Issue(s): Punisher #1, Punisher #2, Punisher #3, Punisher #4, Punisher #5
It seems inevitable that the Punisher would get his own series but it's worth remembering that he was introduced back in 1974, so it was hardly an overnight reaction. And the last we saw of the Punisher, he'd been turned into a truly crazy person, declared mentally unfit to stand trial and sent to a mental institution. Frank Miller seemed interested working with him earlier during his Daredevil runs, where he served as a gritty violent foil to DD, but Bill Mantlo's trial story seemed designed to sweep the character back under the rug. And prior to that, the character was limited by the Comics Authority Code (or maybe just editorial decency), so this character who was on a vengeance vendetta against all criminals was often found using mercy bullets or other non-lethal weapons.
This mini-series, however, uses the Frank Miller interpretation of the character, coldly rational and lethally violent. And it does so to great effect, establishing the formula that will serve him well enough to have as many as three ongoing series in later years. The fact that crime and/or the sensationalist reporting of crime was increasing in the 1980s added to the appeal of this version of the Punisher.
That formula of course makes it difficult for him to work alongside Marvel's more typical super-heroes, and that generally results in the Punisher being fairly isolated from the mainstream Marvel universe, which makes him of somewhat less interest to someone like me. That said, this mini-series surprisingly uses a lot of elements from the larger universe, starting with giving us an explanation for Mantlo's interpretation of the character instead of just ignoring it.
In fact the opening segment of the series is the Punisher, back in an ordinary prison...
...hunting down the person responsible for slipping him what we now learn were drugs that induced his mental breakdown in the Mantlo issues.
And we learn that it was Jigsaw (who was operating through a cook in the prison during the Punisher's previous stay).
Jigsaw, however, is now on a leash. He's working for mobster Don Cervello, who is planning a prison break. Issue #1 is Punisher fighting off Cervello's assassination attempt and foiling the prison break, eventually winding up in the office of the prison warden. The warden and his assistant turn out to be members of a vigilante group called the Trust...
...and they arrange for the Punisher to escape the prison so that he can continue his anti-crime vendetta with support from their organization.
We hear for the first time that the Punisher's name is Frank Castle (family name originally Castiglione) while the Trust is reviewing his file.
Issue #2 begins with the Punisher starting at the top and attempting to kill the Kingpin. He learns that the Kingpin has already gone into hiding, having left a bomb (and a dead Polynesian) behind to kill the Punisher.
The Punisher barely escapes the explosion, but the rest of the mob world is left to believe that the Kingpin really was killed, and the Punisher takes credit for it. This kicks off a huge mob war as they all vie for the vacant top spot, which is something that the Punisher initially encourages.
But the series is called Circle of Blood because the message is that violence just begets more violence, and the Punisher soon finds that the war that he's kicked off is endangering innocents...
...and the police as well.
This theme is reinforced with a subplot that has Tony Massera, the son of a mobster that the Punisher killed, getting guilted by his uncle to give up med school to seek vengeance on the Punisher.
So the Punisher is put in the unusual situation of actually trying to de-escalate the violence, although of course he does so in a violent way (when all you have is a hammer...).
Complicating matters is the fact that the Trust doesn't want the Punisher to de-escalate anything, and they've actually been capturing criminals, including Jigsaw, and brainwashing them into a loyal army for the Punisher to lead.
The Punisher rejects this idea and takes his fight to the Trust, making him ironically taking his war to other vigilantes.
So really, even though i've said that this series takes the Punisher down the violent path that we know him for, if he never appeared at Marvel again, this story would work as a conclusion for the character where he learns that violence and vigilantism are not the answer. Instead, it's more of a minor turning point where he learns that violence isn't always the answer or that vigilantism only works when it's on his own terms.
The use of Jigsaw, the closest thing the Punisher has as a super-villain arch-enemy, is a nod to the Punisher's origins as a Spider-Man character, but he really is a bit out of place in a story where the Punisher is really fighting more (relatively speaking) realistic mobsters. In addition to that, the Kingpin looms large (no pun) in this series even though he never actually appears. And some really deep research was done to show existing mobster characters getting killed off in the gang war, including Injun Joe, who's had a couple of minor appearances, and the Harlem mob leader Morgan, definitely the highest profile character to get killed (he will resurface years later in Christopher Priest's Black Panther series).
