In the comic book world, if you’re a criminal and you happen to see that “Skull” logo headed your way, then no doubt it’s the last thing you’ll ever see as you’re about to come to a terrible, horrific end at the hands of Frank Castle, aka THE PUNISHER.
Originally introduced as a villain in The Amazing Spider-Man Issue #129 back in 1974, there’s no way that creators Gerry Conway and John Romita Sr. could’ve possibly imagined that this random character would go on to spawn several solo comic book series, 3 motion picture adaptations and gain world-wide cultural popularity.
THE PUNISHER is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance having just been introduced into the Marvel/Netflix TV universe via the 2nd season of DAREDEVIL (now streaming), where he’s portrayed by Jon Bernthal in probably one of his most accurate live-action interpretations of the character to date. And while Bernthal showed just how complicated, emotional and deep the psyche of Frank Castle can really be, the one thing that’s always been a thrill about the comics is how insanely talented Frank is at improvising when it comes to murdering criminals in the most creative of ways.
There have been a lot of amazing artists and writers over the years that have put their stamp on THE PUNISHER, but for me personally, nothing can top the sheer lunacy of the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon run. (The same guys behind the acclaimed PREACHER series, which is about to make the leap to TV!) If you’ve never read a Punisher comic, start with “Welcome Back, Frank.” It’s pure stylized entertainment. And below, I’m going to showcase some of my favorite of Frank’s many creative kills. If you’re as sick and twisted as I am, then you’ll probably find the following hilarious.
In the opening of Ennis’ run, “Welcome Back, Frank,” THE PUNISHER sets his sights on the Gnucci family, the current head of organized crime in New York City fronted by the evil & maniacal Ma Gnucci. He decides to target her sons first, starting with her number one, Carlo. This sleaze bucket is taking a “date” for a romantic view from the top of the Empire State Building when Frank intercepts them on the top floor. And… throws Carlo off the top of the Empire State Building.
After this, naturally Ma Gnucci calls in all the neighboring families and declares war on THE PUNISHER. She wants his head, literally on a platter. At one point, a surprise ambush leads Ma Gnucci herself and a group of her men into the Central Park Zoo after an injured Frank Castle. With no weapons handy, he has to improvise. And improvise, he does as he feeds one of her goons to an aquarium full of piranhas and another to a giant snake. But the best of the bunch is when Frank, Ma Gnucci and her henchman end up in a polar bear tank. Frank punches one of the bears in the face to entice him and well… you can see what happened next.
Believe it or not, while her bodyguard might’ve lost his head, Ma Gnucci actually survives this brutal attack from a pack of polar bears and is left completely limbless at the end of it! I don’t mean to laugh, but there’s nothing crazier than the head of the mob suddenly left as nothing more than a torso and a head. But it doesn’t last forever. In their final confrontation together, The Punisher sets her house ablaze with the intent of letting her burn. In a last ditch effort, Ma Gnucci emerges from the house, full of rage and attempts to bite Frank. He simply retorts by kicking her limbless body back into the fire!
The thing that Frank Castle excels at is being able to think fast, even when he’s not on his feet. In Issue 19 of the Marvel Knights PUNISHER series, Frank Castle is very badly injured after the Russian mob unexpectedly shows up in the middle of a huge, secret mob meeting that Frank was in the process of clearing out with his traditional style of vigilante justice. He ends up taking three slugs to the chest and passes out in the neighboring woods, inevitably waiting to die. By sheer fate, he’s found by Joan “The Mouse” at her peaceful, secluded cabin in the woods. Joan (as portrayed by Rebecca Romijn in the 2004 movie version) was introduced as Frank’s neighbor in “Welcome Back, Frank.” Terrified of the city and society in general, Frank leaves her a sizable amount of cash at the end of that series to disappear and find a nice, quiet place far away from everyone. Little did she know that Frank would stumble into her life in this way. With the Punisher wounded, the Russians decide this is their best chance at finally killing him. While Frank is confined to a bed (!), one of the Russians forces his way into the cabin and Frank simply asks Joan to “push him towards me, as hard as you can?” So even when the Punisher can barely move and only has use of one good arm, he can take out a bad guy!
During “Welcome Back, Frank,” in desperation, Ma Gnucci hires “The Russian,” one of the most deadly and notorious hitmen to ever walk the Earth. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to him!) He ended up being one of the most popular and worthwhile adversaries to The Punisher ever, so Ennis had to go ever bigger with his next nemesis. He created Barracuda, a former US Army-trained bad-ass who also assisted the CIA and eventually became a feared gangster. He’s later hired by Harry Ebbing, a corrupt and violent corporate CEO for a company called Dynaco that The Punisher is investigating. During their epic battle, The Punisher manages to poke out one of Barracuda’s eyes and sever a few of his fingers. In retaliation, rather than flat out kill Frank, Barracuda decides to take him out to sea to feed him to the sharks. The Punisher sinks the boat and, instead, everyone else is eaten by sharks. Barracuda manages to survive and hop on board Frank’s boat, but Castle promptly unloads Barracuda’s own AK-47 point blank into his face. Below is not a pic of the amazing Barracuda, but hey, it’s from the same issue and it’s Frank feeding one of Dynaco’s people to a shark!
Last but certainly not least is The Russian! Oh, the Russian. Hired by Ma Gnucci to take out the Punisher, The Russian is an unstoppable brute. He also happens to be a huge superhero fan and first thinks this “Punisher” that he’s never heard of might be as cool as Spider-Man or Thor, both of whom the Russian hopes to see in action while in New York. All that aside, The Russian has never failed at killing a target. And in fact, he even catches Frank off guard at the apartment complex he’s holed up in and the two engage in an epic fight that lasts 2 full issues! Literally beaten to the verge of death, Frank is thrown into the apartment of his neighbor, Mr. Bumpo, a 500 pound giant that once had to have a wall knocked down in his place just to get him to the hospital when he suffered a heart attack. Mr. Bumpo usually has a fresh few pies of pizza on his kitchen counter from the joint down the street. Frank grabs a steaming hot pie and throws it straight into the Russian’s face. Blinded and burned for a few seconds, Frank takes the opportunity to trip him, grab Mr. Bumpo and smother his adversary’s face with the fat man. Before dropping on him, Frank says “Welcome to New York” and the following happens…
Smothering by fat men, using a pissed off bear, feeding to sharks – we’re only just starting to scratch the surface of what The Punisher has done and is capable of doing! There have been so many great interpretations of The Punisher over the years from tons of great creative teams, but for me, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillion defined my ideal Punisher. While people tend to be mixed on the movie PUNISHER: WAR ZONE for it’s over-the-top insane nature, it’s the one adaptation that comes the closest to the wild world of Ennis’ PUNISHER. Check out the original Comic-Con red-band trailer below to see what I mean.
Here’s hoping that if Netflix and Marvel move forward on the inevitable PUNISHER series with Bernthal once again reprising his role, they’ll use some of the above as reference. It’d make for some great, f-ed up television, don’t you think?
*All Images: Marvel Comics