The Punisher is one of Marvel’s few enduring post-Silver Age success stories. Though I outgrew my interest in the Punisher sometime in my junior year of high school, there’s no denying that the character’s more lethally-minded take on the vengeful vigilante continues to hold a great deal of appeal for a certain segment of the fan population.
The elegant simplicity of Frank Castle’s motivations and scope of his mission make the Punisher an easy character to write in theory, if not “well” then “competently,” at least.
Feel like trying your hand at it? Then bash away, my friend, with the help of this handy-dandy Punisher plot template:
A (criminal/political/terrorist) organization’s profitable foray into (some illicit activity) has turned (location) into a war zone. Punisher takes it upon himself to permanently dismantle the organization, (one/a dozen/a hundred) (fatality/fatalities)at a time. Eventually, Punisher finally reaches the fiendish mastermind running the show. The big boss offers to placate the vigilante’s wrath with (a bribe/a moral relativist argument/some nookie), but is instead killed by (some thematically appropriate and “badass” method).
If you feel like being really creative, then don’t hesitate to drop in one of the following wild and crazy complications:
- a disapproving Spider-Man/Daredevil/Captain America
- a law-enforcement officer who is torn between hating the Punisher’s methods and appreciating the results
- one of Frank Castle’s old war buddies who is caught up in the middle of the illegal shenanigans
The devil is, as always, in the details, but the above formula has served the franchise well enough through the years. Therein lies the problem, however, as a limited palette applied to two monthly titles over the course of ten years can cause the narrative salt to lose its savor for even the most atrophied taste buds. Throw in the comics industry’s tendency to tread creative water on popular books until the diminishing returns can no longer be ignored, and you’ve got a pretty clear picture where the Punisher franchise stood in the late 1990′s.
In keeping with the prevailing formula for underperforming properties, Marvel editorial decided that what the Punisher needed was an outside-the-box attempt to juice the goose. Unfortunately, said goose-juicing resulted in 1998′s Punisher: Purgatory, a four-issue miniseries published under the “edgier” (and farmed-out) Marvel Knights imprint.
In a radical break from the character’s traditionally gritty, street-level roots, the Punisher, having taken his own life, was reborn as a supernatural vigilante thrust into a war between Heaven and Hell. The character essentially became “Angel” Punisher, or “Angel Pun” for short…
That would have been preferable, but no, this is what we got…
As ill-fitting a move as the transformation was, there were some well-regarded precedents for a ruthless supernatural vigilante. Michael Fleisher and Jim Aparo’s “Wrath of the Spectre” arc (itself an homage to the rough justice depicted in Golden Age superhero fare) of the early 1970s was a (no pun intended) spiritual precursor to the violent antihero trend of the 1980s that brought the Punisher to greater prominience. The same concepts have surfaced on several occasions in the pages of Hellblazer, starring the pragmatically ruthless sorcerer John Constantine.
But rather than amp up the supernatural horror and ultra-violence, Punisher: Purgatorywriter Christopher Golden chose to sink to the bland realm of contemporary super-hero fare. Glowing eyes and kicky forehead tattoo aside, there was little to distinguish Angel Pun from, well, anything. To top it off, readers were also treated to laughable revelations that the character’s trademark skull logo was inspired by a demon’s face and that the Punisher’s family died because their honest-to-Godness guardian angel was out whoring around that day. (Golden must have been a huge fan of Mopee.)
The Punisher’s new “magical” set of demon-killing sidearms (which managed to appear phallic, vaginal, and “worst toys of the year” material at the same time) were as comic book generic as they come. I know the whole “spectral .44′s which shoot magical bullets” gimmick is fairly hackneyed, but here was a place where it would have been entirely appropriate to employ the cliche. But, hey, they were spiky! And comics readers couldn’t get enough spikiness in the 1990s! Hell, they should have tossed some nonfunctional straps and a single shoulder pad in for good measure.
Even the much ballyhooed return of famed horror comics artist Bernie Wrightson to a Big Two title amounted to little more than an easy paycheck and proof that there is a level below Batman: The Cult to which the once-mighty may fall. The art isn’t necessarily terrible, just adequately non-descript. That might fit the overall tone of Punisher: Purgatory, but in the context of the artist who visualized Swamp Thing and who illustrated the Creepshow graphic novel, it’s a severe disappointment.
The supernatural revamp of Frank Castle failed to attract fan interest, and the subsequent relaunch — done by a creative team who built their rep working on another, better series about a spiritual and supernatural conflict — restored the character to his gritty, street-level roots to much critical and fan acclaim.
Still, as a terrible concept executed terribly, the short awful life of Angel Pun easily earned that incarnation the character a place in the shameful roster of Nobody’s Favorites.