Essential Punisher volume 1


By Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin, Len Wein, Mike W. Barr, Marv Wolfman, Dennis O’Neil, Roger McKenzie, Frank Miller, Bill Mantlo, Stephen Grant, Jo Duffy, Ross Andru, Tony DeZuniga, Frank Springer, Keith Pollard, Al Milgrom, Greg LaRocque, Mike Zeck, Mike Vosburg& various  (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-8571-2375-0

Although one of the industry’s biggest hits from the late 1980s onwards, the compulsive vengeance-taker known as The Punisher was always an unlikely and uncomfortable star for comicbooks.

His methods are always excessively violent and usually permanent. It’s intriguing to note that unlike most heroes who debuted as villains (Black Widow or Wolverine come to mind) the Punisher actually became more immoral, anti-social and murderous, not less: the buying public simply shifted its communal perspective; The Punisher never toned down or cleaned up his act…

He was created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru; a necessarily toned down, muted response to such increasingly popular prose anti-heroes as Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: the Executioner and a bloody tide of fictive returning Viet Nam vets who all turned their training and talents to wiping out organised crime in the early 1970s.

The story goes that Marvel’s bosses were reluctant to give The Punisher a starring vehicle in their standard colour comic-book line, feeling the character’s very nature made him a bad guy and not a good one. Other than the two magazine stories and the miniseries which closes the volume, Frank Castle was not supposed to be the star or even particularly admirable to the impressionable readership.

Therefore these early appearances might disappoint die-hard fans even though they are the formative tales of his success. Perhaps it’s best to remember and accept that when not actually the villain in the tales he was at best a worrisome guest…

Boy, how times do change…

He was first seen as a villain and patsy in Amazing Spider-Man #129, repeatedly returning thereafter before getting his shot at the big time – and then not in newsstand publications but in the company’s black and white, mature magazine line…

This initial Essential compilation gathers all those tentative stabs and guest-shots from February 1974 through to the breakthrough 1986 miniseries which really got the ball rolling: specifically Amazing Spider-Man #129, 134-135, 162-163, 174-175, 201-202; Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15; Giant-Size Spider-Man #4; Marvel Preview #2; Marvel Super-Action #1; Captain America #241; Daredevil #182-184; Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #81-83 and The Punisher #1-5, and many die-hard fans might be a little disappointed in the relative lack of brutality, carnage and even face time contained herein.

Just keep in mind that for the greater part of these early appearances the Skull-shirted slayer was at best a visiting partner and usually the villain du jour…

The first case in this mammoth monochrome war journal comes from Amazing Spider-Man #129, introducing not only the renegade gunslinger but also nefarious manic mastermind The Jackal in ‘The Punisher Strikes Twice!’ by Conway, Andru, Frank Giacoia & Dave Hunt wherein the Man with the Guns was duped by manipulative Professor Miles Warren into hunting Spider-Man. The unhappy Wallcrawler was currently a suspect in the death of Norman Osborn and subsequently set up by the Jackal for the murder of the Punisher’s gunmaker…

The much-misunderstood champions of the oppressed crossed paths again in Amazing Spider-Man #134-135 when a South American bandit intended to be his oppressive regime’s Captain America attempted to pillage a Manhattan tour boat in ‘Danger is a Man Named… Tarantula!’ Once again unwilling allies, the duo dutifully dismantled the villains schemes after a ‘Shoot-Out in Central Park!’

The Punisher played a more pivotal role in Giant-Size Spider-Man #4 (April 1975) when the Webslinger forced himself into one of the Lone Gunman’s cases in ‘To Sow the Seeds of Death’s Day!’ Ruthless arms dealer Moses Magnum had perfected a lethal chemical weapon and begun testing it on randomly kidnapped victims. Tracking down the vile monster in ‘Attack of the War Machine!’, the pair found themselves infiltrating his ‘Death-Camp at the Edge of the World!’ before summary justice was dispensed as much by fate as the heroes…

John Romita senior’s original concept pencil sketch of The Punisher from 1973 is followed by the vigilante’s first solo role – in black-&-white magazine Marvel Preview #2 (August 1975) – where Conway & Tony DeZuniga pronounced a ‘Death Sentence’ on some of Castle’s old army buddies who had been tricked into becoming assassins by a millionaire madman who wanted to take over America. The gritty yarn also at last revealed the tragic reasons for the Punisher’s unending mission of vengeance.

