I’m personally not a big comic book reader. This is despite actually owning a comic book store for a number of years. It’s not to say that I don’t love the characters and the stories, I’m just not big on the traditional ‘comic book format’. Obviously not the best way to start an article dealing with comic books, but just give me a minute here.
When I do decide to read comics though, I’m usually very specific. I know what I like. One label that continually caught my attention was the Marvel MAX imprint; a range of comics designed for a mature audience with very explicit language, drug use, sex, adult themes, nudity and most of all violence. Certainly not for everyone, and a hell of a lot darker than your average issue of Captain America.
Of the Marvel Max range, I had a couple of favourites. One was Foolkiller, and the other was Punisher. With Daredevil Season 2 about to hit Netflix, I thought now was the perfect time to talk about Punisher – because our favourite vigilante and anti-hero is about to turn up in force. (PS Foolkiller is really cool and we’ll look at him another time. He makes Punisher look sane and normal by comparison.)
Lucas, Lin and others here at the Pixel Pop Network office like to remind me that the MAX series of Punisher comics isn’t canon, and they are absolutely right – it isn’t. The main series of Punisher MAX deals with an older, even more bitter veteran set some 30 years after the canon comics and in a Marvel universe devoid of supers. However, there was one short but sweet four part mini series under the MAX label entitled ‘Born’ and it IS canon. While many of us know the story of Frank Castle – the man whose family was gunned down in the park while enjoying a picnic – and see that event as the initial motivation for his bloody rampage, this story shows that it wasn’t the beginning. The murderous intent was already there: he had already sold his soul to the devil.
Punisher was the brain child of Gerry Conway and first popped up in Spider-Man, of all places, in 1974 as a vigilante who preferred to kill his enemies rather than hand them over to the authorities. This was radically different to the majority of the heroes in Marvels comic books at the time. Most “good guys” did the right thing and handed the “bad guys” over to the authorities, or perhaps let them go with a smacked bottom and a stern “Don’t let me catch you doing this again!”
He was well received and was popping up in all sorts of places before having a long running series of his own. Interest waned by about 1995, and although Marvel dabbled in a few things it wasn’t until the ‘Born’ story in 2003 (followed by a nine year series of Punisher MAX) that the character moved back into public interest in a big way.
‘Born’ is set in in 1971 during Castle’s final tour of duty in Vietnam. He’s stationed at the Valley Forge outpost, on the South Vietnamese-Cambodian border. He’s a member of the United States Marine Corps and a complete bad ass. While other members of the squad are squeamish, hesitant, high on heroin, drunk, apathetic or busy raping the local women, Frank Castle is there for one thing and one thing only: killing. Early on we see that Castle has no problem with murder. The aforementioned rapist gets forcibly drowned, and a visiting General looking to shut down Valley Forge (and therefore Frank’s part in the war) is tricked by Castle into being shot dead by an enemy sniper.
He shows no pity or remorse. Not for those he kills, or for those who die around him. While the comics are primarily from the point of view of Stevie Goodwin (a young marine who has almost finished his tour and is looking forward to going home), we still get plenty of Punisher “alone time”. It’s during these moments we learn that Castle is already a troubled man; with an inner voice urging him, coercing him into acts of violence. Of course the question is whether the voice is internal (Frank’s own making), or an external force looking to use Castle for some greater plan.
This comes to a crescendo in the fourth and final issue when the Valley Forge base is overrun by the Viet Cong. Desperately out-gunned with no hope for survival, and with every other living soul in the camp being wiped out, the malicious voice in Frank’s head makes him an offer.
“You’ve been hit three times now. Four. You’ll burn out the barrel on that thing [Frank’s rifle] any second. I can help you, but you have to say the word…”
“You know you want to. Three tours in ‘Nam, Frank. Seeking without realizing. Into the nightmare again and again. What was it [that] kept you coming back?”
“I can give it to you, Frank — There’ll be a price, but nothing’s free — Say no, and you’re one more K.I.A. on a hill that no one cared about to start with.”