Even more surprising are the appearances and deaths of characters like Bo Barrigan (from Dazzler #5, the Blue Shield issue) and Joisey Joe (Daredevil #148). Very minor characters, and not ones that Steven Grant or Carl Potts had anything to do with, but i think it's really cool that they were dug up for this. Considering all of that, i'm surprised that the Trust wasn't tied into the vigilante group from Daredevil #195, since they had a very similar MO and membership.
We do get something of an explanation for why the Punisher would continue to wear a superhero style costume. A mobster hitman gets a shot at him but goes right for the skull instead of taking a headshot...
...because it's too big a target to pass up. But the suit is bulletproofed. Personally, i don't need an explanation but i can understand why some people find his costume a bit incongruous in a mob/crime book, and the explanation works well enough.
The most disappointing aspect of the series is the use of Angela, a stereotypically slinky Asian woman rarely seen wearing pants.
She seduces the Punisher while secretly keeping tabs on him for the Trust. We don't get any insight into her motivations (it's possible that what she tells the Punisher about her family getting killed for not paying the mob protection money for their restaurant is true, but it's not confirmed)...
...and she seems to be willing to prostitute herself only because she's in love with one of the Trust leaders.
We also get zilch from the Punisher about his feelings for her; it's something i'd be interested in due to the fact that so much of his motivation is about vengeance for his dead family, but (and i'm not saying if this is right or wrong) that obviously doesn't translate into any kind of celibacy in honor of his dead wife. More to the point, he doesn't think about her at all; he just kind of accepts that this woman throws herself at him.
If you can ignore that, you've got a fast paced action and violence packed crime story that is a lot of fun.
Sometimes when i'm gushing over the art of John Buscema & Tom Palmer, or John Byrne, or a couple of the other artists that i love, i try to check myself and see if the fact that they were the guys drawing the books that got me into Marvel comics is influencing my opinions. And surely it is. But the best counter example is Mike Zeck, who drew the actual series, Secret Wars, that got me hooked on Marvel, and yet i've never really loved his work. He's definitely good: a clean, fluid style, nice story telling, ability to handle action and emotion and juggle many characters at once. But something about his faces and his figures' body shapes and poses never appealed to me. That said, his work on this series is really nice, especially for the first few issues.
There's more depth and detail and just some really great choices in terms of angles and perspective and it really makes this first Punisher mini-series feel like a special event. As Mike Baron says in the Afterword, "Mike Zeck seemed to have been working toward this story most of his career." Zeck's career as a regular series artist for Marvel is pretty much over after this, although he will work on next year's Kraven's Last Hunt.
Unfortunately the art starts to fall apart on issue #4.
The covers on this series alternatively call it a four issue and five issue mini-series. There are actually five issues, which was unusual for a miniseries at this time and seems to be part of the confusion. Considering that and the the art problems on #4, it's logical to assume that that #4 was originally intended to be double-sized but Zeck couldn't keep up with the pace and the final issue had to be split into two. But it seems that by the time the series started, it was always intended to be a five issue series. Nonetheless, it was Zeck's deadline issues that caused the final issue to be drawn by Mike Vosburg and i guess Steven Grant had moved on as well, since Mary Jo Duffy handles the script. It's unfortunate that Grant and Zeck didn't get to finish this themselves. It's one of Zeck's best works. And it's pretty much the only time at Marvel that Grant is doing more than fill-ins, and the result is surprisingly good, making me wonder why he didn't get more work.
P.S., there's nothing wrong with Vosburg's pencils, and i think it's fair to say that inker John Beatty should get a lot of credit for the depth on this series as well.