Highly decorated Marine Castle saw his wife and children gunned down in Central Park after the carefree picnickers stumbled into a mob hit. When the killers turned the guns on the witnesses, only Castle survived. Recovering in hospital the bereft warrior dedicated his life to eradicating criminals everywhere…

Following a stunning Punisher and Dominic Fortune pin-up by Howard Chaykin, ‘Accounts Settled… Accounts Due!’ by Archie Goodwin, DeZuniga & Rico Rival from Marvel Super Action #1 (January 1976) follows the matured-themed plot to a close as Castle at last tracks down the gunsels who carried out the shooting and the Dons who ordered it, only to find that his bloody vengeance hasn’t eased his heart or dulled his thirst for personal justice…

Castle was reduced to a bit-player in Amazing Spider-Man #162-163 (October and November 1976, by Len Wein Andru & Esposito, as the newly reconstituted X-Men were sales-boosted by a guest-clash with the Wallcrawler in ‘…And the Nightcrawler Came Prowling, Prowling’, wherein the Arachnid jumps to wrong conclusion after a sniper shoots a reveller at Coney Island.

By the time Nightcrawler has explained himself – in the tried-and-true Marvel manner of fighting the webspinner to a standstill – old skull-shirt has turned up to take them both on before mutual foe Jigsaw is exposed as the real assassin in the concluding episode ‘Let the Punisher Fit the Crime!’

Amazing Spider-Man #174 from November 1977 declared ‘The Hitman’s Back in Town!’ (inks by DeZuniga & Jim Mooney) and saw Castle hunting a costumed assassin hired to remove J. Jonah Jameson but experiencing an unusual reticence since the killer was a old army pal who had saved his life in Vietnam. Nevertheless the tale ended with a fatality in the ‘Big Apple Battleground!’ in #175.

Captain America #241 (January 1980, by Mike W. Barr, Frank Springer & Pablo Marcos) was very much a fill in which benefited from the Frank Miller effect – he drew the cover – as ‘Fear Grows in Brooklyn’ as the Sentinel of Liberty got in the way of a mission and refused to allow the Punisher to go free.

He couldn’t however, stop him from escaping police custody and Amazing Spider-Man #201-202 –‘Man-Hunt!’ and ‘One For Those Long Gone!’ (February and March 1980, by Marv Wolfman, Keith Pollard & Mooney) – reveal how The Punisher almost uncovers Peter Parker’s big secret whilst relentlessly stalking a mob boss responsible for the death of a kid who had saved Castle’s life…

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 (1981 by Dennis O’Neil, Frank Miller & Klaus Janson) is putatively the genesis of the antihero in his true form. ‘Spider-Man: Threat or Menace?’ sees maniac fugitive Frank Castle back in the Big Apple and embroiled in a deadly scheme by Doctor Octopus to poison five million New Yorkers.

It’s not long before both Peter Parker and his colourful alter-ego are caught in the middle of a terrifying battle of ruthless wills in a tense and clever suspense thriller, which perfectly recaptures the moody mastery of Steve Ditko’s heydays.

The Miller connection continued in three unforgettable issues of Daredevil (#182-184 from May-July 1982) which perfectly encapsulated everything that made the Punisher run such a momentous, unmissable, “must-read” character…

Beginning with only a pertinent untitled excerpt by Miller & Janson from ‘She’s Alive’ wherein a reeling Matt Murdock is trying to cope with the murder of his first love Elektra whilst elsewhere Castle is clandestinely removed from prison by a government spook to stop a shipment of drugs the authorities can’t touch. Once he’s killed the gangsters, however, The Punisher refuses to go back to jail…

The story proper begins in ‘Child’s Play’ – with Roger McKenzie lending a scripting hand – and deals with school kids using drugs. It was originally begun by McKenzie & Miller but shelved for a year, before being reworked into a stunningly powerful and unsettling tale once Miller & Janson assumed the full creative chores on the title.

