Star of three movies and countless comics, The Punisher is one of the most famous comic characters in the world, but his best stories are scattered throughout the dozens of individual series he’s headlined over the years. To help new readers figure out where they should start, let’s put together a list of the greatest adventures of Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher.
Circle of Blood, issues 1 – 5
The Punisher had existed in the Marvel Universe for a decade before this limited series began the modern depiction of the character. After being introduced in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Frank Castle bounced from title to title for years. Usually depicted as a villain, The Punisher often served as a point of comparison to make the characters around him more heroic.
It wasn’t until Mike Zeck and Steven Grant convinced Marvel to give The Punisher his own limited series that the character began to come into his own. Marvel was unwilling to publish a title dedicated to the adventures of a homicidal criminal, however, so this series sees him taken out of jail and turned into more of an anti-hero than the villain the character had been originally conceived as.
Welcome Back Frank, issues 1 – 12
Turning The Punisher into a hero proved to be a financial windfall for Marvel, as fans couldn’t get enough of Frank Castle’s adventures. Over the next decade, Marvel milked their murderous cash cow for all he was worth, putting out three monthly books along with countless annuals and specials and one Dolph Lundgren movie.
By the mid 1990s, however, fans began to tire of the character. His series were cancelled, and Frank was killed, only to return as an undead vigilante who used his demon guns to punish wayward souls. We don’t talk about that anymore.
In 2000, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon brought The Punisher back to basics in his own twelve issue limited series, which has Frank returning to New York to take aim at organized crime. Written for a slightly more mature audience, Ennis gave the character a textured depth and maturity that hadn’t existed before.
Punisher: Born, issues 1 – 4
The Punisher’s origin had always been relatively vague; He was a Marine who returned to Vietnam and watched his family killed by mobsters in Central Park. In this four issue limited series, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson explored deeper into what happened to Frank during his time in Vietnam.
Set entirely before Frank became The Punisher, the series does an excellent job of filling in moments in the character’s back story while illuminating some of the events that helped Frank form such a distinctive view of the world.
Punisher MAX, vol 1, issues 1 – 60
In 2004, after the success of Ennis’ previous stories, The Punisher was once again given his own ongoing series. Featuring several artists (primarily Leandro Fernadez), this series was published under Marvel’s MAX imprint, specifically created for adult audiences.
Ennis created something of a self-contained world for Frank, where Marvel continuity didn’t come into play. The idea of a ‘floating timeline’ was abandoned, and super-powered characters didn’t appear. Instead, the series depicted Frank as an older man, dealing with current, mature issues, including modern slavery and terrorism.
Punisher MAX, vol 2, issues 1 – 22
The idea of The Punisher inhabiting his own universe was continued in the rebooted PunisherMAX, which began in 2010. Written by Jason Aaron with art by Steve Dillon, this series had a loving but small readership, leading to the series being cancelled after twenty two issues.
In those issues, however, Aaron and Dillon managed to tell a complete story, weaving elements of the normal Marvel Universe into the adult MAX universe. In a series created for an adult audience, Frank confronted super-powered characters for the first time.
And that brings us to today. While the character has no ongoing series of his own (as of this writing), you can be sure that he will rise again. Since his creation, The Punisher has gone from a terrifying villain, to superhero who appears on lunchboxes, to the star of a series of adult crime stories. After nearly forty years, Frank Castle remains one of the most resilient and interesting characters in comics.