On the Punisher

This is an archive of what I have written on the Punisher from the very first to the most recent. For what ever reason, the hyperlinks do not work and the written titles are not italicized or in bold. The pictures for the comic reviews also do not appear.  The headers, however, link to the original posts if you would like to see them.

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Punisher Comics Review 5

Season two of Daredevil heralded the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. Soon, the character will get his own series on Netflix and it remains to be seen if Bernthal can keep up the momentum. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, I will dedicate a new series to covering my favorite Punisher books.

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Up is Down and Black is White (2005)
Garth Ennis
Leandro Fernandez

Trying to emotionally shake Frank Castle is like beating on a brick wall with a whiffle bat. The man is best described as a void, a walking abyss whose singular purpose is to bring death to those that have done wrong. If he did not have his own villains, the Marvel Pantheon of Heroes would have no one left to fight. The closest anyone has ever gotten to penetrate Frank’s black exterior was Nicky Cavella in the worst way possible.

After recovering from his wounds suffered the last time he tried to kill Castle, Nicky returns home to a council of gangsters trying to salvage what is left of their business. Soldiers promoted to Capo have no clue what they are doing and call upon Cavella for advice. His solution: kill the Punisher. Having lost everything to the infamous vigilante the council is more than reluctant to devote their diminished resources to such a fruitless endeavor.

Nevertheless, they vote on the proposal while Nicky awaits their answer. Sending his partner Teresa, the sister of Pittsy to dispose of any dissenting voices, Cavella gets the gangsters to play along. In the same night Nicky and Teresa travel to the graveyard where Frank’s family is buried, exhume their skeletons, and urinate on the bones. The act is caught on camera and the footage sent to the media. At a diner the desecration is shown on television where Castle eats dinner.

Rather than bury the bodies, the NYPD confiscates the corpses as evidence in an ongoing investigation. Frank reacts to this development by travelling around town with a light machine gun and mopping up three criminal establishments in a single night. While inflicting near maximum casualties, he leaves one alive to tell the first responders to bury his family. If they do not, then he will keep going.

Watching his work play out, Cavella is visited by an old acquaintance named Rawlins, the same Rawlins that organized the failed terror attack on Moscow back in Mother Russia. The generals that planned the operation sent him to take out Castle for fear he knows too much. Seeing Nicky’s scheme as an opportunity, Rawlins convinces him to join forces via blackmail and appealing to Cavella’s repressed homosexuality.

With the mounting body count, the NYPD gives in and agrees to bury Frank’s family. Castle decides to go after Nicky, but a part of him knows it is a trap. However, he does not care about doing the deed with the same skill that made him such a formidable vigilante. A part of him, a rage greater than he had ever felt, wants to kill Cavella regardless of the danger.

Perched on a rooftop overlooking Nicky sitting outside a café, Rawlins stares through the scope of a rifle as Frank pulls up with shotgun. Before the killing blow could be struck, Cavella is hit instead. Behind the trigger stands Kathryn O’Brien, one of the CIA operatives that worked for Bethell from In the Beginning. She lays covering fire, buying her enough time to capture Rawlins and escape with Castle.

Meeting at the home of William Roth, another of Bethell’s operatives that tried to capture Frank, O’Brien interrogates Rawlins. He was one of her husbands who left her to a dreadful fate on a mission in Kabul. Rawlins brings up the incident and O’Brien leaves him alone with Castle. Meanwhile, Nicky and Teresa come upon Roth’s residence after licking their wounds. Cavella wants to wait for back up, but Teresa has a bloodlust that is exacerbated when Nicky turns down her advances.

After removing one of Rawlins’ eyes, Frank takes a breather with O’Brien. It is not long before the two are in bed together. She confesses that despite her years of wet work, she sees him as a good man. Watching Castle approach Cavella out in the open inspired her to act, fearing he was going to get himself killed. They lay with each other one last time before Frank takes a knife in the chest from Teresa. A fight ensues that leaves both him and O’Brien bloody. Castle gains the upper hand and gives her space to empty a whole pistol clip into Teresa’s face.

Before going their separate ways, Frank and O’Brien get Rawlins to confess to the Moscow terror attack among other operations. With the footage Castle will use it as evidence to go after the generals while O’Brien will use it to clear her name. On the way out, however, they stumble upon Cavella all by his lonesome trying to make a move.

After taking a little boy hostage, Frank calls him a coward who gets other people to do the killing and dying. Nicky gives in and lets the boy go, realizing his psychopath persona is a facade. O’Brien rushes back inside to warn Roth of the oncoming police and finds Rawlins gone. The story ends with Castle walking Cavella into the woods and shooting him in the stomach, saying he will die slowly from blood poisoning.

Needless to say there is a lot going on in Up is Down and Black is White. There was a lot I had leave out of the summary because we would have been here all day. With the characters working in parallel, we get Nicky’s backstory where he killed his own family and became the victim of sex abuse by his aunt. O’Brien is also more involved where she is accused of murder while in prison and escapes to New York City. Then there is Rawlins, who is connected to O’Brien and Nicky.

On top of that there is Castle’s desire for suicide that comes out of nowhere. While on his rampage, he has a reoccurring dream of all the scum dead at his feet as the innocents watch from the sidelines. Among the corpses is Frank’s family. He looks to the innocents and says, “If my world ends, so does yours,” before turning his gun on them. And after everyone is dead, his wife Maria tells him “We are still dead” before the dream ends.

It is an interesting concept that furthers Castle’s complexity. Nicky was right to target his family’s grave because that is where it all started. That was the last time the world appeared normal and once they were gone, Frank became the void. But Cavella’s simple provocation made Castle realize that there was no point. His family is still dead and watching Nicky piss on their corpses showed a faint glimmer of reality that he had been denying. No matter how many people he killed, nothing was going to change that they were gone forever.

