Posted April 6, 2016 by Drew Bagay in Comics

5 Essential Stories of The Punisher


For a long time, the Punisher has had a hard time breaking into mainstream superhero culture. Despite having three full-length movies, somehow his popularity has not reached the same level as other Marvel household names such as Captain America or Iron Man.

After Marvel Studios reacquired the Punisher’s rights back, the character was stuck in limbo for a while in terms of live action appearances. But the recent release of the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil saw Frank Castle’s much awaited debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And in light of the positive response he’s getting, we’d like to celebrate his successful debut with five recommended comic book stories for people looking for some more punishment.



Born_01From: Born #1-4

Born tells the tale of Frank Castle’s time as a Marine fighting in the Vietnam War. Garth Ennis teamed up with Darick Robertson (who would later team up again for The Boys) to explore the Castle’s state of mind during the war, suggesting that Castle genuinely enjoys war and killing way before he even became the Punisher. The story further implies that Castle is an unhinged psychopath to the point where he hears voices in his head (implied as the Devil himself).

It’s an interesting look on the ruthlessness of Frank Castle in the battlefield and the horrors of war. And Born’s success eventually led to Garth Ennis’ critically acclaimed MAX run on the character, which is regarded as one of the best Punisher runs in the character’s history.



Punisher_2000_01From: The Punisher (2000) #1-12

It’s important to note that before “Welcome Back, Frank” hit the shelves, the Punisher’s popularity was starting to decline which led to Marvel resorting to cheap gimmicks. Due to poor sales, Marvel canceled his ongoing series by making the Punisher commit suicide and then later be resurrected into a supernatural angel of death battling demons.

So when Garth Ennis came on board, he took the series back to a more grounded reality. Joined by Steve Dillon, the creative team brought the Punisher back to what he does best – killing crime families. “Welcome Back, Frank” stands out from the previous runs due to Ennis incorporating a good deal of humor and campiness (i.e. Frank punching a polar bear) to the series while still maintaining Frank’s grit and brutality. As a result, the series revitalized the Punisher to a new generation of readers, making him a top character in the Marvel Universe again.

Finally, the rooftop scene between Daredevil and Punisher in the TV series was based on one of the issues in this story arc.



Punisher_1986_01From: The Punisher (1986) #1-5

Before the Punisher became one of the more popular characters in Marvel, he actually started out as a one-off villain in Amazing Spider-Man #129. The character proved to be a hit with readers and subsequently started appearing in other titles at the time.

But what brought the Punisher to mainstream success was when Steven Grant and Mike Zeck took on the character in his own miniseries.

Violent and gritty, “Circle of Blood” marked the shift of mainstream comics to a more mature and darker style of storytelling that would be so associated with ’80s comics. It transformed Frank Castle into the criminal killing machine that we know him as today. And thanks to its success, the Punisher got his own ongoing solo title.



Punisher_2004_25From: The Punisher (2004) #25-30

Garth Ennis’ entire MAX run is outstanding all throughout, and definitely serves as recommended reading when it comes to the Punisher. The self-contained stories definitely are one of its greatest assets, meaning the rest of the Marvel heroes are non-existent in that world, being in the MAX imprint after all. As a result, Ennis was able to go all in on the violence and the themes he touched upon, which would be impossible in the main Marvel continuity.

In “The Slavers,” the Punisher discovers a huge sex slavery ring after saving a woman from attempted rape. And you can guess where it went to from there. The story tackles on a lot of delicate issues about human trafficking and other disturbing themes, and more importantly, it’s a fascinating look on what makes the Punisher tick.

It’s deep, emotional and dramatic, things that one wouldn’t probably expect in a Punisher book. “The Slavers” is a testament to how strong a writer Ennis can be when he wants to.



Punishermax_03From: PunisherMAX #1-5

After Garth Ennis left the Punisher it only lasted for about 15 issues before it got cancelled. While subsequent writers tried to emulate the violence and grit, it never lived up to the way Ennis handled the character. Then in 2010, a new series featuring writer Jason Aaron titled PunisherMAX debuted. And once again, Frank Castle is back on the streets.

Aaron’s main goal was to incorporate more traditional Marvel characters into the story as opposed to strictly limiting the Punisher’s enemies to crime organizations in Ennis’ MAX run. The first arc sees the establishment of the Kingpin of Crime to urban legend status, drawing the attention of Frank Castle. Wilson Fisk does appear and ends up being the main villain of the whole series, but Castle is uncertain whether the Kingpin really does exist or not.

With Steve Dillon on art, Aaron’s PunisherMAX brought the violence, dark humor, and the nihilistic tendencies that were present in Ennis’ run while also making it his own. This arc (and the entire run) serves as a love letter to fans of Ennis’ series.

Drew Bagay

Drew is a lover of comic books, movies, and all things pop culture. He enjoys crime/thriller/noir fiction, playing the guitar, and taking long walks. He also doesn't like talking in third person.