ve dubbed the “Punishment Squad”. But Frank has plans of his own. He tells Bugle Reporter Ben Urich that he’s killed the Kingpin. This false information starts a gang war that ends up getting ugly. Innocents become endangered. Punisher has to stop the war he started and take down the Punishment Squad which are doing more harm than good. It may not be the most easy plot to describe but it is an entertaining read. Also, it firmly establishes Frank Castle as the “hero”. Before this mini series, Punisher was largely an antagonist popping up in issues of Spider-man and Daredevil. This was the series that made it okay to root for the vigilante. This series was one of the first books at Marvel to take a more adult stance in the character portrayal as the series was one of the first for the company to not only show the death of innocents but also imply suicide and sexual intercourse. Steven Grant does a great job of fleshing out the Punisher and giving him a bit more emotional grounding. Also, he makes great use of of the “War Journal” narration. Mike Zeck delivers on the pencils and stands out as one of the quintissential Punisher artists to this day.
Punisher War Zone (Punisher War Zone #1-6 Vol. 1)
Creative Team: Chuck Dixon (writer) John Romita Jr. (artist)
What’s the Story?: Frank Castle uses a little brains with his brawn as he goes undercover as Johnny Tower and infiltrates the Carbone family. Mickey, a low level hood, gets Punisher into the family and shortly after winning the affections of Don Carbone’s rebellious daughter, Rosalie, Frank takes care of business the only way he knows how: by Punishing! A scene from this story involving Punisher tricking a hood by making him think he’s using a blowtorch on him when it is actually a popsicle he’s placing on his back was used in the 2004 Punisher film staring Thomas Jane. It works a lot better in this story, let me tell you. When I think of the Punisher, this is the story that always stands out as the best representation of how he operates. Frank Castle is not just a bruiser. He’s a man with a plan. He wants a maximum body count when it comes to killing criminals. When he can take out a whole crime family, all the better. It’s also one of the few 90s comics that still holds up.
Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe (One Shot)
Creative Team: Garth Ennis (writer) Doug Braithwaite (Artist)
This is the story where the Punisher kills EVERYBODY! In 1995, this one shot was released to little fanfare. During this time, the once popular What If series, a comic that starred Uatu the Watcher pondering what might have occurred in alternate timelines of the Marvel Universe, was suffering from low sales. In an attempt to spice things up a bit, the title went through a massive format change. The Watcher was out and the series was discontinued. In it’s place, there were a series of one shots and mini series released under the banner Alterniverse, an obvious attempt to copy DC Comics’ popular Elseworlds imprint. The Alterniverse Imprint was an utter failure. Nobody cared and most of the stories felt uninspired. That is, except for this once lost gem. Set in an alternate universe, Frank Castle’s family does not die at the hands of mobsters but instead in the cross fire of a Super Human battle in Central Park. In this timeline, the target of Punisher’s war is super heroes and villains. Backed by a clandestine organization that has suffered from super human negligence, Frank uses military strategy and black ops techniques to take down some of the biggest and baddest heroes and villains, using their strengths against them. Collecting ordinance after a smartly executed hit on Doctor Doom, Frank’s able to take down almost the entire mutant populous. He also uses some straight forward thinking and Jungle warfare training to take down both Wolverine and Captain America. There’s an interesting subplot in the story between Punisher and his long time rival, Daredevil. Matt Murdock is Frank’s lawyer throughout the many court cases and convictions that pile up during the story. Each time, Matt tries to reason with Punisher and each time, he doesn’t listen. A heartbreaking end to this story shows the soul that was lacking in most approaches to the Punisher during the mid-nineties. It was the first time Garth Ennis wrote the character but it would be far from the last.