The Forward and Afterward of my trade reprint offer fairly different interpretations of this series and the character. The Forward, by editor Carl Potts, says:
There are some universal themes of guilt and responsibility for readers to identify with here. Also, most people have at some time, found themselves obsessed (or close to it) by a mission or dogma that the light of reason could not conquer. Maybe the aspect most people are attracted to in the Punisher's stories is 'poetic justice.' Seeing criminals who can't be collared by our three branches of government get what's coming to them is pleasurable. We might wish this happened more often in the real world. Hopefully, at the same time, we all realize that in reality the Punisher's type of justice would probably lead to chaos. However, we can enjoy the cathartic effect the fiction brings us.
Baron's Afterward, however, which is kind of a rant, is not so quick to say the Punisher is wrong:
The Punisher seems to have burbled up from some deep dark well of the American spirit. The voice of 'conservative' Americans who see the quality of life threatened by criminal behavior and the confused thinking of 'liberals.' In a nutshell, that thinking says there is no such thing as individual responsibility - we are all the victims of socialization. Since murder and mayhem are prima facie proof of insanity, criminal behavior itself is evidence that the alleged perpetrator can't be held responsible for his actions. And we'll just forget "his or her action" - we don't need that kind of retro-think confusion. We're talking about violent crime.
Quality Rating: B+
Chronological Placement Considerations: The Kingpin (who never appears in this series) has gone into hiding by issue #2, but it's said that he's resurfaced by issue #4.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: Punisher: Circle of Blood! TPB
Inbound References (10): show
This is The punisher done right, whether you agree with his methods or not.
Posted by: Jay Gallardo | October 27, 2013 8:45 PM
I think a major problem with the portrayal of the Punisher is that he was primarily written (before his regular series at least) by people's whose politics and interests are not sympathetic to the FANTASY that the Punisher represents, which I think Baron's Afterward sums up well.
The Punisher was essentially Mack Bolan, the Executioner. And it is interesting to compare how the two developed. The Punisher became someone increasingly insane and quite contemptible. Mack Bolan, however, retained his respectability. Bolan did not fight alone,but had lots of accomplices including well meaning people in government and business. He did not target just any criminals, but the hard to convict criminals who truly were "above the law" like the mafia dons. He also went after other enemies of America like the KGB and international terrorists.
Some of this would be introduced into the Punisher, but not very much. Instead, writers wanted to portray him as deranged instead of trying to take seriously (well, as much as any comics concept can be taken seriously) the aspect that a person can wage war against crime outside the legal system once that legal system itself becomes corrupted (indeed, this is essentially Golden Age Batman before Robin is introduced). Instead, they subvert the concept.
I think it's fine that writers are not interested in the concept of the character, it's just that they should stay away from the character then! Let those who like the concept and want to do it well write the character.
While I think the Punisher needs to be kept away from many Marvel books, there is a level of 4 color heroics where his involvement is OK.
Posted by: Chris | October 27, 2013 9:12 PM
I think a problem with Publisher is that, within the Marvel Universe, you had stories like the Scourge one in Captain America, where the plot was that Cap was outraged by Scourge and helping the villains survive.
Anyway, to see a Leftist writer's sympathetic portrayal of Punisher, there's always Garth Ennis' run.
Posted by: ChrisKafka | October 27, 2013 10:30 PM
Wasn't there also a story where Black Widow criticized Punisher by discussing the differences between a Constitutional democratic justice system versus the one she grew up with in the USSR? Talking about how you can cut down on crime by eliminating the protection of citizens (whether criminals or not) from the government, saying it in a sarcastic manner.
Posted by: ChrisKafka | October 27, 2013 10:36 PM
ChrisKafka, I have no problem with someone like Cap opposing both Scourge and the Punisher because they both kill. I also have no problem with placing all vigilante style characters from Cloak & Dagger to Punisher to Scourge near equivalent, but still making distinctions based on how far they will go. Cloak & Dagger only targeted drug pushers and sex offenders, criminals designated by society as the absolute worse. On the other hand, the same writer who created C&D had the Punisher go after jaywalkers and litterbugs.
I think your questions is more addressed by the reader, as opposed to the characters inside the story. And in that, you are right. A storyline where Scourge is a villain who most be opposed, while the Punisher becomes a published series brings these contradictions to the forefront. Ideally, Marvel should have addressed this and made a clear distinction. Given the past (and future) portrayal of the Punisher as someone who is clearly mentally ill, it certainly complicates things.
