Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Essential Punisher!

With the exception of Wolverine, there's little doubt that of all the great Marvel Bronze Age creations, the Punisher has been the most successful. Erupting onto the scene in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, the Punisher was a quasi-villain of sorts, then a reluctant ally, before becoming a new kind of Marvel "hero". 

The Punisher was created by Gerry Conway and designed by John Romita, inspired doubtlessly by Don Pendleton's The Executioner, a paperback avenger who was popular in those days of Dirty Harry and Death Wish. 

When we first meet Frank Castle, he's a large and powerful man dressed in black with an enormous skull emblazoned on his chest. He's presented as a modern agent of death for those who commit crimes. He works in concert with Spidey's enemy the Jackal at first, convinced that the Web-Slinger is a criminal, just as J. Jonah Jameson had been preaching for years. By the end of the story the Punisher doubts that and ends his alliance with the Jackal. 

When he next returns, he teams up with Spidey (sort of) to stop the Tarantula, a pirate of sorts who has taken it on himself to waylay a tour boat. Ross Andru does a superlative job of rendering the Punisher, making him imposing and threatening, yet retaining that nobility which elevates (sometimes only slightly) him above the thugs he chases. 

The Punisher next shows up in Giant-Size Spider-Man and once again works with Peter Parker's alias to bring down slaver Moses Magnum, who operates a concentration camp of sorts in the jungles of South America. 

Frank Castle gets his own feature in Marvel Preview which sports a stunning cover by Gray Morrow. In the comfort of the black and white magazine world, the Punisher is free to be even more aggressive than the Comics Code will allow in the four-color environment.  In a grim story by Conway and artist Tony DeZuniga we learn at long last what motivated the Punisher's war on crime as we see in flashback the murders of his family. 

The same team returns to tell another rough and tumble Punisher tale with the assistance of Rico Rival in the pages of Marvel Super Action. Sharing the book with The Huntress (eventually to become Mockingbird) and Howie Chaykin's Dominic Fortune, it seems clear Marvel is testing the waters for a possible Punisher magazine. Bob Larkin's cover is powerful stuff. 

But that was not to be, and the Punisher returns to his role as an occasional guest-star in the Spider-Man books. In one notable two-parter he contends with both Spidey and Nightcrawler, the member of the recently minted New X-Men. For the first time a writer other than Conway handled the character as Len Wein handled the chores. Reliable Ross Andru was still the artist. 

That same talented duo brought out another two-parter sometime later when Punisher and Spidey work together to save J. Jonah Jameson from the clutches of the Hitman. Turns out the Hitman was a felllow soldier from Frank Castle's past. 

Frank Miller gets his first chance to draw the Punisher on the cover of an issue of Captain America in which the enemy of crime comes up against the Living Legend. Needless to say, that Cap and Castle don't get along and his approach to fighting crime even reminds some of the Nazis. When he almost kills a cop, the Punisher allows himself to be arrested. This comic was written by Mike Barr and drawn by Frank Springer and Pablo Marcos. 

But that doesn't last as he's out and about when he joins Spidey yet again to battle drug pushers and the mob that supports them. Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard are the talents who bring this team-up to the masses. 

In Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 Frank Miller draws a script by Denny O'Neil which pits the two heroes against Doctor Octopus who is scheming to ransom the city by killing five million citizens using the pages of the Daily Bugle itself. Once again the Punisher is arrested at the end of the story. 

That arrest seems to take as we find Frank Castle in prison when his team-up with Daredevil begins. This is another rugged tale by Frank Miller which focuses on the drug PCP and its pernicious effects. Matt Murdock struggles to save the innocent while the Punisher works overtime to bring down the guilty. At the end of this intense tale, the Punisher is again captured. 

The next time we see Frank Castle he's escaping jail yet again and goes on a rampage against drug dealers. This time he has to contend with not only Spider-Man but the mysterious Cloak and Dagger as well. The Punisher seems to lose control of himself in this story which pits him against the Kingpin, punishing with extreme prejudice people who commit the most innocuous of crimes such as littering and jaywalking. He is finally brought down in this trilogy by writer Bill Mantlo and artist Al Milgrom with help from the always reliable Jim Mooney. By the end of this story like so many before he's headed back to prison. 

This collection wraps up with the very first Punisher color comic book limited series. The five issues are written by Steven Grant and the first four are drawn in magnificent form by Mike Zeck and John Beatty. Mike Vosburg steps in to wrap things up in the fifth and final installment. The story is a wild one with many twists and turns as Castle battles his way out of prison, gets recruited by a secret cabal to fight crime and discovers the terrible truth about his supposed allies. Allowed to be the focus of the story, this limited has a real potency, and proved to this comic book fanboy that The Punisher could carry his own comic. Soon he would, in fact, he'd become the star of two. 

(Romita's original design)

This impressive Essentials tome brings together over a decade of Punisher stories and allows the reader to see how the character was developed over the years. At first, a character with the mission of the Punisher was a hard sell for a Comics Code world, but as the years passed and the audience for comics became more sophisticated (according to some) the true nature of the character could be explored more fully and robustly. 

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