Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing motivates like revenge. Forget greed and envy and dying for a cause; do something hideous to someone, and if they’re still kicking, watch how they come after you. No designer contacts give you that look in the eyes.

Revenge is one of the primary colors in the 1arvel Comics palette. h’s what motivated Spider- Man and Daredevil to become super heroes, what turned Doctor Doom to aspirations of global domination, what makes a thousand heinous acts understandable, if not necessarily forgivable.

Marvel has few primary-color characters left. Its universe is full of Burnt Umber and Raw Sienna characters, characters whose lives now exhibit shades of gray after years of being black and white and red all over. The Punisher is one of the holdouts.

The Punisher’s setup is blood simple. His motivation is obvious: Gangsters murdered his family. His costume is the closest thing costumed super heroes get to a pair of jeans and a T-shirt:
Basic black adorned with a skull with what look like cartridges for teeth. No mask; the Punisher wants people to know who he is. His methods are as straightforward as a Top Fuel dragster: Floor it to the finish line, then hit the chute if you feel like it.

Without benefit of a backstory, the Punisher appeared in February 1974 as — what else a hired killer. Amazing Spiderman writer Gerry Conway came up with the character a professional hit man who only kills the deserving and leaves the undeserving alone, for the time being. (Conway wanted to call him the Assassin, hut Stan Lee nixed that idea right quick.) The Jackal, a Green Goblin lookalike with half the endearing character flaws, paid his way into Amazing Spider-Man #129. [he Punisher is hired to off Spider-Man of course, and it’s a setup job, of course, and of course Spidey is able to stave of the Punisher long enough to show him the setup and save his red-and-blue hide, but how else is a guy like the Punisher going to break into the comics? It’s tough to start a vigilante franchise from scratch.

It would be nice to say this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but the Punisher doesn’t have friends. And don’t use the word nice around him, either. It’s not that the Punisher has a problem with Spider-Man’s crime-fighting, but does the web- slinger have to be so flippant about it? And from Spidey’s standpoint, this guy made one heck of a negative first impress ion. “Hi, I’m Frank Castle, and I II be your executioner tonight? No wonder there is more than a little uneasiness between the two. They work together when they have to, which is more than can be said of the Punisher and Daredevil. To the Punisher, Daredevil is a goody two-shoes who is way too soft on criminals because he doesn’t kill them. To Daredevil, the Punisher is a ruthless vigilante (true enough) who has no respect for the law (also true). It is all in the inflection.
Anyway, it’s telling that the Punisher eventually got his own comic, while the Jackal makes most of his appearances in the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet.

The Punisher is minimalist comic-making, right down to the backstory: Vietnam vet Frank Castle sees his family murdered in the crossfire of a Mafia shootout. Something snaps; the rest of his life is dedicated to tracking down not only the perps,  but their bosses. And their friends. And their enemies. And the people on their Christmas-card list. And the guy who changes their oil. And on and on.

Minimalism extends to the Punisher’s powers: He has none, other than the kind any kid can get by walking into his nearest armed-forces recruiting office and telling the shave tail behind the desk, “Give mc the commando package. With extra cheese.” Maybe you could argue that he has the power to ever-so-slightly deflect bullets that look like they’re headed straight for him, but that’s a tough sell. Where’s your proof?

What you can prove about Frank Castle is he’s tough and brave. The service record tells no lies. He’s literally been through the wars, having undergone SEAL (Sea Air Land) training. UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) training and LRPA (long Range Patrol) training as well as the kind of training you can only get in the Vietnamese jungles, where every soft spot in the path has a bed of razor- sharp bamboo spikes underneath. After five years in Vietnam, he made Marine Corps captains winning two Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars and four Purple Hearts (so yes Virginia. sometimes the bullets do hit home). After Vietnam, he ran special-training missions for Marine commandos in the upper New York State area, and it was on a day o from his gig in the Adirondacks that tragedy struck. Frank Castle deserted from the Marines the next day, just before he was to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

A good soldier like Frank Castle never goes into battle unprepared. At any given moment, he might be packing an M 16: a soaped-up Sterling Mark 69mm, 34-round clip-fed, semi-automatic rifle; a 14-round, 9mm Browning Llama automatic pistol; a .45-caliber automatic frame with barrels that can handle 9mm or .223-caliber ammunition; a Smith and Wesson .357 revolver; a l3iach i speed—draw—bolstered Browning pistol; M26 fragmentation grenades; concussion grenades; small, custom-designed tear-gas grenades secured in pouches in the shoulders of his uniform; and either a Gerber Mark 11 Combat Knife or a Marine Combat Knife. That’s just what he packs for a one—fighter. Special operations get special weapons.