O’Brien is very similar in this case. In the latter years of her life she became embroiled in a world not unlike Frank’s. In the nihilistic underbelly of wet work she became used to the darkness and remains content. Even after what happened to her in Kabul, she did not quit and brushed it off as another part of the job. Her story, though not as prominent, runs in tandem with Castle’s whereas she sees him as a genuinely good person despite what they have in common. The title Up is Down and Black is White is how they see the world and explains why they are the way they are.

Leonardo Fernandez returns with his pencils following Kitchen Irish. It goes to show that a having a competent colorist can make all the difference in the world because this is a decisive improvement. Every panel is rich in detail from the gruesome to the beautiful. The guns are accurate, the characters’ expressions full of life, and the scenes perfectly realized.

Though one of my favorite MAX books, Up is Down and Black is White is difficult to recommend if you have not read the last three books. It builds upon what was established beforehand while adding more details that have yet to come. If you are as big a fan as I, you will have no problem understanding what is going on. Otherwise, get caught up before you jump in.

Punisher Comics Review 4

Season two of Daredevil heralds the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, I will dedicate a new series of posts to covering my favorite Punisher books.

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Mother Russia (2005)
Garth Ennis
Dougie Braithwaite

Punisher is the antithesis of the action hero. He is not handsome, he does not use one-liners, and his personality pure nihilism. Frank Castle is what happens when John Matrix experiences psychological trauma and becomes a creature of instinct whose sole motivation is to kill criminals. He does not care about anything except his purpose and coasts through life looking for people to put his bullets in. Mother Russia, however, explores how Frank would fare as an action hero.

After a drug pusher who dabbles in child prostitution gets back on the streets, Frank pays him and a dozen bodyguards a visit. After rearranging the pusher’s face with a shotgun, Castle steps out back before the bodyguards rush inside to find the oven gas turned up and a grenade. Finishing off the survivors retreating from the burning house, Colonel Nick Fury greets Frank outside, looking to talk business. Meeting at a local bar, he offers Castle access to national criminal databases in exchange for a favor. Frank accepts and is flown to an Air Force base.

Castle’s mission is to infiltrate a missile silo and exfiltrate with Galina Stenkov, the daughter of a Russian scientist who developed a virus called Barbarossa. After failing to defect to America, he injected Galina with the virus and the antidote before he was killed. The virus will remain active within the girl for 48 hours and the government wants a sample. While Frank would have the mission well in hand, he is not going alone. The cabal of generals running the show is adamant about sending their man Vanheim from Delta Force as a partner.

After touching down in the frozen wastes, Castle and Vanheim acquire uniforms from soldiers in the local town and make their way to the silo. A few well-placed shots and burst arteries get the two inside before finding Galina in a laboratory. Everything seems fine as they make their way out when Vanheim stumbles upon some idle Russian soldiers and jumps the gun, alerting the whole area to their presence.

When they retreat underground and fortify their position, the Russian military is notified of the attack. In command of the troops is General Zakharov, an infamous Cold War officer known as the Man of Stone. While his subordinates are convinced the attack is the work of terrorists, Zakharov thinks there is more than meets the eye.

The Man of Stone spares no expense in trying to get in, sending a complement of troops to the facility. While forming up outside the elevator leading to the underground, Frank comes up with an RPG on his shoulder and a pair of machine guns. Taking out a tank he charges into the fray, spraying everyone not him. Mounting the DShK atop the wrecked tank, Castle lays into the remaining soldiers before the weapon jams, and he makes for the exit.

The heavy loses do not faze Zakharov when he tries to divine the ethnicity of Frank from the survivors. When their testimonies are not enough, the Man of Stone sends more men into the silo through the elevator shaft. While cutting down dozens of repelling soldiers and Vanheim tries to find an exit, Frank is careful to keep Galina away from the carnage. He gives her a file with nuclear go-codes to read and gets her ice cream so she does not leave the safety of the room.

Unbeknownst to Castle, Zakharov sent his silent confidant the Mongolian. The cunning mute sneaks into the silo and makes quick work of Vanheim before taking Galina hostage. Frank rushes to her cries and sees the Mongolian ready to land a killing blow. The two engage in a fierce melee with the mute gaining the upper hand. In the delirium between life and death, Castle sees his little girl holding her bleeding gut as she cries for him. The thought of failing once again inspires him to rise and continue the fight with renewed focus. The Mongolian comes in for a kick, but Frank grabs his ankle, and goes for the kill.

Meanwhile on the outskirts of Moscow, a hijacked passenger plane is shot down and the generals back in the States congratulate themselves. The room goes quiet when Fury walks in demanding an explanation. When putting together the Barbarossa mission, they were worried a US operation in Russia would cause an international incident if exposed. To counteract the possibility, the generals coordinated with a CIA wet works operator named Rawlins to organize a terrorist strike on Moscow as a distraction.

Fury was not pleased by the notion he was involved in a mission that killed hundreds of innocent people. With a cool stoicism he asks for the individual responsible for organizing the ruse and the generals were quick to oblige. The officers make way as Fury approaches the man and starts beating him with his belt. Reducing him to a bloody shaking mess, Fury chews out the rest of the generals for their stupidity before walking off, hoping Castle will find a way out.

With Galina safe and Vanheim still unconscious from the Mongolian, Frank makes for the hallway swarming with soldiers. In the midst of slaughter, Vanheim wakes up and pulls a pair of syringes from his pocket. When Castle returns he finds him trying to inject Galina with a yellow substance and subdues him. After a beating Vanheim confesses that the generals ordered him to kill Galina and extract Barbarossa as a last resort. Ever loyal to his morals, Frank is unwilling to sacrifice an innocent and comes up with a new plan.