When Matt visits a High School he is a helpless witness when a little girl goes berserk, attacking staff and pupils before throwing herself out of a third floor window.

She was high on “Angel Dust” and as the appalled hero vows to track down the dealers he first encounters her bereaved and distraught younger brother Billy, determined to exact his own vengeance and later the coldly calculating Castle who has the same idea and far more experience…

The hunt leads inexorably to a certain street pusher and DD, Billy and the Punisher all find their target at the same time. After a spectacular battle the thoroughly beaten Daredevil has only a bullet-ridden corpse and Billy with a smoking gun…

The kid is innocent – and so, this time at least, is Castle – and after Murdock proves it in court, the investigation resumes with the focus falling on the pusher’s boss Hogman. When DD’s super-hearing confirms the gangster’s claims of innocence his alter-ego Murdock then successfully defends the vile dealer, only to have the exonerated slime-ball gloatingly admit to having committed the murder after all…

Horrified, shocked, betrayed and determined to enforce justice, DD finds a connection to a highly-placed member of the school faculty deeply involved with Hogman in the concluding ‘Good Guys Wear Red’ but it’s far too late: Castle and Billy have both decided the end the matter Hogman’s way…

Scripted by Bill , Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #81-83 (August to October 1983) opens with ‘Stalkers in the Shadows’, illustrated by Al Milgrom & Mooney, and sees an increasingly crazy Punisher going after misdemeanour malefactors with the same murderous zeal he previously reserved for killers and worse. Spider-Man meanwhile has his hands full with teen vigilantes Cloak and Dagger who have graduated from tackling street drug pushers to go after Wilson Fisk, Kingpin of crime.

‘Crime & Punishment!’ sees Castle applying lethal force indiscriminately all over town, culminating in his own crazed attack on Fisk… who beats him to a pulp.

The saga ends with ‘Delusions’ by Mantlo, Greg LaRoque & Mooney wherein the Punisher goes on trial and is found to have been dosed with psychosis-inducing drugs…

At last Marvel gave way to the inevitable and commissioned a Punisher miniseries, although writer Steven Grant and penciller Mike Zeck apparently had an uphill struggle convincing editors to let the grim, gun-crazed maniac loose in that shiny world where little kids might fixate on a dangerous role model – and their parents might get all over-protective, litigious and (skull) shirty…

In 1985 they finally got the green-light and the 5-issue miniseries – running from January to May – turned the industry on its head. There was indeed plenty of controversy to go around, especially as the tale featured a “hero” who had lots of illicit sex and killed his enemies in cold blood. Also causing problems for censorious eyes were the suicide of one of the major characters and the murder of innocent children. Doesn’t it make you proud to realise how far we’ve since come…?

The company mitigated the potential fall-out with the most lacklustre PR campaign in history, but not telling anybody about The Punisher didn’t stop the series from becoming a runaway, barnstorming success. The rest is history…

Two years later as the graphic novel market was finally getting established and with Frank Castle one of the biggest draws in comics (sorry, I’m such a child sometimes), that contentious series was released as a complete book and it remains one of the very best of all his many exploits.

Here, rendered even more stark and uncompromising in gritty moody monochrome, the action begins in ‘Circle of Blood’ as Castle is locked in Ryker’s Island prison where every inmate is queuing up to kill him. Within hours though he has turned the tables and terrified the General Population, but knows that both old foe Jigsaw and the last of the great mob “Godfathers” have special plans for him…

When a mass breakout frees all the cons, Castle brutally steps in. For this he is allowed to escape by the warden, who casually offers him membership in The Trust, an organisation of “Right-minded, law-abiding citizens” who approve of his crusade against crime. Castle also discovers he’s being stalked by Tony Massera, a good man who thought he had escaped the influences of his bad family…

Tony wants to kill Castle to avenge his father, one of Punisher’s many gory successes – but only after the streets have been swept clean of scum like his own family…

‘Back to the War’ finds the Punisher on the streets again, hunting scum, armed and supplied by the Trust but still not a part of their organisation.