With the Punisher, that last paragraph is a big deal because so much of what he is depends on what he’s toting at any given moment. After an era of comic books where the weapon carried was more likely to be a product of Chase & Sanborn than Smith & Wesson, the Punisher brought the sort of fanatical realism usually displayed by Civil War re-creationists.

The news media named him the Punisher — though for a soldier like Frank Castle doing his duty, any sort of moniker beyond “soldier” is superfluous. His career as a vigilante began with a little TCB on the “family” of Bruno Costa, the gang that whacked the Punisher’s family. After that, the hits just kept on coming.

The deal with the Punisher that’s never really reconciled is what do you do with the guy ii you’re the NYPDI the FBI or Interpol? He kills people; he usually kills guilty people, true, but it’s not like it’s self-defense. The Punisher will take ‘cm any way he can get em — and if they are nor firing at him, so much the better. If a rival gang has a bunch of them imprisoned in a cage, he’ll pick up the cage with a forklift and dump it in the East River. Good old American ingenuity. Whatever gets the job done.

The official line is that the Punisher has to be put away, and it has happened. He had a chance to rub our the arresting officer, but didn’t. For his good deed, he was sent up to Ryker’s Island, where he was fed a diet of psychogenic drugs by the gang leader Jigsaw. The drugs didn’t affect Castle when he was in prison — how’s a psychogenic drug going to make prison seem like anything but prison — but when the Punisher escaped, the drugs slowly turned him into an amplified version of his former self such that he was shooting up litterbugs. That level oi vigilante justice was a little too hot for the boys in blue, who captured him, ran him through detox and sent him back in the game. In the words uttered by the Punisher in a recent Garth Ennis-penned issue, “See a Few familiar faces, break a few familiar necks.” Just like high-school reunion.

Make no mistake: The Punisher doesn’t just talk tough. He puts his words into action. If dead bodies were dollars, you could buy a nice SUV off the body count in an average issue of’ Punisher. That makes it wholly unsuitable for kids. That also makes it unsuitable for fans of wise-cracking superpower heroes. The Punisher takes Spider-Man to school for not taking this stuff seriously. This is about killing people, shedding blood, exacting revenge in the most basic way. This is not comic-book violence, this comic book seems to say. This is real as it gets.

As a member of the second or third generation of Marvel characters, the Punisher reflects the attitudes of his creators — who in turn were influenced by what they read, which included the comics created by Stan Lee and the Marvel Bullpen, as well as outside efforts like the Executioner (a pulp-fiction hero who debuted in 1969, and just happens to he a Vietnam vet who sees his family murdered and becomes a vigilante) and the ‘40s vigilante super hero, the Hangman. It’s like the White Stripes, who were influenced by the Replacements who were influenced by the Who were influenced by Muddy Waters who was influenced by Robert Johnson. It’s Like antifreeze filtered through bread. Thu end product has a kick, all right, but it’s not the product you starred with.

Because the Punisher didn’t have to pussyfoot through the early ‘60s those timid days that required him to take on a sidekick, meet his love interest, have a chance encounter with a radioactive Frisbee and battle the Sub-Mariner he could hit the ground running. ..or shooting, in his case. The rigid ‘50s-era Comics Code that guided those creators had weakened considerably by the ‘70s, and that made it okay to show a good guy motivated solely by revenge and more than willing to operate outside the law.

Okay to show, hut not okay to reward with his own book. After his 1 974 debut the Punisher had 40 miles of bad road to navigate and a lot of guest appearances to make before he could he safely given his own hook. In the ‘70s, he did time in Amazing Spider-Alan, making an appearance every other year or so through the end of the decade, not counting an origin story in April 1975’s Marvel Preview #2 magazine. In the early ‘80s, he made a couple of memorable appearances in Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and they helped smooth the Punisher’s way a little.

Actually, the public and nor strictly the comic- buying public, did the most to grease the Punisher’s tracks. They had a change in attitude. Specifically, they got scared. They began to feel that crime was rampant and criminals were going unpunished, and something had to be done about it. (Never mind that they were wrong, and crime rates were really going down.) Well, what do you do when had deeds go unpunished? You call in the Punisher. And that’s precisely what happened.

