Title: The Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank
Writer: Garth Ennis
Illustrator: Steve Dillon
Series: The Punisher (2001 Series)
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2002
Moving into the new millenium, the Marvel Comics character Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher, was not in a good place. Part of his problem was that he didn’t really fit with the rest of the Marvel pantheon of heroes and villains–he wore the standard-issue spandex, but that take on the character seemed just a little…..off. For the unitiated, Frank Castle was one of the last American troops out of Vietnam when we jumped ship, finally returning home for good at the end of his third tour of duty. Soon thereafter, he and his family are having a quiet picnic in Central Park when a gangland hit goes bad, catching Castle and his family in the crossfire. With his wife and kids dead and several new scars to add to his collection, Castle does what he does best: goes to war. This time he’s declared war on the entire criminal underworld, and he intends to off every criminal he can get in his sights. Except that a good amount of his time in the early days is spent chasing supervillains….Okay, yeah, they’re criminals, but there’s a question of tone here. Castle’s thing is guns. Doctor Doom uses an army of androids that look like himself. So he dresses like a superhero/villain to go after common criminals, and uses his very plausible military skills to take on a variety of superpowed beings. Are you seeing the disconnect here?* Sales fell, series were canceled, and in 1999 Marvel made the……interesting……decision to kill the Punisher and bring him back as a supernatural enforcer. Things looked bleak for Punisher fans.
Then, in 2000, Marvel relaunched the character with a twelve-issue miniseries written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Steve Dillon. And it was good. With just a throwaway line about how the Angels had found him less than cooperative and returned him to Earth as punishment, Frank Castle is back in the game and gunning for the Gnucci crime family. Gone are the white gloves and more “super-heroey” elements of the costume, in their place are trench coats and combat pants. The series thrives on a sense of dark humor running through. There are some real great moments here, including a gunfight in the morgue between a bunch of Gnucci goons and the Punisher (“Gunfight in the morgue, rule one: Don’t hide behind the thin guy.”), a wounded Punisher being pursued into the New York zoo by more goons (“I have a forty-five. He has a machine gun. The night goes downhill from there….”) and having to improvise ways to take them out using the animals–piranha, boa constrictors and even polar bears get pressed into service here, resulting in my single favorite comic book panel of all time….. (see below)
This particular miniseries is probably best rated PG-13, although compared to a lot of the stuff that followed it was fairly mild. Profanity is missed out in the traditional comic book swearing form ($#!^), although it is always perfectly clear what this is standing in for–specifically, rather than “villain mumbles cursing” or however they wrote the scripts for the book in the 60s. There is no overt sexual content, although there are a few particularly sleazy insinuations made by one of the Gnucci boys in the first issue. Maybe other innuendos, nothing that stuck out at me. Violence, however, is another issue. This is a Punisher comic. People will die, in a variety of interesting and gruesome ways. As I said, PG-13–the violence is mostly seen in shots of Castle or the villains blazing away, silhouette shots of characters being hit, shots of the aftermath, or some combination thereof. I want to say its not graphic, but it is to a degree. Compared to some other Punisher I’ve read its not bad at all, but objectively its not for those who don’t handle gore well. Injured characters bleed. The art is moderately stylized and simple (see above), not photorealistic, but its there nonetheless.
For readers who check this out and like it, Ennis and Dillon continued the plot and revisited a number of the background characters with the ongoing series of the same name that started soon after. This mostly kept the same style and level of content as the miniseries. When that ended, Ennis moved on to writing the Punisher for Marvel’s line of MAX comics, not technically part of the main Marvel canon, but much freer with content restrictions (MAX comics were not sold at newsstands, and so were able to be essentially R-rated content-wise without getting into trouble). As I say, great writing, probably the best version of the character, but not for the faint of heart. Also, the 2004 Punisher film starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta draws a lot of subplots and background characters from this miniseries. A lot of people hate on it; I think its a great treatment of the character, personally. It is, however, VERY R-rated, so be forewarned.
I will say once again, this is a comic for adults, or at least for teens. Not a work intended for kids! But well done nonetheless.
*To be fair, there have been some great stories pitting the Punisher against supervillains. Frank Miller did some great things on his run with DareDevil, contrasting the two characters and their approaches to fighting crime. Also interesting, Castle’s most recent thing is tricking himself out with toys stolen from his enemies….His favorite is a Goblin Glider stolen from one of Norman Osborne’s old caches….
Also, it should be admitted that this is written from a bias of having read a lot of the more recent, grittier comics where Frank Castle takes on mobsters, drug runners, serial killers and sex slavers. I feel this is a better take on the character. It should also be noted that this is a much more adult-themed take on the character, getting Marvel’s equivalent of an R-rating.