After an abortive attempt to blow up The Kingpin, Castle is saved by the mysterious Angel, and begins a loveless liaison with her. With everybody mistakenly believing the master of New York’s underworld dead, a bloody gang-war erupts with greedy sub-bosses all trying to claim the top spot, but by the events of ‘Slaughterday’ Castle realises that too many innocents are getting caught in the crossfires.

He also discovers in ‘Final Solution’ that the Trust have their own national agenda as hit men and brainwashed criminals dressed in his costume surreptitiously hit the streets, executing mobsters and fanning the flames…

All the Trust’s plans for this “Punishment Squad” and the country are uncovered in the blockbusting conclusion ‘Final Solution Part 2’ as all the pieces fall into place and the surviving players reveal their true allegiances. In a classy final chapter mysteriously completed by the highly underrated Jo Duffy and Mike Vosburg, from Grant’s original plot, The Punisher takes charge in his inimitable manner, leaving God and the cops to sort out the paperwork….

We can only speculate as to why the originators fell away at the last hurdle, but I’m pretty sure those same reluctant editors played some part in it all…

This economical Essential edition comes with a plethora of pin-ups and concludes with a comprehensive information dossier culled from the ever-informative Marvel Universe Handbook, and these superbly gritty, morally ambiguous if not actually ethically challenging dramas never cease to thrill and amaze, and have been reprinted a number of times.

Whichever version suits your inclinations and wallet, if you love action, cherish costumed comics adventure and crave the occasional dose of gratuitous personal justice this one should be at the top of your “Most Wanted” list.

© 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1986, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ghost Rider – Danny Ketch Classic volume 1


By Howard Mackie, Javier Saltares & Mark Texeira with Jimmy Palmiotti (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3735-1

In the early 1970’s, following a downturn in superhero comics sales Marvel shifted focus from straight costumed crusaders to supernatural and horror characters and one of the most enduring was a certain flaming-skulled vigilante dubbed the Ghost Rider.

Carnival stunt-cyclist Johnny Blaze had sold his soul to the devil in an attempt to save his foster-father from cancer. As is always the way of such things Satan, or arch-liar Mephisto as he actually was, followed the letter, but not spirit, of the contract and Crash Simpson died anyway.

When the Demon Lord came for Blaze only the love of an innocent saved the bad-boy biker from eternal pain and damnation. Temporarily thwarted, Johnny was afflicted with a body that burned with the fires of Hell every time the sun went down and became the unwilling host for outcast and exiled demon Zarathos – the Spirit of Vengeance.

After years of travail and turmoil Blaze was liberated from the demon’s curse and seemingly retired from the hero’s life.

As Blaze briefly escaped his pre-destined doom, a tragic boy named Danny Ketch assumed the role of Zarathos’ host and prison by a route most circuitous and tragic…

From that dubious period of fashionably “Grim ‘n’ Gritty” super-heroics in the early 1990s comes this slight but engagingly fast-paced horror-hero re-imagining courtesy of writer Howard Mackie and artists Javier Saltares & Mark Texeira, which quickly secured the new Ghost Rider status as one of the hottest hits of the period.

This first Danny Ketch Classic volume reprints issues #1-10 of the revitalised series spanning May 1990 – February 1991, and opens, following a reminiscence from the author, with the bonanza-sized introductory tale ‘Life’s Blood’ which sees young Danny and his photographer sister Barbara looking for Houdini’s tomb in the vast Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn on the eve of Halloween.

Unfortunately they stumble into a bloody criminal confrontation between ninjas and gangsters over a mysterious briefcase. Discovered, the siblings flee but Barb is hit by an arrow, whilst the case itself is snatched by a juvenile gang who plague the wooded necropolis.

