The late 1990s were a bad time to be the Punisher.
It hadn’t always been this way. There was a time when readers just couldn’t get enough of Marvel‘s skull-shirted vigilante. From the debut of his solo series in 1987 and all through the early 90s, Frank Castle was riding high on a wave of market popularity, starring in multiple titles every month. In fact, from 1992 to 1995, there were three concurrent comics dedicated solely to the Punisher: Punisher, Punisher War Journal, and Punisher War Zone. And I’m not even counting the limited series such as Punisher: Armory, where he described his guns in worrying detail for ten issues, or Punisher 2099, which followed the adventures of a guy who took up the mantle in the future and had some truly wonderful dialogue.
He was also a real fashion icon.
As the decade went on, however, the quality of Punishing steadily declined. In 1995, Marvel canceled all of its Punisher comics, relaunching the character two months later in a series where he temporarily went insane and hunted down S.H.I.E.L.D., believing they were responsible for his family’s death. Then he segued into a series where he became the head of an organized crime family, tangled with the X-Men, and grew a ponytail. Somehow this lasted for 18 issues, because comics are ridiculous.
Fast forward to 1998, when the company established an exciting new imprint: Marvel Knights, where creators could focus on producing solid stories and strong character work without having to worry about continuity or crossovers or the often confusing logistics of monthly comics. However, it didn’t quite pan out like that for ol’ Frank. His initial Marvel Knights outing, the four-issue miniseries Punisher: Purgatory, remains one of the lowest points in the character’s history.
The basic storyline: having killed himself off-panel at some indeterminate point in the past, the Punisher is resurrected by the guardian angel who failed to save his family, in what is less a gesture of goodwill and more a gesture of “sorry I let your wife and kids get murdered.” The angel imbues him with supernatural powers so that he can kill demons on heaven’s behalf, which in practice involves walking around with a mystical sigil on his forehead, glowing red eyes, guns that sort of look like an H. R. Giger wannabe’s rough drafts, and of course a black trenchcoat. Not even the legendary Bernie Wrightson’s pencils could save this.
For whatever reason, Marvel then decided to take just one more shot at the Punisher: Heaven’s Good Shooting Boy schtick with Wolverine/Punisher: Revelation, a miniseries where Frank and his angel guns team up with Canada’s favorite mutant. It was…not well received:
When you’ve run a former tentpole character all the way into the ground, you have two choices: consign them to the scrap heap or make an effort to rediscover what attracted readers to them in the first place. No more coasting on complacency. Thankfully, Marvel opted for choice number two with the Punisher. Who better to bring that to life than Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, a.k.a. the team from Preacher—a comic lauded for blending violence with humor and insightful, heartfelt character work?
That last part proved extremely important for what Ennis and Dillon were doing. Their 12-issue Marvel Knights Punisher series, “Welcome Back, Frank,” got right to the heart of the character rather than trying to figure out new ways to justify his murdering. Together they created a compelling narrative about a man who built an identity out of killing not because he saw himself as a defender of good, but because he chose to live every day as though it were a war, as summed up in moments like this:
“The idea was…I’d eventually redeem myself. Tried it. Didn’t like it.” Who would turn down a clear shot at eternal redemption? Frank Castle, that’s who. Even paradise wasn’t worth giving up the path he’d chosen. Ennis and Dillon’s Punisher sure was entertaining to read about, but he was not a person you would ever want to be.
Within that core concept lay the foundation for the modern incarnation of the Punisher, as well as his resurgence in popularity. The critically acclaimed Punisher MAX series written by Ennis, which inspired the movie Punisher: War Zone and the Marvel Netflix show, expounds on the idea of Frank as having shed his humanity in order to become the character we all know and love/get grim satisfaction from watching.
As the 20th anniversary of the Marvel Knights imprint draws nearer, it’s worth revisiting the Ennis and Dillon Punisher—partially because it tells you who the character is in a straightforward, smart, and always entertaining way, but also because it’s a testament to how much a single run can influence perceptions of a character in the long term. Plus, this panel:
And that, I think, is beyond mere words.
What are your favorite Marvel Knights memories? Tell us in the comments!