Zakharov remains steadfast in his suspicion that Americans are behind the attack on the silo when his staff informs him of a nuclear launch in progress. Major cities are targeted and they receive a message telling Zakharov to pull out his forces or Russia will burn. While his subordinates panic, the Man of Stone stays calm and tells them to do likewise. When an officer disobeys and tries to retaliate, Zakharov executes him on the spot. Once the missile goes airborne and makes for Moscow, it suddenly deactivates midflight, and from its bowels Castle, Galina, and Vanheim jump out with parachutes.

The three of them make landfall in a blizzard with Vanheim losing his gear on the way down. When they meet, the two draw straws to see who will continue to a Navy submarine on the coast with the one available coat. Galina tucked close to his chest, Frank marches ten miles through the snow as Vanheim trudges behind until death.

Back in the States Castle is confronted by the generals. On the way from Russia, he would not let the doctors touch Galina and the Barbarossa in her body deteriorated. When Frank tries to leave, one general orders his men to stop him and take the girl. Surrounded by soldiers, Fury comes to his side, and the men back off. Just before leaving, Galina begs Castle to take her with him, but he knows he cannot take care of anyone, and she concedes to go with Fury.

Mother Russia is by far my favorite book of the MAX series. It is full of action, violence, and tons of awesome stuff. I loved this book so much, I went over my limit of photos to show you how great it is. The best part was Nick Fury in the only incarnation that matters. If black Fury is Chuck Connors, then white Fury is a hard drinking whore-mongering Clint Eastwood. He swears, he is quick to anger, and does not care about your feelings. The panel of Fury beating the tar out of that general and his dialog throughout is just delightful.

I would go so far as to say he totally outshines Frank, who fits right into the role of an action hero. Usually his nihilism and lack of feeling would make him unfit for the likes of John Matrix and John Rambo, but Castle’s interactions with Galina penetrate his blackened exterior. His fatherly aspects return when he keeps her away from the violence and shields her from the carnage left in his wake. By betraying his cold personality in the presence of Galina, Frank embraces the persona of a hero like he was born to.

For any Punisher fan, Mother Russia is an essential read. Garth Ennis really lets loose while Dougie Braithwaite’s expressive art realizes his vision in beautiful fashion. If there is any book in the MAX series you must have, Mother Russia is without question the best you can hope for.

 

Editorial 23: Frank Castle, Ubermensch

I think this was the most fun I ever had writing about the Punisher because I equated his psychology to the Superman concept of Fredrick Nietzche, one of my favorite philosophers. Follow the link below if you are interested.

http://thewriterscohort.com/2016/05/frank-castle-ubermensch/

This is also my pseudo-official first post to the Writer’s Cohort as a contributor. Expect about two posts a month in the future. I will be sure to mention them here as well as on the Facebook page I made for all the writing I do on the internet.

https://www.facebook.com/CTs-Work-870763393046519

Enjoy.

Punisher Comics Review 3

Season two of Daredevil heralds the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, I will dedicate a new series of posts to covering my favorite Punisher books.

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Kitchen Irish (2004)
Garth Ennis
Leandro Fernandez

In the Beginning is a jumping off point for multiple stories Ennis would explore across nine more volumes. Not all of them touch on Frank’s character, but they establish and build upon each arc in pieces. The previous story set up a lot and Kitchen Irish is another that introduces a single portion.

Castle is the kind of man that minds his own business unless a problem gets his attention. While eating in a diner in Hell’s Kitchen, Frank is caught in an explosion from across the street at a pub that kills over a dozen people. As one of the few survivors, he finds himself in the midst of carnage with corpses ripped to shreds and skewered on shards of glass.

A tip from the cops leads Frank to track down the leader of the Westies, a gang of Irish Americans that once ruled the neighborhood, and owners of the pub that was bombed. Perched on a rooftop Castle has his target Tommy Toner in sight, intent on capturing him for information until he is snatched from the street and taken into a van.

Frank discovers there is more to the bombing when he meets Yorkie, an MI6 buddy from Vietnam with his partner Andy. The attack was the work of Finn Cooley, an IRA bomber known for a scarred visage. Britain wants Cooley in the ground and sent Yorkie to do the job. Seeing as how he cannot officially act on foreign soil, Yorkie would operate via proxy and Castle agrees. At the same time, Andy is on the hunt for Finn’s nephew Peter, who killed his father during the Troubles.

It is not long before Frank finds Finn and Peter in a pub. With a shotgun in hand he paints the rustic establishment in shades of brain matter when other gangsters make the mistake of drawing weapons in the company of the Punisher. Finn and company flee through the back door and walk into an ambush by Yorkie and Andy. Peter is left behind while his uncle escapes.

After Castle removes a bullet from Peter’s leg with a butterfly knife, the young terrorist spills the beans. The Westies, amateur pirates called River Rats, a thug named Maginty, and Finn are all connected to Old Man Nesbitt, an ancient gangster that hated everyone. Come his passing, the four parties received a letter calling for an end to crime in Hell’s Kitchen in exchange for his fortune of $10 million. Each received a portion of coordinates to the money and it was Toner that wanted everyone to meet at his pub before Finn tried to kill everyone.

To finish off the four parties at once, Frank calls the Westies thinking the others would follow, and organizes a meet on the deck of the Intrepid. When Toner’s crew led by his wife Brenda arrives along with the River Rats and Maginty’s gang, they come under attack by Yorkie and Andy behind an M60, and Castle firing from a Huey. The groups quickly scatter with Maginty losing his followers and the River Rats reduced to the original brother/sister founders. Finn, arriving just after the slaughter began, had the good sense to stay out of it before pulling Brenda from the drink.

With each gang on the brink of killing each other completely, Maginty and the River Rats meet with Brenda and Finn and come to a compromise. Using their hatred of Nesbitt they decide to share their portion of the coordinates and find it in the bowels of a derelict ship moored in the Hudson. When they head out to pick up the money, Frank is not far behind as he follows them to the location. Not long after entering the ship does Castle and company make their move.

