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Captain Comics: Marvel's The Punisher, will let no crime go unpunished

Andrew A. Smith, Tribune News Service on

Published in Comic Books

When "Marvel's The Punisher" drops at Netflix Nov. 17, rest assured that what's on screen will be the best of the many versions of Frank Castle that have appeared in the comics.

Frank (ne Francis Castiglione) at his core is a fairly generic character, with more than a passing similarity to Don Pendleton's Mack "The Executioner" Bolan. As an archetype without much of a personality, Frank has always been fair game for ambitious writers to stretch his concept – and the reader's credulity. As a result, Frank has been presented in some mighty strange ways.

ZERO TOLERANCE

Completely ignored today is a short period in Frank's publishing history when he seemed to embrace the "broken windows" theory with -- as usual -- a vengeance. That's the idea that links little crimes like vandalism with more serious crimes, due to a theoretical rise in incivility and respect for law.

Or as Frank himself put it in this 1983 story:

"Crime, if left unpunished, breeds further crime. A man's crime of battery against his wife today ... makes him capable of committing a crime against others tomorrow. I can't allow that escalation."

As good as his word, Frank shoots a wife-beater. And a cab driver who runs a red light. And a litterer. "Littering is a crime against society," he thinks, as he sprays the street with an automatic weapon.

If you think that's crazy, you're not wrong. Two issues later, a judge declares Frank insane, which explains this weird divergence from his regular modus operandi. Better yet, by Frank's next appearance this storyline had dropped down the memory hole completely.

CORPORAL PUNISHMENT

In a 1980 story, Spider-Man discovers Frank using rubber bullets against mobsters. It's entirely likely that this story was simply a case of Marvel getting cold feet about a "hero" who is a merciless killer.

We used to be so naive, y'all.

Frank was back to using real ammo soon enough. Even so, The Punisher has since used rubber bullets for plausible, in-story reasons on other occasions -- specifically when the character is forced into team-ups with superheroes like Spider-Man or Daredevil. I mean, it's weird enough that these "nobody dies on my watch" types haven't gone all out to put The Punisher behind bars (or in a psych ward). So Frank's careful around them. He doesn't force them to act by displaying his homicidal inclinations under their costumed noses.

"For Frank to exist in the (Marvel Universe) and do what he does, he's got to stay below the radar," writer Greg Rucka explained in a 2012 interview with CBR.com. "I think for Frank to survive, he's got to know that. He's got to know that if he keeps his profile low, Thor is less likely to come and hit him on the head with his hammer because Thor is going to be busy hitting other people with his hammer who are trying to eat the Earth."

Well, yeah. That's just common sense.

ANGEL OF DEATH

In 1998, Frank had been dead for a while, but was resurrected. (That happens more often than you'd think.) He was returned to life by an angel -- the guardian angel of Frank's family, who had failed at his job and was seeking redemption.

Gadriel, as he was called, gave Frank heavenly weaponry that he could summon from inside his trenchcoat, plus glowing red eyes, resistance to all injury (including bullets and Wolverine's claws), an Aramaic symbol on his forehead and a new mission. Frank doesn't seem to mind.

Frank: These guns kill demons?

Gadriel: Of course.

Frank: Let's do it.

This version lasted a total of eight issues -- a four-part miniseries, then a second one guest-starring Wolverine. Because it was the '90s, when Wolverine was in everything.

IT'S ALIVE!

In 2009, Frank was killed and resurrected. (See, I told you this happens a lot.)

Frank had been killed by Logan's son Daken, who used his Wolverine-like claws to dismember and decapitate him. Luckily, though, his dead parts were reassembled and brought back to life by Morbius, the Living Vampire, who was hiding with the Legion of Monsters in the sewers under New York City, and given hydraulic limbs and gigantic guns to defend the Monster Metropolis from monster-hunting samurai and Nazi zombies led by a mummified skeleton named Hellsgaard, who sought revenge on all monsters because his family was killed by werewolves.

I hope that sentence was as much fun for you to read as it was for me to write.

This updated version of Frank was immediately dubbed "Franken-Castle," which eventually became the name of the book. But obviously it didn't last. Two months after the last issue of "Franken-Castle," Frank was back to his old self in a new series.

Needless to say, he doesn't talk about this much.

WEIRD WORLDS

Some Punisher stories aren't "canon" -- that is to say, they take place out of the regular history of the character, but use the same basic premise. They can be a little, um, over the top.

-- "Archie Meets The Punisher" (1994): Frank pursues a criminal to Riverdale who bears a startling similarity to Archie Andrews. Hi-jinks ensue.

-- Batman team-ups: Frank met Batman at rival DC Comics twice in 1994 – but not the same Batman. In "Punisher/Batman: Deadly Knights," he teamed up with the Bruce Wayen version. In "Batman/Punisher," he met a fellow named Jean-Paul Valley, who filled in as the Dark Knight when Bruce's back was broken by Bane. (Spoiler: He got better.)

-- "Marvel Mangaverse: Punisher" (2002): Marvel tried its hand at manga-style comics using their traditional characters in the early aughts – and let's call the results mixed. In the mangaverse, The Punisher isn't even a man – she's Sosumi Brown, a girl's school principal by day who becomes "the paddling Punisher" at night. She's called "Tokyo's kinkiest superhero," because she eschews firearms for more interesting forms of punishment, such as whips, spanking and tickling a crime lord's feet with a feather. As you can imagine, this version only lasted one issue.

-- "Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe" (1995): The set-up of this one-shot is that Frank's family gets killed not by the mob, but as collateral damage in a superhero-supervillain battle. Naturally, this inspires Frank to murder everyone in a costume. Highlights include shooting Captain America in the back, dropping a nuke on the X-Men and killing Dr. Doom with a sledge hammer to his metal face mask ("Klang Klang Klang Squitch"). Not for the faint-hearted.

-- "Punisher: A Man Called Frank" (1994): This one-shot features Frank in the Wild West. It's exactly what you think it is.

BACK TO BASICS

All of the above should serve to make us grateful that Netflix chose to use the most enduring and popular version of Frank. That's the one best exemplified by the 12 issues written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Steve Dillon in 2000-01, returning the vigilante to his pulpy, noir roots. It's collected in a trade paperback titled "Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank," and if you only read one Punisher story in your life, that's probably the one you want.

In November, Frank returns in a new series wielding the War Machine armor in his crusade against criminals. I kid thee not. Writer Matthew Rosenberg told Newsarama.com in August that the series is about what happens when James Rhodes' Iron Man-style armor "falls into the wrong hands."

And are there any hands more wrong than those of Frank Castle?

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(Contact Captain Comics at capncomics@aol.com. For more comics news, reviews and commentary, visit his website: comicsroundtable.com.)

(c)2017 Andrew A. Smith

Visit his website at comicsroundtable.com.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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