“Say yes — And I’ll give you what you’ve wanted all these years. But you have to say it — Say it — SAY IT –”
“A war that lasts forever, a war that never ends, but you have to say the word, Frank –“
This is it. This is the point where (depending on your interpretation) Frank Castle comes to terms with the fact that he’s a killer and he enjoys it OR that he just made a deal with the devil. Either way, Castle is the lone survivor of Valley Forge, the last few pages see Castle return home as a decorated soldier to his loving family waiting for him at the airport. The “voice” isn’t done with him though, and reminds him that there will be a price to pay; while the comic book frame shows a picture of Frank’s family inside of the now familiar Punisher Skull. Whether the price of being a homicidal maniac inevitably leads to the ruination of his family, or supernatural forces now conspire to kill Frank’s family in mob crossfire is entirely up to you.
There have been a couple of movie adaptations of The Punisher over the years. Neither of them really do the character any justice, whether it’s the introduction of humour, a love interest, or most importantly pity, guilt and remorse. The comic book character has none of these things, nor does he want for them. Nobody escapes. Nobody is given a second chance. In the 2008 movie starring Thomas Jane in the lead role, we have a torture scene where he doesn’t actually torture his victim. This is NOT the Punisher I’ve come to know in the printed material – likely because trying to put Punisher into film is tricky. It’s adult – VERY adult – and up until recent years this meant less viewers and less profit. Thankfully, with TV shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and movies like Deadpool, we are starting to see mature content prove to be financially viable.
I’ve watched the Daredevil Season 2 trailer. I’ve watched it a bunch of times. I’ve also looked a lot of the production shots and other material, and I have to say, so far I like what I see.
Here we finally have what appears to be an accurate portrayal of the character. As Kyle Reece said to Sarah Connor in the original Terminator – “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” This is such an apt description for the Punisher as well. He really is a cold machine: dead inside after the loss of his family, and possibly even before that.
This version of the Punisher won’t be a Vietnam veteran. The original character was born in 1947, and that just wouldn’t work for this series. Hopefully, though, they keep the United States Marine Core thing. Or at the very least a solider – perhaps returned from the middle east. Turning him into police officer or detective just won’t work. They don’t have the same skills with weapons and explosives that a marine does. Thankfully, again, as alluded to in the trailer, he appears to definitely have military training.
Will we see Punisher beyond Season 2 of Daredevil? Marvel and Netflix have all but confirmed a dedicated Punisher series. Will we see him in film, such as Civil War? Highly unlikely. While the Punisher does turn up in the Civil War comic book series, it’s a relatively small part. Even the Avengers are worried about Punisher. They don’t like to work with him. Most likely because of his methods, but arguably because some of them fear him as well – and rightly so! In one special ‘what if’ style issue of the Punisher (completely not canon), Castle’s family is killed by supers in accidental crossfire instead of the mob. He goes on a rampage to eradicate every super in the Marvel Universe, ultimately killing himself in the end (after succeeding in his mission) because he realises that he himself must be super in order to have killed them all.
There’s been a bunch of discussion in the office about who the antagonist would be in a Netflix Punisher series. For me, I think it would be the perfect time to re-introduce Kingpin. He’s the perfect nemesis for Punisher. Just as cold, deliberate and ruthless, except he stands behind many of the criminal elements that the Punisher is trying to eradicate. I imagine Frank as a wild game hunter and Wilson Fisk is the lion.
So hopefully you are as hyped about the Punisher appearing in Daredevil Season 2 this weekend as I am, and hopefully – if you haven’t read the comics – you now have a more solid idea on how the character was originally conceived.
You can learn a lot more about the Punisher over on the Marvel website here. If you want to read the ‘Born’ series for yourself, you can! It’s available on the Comixology website here, along with the rest of the Punisher series.
Are you a fan of The Punisher? Did I get something wrong? Miss something out? Got your own take on the origin story? Share is with us in the comments below.
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I started gaming in 1982 when my father would bring home an IBM PC XT for work reasons. Naturally after he was done we'd also play some games. In 1983 we acquired the PC full time and I was also lucky enough to receive an Atari 2600 for my birthday that same year. I've been gaming for over 30 years and I've loved every minute of it. Watching games evolve from text and basic visuals to home virtual reality has been amazing. I still have a fondness for the classics though and enjoy collecting 5.25" and 3.5" PC games from the 80's and 90's.