The ensuing firefight turns melee when a grenade drops Frank into the clutches of Finn. The bomber has the upper hand for a moment before Castle tears into Finn’s face with his teeth. Yorkie helps Castle to safety while the gangsters search for Nesbitt’s fortune. When they open a footlocker lying in the water, thinking it contains the money, they find a block of plastic explosives. The ship goes up in flames, leaving Frank and company to swim back to shore. The story ends with Andy getting his revenge by killing Peter.

Kitchen Irish is the one drag of Punisher MAX. It comes off like a typical gangster story and does not add or take away from the character except for the introduction of Yorkie. Other than that, there is nothing particularly interesting enough warrant consideration.

In many ways the story reminds me of Snatch, a British mob comedy where the characters become involved in a diamond heist with gypsies, boxers, fences that want to be real criminals, and actual criminals that dispose of corpses by feeding them to pigs. That movie was fantastic and it did not let the darker elements keep it from having fun. Kitchen Irish tried that, but the humor felt so out of place it reminded me of the Thomas Jane Punisher film.

However, I think Kitchen Irish had a more personal intent for Ennis. The story is heavy with themes of the Troubles, a 30-year conflict in which insurgent groups in Northern Ireland fought against the British occupation, turning the region into a warzone. It was a conflict that went somewhat unnoticed, but not for the people that lived it like Garth Ennis.

I cannot confirm if he actually experienced the violence, but he obviously has articulate opinions of the whole mess. The most telling is a conversation between Yorkie and Peter. The latter is entrenched in the cause of taking Northern Ireland back from the British. The former, however, does not care in the slightest and is very impersonal about the fighting. He did not care about the ideological underpinnings because it was not important. Yorkie tells Peter ideology is worthless when the enemy does not care about why the other side is fighting. He continues on about how the fighting is meaningless and he should give in to peace.

This is Ennis’s typical anti-war sentiment, but here it felt personal. Born and other Punisher stories feature the same themes, yet they seem written from an outsider’s perspective, like he watched a couple documentaries and was convinced of a “war for profit” conspiracy. Kitchen Irish is the exception because it feels genuine and not written by Michael Moore. That being said, the rest of the story is very underwhelming and boring like Fernandez’s art. If you have seen any gangster movie ever, you have read Kitchen Irish. The introduction of the soon-to-be important Yorkie is not worth it.

Punisher Comics Review 2

Season two of Daredevil heralds the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. I think he nailed it in the trailer and I cannot wait till the premiere. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, the days leading up to (and beyond) the premiere will be dedicated to my favorite Punisher books.

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In the Beginning (2004)
Garth Ennis
Lewis Larosa

Where do you go with the Punisher after exploring his origin? How do you make an ordinary vigilante character appear fresh? Each of the Death Wish movies is different, but it is always: Paul Kersey has a good life, criminals kill someone close to him, and he becomes Charles Bronson. The formula gets old and the same applies to the Punisher. Rather than continue a standard vigilante narrative, In the Beginning explores the ramifications of Castle embracing the darkness and what means for him as a person.

30 years after Valley Forge, an old Frank Castle has slaughtered his way to infamy. On the anniversary of his family’s murder he visits their grave before heading out to work. Today is the birthday of a withered mafia don where all the wiseguys in Jersey come to wish him well. Before he could blow out his candles, Castle puts a round in his skull, and lures the wiseguys into a volley of M60 fire.

While Frank wages his war, a CIA outfit watches his every move. Headed by the arrogant and eager Bethell, the team of would-be agents keeps tabs at the behest of “Micro” Leiberman, Castle’s former partner. At the same time, survivors of the don’s birthday plot to finish him. With manpower low, the mafia brings in Nicky Cavella from exile in Boston. With his crew of Pittsy and Ink, the mafia plans to use Nicky’s brutality and cunning to take out Frank.

On the way to his usual rounds, Castle is confronted by Micro before taking six rubber slugs from a shotgun. Regaining consciousness, he finds himself in a dark room at a table, chained to a chair with Micro on the opposite side. He talks about the times they worked together and how he could not continue the war because there was no end to the crime and terror that feed Frank. Micro alludes to the idea that he embraced the darkness in Vietnam, the taste for murder, and he uses his family’s murder as an excuse to keep killing.

Then Mirco appeals to whatever shred of humanity he has left and offers him a place in the CIA to hunt America’s enemies. Bethell specializes in repurposing psychopaths for wet work, including Katherine O’Brien who becomes more important later in the MAX series. Micro believes the job will put Castle to better use before he refuses, saying he is finished working for others. He says people always stab you in the back, citing how the government sent 60,000 kids to die in Vietnam for nothing.

Before Micro could try one last time, Nicky and his crew crashes Bethell’s party. Chaos ensues and in an attempt to rectify the situation, Micro sets Frank loose. After a firefight, Bethell and O’Brien are wounded while Nicky makes it out with a furiously pissed off Pittsy. Castle drives Micro to a weapons cache at a warehouse where Lieberman reveals Bethell gets his money from the heroin trade. Then Frank finds a tracking device in his cellphone and the two prepare for the mafia’s and Bethell’s retaliation.

Taking position on the roof of the warehouse, Castle sprays Wiseguys while Bethell comes in on an attack helicopter, desperate to salvage the situation. Unbeknownst to him, Pittsy sneaks in and knifes Mirco before the two engage in a brutal melee. Pushed to the point of fatigue, Frank takes a risk and tackles him out a window, impaling him on a spiked fence. Even that is not enough when Pittsy pulls himself free and Castle gives him a face full of buckshot.

