I had never really been a big Punisher fan before. As a younger kid I thought he was too gritty and scary, too adult for me to pick up and read. I stuck to reading Batman, X-Men, and any other comic book that had a Saturday morning cartoon equivalent on at the same time. As I got a little older, I was no longer intimidated by the Punisher, rather, I was unimpressed. "Big deal, he's an angry looking dude with guns and a skull on his shirt! If I want that I'll just watch an action movie!" Those were my feelings in a nutshell regarding the Punisher, and I still kept up with my X-titles and moved into the soon to become phenomenon Manga fandom. Then, it happened, a movie came out that started this whole change of events. That movie, was the Matrix. I'm not going to go into the Matrix too much here, (it was awesome of course) and it also made me a Keanu Reeves fan (snicker if you will, but he has some good flicks under his belt, dammit!). What does this have to do with Frank Castle(That's the Punisher's real name)you ask? Well, Keanu Reeves soon was in another action movie, Constantine, based on the seminal Vertigo series, John Constantine: Hellblazer. The movie was somewhat removed from it's original source material , as I later found out, but I checked it out as a Reeves fan, and I liked what I saw. So, like Batman the Animated Series and the X-Men animated series before it, the film Constantine prompted me to pick up some John Constantine: Hellblazer trades, and I found another series that I would become a life-long fan of. Amongst these trades, the work that stood out the most to me, and kept me coming back to those somewhat pricey Hellblazer trades, was the work of writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon.
When I think of Hellblazer, Ennis and Dillon's version is the clearest in my mind, the definitive version, like Warner brother's animated version of Batman from the animated series is my quintessential Batman. After I read all of the Ennis and Dillon Hellblazer I could get my hands on, I wanted more. That is when a friend of mine, in college, loaned me the first, and subsequent volumes, of Preacher. I was in heaven! Preacher had extreme violence, dark humor, and was just plain odd, and I love every single page of it. Ennis and Dillon are the perfect story telling combo, and I read through those 9 trades very quickly. This, my friends, is where Frank Castle comes back into the picture. After all that Preacher, my taste for Ennis and Dillon was not quite yet satiated, and that is when my Preacher connect got me my Ennis and Dillon re-up, in the form of The Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank trade paperback.
Welcome Back, Frank is written, as you can probably guess, by Garth Ennis. Pencils are by Steve Dillon, inks by Jimmy Palmiotti, with colors by Chris Sotomayor (As well as iconic covers by Tim Bradstreet). The Punisher finds himself back in New York City (after some weird storyline where he hunts demons for heaven or something) to renew his war on the crime that plagues the good people of NYC. The Punisher's war mainly focuses on the crime families, and in these issues specifically on the Gnucci family. The Punisher kills one Gnucci brother in a warehouse during a drug buy, and kills another in the city morgue, featuring a shoot out with corpses being used as human shields (The Punsher chooses a nice fat corpse, bullets don't pass through those as easily it seems). The next Gnucci brother is hogtied and gagged, and the Punisher hoists him up completely over his head, and throws him off of the top of the Empire State building. These actions start an all out war with the leader of the Gnucci gang, Ma. Throughout the trade the Punisher crosses paths with Daredevil (who he ties up and humiliates), some odd neighbors (an Obese man, a shut-in mousey woman who bakes extra cookies and pies for Frank, and a pierced punk "Spacker Dave") and has him being tracked by the two detectives with the worst luck in the police dept, a Russian monster of a hit man, and a fan club of violent vigilantes.
The thing that makes Welcome Back, Frank so good is that...well it is just damn funny, and damn entertaining. It fills the violence quotient you would expect from a Punisher comic, but it isn't the type of violence that makes you squirm. It had loads of dark humor (making an amputee funny? Who'da thunk it?!) and doesn't take itself too seriously, but isn't a complete write-off either. It is a nearly perfect piece of entertainment, it satisfies on every level I expect to be satisfied with while reading a comic. Dillon's drawing here is very strong, an interesting middle ground in between his slightly more detailed work he did in Hellblazer and Preacher, and his somewhat more simplified work he does in lets say, Punisher Max: Kingping. His comedic timing (if such a thing is possible in a comic, I just can't think of another way to describe it) is right on money. I cannot praise this book enough.