I think the Black Widow storyline you are talking about is from her appearance in a late Marvel Team Up, either # 140 or 141. Punisher does not appear, but she has a similar conversation with either DD or Spidey.
Posted by: Chris | October 28, 2013 1:32 AM
I try to put Baron's politics out of mind, although they shape his own creative efforts. I did enjoy much of his 1980s work, in his (self-admittedly) coked-up period. I find the quote from that afterword rancid in its lack of nuance, but mileage will vary. Someone else might say the same of Alan Moore, at the other extreme.
Zeck was never a favorite penciller of mine either, but his Captain America is the one I picture when I hear the character's name, as he was on the title for a long time when I was reading it. I just wish he didn't draw every (male) body the same way he draws Cap; they all have that absurdly overpumped look to them. The facial expressions can be overwrought.
Posted by: Todd | October 28, 2013 6:22 AM
Everybody is weighing in on the punisher here, so here's my tuppence worth. I like the punisher as a character but not as a hero, but an anti-hero like wolverine. An example of when heroes make the wrong decisions. I've never liked the idea that heroes like cap and Spidey don't work to catch these anti-heroes. the only reason scourge was a bad guy and Punisher a good guy was cause scourge didnt have his own book.
Posted by: kveto from prague | October 28, 2013 5:07 PM
Night Raven, the Marvel UK created but US set property that serves as an homage to the Shadow, serves as another point of comparison, but this blog may miss him.
Interesting that the Punisher, as one poster notes, derives from Mack Bolan and the various other paperback original heroes of the 1970's and 1980's (Remo Williams named as another example by Roy Thomas). Other than Bolan himself, few of those paperback original heroes continued to the 1990's or beyond (other than the "Old West" Jove heroes and the Trailsman). This resembles what occurred with the Shadow and the other pulp heroes such as the Spider. (Gerry Conway in Marvel Vision#15 admitted that he took a little of the Shadow.)
Similar to the pulp heroes in recent decades, the paperback original heroes also had little exposure in film and television.
Posted by: PB210 | October 28, 2013 8:05 PM
This series was first announced in late 1984, but it was definitely listed as 4 issues. However, the same announcement also mentioned a Jo Duffy Punisher graphic novel in 1985. There was no mention of Punisher doubles in the miniseries news, so I'm guessing Marvel may have still had some cold feet on the Punisher and decided to mash both things into one series.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | October 30, 2013 6:55 PM
According to Comics Journal #105, Carl Potts fired Zeck off the book due to chronic lateness and replaced him with Vosburg. Grant decided Vosburg's art was "atrocious" at first glance and then quit.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | March 1, 2014 5:36 PM
In an interview in Comics Interview #72, Grant confirmed that he came up with the name "Frank Castle", but Marvel didn't want the Punisher to have a real identity--they wanted him to have a series of assumed aliases. Grant pointed out that this was impossible, due to him being arrested and having a military record.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | February 24, 2015 6:05 PM
Angela and Alaric reappear muuuch later in Punisher War Journal.
Posted by: MikeCheyne | October 4, 2015 1:42 PM
Added them as Characters Appearing. Thanks Mike.
Posted by: fnord12 | October 4, 2015 7:37 PM
Anyway, to see a Leftist writer's sympathetic portrayal of Punisher, there's always Garth Ennis' run.
Not to get too into politics themselves, but I don't see Ennis as a standard-issue leftist or liberal. He makes quite a bit of fun of identity politics and communism in stuff like Preacher, which seems to be one of his mouthpiece comics. He's anti-authoritarian and strongly individualist, and I don't know that he fits easily into any of the standard political categories beyond some kind of general libertarianism.
Posted by: Omar Karindu | October 14, 2015 2:49 PM
At one point the Punisher goes to the warden's assistant to try and get Alaric's file. Alaric's folder is missing, but you do get to see one for "Andrews, Archie." It would take Frank about 8 years to follow up on that one.
Posted by: TCP | May 11, 2017 11:05 AM
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