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Secret Origins: The Punisher

VO: Dan Paradis
Written by Michael Wynands This one-man army is a criminal’s worst nightmare. Welcome to WatchMojo’s “Secret Origins, the series that goes beyond the comic book page to explore a character’s origins, their creation, and their place in comic book history. In this installment, we will be exploring the Secret Origins of the vigilante known as the Punisher.
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This one-man army is a criminal’s worst nightmare. Welcome to WatchMojo’s “Secret Origins, the series that goes beyond the comic book page to explore a character’s origins, their creation, and their place in comic book history. In this installment, we will be exploring the Secret Origins of the vigilante known as the Punisher.

It was the early 1970s: the Vietnam War was coming to a close, the video game Pong had become a massive success and Spider-Man’s popularity was in full swing. By 1972, the web-head - who had been introduced a decade earlier in 1962 - had not one but two ongoing series to his name. For Gerry Conway, writer of “The Amazing Spider-Man, that meant a constant string of villains for Peter Parker to overcome.

Wanting to introduce a character with a twist, Conway conceived of this unmasked man who, despite initially coming across as a villain, would later be revealed to have good intentions - albeit a wildly different ethical code from Spidey. Conway provided a rough sketch - which included a small skull insignia - to Art Director John Romita Sr., who finalized the Punisher’s look, enlarging the now-iconic skull to cover most of the character’s torso.

As then Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee tells it, the initial working name for this edgy addition to Spidey’s world was “The Assassin,” but he knew that such an explicitly violent name would never fly with censors. According to Lee, he was the one who actually came up with the name “The Punisher” as an alternative, recycling the moniker of the throwaway robotic henchman of Galactus from a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four.

Debuting in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in 1974, the Punisher proved a surprising hit with readers. Even Conway admitted to being taken aback by the response the character received. He’d been crafted as a B or C-List character. The Punisher’s gray area position within the black and white moral dichotomy of hero vs. villain that defined comic book storytelling at the time made him a refreshingly nuanced figure. By crafting an ethically complex and psychologically ambitious vigilante, Conway had created a character that readers wanted to see more of. He soon earned his own main story in Marvel Preview and Marvel Action, and appeared in a number of other popular series in the coming years.

In his Spider-Man appearance, the Punisher’s dark past was hinted at, but it wasn’t fleshed out until the Punisher was given center stage in Marvel Preview #2. Laid out before us was the truly tragic tale of Frank Castle, born Francis Castiglione, a military and family man whose entire world was turned upside down in a single day. Castle was a highly decorated and skilled soldier who served his country for years, first as a marine and then as a member of Special Ops. Back home, he had a wife, Maria, with whom he was happily married and had two kids. On a sunny day in Central Park, he and his family were witness to a murder, and the mobsters responsible, fearing witnesses, attempted to kill the Castiglione’s in cold blood. They succeeded with one exception - the deadliest member of the family survived. When the legal system failed to bring the criminals to justice, Frank would eventually channel his depression and loss into quest for revenge. The Punisher was born.

Conway had underestimated his own creation, and unfortunately, despite the Punisher’s successful guest appearances, that’s a mistake Marvel continued to make for year. He was a killer being cast as the hero, and that was enough for the editors to avoid giving him the spotlight. For years, writer Steven Grant had been pushing for The Punisher to get his own series in one form or another. When his Punisher miniseries was finally green-lit in 1984, it was still allegedly only achieved with great resistance from management. In 1986, when the five issue miniseries ran, it did so with very little promotion, but despite the odds, it became a huge success.

The Punisher’s time had finally come. It was the 1980s and crime was up, crack cocaine use had reached epidemic proportions, and - particularly in major cities like New York - people felt generally unsafe. America was getting tough on crime, and the Punisher’s brand of justice suddenly seemed significantly less hard to swallow. The year after his miniseries, the Punisher was given his first ongoing title. By the early 1990s, he had three of them going and had become a flagship character. It was the dark and gritty era of comic books and Frank Castle was both a pioneer and model to be imitated.

Unfortunately, by 1995, the onslaught of growling, gun-totting anti-heroes had saturated the market, turning what had once made the Punisher so unique into a cliché. That year, he had all three of his series unceremoniously cancelled amidst dwindling sales. Marvel attempted to freshen up the character in the second half of the decade, but seeing the Punisher join the mafia or come back from the dead as an angelic spirit to fight supernatural beings didn’t resonate with readers for… well, obvious reasons.

The Punisher would spend five years searching for a new identity before his own guardian angel would back to resurrect him properly. And as it turns out, the Punisher didn’t need a reboot, he just needed to push further into the same direction that first made him standout. In 2000, Garth Ennis, alongside artist Steve Dillon returned the Punisher to his roots with a 12 issue miniseries. Much like the miniseries that kicked off this comic book character’s initial popularity, this one earned Castle an ongoing series, which, in various iterations, would span a decade.

What Ennis and Dillon did with the Punisher was embrace him for what he was - a killer who had not only witnessed horrors at the hands of criminals, but committed horrific acts himself in his quest for justice. Under the Marvel Knights and later MAX imprints, this creative team finally unleashed the real Punisher upon the world. They ignored questions of good taste, censorship and young readers, instead giving their public an honest look at what sort of man Frank Castle was when not held back by prudent editorial mandates. He’s not a hero… he’s psychologically damaged and ruthless, but that makes him one hell of a captivating protagonist.

Yes, Frank would go on to have another brush with the supernatural, but thankfully, his stint as Frankencastle was always intended as a short-lived tangential adventure.

Over the course of his decades long history, Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, has had his ups and downs, but he has endured because there’s no other character quite like him. Every crime fighter has a backstory, often a tragic one, but few have allowed that personal tragedy to lead them into such dark places. A character study of obsession and the single-minded pursuit of an ideal, the Punisher is more than an anti-hero, he’s a dark portrait of what loss can do a person.

It’s taken a long time for filmmakers to figure out what Garth Ennis did: for the Punisher to be a success, he needs to be unleashed. After some cinematic missteps, it seems that Netflix has finally done for the Punisher onscreen what the MAX line did for him in comics - allowing him to shine in all his damaged glory.
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