I’ve been a fan of the Punisher since I was a kid, probably because of the “one man army” action movie motif that started with First Blood. Seeing bad guys who are “above the law” get righteously gunned down is cathartic, too.
Punisher has seen a few different incarnations, but I never loved him more than in the late 80s and early 90s, when he was less of a generic do-gooder who happened to shoot people for a hobby. A one-man war on crime eats at a guy, and it’s eaten away almost every last scrap of Castle’s humanity. What’s left of it only occasionally comes out to remind him where he came from and why he does what he does: to punish those who victimize others, and to punish himself for failing to protect his family. But when you come right down to it, the best Punisher stories were 80s action movies with a military or crime garnish — the kind of stuff you’d expect to see on a TNT movie marathon.
Due to the short shelf life of a Punisher villain, the bad guys were often pretty generic. If they ever survived for a comeback, they were usually cartoon characters, like Jigsaw, Barracuda, or the Russian, which didn’t always quite fit the Punisher mold in my view: I always felt Punisher baddies should be as grounded in reality as Castle himself, plus when you feature an established comic baddie in a Punisher yarn, you KNOW he’ll always get away. With the more disposable bad guys, you were never sure: Castle might nail ’em, or they might come back to haunt him later. Either way, sometimes they were memorable for one reason or another despite being “throwaway” characters doomed to eat a bullet within two to five issues.
The following storylines are my favorites because they combine the above into great stories. I’ll add more as I stumble upon them. Sometimes I give what I believe to be the official title of the storyline; other times, if the chapters each have unique titles, I’ll choose the most relevant one to encompass the whole story; still other times I’ll just invent a title myself.
Oh yeah, probably spoilers. Heads up.
The Ghost of Wall Street
(Punisher #8 and #9)
Punisher tries to nail a Zaibatsu CEO and his American cohorts for insider trading; meanwhile a serial killer runs amok killing Wall Street’s hoboes. Turns out the two are more connected than Castle realized, but our man takes down white collar crooks the way lower-class Americans would love to see them taken down. This is the arc where Micro actually loses his son and cements his role as the Punisher’s sidekick.
It’s refreshing to see the Punisher butt heads with white collar crooks instead of the usual mafia or ganger fare. The featured bad guy Sijo is a menacing dude, a silent bodyguard/assassin who’s as tough as Godzilla and almost as big. He’s reminiscent of Professor Toru Tanaka in The Perfect Weapon: a big, bad bruiser who can crush people’s skulls with his bare hands. He gets a particularly gruesome death in a gravel crusher for killing Micro’s boy. His sidekick, coked-up insider trading prodigy Roky Vance, is a memorably creepy douche with a fetish for killing bums.
(Punisher #89 through #92)
While Punisher hunts for a Jamaican drug lord, he stumbles onto a plot to rescue South American dictator General Carranza from his American prison before he can stand trial. Despite a staggering body count, Carranza escapes on his plane and mocks the vigilante as he flies back to his home country, Bosqueverde. For a while Punisher considers him lost, but a news report informs him that the dictator is chilling in his jungle villa, pretending to be under arrest. From there the story becomes Predator as the Punisher stalks through the jungle, killing Carranza’s mercenaries one by one.
This four-issue arc is reminiscent of pre-Comics Code military comics, back when war was hell and death was gruesome and vividly narrated — see Castle’s description of one soldier’s sucking chest wound. You almost feel bad for Punisher’s marks: they don’t stand a chance. Only Rabio and his mercenaries ever have a clean shot at the Big P, but he quickly turns the tables on them and plays some guerrilla games that even John Rambo would call fucked up. Definitely features some of Frank Castle’s baddest kills.
The artwork in this tale is superb, especially the environments. You can feel the humidity as Castle stalks through the jungle, or the frigid embrace of the ocean as he goes to work in a frogsuit. The most memorable baddie is definitely Carranza, basically a suave and handsome Manuel Noriega, who constantly throws his weight around like he’s got the biggest cojones on planet earth and nobody can touch him. His death via helicopter minigun is nothing short of spectacular.