The ninjas and their macabre leader Deathwatch are the victors of the fire-fight and are soon hunting for their hard-won prize and the witnesses…

In an adjacent junkyard Danny is helplessly watching Barb bleed out when his attention is caught by a glowing pair of eyes. Closer inspection reveals them to be an arcane design on the gas-cap of an abandoned motorbike. The ninjas, having caught the girl who stole the briefcase, are closing in on the Ketch kids when Danny, his hands soaked in his sister’s blood, touches the glowing bike symbol and is inexplicably transformed into a spectral horror, burning with fury and indignation – a Spirit of Vengeance hungry to assuage the pain of innocent blood spilled with inhuman vitality, toting an infinitely adaptable bike chain and a mystic “Penance Stare” which subjected the guilty to unimaginable psychic pain and guilt…

The Blazing Biker makes short work of the ninjas, but when the police arrive and find him standing over the dying Barbara, they naturally jump to the wrong conclusion…

As the Ghost Rider flees on a bike with wheels of fire, causing spectacular amounts of collateral carnage, Barb is rushed to hospital, where a re-transfigured, bruised, bleeding and totally confused Danny finds her the next morning…

In the richest part of Manhattan, Wall Street shark and psionic monster Deathwatch makes a ghastly example of the man who lost his briefcase twice even as his rival for its possession, criminal overlord Wilson Fisk, similarly chastises his own minions for failure.

The contents of the case are not only hotly disputed but utterly lethal and both factions will tear Brooklyn apart to get them…

Meanwhile the teen thieves known as the Cyprus Pool Jokers find three canisters in that purloined case and hide them all over the vast cemetery, unaware that both Deathwatch’s ninjas and the Kingpin’s hoods are hunting for them. At Barbara’s bedside Danny is plagued by guilt and anger. Unable to help his comatose sister the lad determines to investigate what happened to him. When he awoke the blazing bike had returned to a normal configuration and now Danny climbs aboard and heads back to Cyprus Hills to look for answers just as the competing packs of killers are turning the streets into a free-fire zone.

Riding straight into the bloodbath, Danny sees his bike gas-cap glowing again and, almost against his will, slams his palm onto it, unleashing his skeletal passenger once again…

Devastating the assembled mobsters and murderers, the Ghost Rider then takes wounded Cyprus Pool Jokers Ralphie and Paulie to hospital and another pointless confrontation with the authorities…

‘Do Be Afraid of the Dark!’ finds open war between Deathwatch and the Kingpin’s forces for the canisters neither side possesses, with the Ghost Rider roaming the night tackling the increasingly savage hunters on both sides. The girl Paulie has admitted that she has no idea where two of the containers could be, since the Jokers split up to hide them and she’s now the last of them…

The urban horror escalates when Deathwatch’s metahuman enforcer Blackout joins the hunt: a sadistic man-made vampire with the ability to manipulate fields of complete darkness. This psychotic mass-murderer targets entire families and starts his search by “questioning” the cops who attended the initial battle in the graveyard…

Danny is on the verge of a breakdown, snapping viciously at his mother and girlfriend Stacy and utterly unable to share the horror that his life has become. Between days at Barb’s bedside, and nights as the slave to a primal force obsessed with blood and punishment, Ketch is drowning…

When Blackout tracks down the recovering Ralphie, the Ghost Rider is too late to save the young felon’s parents and only just manages to drive the vampire away before the boy too succumbs, leading to the inevitable final clash in ‘Deathwatch’, wherein the Wall Street dilettante’s forces find the canisters before being overwhelmed by the Kingpin. Ever pragmatic, the ninja-master simply surrenders, but the wildly unpredictable Blackout refuses to submit and slips into a berserker rage of slaughter, before escaping with the containers and terrified hostage Paulie.

The albino maniac knows the canisters contain a toxin that will wipe out New York and harbours an impossible plan to use them to kick-start an atomic war which will produce a nuclear winter on an Earth he would inevitably rule. However his delusional dreams are ended when the Ghost Rider appears and engages the vampire in blistering battle.