Unable to convince his prospective recruit, Bethell is thrown out of the helicopter by the pilots under orders from Homeland Security, while Nicky makes his escape. Returning to the warehouse, a dying Micro ponders if Frank is capable of reason. He talks about a story where Castle beat up a neighbor for walking out on his wife after his family’s murder. Micro speculates it means Frank could have been normal until he gave in to the darkness. Micro wonders if he even knows what he is doing now before Castle reaffirms his devotion to the cause and executes him.

Instead of another vigilante story, In the Beginning adds dimension and character to the Punisher. Frank Castle accepted the darkness and was transformed into a creature of pure instinct, driven by a hunger for killing. It confirms the idea that he is a victim of PTSD and the war-torn environment of Vietnam is where he feels normal. It does not shy away from his mental issues, as Castle is a nihilistic psychopath who does not care about anything except murdering criminals. He casually puts down Mirco, his only friend, because he was involved with Bethell, a heroin dealer. If you are evil, he will do whatever it takes to end you, regardless of the implications.

Ennis does a great job of bringing this out in the character’s voice while Lewis Larosa provides the visual with Frank’s pitch-black eyes and scowled face. The gritty, muddy visuals epitomize this dark story of a man that lives in a world of darkness. The language and subject matter is unflinching and the violence brutal and organic. In the Beginning is a perfect follow up to Born and the starting point of what will become one of the best Punisher storylines ever.

 

Punisher Comics Review 1

Season two of Daredevil heralds the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. I think he nailed it in the trailer and I cannot wait till the premiere. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, the days leading up to (and beyond) the premiere will be dedicated to my favorite Punisher books.

* * *

Born (2003)
Garth Ennis
Darick Robertson

There is no denying that war is terrible. People die in the millions (usually), soldiers return home mentally unstable, and countries tear themselves apart. Some argue the Civil War is the worst conflict in American history, but when it comes to cultural stigma and generational trauma, Vietnam makes Antietam look like Grenada.

Thanks to poor planning to solve a problem 20 years in the making (look it up), the Vietnam War was a stain on our country whose effects are still felt today. What could have been a simple resolution turned into a decade long shit-show thanks to General Westmoreland. A generation of young men bore the brunt of this colossal fuck-up in the form of untreated PTSD and an ungrateful American public. And in that chaos and quagmire, Frank Castle was made.

Told from the perspective of a grunt named Stevie, we follow the exploits of Captain Castle in the Marine Corps at Firebase Valley Forge in 1971, a lone outpost watching Cambodia. Its troops include junkies and degenerates who subsist on heroin, VC scalps, and rape. With a failure of a commanding officer at the helm, Castle maintains patrols and keeps the base running. For three tours the hunger for war kept him coming back, entrenched in the world of Special Forces as he rose to notoriety. At Valley Forge, the war winding down, Castle does whatever he can to sate his thirst.

As the days wear on, Stevie struggles to keep his fellow grunt Angel focused and off the needle. Stevie knows if they stick with Castle, his hunger will keep them alive long enough to make it home. He often reminisces about his future after the war, about all the women he will meet, and the sons that will admire him for his service. For all his naiveté, Stevie does not lie to himself about the situation. He knows the war has brought out the worst in men, some of which are in his platoon.

Frank knows Valley Forge is just a few calls away from demolition. With the commanding officer barely sober enough to care, the grunts whither and sleep off their final days as Charlie moves in the bush. Frank can have it either way as long as he gets to fight. When an inspecting general proposes closing the base, Castle makes use of his arrogance and lures him into the fire of a VC sniper.

A part of him believes in the concept of righteousness, using the war to deal out justice from behind a gun. When his soldiers fall out of line, he is quick to reprimand them, sometimes fatally. But when Frank struggles to retain what is left of his humanity, his consciousness gets the better of him, reassuring that he is only lying to himself and he can never return to normality. He will always have a taste for battle and the voice offers a war without end.

Come a heavy storm that prevents the aid of air support, Charlie launches a surprise attack on Valley Forge. With the grunt’s fighting spirit all but gone and the command useless, the only thing standing between the VC and a full take over is Castle and his handful of men. The battle is bloody and long, lasting well into the night as ammunition runs low. Resilient to the end, Stevie struggles to keep Angel in line as he gives into the hopelessness and gets his head blown off.

Stevie then keeps close to Frank, following his lead as Charlie swarms in. In the heat of the moment and by some miracle, air support finally arrives to drop napalm danger-close. Relieved by the incredible save, Stevie is too happy to notice a flaming VC charge him with a bayonet before he gets his wish and boards the jet plane that will take him home forever.

With the odds drifting out of his favor, the voice hounds Frank for an answer. It questions his resolve, making him consider why he kept coming back to Vietnam, to all the blood, guts, and hate that perpetuated a waking nightmare. The voice offers him a way to survive the onslaught and when he is left with only a shovel to fend off Charlie, Frank gives in. Come the morning, helicopters arrive in search of survivors. Among the charred corpses, the only one left standing is Captain Castle.

Born is a seminal work that not only explores the failings of the Vietnam War, but also adds dimension to a character that was a one-note vigilante. Equipped with a wealth of knowledge on the subject of war, Garth Ennis crafted a narrative that puts you in the boots of a soldier playing witness to the evolution of an antihero. The apocalyptic atmosphere would not be complete without Darrick Robertson’s detailed and expressive artwork that brings the story to life. The new Punisher may not use the Vietnam origin, but Born is essential to gain insight into how Frank Castle came to be.

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The original four-issue run is collected in Punisher MAX Complete Collection Vol. 1, including the next two stories I mean to review in the near future.

 

Editorial 10: The Punishers

Adapting superheroes was quite the challenge before the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Back then nobody could get it right and with every attempt came greater failure. In the case of Spider-Man, the Tobey Maguire version was on point until Sony ruined everything with bad direction and even worse writing. Then again, I think Spider-Man is a puss, so his movies can crash and burn for all I care. The same applies to the Fantastic Four who were just fine in their first incarnation before Fox got in the way.

