ComicsClassics: The Punisher – Welcome Back Frank (Marvel Comics)
by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Does anyone remember what happened to The Punisher in the late 1990s? The character was pretty much dead in the water. After the very good John Romita Jr illustrated Warzone in the early '90s Marvel just seemed to make worse and worse choices in our favourite murdersous vigilante's direction. By the end of the 90s he was an angel killing sinners for God.
An angel. Killing the bad guys. For God.
An idea that sounds hideously bad but which in reality? Well it was infinitely worse!
Then in 2000 it all changed.
We said Welcome back, Frank.
Artist Steve Dillon and writer Garth Ennis had just completed their epic Preacher series for Vertigo and were on the hunt for new work. Marvel snapped them up and asked them was there a character they'd be interested in. There was. The Punisher.
However they didn't want a watered down angel of mercy Punisher. They wanted a back to basics take on Frank. They wanted a large body count. And they wanted some of the gloriously over the top violence their Preacher series had found infamy for.
Their pitch was so strong that Marvel launched a new imprint, Marvel Knights, for the series. An imprint aimed at more mature readers.
Where Welcome Back Frank excels is that it pretty much ignores all the crap that had gone so recently before and took the Punisher back to basics. Frank Castle had no battle-van, no Micro offering him guidance, no anything other than a scowl, a kevlar vest and a skull t-shirt. Oh and weaponry. Lots of weaponry.
The story opens with The Punisher returning back to New York city after some time away. He wants something big and splashy to announce his return to the underworld. A mafia goon hurled off of the Empire States Building? That'll do for Frank.
And so begins a sublime tale. We have the loveable but incompetent police detective Soap. He's the one man Punisher task force. Only... The NYPD like having the criminals killed so he is only assigned to the mission because it is expected he will fail. His character, along with that of fellow detective Mollie, provide some welcome comic relief against the hyper violence.
We have a female mafia boss with Ma Gnucci. A truly chilling villain. And one who shares a rather memorable scene with a Polar Bear...
Daredevil is the only other Marvel Superhero to feature. His appearance is brilliant. Frank manages to put the man without fear into a situation where he just can not win. Forced to make the impossible decision of either become a killer or let someone be killed how does ol' Hornhead deal with it? You'll have to read it to find out!
And of course this story gave us The Russian. A superhero fanboy. And a very VERY sick bastard. Eh Bigboy? You like that?
And you can add to all this a very cool subplot of three copycat Vigilantes in the form of Mr Payback, The Elite and The Holy. The is easily one of my all time favourite trade paperbacks!
Seek it out either online (legally! Or else Frank WILL Punish you, fatally, to death) or at your local bookshop or comic store today.
You really won't regret it.
Oh and I didn't even start on those amazing painted covers by Tim Bradstreet!