Incensed beyond endurance, Blackout savagely bites the blazing biker, but instead of blood sucks down raw, coruscating hellfire which leaves his face a melted, agonising ruin and burns the canisters to harmless slag…

Issue #4 found Danny, unable to resist the constant call to become the Furious Flaming Apparition, decide to lock up the cursed motorcycle beyond the reach of temptation in faraway Manhattan, only to find it had a mind of its own when a clash between a biker gang and an old Thor villain trapped both Ketch and an car full innocent bystanders in a subterranean parking garage. ‘You Can Run, but You Can’t Hyde!’ taught the troubled young man that the Rider was a cruel necessity in a bad world, an argument confirmed by the beginning of an extended subplot in which children began vanishing from the streets of Brooklyn…

The very epitome of Grim‘n’Gritty stopped by for a two issue guest-shot in #5-6 as ‘Getting Paid!’ and ‘Do or Die!’ saw a mysterious figure distributing free guns to children, drawing the attention of not just the night-stalking Spirit of Vengeance but also the merciless, militaristic vigilante Frank Castle, known to criminals and cops alike as The Punisher.

The weapons are turning the city into a deadly battleground, but the cops and unscrupulous TV reporter Linda Wei seem more concerned with stopping the Ghost Rider’s campaign against the youthful killers than ending the bloodshed. Danny decides to investigate in his mortal form and quickly finds himself in over his head, but for some reason the magic medallion won’t transform him. He is completely unaware how close he was to becoming the Punisher’s latest statistic…

The situation changes that night and the flaming-skulled zealot clashes with the Punisher before uniting to tackle the true mastermind – a manic anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist terrorist known as Flag-Smasher.

With the insane demagogue determined to unleash a storm of death on Wall Street, the driven anti-heroes are forced to briefly unite to end the scheme and save the “bad” kids and the system that created them…

‘Obssesion’ in #7, illustrated solely by Texeira, saw the return of animal-trainer and contortionist the Scarecrow, who had barely troubled Iron Man, the X-Men and Captain America in his early days, but after having slipped into morbid thanophilia had become a death-preoccupied maniac who presented a truly different threat to the mystic agent of retribution.

A far greater menace was seen – or rather, not seen – with the return of Blackout who silently stalked Danny Ketch, savagely slaughtering everybody who knew him. Not even the police guards at Barbara’s hospital bedside could stop the fiend with half-a-face…

Through dreams Danny debated his cursed existence with the Spirit of Vengeance in #8’s ‘Living Nightmare’ (Mackie, Saltares & Texeira) constantly bemoaning his fate but seemingly unable to affect the implacable, terrifying being he couldn’t stop becoming. Adding to his fevered nights were visions of Deathwatch, Barbara and the vile psycho-killer Blackout.

As Blackout continued to murder anybody coming into contact with the troubled Ketch – who was seemingly paralysed by his dilemma – girlfriend Stacy neared the end of her training as a cop, and her father increased patrols to catch the blazing Biker. Impatient and scared, the Cypress Hills Community Action Group took controversial steps to safeguard their streets by hiring maverick private security company H.E.A.R.T. (Humans Engaging All Racial Terrorism – truly one of the naffest and most inappropriate acronyms in comics history) who promptly decided Ghost Rider was the cause of all the chaos and went after him with an arsenal of high-tech military hardware and a helicopter gunship…

The Spirit of Vengeance was already occupied, having found Blackout attacking a girl, but their final showdown was interrupted when the fiery skeleton was attacked by a colossal Morlock (feral mutants who live in tunnels beneath New York) who mistook the saviour for the assailant…

Issue #9 guest-starred the X-Factor – a reformed X-Men team comprising Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman and the Beast who uncover the mystery of the missing children in ‘Pursuit’ (with additional inks by Jimmy Palmiotti) when they follow the Ghost Rider and Morlocks under the city.

Tragically, Blackout too is on the Blazing Biker’s trail and finds in the concrete depths even more victims to torture Danny Ketch’s breaking heart and blistered soul before their climactic last clash…

This volume ends on a thematic cliffhanger with ‘Stars of Blood’ as Danny begins a new phase of life reconciled to his burden. When a series of horrific murders are attributed to a publicity-seeking serial killer named Zodiak, the boy begins investigating the deaths and discovers that the haunted gas-cap is again inactive, although it does transform him later when he stumbles over a couple of kids fighting…

Arcanely active again, the Ghost Rider then follows a convenient tip to the astrological assassin and discovers a far more prosaic reason for the string of slayings before an inclusive and unsatisfying battle with the insufferable, elusive Zodiak.