Frank Castle, the Punisher, has undergone a similar evolution over the years. Any opportunity I get to talk about my favorite Marvel character, make fun of the UN, Australia’s government, liberals, or third-wave feminists, I tend to take it whole heartedly at the risk of going on an extended tangent. The character is my most favorite of the Marvel Pantheon and with the advent of his new incarnation on season two of Daredevil, I find it fitting to explore his evolution in film.

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Punisher is a simple character when it comes to concept, but he is complicated in origin and personality. In the Marvel comics continuity there are two versions of Castle: the Vietnam and Modern variant. Each version’s war origins are vehicles to explain Castle’s proficiency with weapons, but it is important to consider the broader implications.

The Vietnam War is one of the most shameful travesties in American history and no one experienced it worse than those who fought it. An ignorant public with no respect exacerbated the various problems soldiers brought home at the war’s end, resulting in suicides, homelessness, and addiction. If Castle fought in Vietnam, it makes sense he would fall into vigilantism. Here is a man who suffered a living nightmare shared by an entire generation, who comes home to his loving wife and two children, only to see them murdered before his eyes, destroying whatever humanity Castle had left.

All war is terrible, but in the context of modern asymmetric conflict, especially in a time when help for PTSD is more accessible, the concept of Modern Castle is not as strong. War is easier and efficient compared to the late 60s, not to mention the public and government’s treatment of veterans has definitely improved. The exterior factors that would facilitate a character like Punisher are simply not present.

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Personality probably plays a bigger role in Castle’s evolution. Both variants can posses either the Nihilism or Apathy types, and underlining both is Psychopathy. Reflected in the colors of his costume, Castle sees the world in black and white. People are either absolutely good or absolutely evil with no gray in between. He makes every decision based on this binary morality with no more thought than a squeeze of the trigger. Castle is also aware what he is doing is wrong. He understand vigilantism is illegal, yet continues his work because he believes in it. He does not care what laws he breaks or lives he ruins as long as he accomplishes the mission.

The Nihilism type is most prevalent in Garth Ennis’s Punisher MAX, which also uses the Vietnam variant. In the story Born, Castle assumes a kind of split personality on his final tour that would become the Punisher. This personality is driven by a hunger for war and bloodlust as a kind of PTSD that negates every other nonessential emotion. He is completely shut off from the world, relying only on instinct and his binary morality. He is efficient in his thought process and methodology, but retains the concept of innocence. He cares about protecting children like in the Mother Russia and Slavers books, yet has no problem killing women when they fall into the black side of his morality.

The Apathy type is more mainstream and similar to most action heroes, but not without the element of psychopathy. On that same logic, John Matrix, Paul Kersey, John McClane, Dutch, and Rambo are all psychopaths. They do not acknowledge nor care about killing scores of human beings and often laugh about it afterward. Apathy Castle is no different, throwing out the occasional joke like in Dark Reign when he used Pym particles to infiltrate a casino in a pizza before enlarging after being eaten. He does not acknowledge the implication of his violence, treating it like an everyday thing, while casually dispatching criminals without hesitation. In that regard, he has a lot in common with his contemporaries. Iron Man probably does not think about the long-term damage his repulsors, nor does Captain America when using his shield, or Thor with Mjolnir. The closest match to Apathy Castle is Black Window who immersed herself into the life of an assassin to the point she almost enjoys it.

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The film versions of Castle adhere to different combinations of his origin and personality variants. In some cases they subvert the comics and do something entirely different. The following summaries are ordered chronologically from the first incarnation to the last:

Dolph Lundgren, The Punisher (1989)

The most obvious choice for a character like Castle would be an action star if you were stupid. It is important to remember the comics were not what they are now, but what remained the same was the Vietnam origin. Unfortunately, the people behind 1989 forgot and made Castle a former cop, which dose not account for his very military skills and methodology.

Though Lundgren plays the Apathy type, he is too emotional in many cases. He cares about saving kids, but he also monologs about morality, God, and constantly questions if he is doing the right thing. Before the climax he turns himself in for no reason and whines in his cell. It also does not help that Lundgren is not the kind of actor for this material.

The way he kills is unbecoming as well. The opening was fine where he sneaks into a mansion, hangs a guy, and burns the place. Then he has a comical shootout in an abandoned theme park, a conspicuous fight on a pier that would have killed him in seconds, and a very loud infiltration of a building despite using a suppressed weapon. The worst scene was when he dropped into an illegal casino, told a Yakuza soldier to deliver a message to his boss, and shot up the slot machines and tables with an M60. The real Punisher would have dropped in, killed everyone, and left at least one criminal alive to carry his message because he did it about six times in Up is Down and Black is White.

Taking it as a pure action movie, 1989 succeeds when judged on its own merit. I could tell it wanted to be a Cannon Films production, but lacked the sheer insanity of Golan-Globus. However, when you use the name of an established character, be prepared for inevitable comparisons and judgments fueled by preconceived notions.

Thomas Jane, The Punisher (2004)

2004 is a complete reversal of 1989. Where Lundgren’s Castle was totally flawed, Jane was the second best and more accurate as a combination of Modern and Apathy. He brought a level of subtlety that defines the character’s emotional state because Castle is not one for expression. With a conservative use of one-liners Jane did a great job of epitomizing Castle’s action hero aesthetic without insulting the character. The alcoholism element was a little too on the nose, but it is not his fault because the rest of the movie is hot garbage.

Where 1989 was an actual 80s action movie, 2004 was trying to parody 80s action movies and failed. There was slapstick in some of the fight scenes, quirky roommates that get into shenanigans, and ridiculous villain characters that would have been better suited in another movie or with a different version of Castle. The movie is tone deaf and devoid of the irony that makes parody work. If you are telling a joke, it must have a point and 2004 is about as funny as an Adam Sandler movie. How can you make a story about a guy losing his family in a massacre, who turns to vigilantism funny? In what way is mass murder hilarious?

