Ingredients For The Perfect Punisher Story

Things are looking up for The Punisher, specifically the series, not the vigilante driven to [...]

Perfect Punisher Story - Cover
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Things are looking up for The Punisher, specifically the series, not the vigilante driven to madness and a neverending murder spree by the death of his family. While things may never really be good for the character, his stories wax and wane alongside the fortunes of Marvel Comics, sometimes providing their most critically acclaimed and best-selling series and other times… not so much. The newest edition of The Punisher #1 this week features a top-notch creative team and functions as the advance guard for a relaunch of the Marvel Knights line announced at San Diego Comic Con last month.

When that line first released a new edition of The Punisher in 2001 it featured writer Garth Ennis at its helm and would showcase many of his greatest collaborators, including Steve Dillon, Goran Parlov, and Darick Robertson, before all was said and done at the end of two volumes and almost one hundred issues. This run along with later work by writer Jason Aaron defined what The Punisher could be at his absolute best.

We are excited to look ahead for more great Punisher stories from rising talents like writer Matthew Rosenberg, and this new starting point provides a great opportunity to look back on what makes the best Punisher comics. While there is no easy step-by-step recipe, there are some key considerations that every creator should take into account, and we've assembled these essential elements for anyone interested in telling a Punisher tale capable of rivaling the all-time great.

Perfect Punisher Story - War Machine
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Keep Superheroes Out Of The Dish

While Frank Castle might have made his debut in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #129, he tends to work best on his own when acting as the star of a series. He is a great antagonist for superheroes like Captain America, Daredevil, and Spider-Man, but placing him in the same moral universe as those heroes definitely makes him the villain of the piece. Writers like Garth Ennis and Ann Nocenti have regularly used him to define what makes Daredevil admirable by revealing just how depraved The Punisher is. While a story about The Punisher shouldn't endorse his actions, adding superheroes to the mix makes it difficult to avoid just how despicable he is.

In the most recent volume of the series, Frank Castle stole War Machine's armor in order to invade foreign countries and slaughter prisoners by the score. This had a double-sided effect of making The Punisher's mission seem all the more questionable, while undermining the efficacy and competence of an entire universe of superheroes who failed to stop him. The Punisher is a great guest star, but in the mainstream of Marvel Comics he breaks the logic of the universe when allowed to run free alongside hundreds of superheroes.

Perfect Punisher Story - Vietnam
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Start With A Strong Base of Military Experience

There is a good reason that so much of Ennis' work on The Punisher centered on his origin as a veteran of the Vietnam War. The character is designed to question American notions of masculinity, violence, and justice, which aligns with war in two meaningful ways. First, all of these themes can be examined through the lens of war, something that each generation of modern Americans have experienced in some form from World War II in the 1940s through ongoing conflicts in the Middle East today. It makes the story consistently relevant and allows for easy updates to the origins of Frank Castle.

The second reason is that it grounds every form of plot and suspense in The Punisher in something real. While the character shares some elements with the superhero genre, his stories have far more in common with the action and revenge genres. Providing too many fantastical elements often serves to undermine the series itself. Having Frank Castle use real world experience and understandings, even if stretched to an extreme degree, makes for much more exciting action sequences and relevant storylines. Frank Castle will always be a soldier and no Punisher story should forget that.

Perfect Punisher Story - Garth Ennis
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Double The Ratio Of Actions To Words

There's a temptation in any Punisher story to explain the justify the character or explain the action, but there's a reason that Clint Eastwood is mostly silent in all of his best Western films. Having Frank Castle explore his motives only serves to normalize a character that is clearly not normal. While readers might have an impulse to seek revenge or demand justice, The Punisher is someone who has slaughtered hundreds of people in order to satisfy that urge. It is a compulsion beyond explanation and one that is best observed from the outside.

When The Punisher bemoans the loss of his family or monologues throughout the course of an action sequence, it only serves to undercut the character's most intriguing elements. It's also what makes supporting characters so important in a Punishers series as another soldier, a journalist, or mob boss can all provide different perspectives on a vigilante that is truly unlike anyone else in fiction or reality.

Keep The Villainous Toppings Interesting

It's a maxim in superhero comics that a hero is only as great as their villain; that's why it's important to remember that The Punisher isn't really a superhero comic. Frank Castle is an anti-hero, one who many readers would define as a villain. Like the monstrous protagonists that have defined peak television (e.g. Walter White and Tony Soprano), he will always be the most interesting part of the story. That having been said, it's still important for The Punisher to have more interesting conflicts than the mass slaughter of generic gangsters.

Something that both Ennis and Aaron did very well in their own series was providing The Punisher's victimes with quirks, schemes, and signatures that made them extraordinary within their own fields. It was inevitable that they would meet their death, but watching them play a game of cat-and-mouse with The Punisher and even surviving one or two encounters made for great stories. The Punisher doesn't need supervillains who regularly reappear, but he does require individuals who can provide him a challenge to keep things interesting.

Those four key tips have been the baseline for the best Punisher stories ever in comics. Any writer who follows them is much more likely to construct the sort of dish that has made this character a fan favorite since the 1970s.