Frank Castle is one of the most simple and basic characters in the Marvel Universe if not all comics. He kills criminals, not as an act of vengeance, but as a righteous force of justice. This is the only element necessary to create a Punisher story, but not necessarily a good one. The blank canvas of the Punisher’s world gives great writers space to play or enough rope to hang themselves (looking at you Matt Fraction).
Widowmaker is a book of consequences, something Punisher’s world of extreme violence needs. The plot centers around the widows of Punisher’s kills coming together to plot vengeance against him. It’s amazing that this idea wasn’t used before; family members of criminals hunting down the man that killed their loved one. The men and women who Frank kills must have friends and families who object the vigilante executing their loved ones. It focuses on the wives of mob bosses The Punisher has killed. The Widows are out for vengeance, allowing Ennis to draw the distinction between Frank’s punishment/justice and revenge.
Garth Ennis’ narrative fleshes out the widows and their motivations. Yet he never turns them into sympathetic figures. This arc also contains my all-time favorite player in The Punisher’s supporting cast, Jenny Cesare. Ennis’ Punisher tales often had secondary protagonists to help highlight certain elements of the story. This technique allowed Ennis to create elaborate stories without sacrificing the force of nature that is Frank Castle. Jenny Cesare is out for vengeance against the Widows adding another theme to the tale.
While Jenny Cesare’s backstory is filled with well-worn crime tropes, Ennis breathes life into her with small personal details. She also represents another idea of what taking vengeance can do to a person who was not initially malicious. Her relationship to Frank Castle is best encapsulated when she asks how Frank can live the life he does. Lan Medina’s art works perfectly with Ennis’ tale, creating a detailed world of grit and giving subtle expressions to his characters.
Despite my affinity for the Widowmaker arc, it is Jason Aaron’s full run on The PunisherMax (1-22) that is my all time favorite Punisher tale. With art by Steve Dillon this story takes place outside the main Marvel continuity, and better than any other tale looks into the psyche of Frank Castle, making the argument that for the Punisher to be born, the man behind the skull must have been damaged before the death of his family. Aside from crystallizing the torment inside Castle, Aaron takes the time to examine both the methodical nature of Bullseye and the inner workings of The Kingpin. Wilson Fisk in particular is more developed than in any other tale before or since here. If you enjoyed Vincent D’Onofrio as Fisk on Daredevil you should pick up these books.
Dillon’s art captures the vicious brutality of the violence depicted, but teamed with Aaron it does not delve into the more outrageous extremes that often emerged from Ennis’ run. Ultimately the weakest element of this arc is the inclusion of Elektra, who works for the Kingpin as a prostitute bodyguard hybrid. Jason Aaron should have simply created a new character for these plot points as she has less resemblance to Elektra than the Jennifer Garner solo outing.
The idea for this column came from the recent announcement that Frank Castle would be in the next season of Daredevil. With that in mind The Punisher Vol. 4 #3 had the coolest moment between the two characters. In the Garth Ennis scripted “The Choice,” The Punisher subdues and ties up Daredevil before placing a gun in his hands. The gun is pointed at Castle, who is about to murder mobster Dino Gnucci. Castle informs Daredevil the only way to stop him from killing the man, is to kill him. This is the level of tension and anguish Netflix should be aiming for.
M.R. Gott is a horror author of below average height