Do not get me started on the petty, boring tactics and lack of action scenes. Where the real Castle would find the people he is after and shoot them, 2004 Castle formulates a complicated scheme with many phases of planning that could have been simplified with a bullet.

Ray Stevenson, Punisher: War Zone (2008)

It took two movies and 19 years to finally get Castle right. War Zone is essentially a straightforward adaptation of Punisher MAX. It barrows the tone, a few ideas from In the Beginning, Kitchen Irish, and was the most accurate depiction yet. Ray Stevenson delivers a compelling dramatic performance with little to no lines and is built like a tank. On a physical level alone he nails the character as he delivers a fatal tackle here, a face-caving punch there, and efficient, calculated attacks that reflect better upon Castle’s military origins.

While it is a basic action movie, War Zone also successfully parodies the genre. By making the villains ridiculous to the point of cartoonish, it provides juxtaposition between the reality of killers and those of fiction. Castle is serious about his work and does not hide from the truth. He acknowledges he is a mass murderer and that there is no hope for any kind of redemption. The villain characters in War Zone do not care about what they do and enjoy it as if they were in an action movie. They are caricatures of criminal archetypes, like cosplaying Sopranos fans, and Castle is the naked reality of evil making them see the truth.

It is too bad the previous Punisher incarnations made War Zone poison to audiences. The movie opened amid behind-the-scenes drama and flopped, taking in only a third its budget. Thanks to fans like myself, however, the film has risen to cult status and director Lexi Alexander has been venerated for making the best Punisher movie to date.

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With season 2 of Daredevil just months away, there comes the question of how Jon Bernthal will fair as the new Frank Castle. Personally, I would rather see Ray Stevenson back in the part or even Michael Shannon in an adaptation of my script. However, I trust in Bernthal’s ability as an actor to do the very best he can while keeping in mind the history of the character. The quality of the incarnations has steadily grown over the years and it would be disheartening to see a back track into mediocrity. A bigger question is how the other elements will affect the character. Do the show runners and writers understand Castle or will they earn the ire of a very vocal fan base? We will just have to wait and see.

 

Scripts – 1

I find it hard to relate to most people. I share interests with otaku, gamers, gun-nuts, nerds, and comic book-junkies, but whenever I am around those people, I cannot seem to fit in. However, if there is one group I can say with confidence I belong to, it is Punisher fans.

Punisher: Dark Reign #2 was the second comic I ever bought. Later I discovered MAX from Garth Ennis and the current run from Nathan Edmondson. For Halloween I painted the Punisher Skull on a balaclava and wore body armor. If you need more proof, here is a link to a character analysis I wrote not too long ago.

Like fans of anything, I am hard to please. My demand lies more in the film adaptations, excluding the one with Dolph Lundgren because I have not seen it.

The one with Thomas Jane is only remembered because of his performance. He played Frank half serious and half action hero, with one-liners delivered in a dry manner. It fit the character, but what brought it all down was the hammy slapstick, schizophrenic tone, and the 80s style antagonists that were far too serious.

Four years later, War Zone came along and did everything the Jane movie got wrong right. It had the same 80s feel with the bad guys, but nobody took their roles seriously. It created juxtaposition with the seriousness of the Punisher, played better by Ray Stevenson. What it said to me was the Punisher values his humanity, despite being a mass murderer. He is affected by what he does, unlike the villains who get off on being sociopaths.

It told me Frank Castle is a hero that does not lie to himself about what he does. He does not wear a costume because he does not want to hide the fact he is a killer. In that way, I believe he is the sanest of the Marvel Pantheon.

Unfortunately, War Zone flopped and we fans never received a follow-up. Even after the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), there has not been another Punisher movie. Rather than sit on my ass reading up on miss-calculated speculation and sensational theories, I did something I knew would never be more than fan-fiction:

I wrote a feature length script for a Punisher movie in the MCU.

After months of editing, cuts, and failed submissions, I am ready to share what I have done. I cannot attest to its quality or if it is even good, but I hope to show a Punisher film can be more than a vigilante story. I feel confident in saying I have done Frank Castle justice and those like him.

Enjoy, I hope.

CT_McMillan_Martyrdom

 

Analysis: Writing Frank Castle, the Punisher

As a student I must make it clear that I am not a professional in any sense of the word. The opinions expressed in this essay are based on what I have learned in my studies and personal observations. I just wanted to let you know.

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Frank Castle is one of the most under appreciated and under-written characters in Marvel Comics. Based on a variety of stories, I find he is considered a one-trick pony, a one-dimensional vigilante that is more renegade than paragon. Even other characters call him a psychopath and mass murderer. Usually he is placed in a supporting role for a book other than his own, and in titles that bare his name he is hardly the focus.

Why is this? Why do authors treat Frank like a one-off anti-hero with bland dialog and stories no different than an episode of Law and Order?

It is because no one understands Frank Castle.

All characters in fiction are hard to write, but Frank is the kind of person that requires an intimate knowledge of who he is on a psychological level. He is in no way an ordinary vigilante.

There are two versions of Frank’s origin. Both are the same, but different; one says he fought in Vietnam and another in the Middle East. For this analysis I will use the Vietnam origin.

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In Mark Millar’s Civil War, after a one-sided fight between Captain America and Frank Castle, Spiderman remarked: “Are you kidding me? Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam. Same guy, different war.”

These few words speak volumes about Frank. It tells us he is or was idealistic about morality and justice, in addition to possibly being a fan of Captain America. All of that change, however, after Frank went to Vietnam, the single worst war in America’s history.

You could argue our modern wars are terrible, but when you take into account the physical and psychological damage done upon an entire generation of young men, the millions killed and poisoned, and the radical shift in public opinion against ordinary kids, fresh out of high school, who were forced to fight in a war, I could argue that you are a draft-dodging piece of garbage that doesn’t know shit about the world.