Welcome Back Frank (Punisher #1 – 12 Vol. 5)
Creative Team: Garth Ennis (writer) Steve Dillon (artist)
What’s the Story?: The year 200o marked one of the greatest comic comeback stories of all time. It had been 4 years since The Punisher had an ongoing series. There were a couple of attempts to revive the character in between this time, all of which had been flops. The most notable was a story where Frank had offed himself and had been resurrected as an Angel of Death. Needless to say, it didn’t fly with most Punisher fans. So Marvel Knights gave the property to Garth Ennis to see what he can do to revitalize the franchise. And he does. How does he do it? By taking it back to basics. It’s just a dude who knows how to kill people hunting the one thing he hates: Crooks. Frank Castle is on the hunt for the Gnucci family. One by one, he takes out the major operators and lets nothing get in his way, including Daredevil. Eventually there is only one person left to kill, Ma Gnucci, the matriach of this crime family. Ma Gnucci, not one for being defenseless, fights to the bitter end. She survives a Polar Bear mauling that takes her arms and legs. She sicks a hitman known as The Russian on Frank to no avail. When it comes down to it, Ma Gnucci will be punished. Also introduced in the story are The Punisher’s neighbors at the low income apartment he lives in. Spacker Dave, Mr. Bumpo, and Sara would each make multiple appearances in the coming years, including in the 2004 Punisher film. There’s also a subplot involving others attempting to emulate the Punisher and form a vigilante squad. Frank’s reaction to this is short and very sweet. Steve Dillon, Ennis’ long time Preacher collaborator, provides the art for this story and begins his long association with the character
Mother Russia (Punisher (Max) #13 – 18 Vol. 7)
Creative Team: Garth Ennis (writer) Doug Braithwaite (Artist)
What’s the Story?: When popularity began to die down for Garth Ennis’ take on the Punisher at Marvel Knights, the choice was made to officially make the book a Mature Reader title. So under the Max imprint, Punisher was once again killing criminals, but this time with no heroes to get in his way as the tales took place outside of Marvel continuity. There were a few carry overs, Nick Fury being one of them. In the third story arc of the Max series, Nick sends Frank Castle to Russia to rescue a little girl from terrorists. This girl has an antidote to a powerful chemical weapon in her bloodstream. The U.S. government would like to get their hands on it so they can produce this chemical weapon for themselves. The window to rescue her is short though as the antibodies are breaking down in her bloodstream. So they need to act fast. The Punisher is not sent alone as Fury’s backing is not enough, so he is accompanied by a special forces soldier who will make sure the mission is completed. Not a lot more I can tell you here without spoiling it but this is probably the most human we ever get to see Frank Castle. He’s gruff and tough when conducting the mission but is tender and caring with the child. He protects her from all sides in this tale as she reminds him of his deceased daughter. It’s a touching story that’s also full of explosions and grisly death. My kind of story.
PunisherMax (PunisherMax #1 – 22)
Creative Team: Jason Aaron (writer) Steve Dillon (artist)
What’s the Story?: Taking advantage of the series being outside the Marvel 616 continuity, Jason Aaron tells a complete series with a definitive end. This series marks the Max debut of two famous Punisher rivals: The Kingpin and Bullseye. The story begins with Wilson Fisk’s rise to power and The Punisher’s unintentional hand in it. What’s really amazing is the pure psychotic portrayal of Bullseye who transcends the simple assassin role and is more a man obsessed with getting into the mind of Frank Castle. The story is all about testing your limits. How far will Fisk go to become the King of New York? What is he willing to sacrifice? How far is The Punisher willing to go to stop him? Will he survive? Is there any low Bullseye will not stoop to? I can tell you the answer to that last one is no. Nick Fury also makes an appearance in this one as Frank’s role as a killer is molded just as much by the folks behind the scenes as the criminals in front of him. If you’re looking for an epic Punisher story that has a beginning, middle and end, you owe it to yourself to read Jason Aaron’s opus of death and destruction. It’s got the bite of Ennis’ Punisher with the smarts and wits that Aaron is known for. Steve Dillon does another great job of capturing the perfect mood for this story as it shifts from balls to the wall action into a darker tale of war and redemption.
Greg Rucka’s entire Punisher Run (Punisher #1-16 Vol. 9 / Punisher War Zone #1-5 Vol. 3)
Creative Team: Greg Rucka (writer) Marco Checchetto and Carmine di Giandomenico (artists)
What’s the Story?: Like you didn’t see this coming. I praised Greg’s run off the top. There’s no way I wouldn’t put it on the list. This Punisher series is special because it did something that really surprised a lot of fans by taking the focus away from Frank Castle’s perspective and told the story from the outside looking in. This was the first Punisher series to have a strong supporting cast. The development of Sargeant Rachel Cole-Alves, a marine that lost her husband on their wedding day when they’re caught in the crossfire of a Criminal hit squad, is amazing as she takes a similar path to Frank Castle but is unable to have the same control and focus in her mission. She stands as living proof that Castle is one of a kind. Police Detectives Clemons and Bolt were also a great addition to the story as Rucka did a great job of weaving them into the Punisher’s history. The criminal organization known as the The Exchange plays a great antagonist as Frank must stay steps ahead of them to finally get their number. Rucka also shines with Castle’s interactions with super types in the Marvel Universe. A team up with Daredevil and Spider-man for the Omega Effect ( a cross-over with Daredevil co-written by Mark Waid) proved to be one of the best super hero collaborations in years. More recently, Rucka was able to pit Punisher against the Avengers and actually make him a credible threat for them. Not an easy thing to pull off. This series ended far too soon but as the saying goes, always leave them wanting more. The sixteen issue ongoing series is now available in collected editions and Punisher War Zone shouldn’t be too far behind. Check it out if you haven’t already.
So that’s the list. Some of you might disagree with a few of my choices or omissions, but these are the Punisher stories that stand out as the hallmark of quality when it comes to Marvel’s Greatest Anti-Hero. So check ‘em out and enjoy.
And if you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!