The Punisher is the worst character in comic book history. That is, if your definition of “character” is a multi-layered personality with contradictory motivations and actions. The Punisher has no layers, as he has no substance. He’s vengeance. He’s retribution. He’s anger. And he’s one of the most effective plot devices in comic history. But he’s not a character.
The Punisher’s story is essentially a play on the Batman mythos: A retired U.S. Marine watches his family get gunned down as collateral damage by the mob, not long after he gets back from Vietnam. He then spends the rest of his life hunting down and executing criminals, with extreme vigour. There’s none of the nuance of the Batman character however, and while I find that it’s pretty easy to find entertaining Punisher stories, it’s not easy to find great ones.
The Punisher: Welcome Back Frank, Army Of One, Business As Usual, Streets Of Laredo, Full Auto, Confederacy Of Dunces
This was the first of two series that Garth Ennis wrote about Marvel’s premier vigilante, and while I prefer his second series, this is the one that got the ball rolling, and also got the most attention. This was written in the late 90s and was described as a return to the character’s roots, though I’m having a hard time remembering any Punisher comics from the 70’s or 80’s that featured a hapless detective with a predilection for incest and transsexuals. This series isn’t so much Ennis’ take on the Punisher as it is Ennis’ take on Ennis. This is pure, unadulterated Ennis, in all of its over the top, grossly violent glory. As such, it’s a polarizing series, and not one that’s for everyone. Though I enjoy the well-planned violence, and am definitely a sucker for Ennis’ knack for bittersweet character moments, I have one major problem with this book. And it’s the same problem I have with pretty much every Garth Ennis book I own: Humour. Or better yet, the absence of such. The man isn’t funny. Which is fine. He’s a fine action storyteller, and is one of the best character writers in comics today, so it’s not like the man doesn’t have talent. The problem is that he thinks he’s Sam Fucking Kinison, and liberally peppers his action stories with unfunny, gross out, shock jock jokes best suited for a grade 9 boys gym class.
It’s a small negative, but one that comes up so often in Ennis’ work that it needs to be mentioned. And while it’s prevalence in THIS series stops it from achieving greatness, Ennis was objective enough about his own work to tone down the humour in the series that followed this one.
The Punisher MAX – In The Beginning, Kitchen Irish, Mother Russia, Up Is Down Black Is White, The Slavers, Barracuda, Man Of Stone, Born
Now we’re talking. This was Ennis’ “adult” take on the Punisher, and to my mind it’s the best Punisher series of all time. Ennis recognizes that the Punisher is a concept that works much better in our “real” world than he does in a world full of costumed do-gooders, and strips the character down to its basics. There are no superheroes or aliens in this Punisher’s world: Only revenge.
Like Will Eisner’s work on the Spirit, Ennis realizes that his lead character isn’t actually that interesting himself, and uses him not so much as a lead character so much as a plot device. This series isn’t really about the Punisher; it’s about people’s reaction to the Punisher. And so you get some of the best written small and large war or crime comics written in the last decade. It took me YEARS to give this a shot, simply because I wasn’t interested in reading more silly, over-the-top potty jokes about a character I don’t care about. I’m happy to report that this series is about as different from its predeccor as is possible, and it’s a series that really showcases Ennis’ skill as one of the best action writers in the game. Highly recommended.
Jason Aaron is in charge for this incarnation of the Punisher, and not only is his run a worthy heir to Ennis’, there’s a good chance that he might even surpass it. Because this is the “Max” Punisher, there are no superheroes, or costumes, or Norse gods, or nothing. Although realism is the main selling point of the Max line, Aaron recognized that there was some room for cross-over, and decided to introduce two of the regular Marvel U’s top villains into the mix. And so we get the Kingpin, and we get Bullseye. We’ve seen them before, so no biggie, right?
Wrong. Aaron doesn’t so much reinvent these two great characters as much as he deconstructs them for a 21st century crime-ridden world: His Bullseye isn’t dangerous because he can kill a man with a toothpick, he’s dangerous because of his absolute unpredictability. And Aaron’s Kingpin isn’t dangerous because he can bench press a Volkswagen, he’s dangerous because of his uncompromising strategic ruthlessness. And so we get an action-packed, uber-violent gangster story that I truly believe will go down as one of the best Punisher stories of all time. And in fact may end up being the LAST of the great Punisher stories. Aaron is taking the character past the point of no return, and it’s hard to see how he can wrap this up without the character having a bullet in his head. Again, highly recommended.
This was a recent attempt to bring the Punisher back into the regular Marvel universe, and like all such attempts, it failed miserably. The problem here is that there is NO chance that characters with the moral certainty of Spider-Man or Captain America would EVER let a serial killer like the Punisher walk around. None. There is no way you can justify it to me, and as such I have a hard time taking any regular Punisher stories that seriously. Although writer Matt Fraction does try to give the Marvel characters a good reason to let the Punisher pal around with them for a bit, the whole thing just feels quite gimmicky and forced.
Punisher – No Escape, The Prize
These are two stand-alone graphic novels from the mid 1990s. I was surprised at how well each of them stood the test of time, with The Prize being of particularly good quality. These aren’t going to win any Eisner Hall Of Fame awards anytime soon, but they’re solid, well-written action stories that serve the character and concept well.
This was the first Punisher mini-series, and it’s one that hasn’t really aged well. This was still in the early days of the character, where there was some attempt at giving the concept some depth. With depth came dilution, and by the end of this toothless mini-series Frank Castle is so watered down from his original heartless assassin concept that you can’t believe the character ever survived past the 80’s.
NEXT UP: Runaways!