Of course war is an awful thing that creates as many heroes as victims, but Vietnam was a conflict that makes Verdun look like Grenada. There is not a single man or woman who grew up in that time that feels the effects of that disaster today. When you come home from the worst place in the world, after doing your duty to your country, to be called a murdering rapist baby killer, how would you feel about yourself? How can you move on knowing people think you are a monster? This mentality from the general public alienated millions of young men whom were already worse off with a flawed VA system and an even more incompetent government that had no idea how to deal with the situation after a series of domestic crises.

Frank Castle was one of the many soldiers affected by the war. He was a skilled sniper, but underneath his calm, stoic exterior was a man utterly changed by horror. Even Rambo could not cope with seeing his friends in roasted pieces of meat. On his return home he would have become one with disillusioned youth, had it not been for the one thing that kept him together: his wife and children.

Maria, Lisa, and Frank Jr. were his normal, his center, and reason for going on. Most returning vets would turn to heroin or suicide to cope with home life, but Frank had is family, and it was with them he was truly happy. They kept his darker side at bay, the part of him that killed hundreds, and seen the worst of humanity.

And on one fateful day, the horror is set loose after Frank sees his wife and children murdered in Mafia crossfire.

This is where the origins intersect and where most people find Frank an easy character to understand. It is the archetypical vigilante creation story; ordinary person loses loved ones and is inspired to go out and fight crime. It is Batman’s origin, a story even people who don’t read comics know about.

It is here most writers draw their conclusions about Frank. The problem is the blatant disregard for his past. Usually his military service is meant to justify his skill with firearms, but the psychological effects of war are completely disregarded.

Combat and a year’s worth of horror are taxing on a person’s mental health that becomes exacerbated after coming home. And when you consider the social effects of the Vietnam War, apply them to a man who saw his wife and children massacred in a park, you make for a logical take on the vigilante and a character with more empathetic complexity than any bat-themed billionaire.

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This brings to mind his psychological state.

Frank Castle is not crazy. He knows what he is doing, knows he is a mass murder, knows it is wrong, and does not care. This would make him a sociopath, but a sociopath is someone who willingly rejects morality. Frank Castle has a sense of morality because he murders criminals, ones that are the absolute worst. He does not shoot j-walkers or torture thieves, but when he knows someone has done true evil, he goes the extra mile.

He does not enjoy any part of it either; for him it is like a meaningless job you do just for the paycheck. In Rick Remender’s run from 2009-2010, Frank says a few one-liners, but the delivery comes of as dry and flat. This serves as a juxtaposition between the character’s action-hero aesthetic and the brutality of killing. What it is trying to say is nothing can make murder cool, no matter how witty your choice of words. It is more of a thematic aspect, but it says a lot about the character.

And on the subject of murder, Frank is very utilitarian in his methodology. He does whatever is necessary to get the job done, without the need for theatrics. He finds his targets, shoots them, and moves on. It is only when the target truly deserves it that Frank goes into Saw/Hostel territory; like the father who used his own children in pornography or the businesswoman that kidnapped girls to have them raped and drugged for prostitution.

So if he does not get anything out of it, why does Frank Castle kill people, even after getting his revenge? He is as much a hero as a victim; a man with morals and skills parallel to Captain America, and the emotional baggage of a disillusioned Vietnam veteran and a widower. To that effect, when he sees a world full of victims created by psychotic monsters, he has no choice but to cleanse them from the earth.

In the words of comic book writer Garth Ennis, “[Frank Castle] make[s] the world sane.”

Now if Frank is mentally stable and aware of what he is doing, why does he wear a costume? Wearing the skull is unnecessary because he does not wear a mask either; people and the authorities know exactly what he looks like. On top of that, why does Batman dress like a bat? To be a symbol? I understand protecting your identity, but you can do that without looking like a furry. But I digress; the reason behind Frank’s costume is simple:

If we assume Frank is a fan of Captain America, in a world of superheroes, then it is only fitting he dons a costume fit for his character. He is a murder, so he would wear a skull.

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I understand this has been a very biased analysis because I care about this character. There are millions of war veterans that have gone through the same experiences (family massacre aside) and like them, Frank Castle deservers the same respect in comics. However, I am not saying there aren’t stories that do him justice.

The best by far, if you are looking for a psychological and adult take on Frank, is Punisher MAX by Garth Ennis. The series can be a hard read because it is violent and offensive, but it is also compelling and realistic.

Another good story puts Frank knee deep in the Marvel Universe, unlike MAX. Rick Remender and Nathan Edmonson both take into account the realities of a world of superheroes, gods, and aliens. Remender goes into realms of camp with a story about Frank becoming Franken-Castle, a walking Frankenstein pun after Wolverine’s son chops him into pieces. Edmonson’s is more grounded in realism with appearances from Electro, Black Widow, and Domino against the backdrop of a drug cartel’s plot to kill the citizens of Los Angeles with a chemical weapon.

Other stories combine the serious with the fantastical. Greg Rucka’s run is more of a true-crime take, but it falls short because the focus is on the supporting cast. Another series is from the Essential Punisher Collection #2 by Mike Baron, where Frank travels the world in the war on drugs. Later he gets into a brawl with the Man Without Fear, Daredevil.

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I hope this analysis has bettered your understanding of this underappreciated character. Sure I have been very biased, but when it comes to the Punisher, I think he needs to be understood on a deeper level. Though he is not unique in concept, Frank Castle is one of the more complex characters in the Marvel Universe. It is a shame so many writers do not see it.

Sources

Millar M, McNiven S, Vines D, Hollowell M (2007). Civil War. New York, New York: Marvel Comics.

Ennis G, Larosa L, Palmer T (2004). Punisher MAX: In the Beginning. New York, New York: Marvel Comics.