After Welcome Back, Frank I moved on in my reading. The Punisher came back into my life when a little movie came out called Punisher: War Zone. Ignore anything you hear from the critics, this is an extremely well crafted movie, completely over the top and violent. This re-ignited my interest in The Punisher, and I went to the stores and picked up some issues of a Marvel Knights series, Punisher versus Bullseye. This series was written by Daniel Way, with art duties taken up by Punisher familiar Steve Dillon. Dillon is the reason I bought these issues, at the time I hadn't read anything by Daniel Way, and I did not particularly like the cover. The issues I have read of this series, I love. Much like the Ennis Punisher issues, it is hysterically funny. A mobster who once had to cross dress to disguise himself and escape from the Punisher (inexplicably he still cross dresses to the current day, and is in hiding) and his dim witted nephew hire on Bullseye to take out Frank Castle. Whether or not this was a good plan remains to be seen, I have only 3 of the 5 issues, I missed out on the last two and have yet to find them.
Following these, I took another break from Punisher books, until I came across yet another Steve Dillon-pencilled Punisher run, Punisher Max #1. I believe it's a relaunch of the Punisher Max series, previously written by Garth Ennis. This run is penned by Jason Aaron, with pencils/inks by Steve Dillon, and colors by Matt Hollingsworth. Collected in the trade paperback Punisher Max: Kingpin, Aaron tells the tale of how the Kingpin came to be. It is like a modern revamp, the Punisher is already well established, and getting on in years. The Kingpin is merely a heavy,but has plans in motion to become the Kingpin of Crime in NYC.
This series is dark. Still funny, but much more gritty. Frank Castle is practically a monster, he tortures his prey before killing them with pincers and hack saws, and literally pours salt into their open wounds. The Punisher is at his height of ruthlessness here, at least compared to what else I have read of the character. He is headed down a dark, dark path, as is the future Kingpin of Crime, Wilson Fisk. Fisk has a family, and works to become the top crime boss to ensure his son does not have to endure the same hard life he had to live through. The Kingpin is also strong as an ox. He runs through walls as if they were made of paper and cardboard, and by squeezing both sides of one mug's head,he pops his eyes out of his sockets. The Unfortunate mobster wanders around with his eyes dangling out of his sockets, until he finally shoves them back in...only to be killed by the Punisher. Humor is still around though maybe a bit harder edged than Ennis's previous Punisher work. (The work Ennis does in his current series, The Boys, definitely has a much harder edge than anything I've read from him before. Perhaps this series is trying to emulate?) Did I mention there is also a Mennonite hit-man? Yeah you heard me.
Needless to say, the Kingpin ascends to the highest level of crime, and the Punisher remains a thorn in his side. He turns to the hit man Bullseye to try his hand at destroying Frank Castle, and these issues, in my humble opinion, is where this new MAX series gets going. Bullseye is, in a word FUCKING INSANE. Jason Aaron paints Bullseye as a ritualistic hit man, who must learn as much as he can about his target in order to eliminate them. This is a little more complicated than going to the library and looking at old newspapers, or using google. Bullseye tortures information out of known contacts. He visits sites in which castle has been know to live, and kill. He sleeps in mattresses the Punisher has slept in...naked. The Lengths Bullseye goes to familiarize himself with his target have to be seen to be believed. I cannot wait to see where Aaron goes from here. As for the artwork, Steve Dillon's style is a tad simplified here, I find the work he did in Welcome Back, Frank to be a bit more polished and appealing, but I still think this is exactly the kind of book he should be working on.