Of all of Marvel’s heroes he, in many ways, is the least interesting. He doesn’t have any cool powers, creative gadgets or armored suits. His backstory is about as generic as you can possibly get and at first glance there really isn’t anything that separates him from any unstoppable badass archetype that was commonplace in the 80s and 90s action movie scene. But then you realize that he’s in the same universe as guys like Spider-Man and the character becomes increasingly cringe-worthy.
The problem with the Punisher as a character as well as the stories that he is featured in is that they always end the same way; he kills people. It doesn’t matter what the story is about, who the antagonists are or what the actual stakes are in the book that he is featured in. They always end the same way. This, unfortunately, places a limit on how many stories you can tell with the character and ultimately makes him look like a maniac with an M16 mowing down criminals for fun while guys like Spider-Man go out of their way trying to bring them to justice the right way. When compared to heroes like that and given the way writers often characterize him the Punisher is, when all is said and done, a psychopath who attempts to destroy crime through brute force and it never ceases to amaze me that people seem to think that the character is some kind of symbol to rally behind. But sometimes we get a writer who knows all of this and holds it up to the cold light of day. When they do you get a series like The Punisher from Marvel’s MAX imprint.
Running from 2004 to 2009 the MAX version of The Punisher was created by Garth Ennis, best known today for his work on the Preacher series and had previously worked on the character for the Marvel Knights imprint. The series apparently came out of a desire by Ennis to write a more profound series revolving around the character with storylines featuring more thematic depth that would be worthier of discussion then previous Punisher stories had been with a hard mature rating. Then in the early 2000s with the backing of Marvel Editor Axel Alonso he got his wish, writing sixty of the series seventy-five issues along with two miniseries titled The Punisher Presents: Barracuda and The Punisher: Born. And given that The Punisher Netflix series recently came out we at The Nerd Hub decided to take a look at the first volume of The Complete Edition. This is Comic Book Spotlight shining a light on The Punisher: The Complete EditionVolume One.
Now before we go any further I will warn you that this will be more of an analysis of the stories within the book and the themes and subject matter presented within. As such, there will be a HUGE number of spoilers within this article. But, as per usual with Comic Book Spotlight articles, if you are here looking for a quick recommendation here it is: The book is really, REALLY good. While the work of Garth Ennis and the MAX imprint tends to be hit or miss this version of the Punisher is a home run for two of the three stories that the book contains. If you’re like me and the Punisher is a character who you never particularly cared for this is one that fully acknowledges all of the reasons you probably despise the character and turns it into something profound and worth discussing beyond the violence. Plus it has all the gratuitous, over the top gore and action that admittedly makes the character so fun and people who just flat out unironically like the character will probably enjoy it as a result.
In any case, the book features three different stories written by Ennis. The first of which is the Born miniseries that covers Castle’s final command during the Vietnam War as a captain in a base known as Firebase Valley Forge along the Cambodian border. The story itself takes place in 1971 and is told from the point of view of a private under Castle’s command by the name of Steve Goodwin. Everyone knows that the war isn’t going to last much longer and no one really wants to be at the base. Most of people at the garrison are drunk or high on pot and dope with black market dealers seemingly taking up permanent residence within the base, giving it a reputation as the heroin capital of I-Corps. In the midst of all of this Castle is desperately trying to maintain order and keep the base as functional as possible as a Vietcong offensive looms on the horizon.
The main thing that the story does right is that it doesn’t frame Castle as the protagonist. He’s more or less a supporting character with the reader’s p.o.v. character, Steve Godwin, commenting on the situation and what kind of person Castle actually is. Through Steve’s narration and Castle’s own actions several things become clear about this version of the character before he lost his family. Mainly that he was always a badass who could take on just about any challenge but was also clearly a psychopath with an addiction to violence who was ultimately only good for making a bad situation even worse. Throughout the story he gets his fellow marines through numerous patrols virtually unscathed. Despite being a haven for heroin addicts everyone at the base fears and respects him and is clearly the only one maintaining any semblance of order. But at the same time he murders a fellow soldier in cold blood when he thought no one was looking and considers murdering his CO who he views as a problem, (though to be fair the CO was incompetent and the fellow soldier tried to rape a sniper who happened to be a woman). Early on he tricks a visiting general into being shot by a sniper because he was going to recommend the base to be shut down so he might fight in the war a little longer. This of course results in the base being attacked and everyone but Castle being slaughtered. All of which indicates that despite being a tough badass the psychotic foundation for The Punisher was always there even before he lost his family.
Additionally, the artwork for this story is just fantastic. All the period piece details are accurate, and it really puts you in the Vietnam-era headspace. Thick jungles are everywhere, bases are haphazardly maintained with a cloud of cynicism constantly looming over every panel. The battle imagery is the stuff of nightmares, showing it in a kind of hellish light that most other artists could only dream of making and perfectly complements the dark tone of the writing. All around it works as not only a fantastic Punisher story but a great Vietnam War story and is one that I highly recommend checking out.
Then we have our second story titled In The Beginning which was originally published in The Punisher 1-6 and is, without a doubt, the single best story featuring Frank Castle that I have ever read. Unfortunately, to really talk about why it works so well means that I am going to have to spoil the entire book from start to finish. So, if you haven’t read this version of The Punisher already I highly recommend that you close this article for now, go to a nearby bookstore, give it a read and then continue the article. Deal? Okay then. The story takes place roughly twenty years after Castle’s family was murdered. Everyone involved in their deaths is long since dead but Castle still continues his war against what he perceives to be the insanity of the world all the same. After killing an old mafia boss and the majority of his men the remaining members of the family bring in an exiled member along with his two main henchmen who were considered too ruthless and bloodthirsty for the family to be associated with in order take Castle down. At the same time, Frank’s longtime ally Micro agrees to help a CIA group capture him so they might use him as a weapon against terrorists and America’s enemies.