In 1986, writer Steven Grant and artist Mike Zeck created a five-issue mini-series that pretty much set the Punishers M.O. The stories that followed saw him use mob money to finance his adventures and his arsenal, and gave him an intelligence aide/computer hacker named Microchip. That was all Frank Castle needed to wipe out more Sopranos than laryngitis.

The mini-series was such a hit that the Punisher was starring in his own monthly book by 1987. The next year, a second monthly,  Punisher War Journal, was added, followed by the magazine-style Punisher Magazine in 1989 and Punisher War Zone in 1992. ‘The release of the first Punisher movie in 1989 also spawned a comic-hook adaptation. In five short years, the Punisher went from a veteran character not deemed strong enough to carry a book to a character capable of carrying three hooks and a magazine. There haven’t been many comic-book turnarounds more remarkable than that.

In addition to his own titles the Punisher kept up a grueling schedule of guest appearances in any comic that mattered and many that didn’t. He crossed over with Batman, and took on Wolverine and the Black Widow. You can also find him shooting up the scenery in such dubious uses of pulpwood as Alf,  Power Pack, Quasar, Get Kraven, What The ...? and Fred Hembeck — and those are the semi-serious appearances. As you might expect with a popular character who plays it so straight the Punisher’s been parodied a lot. The forgettable fuzzy-animal quasi-hero Boris the Bear donned the skull-and-cartridges, as did everyone’s favorite aardvark, Dave Sim’s Cerebus — but the best of the send ups may be the Punisher-Archie crossover.

That’s right — the Punisher meets Archie. A had guy who looks just like Archie heads toward Riverdale, and the Punisher winds up at a Riverdale High dance with his sights set on Archie Andrews.

If the plot line seems convoluted, and the characters seem utterly incompatible, you’re getting it. The comic works a lot worse as a regular parody than it does like this, as a parody of a parody — that is, a comic that throws two incompatible characters together on purpose because it knows they’re incompatible and it’s trying to point out how silly some of these crossovers can be. Read Punisher-Archie before you read Batman-Spawn and see which one seems truly ludicrous to you.

As fast as the Punisher rose to the top of the Marvel heap, he was cast off in favor of deeper heroes and mutants with plots. By July 1995, all Punisher monthlies were history. He didn’t go away — he couldn’t — but he was oil the A—list.

That didn’t last long. The gritty, Steven Seagal-movie comic genre the Punisher helped create came back quickly with a psychological twist thanks to writers like Garth Ennis (Hellblazer). The Punisher came back to stay in 2000 as part of the Marvel Knights lineup.

The creative team for much of the new Punisher’s run is the absolute Dream Team of revenge-motivated heroes. Writer Garth Ennis fuses his Belfast roots with The Outlaw Jasey Wales, and uses the Punisher to express his unremitting vision of revenge and redemption.

Ennis has the chops to do it. After a Iate-’80s run on the influential (as a comic, not a movie) Judge Dredd, Ennis hit the big time with the controversial Hellblazer and the even more controversial Preacher. Mix in Ennis’ war-story comics like Unknown Solider and Enemy Ace, and a series of realistic accounts called War Story, and you have someone uncommonly equipped to he1 in Punisher.

Artist Steve Dillon has been with Ennis every’ step of the way and debuted as a writer with Punisher #7. Artist Darick Robertson — created the unforgettable look of cynical, abrasive reporter Spider Jerusalem for Warren Ellis’ unforgettably nasty Transmetropolitan — stepped in for a few issues and presented perhaps the most haunting version of Wolverine ever seen in comics.

Like many Europeans, Ennis loves the wild West. It’s obvious in between the mayhem, the parched madness and the swipes at organized religion in Preacher, and it’s very obvious in the Punisher’s recent swing through Texas. If you think Frank Castle only does his best work in Hell’s Kitchen warehouses or Amazonian jungles. you haven’t seen him at work in the Ione Star State. Yeah, that basic black gets pretty hot. But when you’ve got a job to do, the air conditioning can wait.

The late, great Warren Zevon wrote a song about Roland the Headless Thompson Gun ties; which wound down with these words: “The eternal Thompson gunner/ Still roamin’’ through the night
/ Now it’s ten years later, and he still keeps up the fight / In Ireland, in Lebanon, in Palestine and Berkeley.” That’s the Punisher: still roamin’ through the night, still keepin’ up the fights his face lit in the glow of a red-hot M16. it’s an image that’s far from beatific but impossible to forget.

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