Saturday, November 15, 2014


I was there for the birth of the Punisher or, at least, some parts of it. I might not have been there at the precise moment when Gerry Conway and John Romita smacked Frank Castle’s butt to encourage his first breath - I’m amazed the kid didn’t shoot them on the spot - but I saw some of the post-birth cleaning up before the character,  swaddled in black leather, was put into Papa Gerry’s arms and, from there, introduced to the Marvel Universe in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 [February, 1974].

It would have been sometime in mid-1973 or so. I was working in the Marvel Comics offices on the British weeklies and other projects.I walked into John’s office and saw him tinkering with a drawing of the Punisher.

Gerry had come up with the idea and design of the new  character he originally called the Assassin before editor-in-chief Roy Thomas suggested usurping the name of the robot used by Galactus several years earlier. Gerry’s original design had a smallish skull’s head on his breast, which John expanded until it took up the whole front of the Punisher’s shirt. Ross Andru would be the first to draw the Punisher in an actual comic book.

When I walked into John’s office, he was drawing Frank’s face. At his side was one of the early Mack Bolan novels by Don Pendleton. The paperback action series about the Vietnam-era Green Beret who came home to the murder-suicide of his father and sister and took up arms against the Mafia, who, with good reason, he blamed for the killings. The series was the inspiration for the Punisher and the lead character’s rugged good looks likewise inspired the features of the Punisher.

I was intrigued by that Mack Bolan paperback, which also inspired several similar adventure series. The proliferation of such heroes  was not unlike the growth of the pulp-magazine heroes four decades prior. I bought the first several Bolan books and, over a weekend,read them obsessively. I would read well over a hundred of them in the ensuing years before marriage, parenthood, job responsibilities and, ultimately, the repetitious nature of the books brought an end to my obsession.

I liked the Punisher, this new not-quite-hero, from the start, but he was always an awkward fit for the Marvel Universe. However much his targets might have deserved killing, he was a murderer in the eyes of the law. Every time the heroes worked with him or let him escape, it diminished those heroes. Whenever they would attempt to capture him and he escaped despite of their powers, it diminished them. The character regularly stretched the willing suspension of disbelief so necessary to super-hero comics. Add the tendencies of some writers to portray the Punisher as a lunatic or monster...and Frank Castle would become even more of an uneasy travelers through the fantastical Marvel Universe.

The dubious morality of a “hero” who kills aside, the Punisher has always worked best for me when furthest away from the rest of the Marvel Universe. When you throw in the fantastic, you get bat-shit insanity like the Punisher teaming up with the Avengers or becoming some sort of heavenly hitman or even getting dismembered and being revived as a “Frankencastle” monster. Shy of being cut into pieces, he’s lost a finger here and an eye there, but those injuries have been either forgotten or took place in some alternate continuity.It gets too confusing for me and even Wikipedia isn’t of much help in sussing it all out.

This brings us to the newest series: The Punisher by writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Mitch Gerads.  Edmondson first showed up a few years ago with comic books published by Image. Gerads, who seems to be another relative comics newcomer, worked on some of those comics with Edmondson. Their respective styles fit the Punisher well, so I have no complaints in that regard.


Having read the first 11 issues of this new series [$3.99 each], I liked where it started. Castle is tracking the Dos Soles drug gang and ends up in Los Angeles. It’s a good idea to keep the Punisher as far away from the New York City super-heroes as possible.

The Punisher action is what one would expect and it works well to a point. Complicating his activities is a government-sanctioned hit squad called - sacrilege - the Howling Commandoes. I’m not a fan of this sort of intrigue/villainy because the evil government routine has become such a cliche. I’m not a fan of it here, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker for me.

The Los Angeles cast includes the owner of a coffee shop and a police officer developing a crush on Frank without realizing who he is. These quiet moments are a nice contrast to the violence.

The Dos Soles get ambitious and bring in a super-weapon. This new series gets less enjoyable after that. With this weapon, which is not a bad idea per se, we also get A.I.M., the Taskmaster, Electro and the Black Widow. Though the Widow is probably one of the very few Marvel heroes who sort of works in the Punisher’s more mundane world, the rest sent the story off the rails for me.

This is what I mean when I say the Punisher is best when he’s not involved with the Marvel Universe. Electro should be able to turn Castle into ashes with ease. When the Punisher has an opportunity to put a rubber bullet into Electro’s eye and kill or, at the very least, maim him, he doesn’t do it. The characters aren’t themselves in this encounter.

The story picks up again when the surviving Dos Santos attack Los Angeles at a time when the Punisher isn’t in town. The city, which had seen crime drop as a result of Frank’s residence, quickly gets worse than it was before he came. Desperate police officers start bending and breaking the law to stem the tide of criminal violence. That’s interesting stuff.

The bottom line? Flawed though it is, The Punisher is a series I’ll keep reading in the hopes that the Marvel Universe will again fade into its distant background. Whether you would enjoy it or not will likely depend on how you prefer your Frank Castle. At least Frank isn’t slaughtering in the name of God or worrying about whether or not his body-part stitches will come undone.

Regular blogging will resume on December 1..

© 2014 Tony Isabella


  1. It's interesting to read what you say about the origin of the Punisher's name. I read elsewhere that the creators had difficulty coming up with a name and, while talking to Stan Lee about the character, he asked them "What does he do?" "Punishes criminals" was their reply. "Then he's the Punisher" replied Stan. Interestingly, Jack Kirby apparently claimed to have created the Punisher. When asked by a confused listener whether he meant the Galactus 'robot' or Frank Castle, he replied in favour of the latter. I forget the exact sources, but these claims are definitely out there.

  2. Kirby's alleged claim as to having created the Punisher (Frank Castle) is sheer nonsense, though I have no doubt he was often egged on by anti-Marvel and anti-Stan "fans" to make such outrageous statements. Kirby left Marvel years earlier and was still about three years away from returning at the time Castle was created. And I stand by my report that it was Thomas who suggested the name "Punisher," knowing, as he would, that the name had been used for a minor character several years prior.

  3. Well, I'd assume you're likely to know better than most people, but it does make me wonder how these other claims arise. It may well have been in one of John Morrow's mags that I read about the name - if I ever find out I'll let you know.. As for Jack's alleged claim that he had created The Punisher, perhaps the teller was merely pointing out how confused Jack is reported to have become in his later years. Mark Evanier says that Kirby once claimed to have created Superman. Admittedly, he goes on to explain that Jack didn't mean to say he had created the character, but that was the way it came out when he spoke.