The story is simply brilliant on almost every conceivable level and gives you everything you could you want and everything you should want out of a Punisher story. From a strict storytelling perspective the book is easily one of the tightest written stories that I have read in a long time. It knows when to be fast paced and full of insane action sequences and when to be slow and contemplative. It perfectly balances the CIA story with the mafia story so that when the two inevitably converge it feels natural as opposed to forced. The story’s true brilliance, however, is in the way they characterize Frank or, more accurately, how they don’t. Throughout the story, Frank only has a few inner monologues and even fewer lines of spoken dialog. What little we do get out of him is mostly just exposition, injury reports and tactics. It’s all about how badly he’s hurt or how many enemies have slipped by him and such. As a result he simply doesn’t have anything that we could discern as a personality beyond being a stoic killing machine and gives us next to nothing to empathize with or attach on to. Even his face always seems to be shrouded in darkness and when we do see it it’s a lined, wrinkled mess fixed in a permanent scowl that bears an uncanny resemblance to a poorly aged Clint Eastwood, (the subtext on that alone is worth its own article).
Because of this you have supporting characters, most notably Micro, who keep trying to project some kind of personality onto him, often with deadly results. He is the one character who is, without a doubt, the heart and soul of the book. It’s clear from the start that he still considers Frank a friend and is only working with this CIA group to help him. He views Frank’s mission as The Punisher as a fruitless one and is desperate to get him out of this destructive lifestyle and into a setting where he might actually be able to do some real good and constantly psychoanalyzes him in an attempt to guess why he is the way he is. Heck, even when his CIA plans blow up in his face he still stands by Frank and watches his back as a literal army of mobsters attack his hideout despite Frank all but promising to kill him if he stuck around. Unfortunately for Micro it turned out that this CIA group had been funding its operations by smuggling in heroin from Afghanistan. Because of this and Frank’s extreme viewpoints on…well punishment, he executes Micro for being a part of it despite all his help. After working with this guy for years, after he had his back when he had no reason to, after every action that he took in the story that was only ever meant to help him, Frank just shoots him in the head like he was any other common criminal. It just goes to show what a detached, inhuman, psychotic machine this character is demonstrated through the literal murder of the closest thing in this world that he had to a friend. It’s all really good stuff and perfectly demonstrates why the character is so cool but also why he is so horrifying. It’s just a shame that the same can’t be said for the final story.
Now let me make one thing clear before I go any further with this. The final story isn’t bad. It’s just generic. Whereas the previous two arcs took the mature rating and used it to tell more thoughtful, borderline deconstructive stories this one plays out more or less as a straightforward Punisher story. Everything about it from the art style to the characters to the writing just screams “normal Punisher” in a way that the previous stories did not. The plot focuses on Frank and a British friend from his Vietnam days who are tracking several IRA related gangs in New York City. At the same time, the gang leaders fight each other over the hidden fortune of their despised and deceased leader.
Now, once again, the problem with the story isn’t that it’s objectively bad but that it’s extremely underwhelming when compared to the previous two. Frank is no longer the enigmatic figure whose faces is always covered in shadow. No longer is he a character with next to no dialog or inner monologues. No longer is he a character who everyone projects their own emotions on to guess what he might be thinking or feeling. This time around he is a fully fledged third-person narrator seen in daylight who lacks any interesting insight on the proceedings. As a result he comes off as less the unknowable, inhuman killing machine that he was in the previous stories and more like the brute with a gun that he tends to be portrayed as in the comics, making him significantly less interesting.
The storytelling, for the most part, also can’t help but feel a bit disjointed. There are just a few too many characters and a few too many moving pieces that can be difficult to keep track of. One moment we are being introduced to a major IRA terrorist who lacks a face and then the book jumps to a psychotic black man from Belfast who is chopping a man to pieces and sending them to his wife. Then in another issue we’re introduced to another gang with its own members who are all somehow connected. The problem is that the story is only six issues long and, as a result, none of these characters are developed particularly well. The faceless IRA man, for example, never really goes beyond being the faceless IRA guy nor do the River Rat gang characters ever amount to much more than being the Irish gang who like to rob boats. As a result when all the moving parts come together at the end you just don’t care about the outcome and it can’t help but draw attention to how tightly written and drawn the previous stories were. But it doesn’t stop the fact that the first two stories were simply amazing.
By the time this article comes out The Punisher Netflix show will have been out for at least a week. While I can’t say that I’m as over the moon about it as some people are I can honestly say that it should get people interested in the comics and as far as I am concerned the MAX imprint of The Punisher is the perfect place to start. The first story gives us a dark and disturbing Vietnam story, showing that even before Frank’s eventual tragedy there was something darker within the man as there often are with people like him. In The Beginning is without a doubt the single best story I have ever read featuring the character and works as both an objectively good Punisher story as well as a deconstruction of the character. It may have lost its steam for its final story but the first volume in The Punisher: The Complete Edition is absolutely one that I recommend and is more than worth your time and money.
Trey Griffeth is the Head Writer of The Nerd Hub's Comic Book Spotlight section as well as a contributing writer to Video Game Spotlight. In addition to his work with The Nerd Hub, he is also a Staff Writer for Heroic Hollywood.