The Killing Streets
I can see Thomas Jane turning this one-shot street justice tale into an awesome short film. An adolescent boy named Gonzalo is fed up with his barrio being ruled by the Razors, a brutal street gang that has been extorting the neighborhood. He starts hanging up posters asking the Punisher for help. Punisher agrees to handle the situation with a clever disguise and some choice gunplay for the finale.
One memorable character is the tie salesman who stands up to the Razors and beats the hell out of them more than once. The kid believes him to be the Punisher in disguise, and is devastated when the gang’s leader cuts him down. Turns out the Punisher was casing the situation all week before making his move on collection day, when the neighborhood pays their protection money — makes me wonder if the Punisher was in the john when this poor salesman got whacked. Beyond that minor gripe, it’s a solid urban western.
The bad guys really aren’t even a challenge to Castle here. Wiping out a street gang is the sort of thing he would do nonchalantly on his way home from picking up groceries or doing laundry. What makes it interesting is that this little kid reached out to him for help, basically committing contract murder at age nine. It shows that Castle is kinda like a really brutal Superman: no innocents are too insignificant to help.
(Punisher: War Zone #1 through #6)
The War Zone series kicks off with a real bang. In order to bring down the Carbone crime family from the inside, Punisher enlists the help of Carbone stooge Mickey Fondozzi and poses as his cousin from Kansas City: the big, imposing Johnny Tower. The Punisher has a field day with this mission: by day he’s Johnny Tower, obliterating rival mobs and destroying their rackets so the Carbones can’t take them over; by night hes the Punisher, using his inside info to whack Carbone operations. It’s all fun and games until he’s outed and handcuffed to a car with five pounds of plastique in the passenger seat. I had to wait a decade before I would finally collect the missing issues and find out how he escaped and destroyed the Carbone outfit.
Johnny Tower is a great Punisher story all-around, if you can forgive the terrible Liefeld anatomy and unnecessary Liefeld-esque sideways two-page spreads. Where the anatomy fails, the mood and environment succeeds with flying colors: in particular, the sequence of Punisher shadowing Micro to a mysterious appointment oozes atmosphere and tension. The Micro subplot is one of the better ones, and resounds throughout this story arc and its follow-up.
The Carbone brothers are what you would expect for Italian mafia dons, but they’re distinct from one-another: Julius being a dandy patriarch in contrast to Sal, the big, brooding former enforcer. The star gangster of the story, though, is Mickey the Dumbass: a common hoodlum who’s in over his head, both as a Punisher sidekick and a wiseguy climbing the mafia food chain. His recruitment is where the Thomas Jane film got the brilliant popsicle interrogation scene. Honestly I wish this had been the plot to that movie instead of a hammy origin story (as much as I liked Howard Saint, Harry Heck, and the three outcasts in the apartment). There’s also a guy named Shotgun who only vaguely factors into the goings-on of the plot, and whose equipment is a bit over-the-top even for a Marvel comics story. He lives up to his namesake at least, specializing in combat shotguns and using a wide variety of custom ammunition to bring the house down around his targets.
The Magnificent Seven
(Punisher: War Zone #7 through #11)
After leaving a smoldering crater where the Carbone syndicate once stood, the Punisher goes on vacation…and by that I mean he goes hunting a serial rapist in Central Park (with the help of a very sexy policewoman). In trying to run down the rapist, he discovers that Rosalie Carbone — daugher of the late Julius, the new head of the Carbone mob, and Johnny Tower’s spurned lover — has hired the seven deadliest contract killers in the world to hunt him down for a million-dollar prize. Issue 2 has the best cover of the series, pictured below in all its rainy glory.