Meanwhile across town, the humiliated H.E.A.R.T. team accept a commission from Deathwatch to destroy the Spirit of Vengeance, whilst in the western USA the previous victim of the curse of Zarathos is riding his motorcycle hard, determined to get to New York and destroy the latest Ghost Rider as soon as possible…

To Be Continued…

This expanded re-issue of the 1991 Ghost Rider Resurrected trade paperback also includes the cover and introduction to that volume, pin-ups by Saltares, Texeira & Palmiotti and a full cover gallery and, despite being markedly short on plot and utterly devoid of humour, does deliver the maximum amount of uncomplicated thrills, spills and chills for action-starved fight fans.

If you occasionally feel that subtlety isn’t everything and yearn for a vicarious dose of simple wickedness-whomping, this might well be the book for you…
© 1990, 1991, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Punisher


By Steven Grant, Mike Zeck & John Beatty, Jo Duffy & Mike Vosburg (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-394-6

The story goes that Marvel Comics were reluctant to give Frank Castle a starring vehicle in their standard colour comic-book line, feeling that the character’s very nature made him a bad guy and not a good one. Debuting as a villain in Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974), the Punisher was created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, a response to such increasingly popular prose anti-heroes as Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: the Executioner and other returning Viet Nam vets who all turned their training and talents to wiping out organised crime.

Castle saw his family gunned down in Central Park after witnessing a mob hit, and thence dedicated his life to eradicating criminals everywhere. His methods are violent and permanent. It’s intriguing to note that unlike most heroes who debuted as villains (Wolverine comes to mind) the Punisher actually became more immoral, anti-social and murderous, not less: the buying public shifted its communal perspective – Castle never toned down or cleaned up his act…

As well as his many “hero-or-villain” appearances in other character’s series the crazed crime-crusher had previously starred in Marvel Preview #2 (1975) and Marvel Super Action #1 (1976), but as these were both black and white magazines aimed at a far more mature audience, writer Steven Grant and penciller Mike Zeck apparently had an uphill struggle convincing editors to let the grim, gun-crazed maniac loose in that shiny world where little kids might fixate on a dangerous role model – and their parents might get all over-protective, litigious and shirty…

In 1985 they finally got the green-light and the five issue miniseries turned the industry on its head, although there was indeed plenty of controversy to go around – especially as the series had a “hero” who had lots of illicit sex and killed his enemies in cold blood. Also causing problems for censorious eyes were the suicide of one of the major characters and the murder of innocent children. Doesn’t it make you proud to realise how far we’ve since come…

The company mitigated the potential fall-out with the most lacklustre PR campaign in history, but not telling anybody about The Punisher didn’t stop the series from becoming a runaway, barnstorming success. The rest is history…

Two years later as the graphic novel market was finally getting established and with Frank Castle one of the biggest draws in comics (sorry, I’m such a child sometimes) that contentious series was released as a complete book and it remains one of the very best of all his many exploits.

The action begins in ‘Circle of Blood’ as Frank Castle is locked in Ryker’s Island prison where every inmate is queuing up to kill him. Within hours though he has turned the tables and terrified the General Population, but knows that both old foe Jigsaw and the last of the great mob “Godfathers” have special plans for him…

When a mass breakout frees all the cons Castle brutally steps in. For this he is allowed to escape by the warden, who casually offers him membership in The Trust, an organisation of “Right-minded, law-abiding citizens” who approve of his crusade against crime. Castle also discovers he’s being stalked by Tony Massera, a good man from a bad family.

‘Back to the War’ finds the Punisher back on the streets hunting scum, supplied by the Trust but still not a part of their organisation. After an abortive attempt to blow up The Kingpin, he is saved by the mysterious Angel, and begins a liaison with her. Tony wants to kill him to avenge his father, one of Punisher’s many gory successes – but only after the streets have been swept clean of scum like the rest of his own family…

With everybody believing the master of New York’s underworld dead, a bloody gang-war erupts with greedy sub-bosses all trying to claim the top spot, but by the events of ‘Slaughterday’ Castle realises that too many innocents are getting caught in the crossfires. He also discovers in ‘Final Solution’ that the Trust have their own national agenda as hit men and brainwashed criminals dressed in his costume are out there, executing mobsters and fanning the flames…

All the Trust’s plans for this “Punishment Squad” and the country are uncovered in the blockbusting conclusion ‘Final Solution Part 2’ as all the pieces fall into place and the surviving players reveal their true allegiances. In a classy final chapter mysteriously completed by the highly underrated Jo Duffy and Mike Vosburg, from Grant’s original plot, The Punisher takes charge in his inimitable manner, leaving God to sort out the paperwork….

