Frank Castle, the former marine turned gun-toting vigilante known as the Punisher, has just killed a major Marvel supervillain. Frank’s had some rocky times lately, being tricked into working for Hydra and trying to make up for it by stealing the War Machine armor, and now he’s set aside his crusade against the underworld of the Marvel Universe to focus on the sort of world-ending super-criminals that usually give the Avengers a run for their money.
This week’s The Punisher #1 by Matthew Rosenberg, Szymon Kudranski, Antonio Fabela and Cory Petit catch us up on how Frank plans to make his mark on the Marvel Universe, and makes a compelling case for why a one-man war on crime has a place in a world of gods, aliens and superheroes.
One Man War On Terror
This week’s The Punisher #1 is a great place for new readers, even if there’s some history behind it. Writer Matthew Rosenberg has been shepherding Frank Castle through his post-Hydra quest for atonement for a year now, as Frank commandeered the armor of the then-deceased James Rhodes (aka War Machine). After using the armor to take down a corrupt dictator and spark an international incident, he set his sights on the men who manipulated him into aiding Hydra’s takeover of the United States, Hydra’s Supreme Leader, Baron Heinrich Zemo.
That grudge against Zemo extends into this week’s new volume, as we see Hydra gaining control of the nation of Bagalia. Looking for legitimacy on the world state, the facist group appeals to the United Nations for official recognition. The fictional island nation was introduced several years ago as a safe-haven for the world’s super-villains with Zemo as its head of state. Now that Hydra is in full control, it seems he’s got a new plan.
Zemo recognises that if you put on a mask and tie Captain America to an exploding rocket, you’re probably going to go to jail; if you put on a suit and grease the necessary palms, you can pretty much get away with anything. To that end, Zemo has recruited Tem Borjigin — better known as the Mandarin — to be the public face of Bagalia, sending the villain to the UN to capitalise on Hydra’s backroom deals.
If you’re only familiar with the Mandarin through his … unconventional appearance in Iron Man 3, the comic incarnation has somewhat more ... traditional comic book origin. As a young man, he discovered a crashed spaceship and ten rings of power which give him mastery over different powers and effects. But it doesn’t matter too much if you don’t know who the Mandarin is or what his deal is, because Frank Castle totally kills him in front of Tony Stark and the whole world and, in doing so, sends a message to Zemo and every supervillain who thought they were above the Punisher’s notice.
Ten Rings, One Bullet
Like many great Punisher stories, Frank Castle isn’t actually in this issue that much and he doesn’t have more than a handful of lines — but his presence is felt throughout. Mostly, we see Baron Zemo’s scheles, the Mandarin torturing people and the deals made by Dario Agger of Roxxon — he’s an actual minotaur, but we’ll save that for another time. While the villains plot in secret, Frank’s portion of the story sees him assaulting a Roxxon base containing a special project of Zemo’s, raiding it for weapons and destroying it. Now, armed with super-science and magic-laced guns and gadgets, the Punisher is able to slip into the UN and assassinate the Mandarin.
In the aftermath of the assassination, we see the reactions from the likes of Iron Man, Black Widow, Nick Fury and Baron Zemo himself, suggesting that the Punisher’s actions are going to bring down the fury of the entire Marvel Universe upon him; heroes, villains and everything in between. But kicking off the series with the Mandarin is what’s really interesting. The last time we saw the character was when Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca killed him off in the pages of Invincible Iron Man, six years ago. It’s possible that we’re not supposed to worry about it, and the character was just deemed disposable because no-one was doing anything with him anyway, but it’s weird that this book would resurrect such an iconic villain with no reference of his previous death and then kill him off again in the same story.
The story and Frank’s approach is somewhat similar to Rick Remender’s run on The Punisher from several years ago, in which Frank set his sights on Norman Osborn — in a time when the Spider-Man villain was the director of SHIELD (he renamed it HAMMER) and was exerting supervillain influence over the US government. Similarly, that story also saw Frank weaponise the gizmos and gadgets of the Marvel Universe, using Pym Particles, Repulsor Rays and Hawkeye’s trick arrows to take on the bad guys. That run got somewhat sidetracked when the Punisher was turned into a Frankenstein — again, another time, but it’s a lot better than it sounds. This run seems to be taking a different approach that sets it apart from the stories which preceded it.
The Thick of It
There are some who argue that the best Punisher stories exist separate from a larger shared superhero universe — and there’s plenty of evidence for that. Garth Ennis’ groundbreaking Punisher MAX told the story of Frank Castle in as close to the real world as a Punisher story can get. Ennis and his collaborators showed us an aging Frank, still a Vietnam war veteran, taking on drug smugglers, human traffickers and organised crime, showing the long-term effects that kind of war on crime has on a city and on the man carrying it out. There’s no-one saying the Punisher works excellently outside of the Marvel Universe, but The Punisher #1 shows us how great the character can be inside of it.
Lest we forget, the Punisher made his first appearance in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man in which he was hired by the Jackal, a villain, to kill Spider-Man, a hero. Over the course of his forty-four years in comics, Frank Castle has punched a polar bear, pointed a gun at Archie Andrews, served as the Angel of Death and teamed up with Eminem. They’re not all great stories, granted, but they show a versatility to the character that some people would rather not exist. Even someone like Ennis, arguably the greatest Punisher writer of all time, understood the benefits of keeping the Punisher in the Marvel Universe. His Marvel Knights Punisher with Steve Dillon saw the character take on Daredevil, team-up with Spider-Man and run Wolverine over with a steamroller, Looney Tunes style.
Though there’s only one issue so far, Frank Castle has new mission which both the heroes and the villains of his world can’t ignore. Rosenberg and Kudranski walk the line between the outright lunacy of running Wolverine over with a steamroller and using Marvel’s shared universe to tell a rich, compelling and grounded Punisher story. Frank Castle was created by Gerry Conway, John Romita and Ross Andru as a character in the thick of the Marvel Universe, and this current volume seems to be living up to the spirit of that intention.
Kieran Shiach is a Salford, U.K.-based freelance writer and one half of Good Egg Podcasts. He is on Twitter, @KingImpulse. He wishes in the past he tried more things ’cause now he knows being in trouble is a fake idea.