This story is nonstop action, and I can’t fault it for that. The seven killers are all distinct from one-another, though I wish they’d been given more creative handles: Garrotte kills with a garrotte, Stiletto kills with stiletto knives, Combat kills people with martial arts, etc. My favorite is Cane, the old gent with an arsenal of weaponized walking sticks. He’s the smartest and most experienced of the lot, mostly hanging back and letting the others get killed. Rosalie has a great introduction, indignantly storming into a Carbone capo meeting and taking over the organization that’s rightfully hers. From there she becomes mostly comic relief, as she quickly reverts to the pampered, mall-hopping brat she was in the Johnny Tower arc. She doesn’t know or care that she’s totally unsuited to the task of running a criminal empire. I guess even in the underworld, the idiots always get to be in charge.
I also love Castle’s pretty cop sidekick, Lynn Michaels. She takes the vigilante thing in stride and looks great in jogging gear. She appears on and off again throughout the comic series and begins to embrace the vigilante thing more fully, eventually taking the Punisher’s place in later storylines (temporarily at least). She even gets her own skull-torsoed getup!
(Punisher: War Zone #12 through #16)
Just as the Punisher is bearing down on terrified mobster DaRosa, both men are seized by mobs of pedestrians. The next thing Frank Castle knows, he’s living a happy suburban life with a wife and two kids. He’s been added to a small city full of psychotics and killers, all brainwashed by Dr. Shane to be sleeper agents for political assassinations.
Frank’s conditioning is fun to watch unravel bit by bit, as seemingly insignificant things nag at his subconscious, trying to remind him who he is. Most striking of all is the memory of the terrifying, grinning hitman who mowed down his family. When he finally snaps out of it, his resulting killing spree wakes up the rest of the townsfolk, and bedlam sweeps across the phony city. It’s all pretty glorious.
I only have a couple complaints about an otherwise brilliant Punisher story. The twisted Dr. Shane isn’t memorable on his own: he’s a generic mad doctor, and a mild-mannered one at that. But his awesome assassin program makes up for it. The other complaint is that Castle’s kids turn out to have the most cartoonishly evil rap sheets once their identities are revealed. The girl murdering her foster siblings, okay, but burning down a petting zoo and a nursing home, too? Come on, guys, a little subtlety wouldn’t hurt.
The issue covers are probably the best part, depicting a very rigid Castle doing everyday suburban shit: watching TV with the fam, mowing the lawn, etc, looking like he’s being forced against his will to live the American dream. Which of course he is.
(Punisher: War Zone # 26 through #30)
Hot on the trail of Caribbean gun runners, Castle travels from the Florida Keys to the fortified country of Puerto Dulce…which is on the eve of a violent revolution. There he meets rich, despotic siblings Ernesto and Carmelita Villamos, one of the five families who are basically keeping their people in poverty (hence the revolution). Outed by the sexy sister, Punisher is shipped off to a brutal sugar cane field where he is worked nearly to death from sunrise to sunset, and forced to fight other workers for the fat pit boss’s entertainment. Micro recruits an old buddy, Ice, to rescue Castle and flee the country before the revolutionaries raze it to the ground.
What makes this story stand out is the sheer amount of awful shit Castle goes through. He bakes under the hot sun while cutting razor-sharp cane that dices his feet to ribbons. He’s fed maggoty food and dysentery-inducing water. He develops a fever and is beaten by the guards frequently. The heat and misery of Puerto Dulce is palpable with every page, and you suffer right along with the heroes. It’s a great way to get the reader to root for them to escape at any cost. The action sequences are top notch, too, including a battle with some hungry crocodiles, and a great skirmish with some camping soldiers. The art style is gritty and makes everything look worn and haggard, and the anatomy is better and more dynamic than the Liefeld art style of the Johnny Tower story. Castle has a striking resemblance to Charles Bronson that doesn’t go unappreciated.
Watching the fall of the Villamos clan is cathartic as hell, too. Their bad karma thwarts their attempts to flee their dying regime at every turn. Nothing goes right for these two pampered assholes, and when faced with the brutal justice of the revolutionaries should they be caught, they opt for double-suicide instead, which is probably more satisfying than if Castle had nailed them, himself.