We can only speculate as to why the originators fell away at the last hurdle, but I’m pretty sure those same reluctant editors played some part in it all…

This superbly gritty, morally ambiguous if not actually ethically challenging drama never ceases to thrill and amaze, and has been reprinted a number of times: in the black and white compilation Essential Punisher volume 1, as Punisher: Circle of Blood, in hardback editions (2006 and 2008) and of course, as the satisfyingly heavy calibre softcover graphic novel (with a new original painted Zeck cover) under review here.

Whichever version suits your inclinations and wallet, if you love action, cherish costumed comics adventure and crave the occasional dose of gratuitous personal justice this one should be at the top of your “Most Wanted” list.
© 1988 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Punisher: Intruder


By Mike Baron, Bill Reinhold & Linda Lessman (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-544-2

Frank Castle saw his family gunned down in Central Park after witnessing a mob hit, and thereafter dedicated his life to destroying criminals. His methods are violent and permanent.

Debuting as a villain in Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974), the Punisher was created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, in response to increasingly popular prose anti-heroes like as Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: the Executioner and other returning Viet Nam vets who all turned their training and talents to wiping out organised crime. It’s worth noting that unlike most heroes who debuted as villains (such as Wolverine) the Punisher actually became more anti-social and murderous, not less as the buying public shifted its communal perspective: Castle never toned down or cleaned up his act…

After stalking the Marvel universe for years a 1986 miniseries by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck swiftly led to overnight stardom and a plethora of “shoot-‘em-all and let God sort it out” antics that quickly boiled over into tedious overkill, but along the way a few pure gems were cranked out, such as this joyously gratuitous graphic novel.

Intruder also takes another sneaky peak into Castle’s life prior to that fateful walk in the Park, and begins when his stake-out of a Medellin cartel boss goes horribly wrong. Whilst watching the drug-lord’s home he sees a team of armed raiders burst into the house next door. Realising the assassins have attacked the wrong home, he moves in but is far too late. The only survivor is seven year old Maggie Pulowski…

Knowing that whoever the raiders were, they’ll return once they realise there is a witness left, Castle takes her under his wing, eventually leaving her in the seminary where he once trained to be a priest.

Meanwhile partner and Intel man Micro has found the mystery raiders. An ex-Navy  colonel with dubious links to both the American and Korean CIA, and backed by ultra-right wing, anti-communist religious leaders, Ross Whittaker now runs his own private army and air force from a rocky desert citadel in Utah. Tasked with assassinating drug-runners, left-wingers and anybody his money-men don’t like, nobody realises that Whittaker has plans of his own and is covertly carving out a private narcotics empire.

With Whittaker’s ruthless forces now closing in on Maggie, the rogue Colonel instantly advances to the top of the Punisher’s “to do list”…

This intriguing hardback in the so-satisfying oversized European format (284m x 215m) is not as readily available as many other Punisher tales but is still a spectacular, all-action, blockbuster romp stuffed with the usual cathartic gun-play, loads of martial arts mayhem in the best Mike Baron tradition with the added zest of seeing our one-man-army take on an actual military force. Whilst the climactic duel in flashing jet-fighters is utterly breathtaking, and a credit to the vastly underrated Bill Reinhold, some of the most interesting moments are the trenchant flashbacks to Frank Castle; cleric-in-training – particularly funny and painfully insightful…

Hard, fast and enticingly brutal, this non-stop, top-gun rocket-ride has everything that made the series so popular, stripped down and converted to a form of cinema blockbuster that is absolutely irresistible. This is another unrepentant guilty pleasure and you know you want it…
© 1989 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.