“Welcome Back, Frank”: 20th Anniversary

Marvel Comics’ The Punisher (aka Frank Castle) has been one of the most dangerous and controversial comic book characters of all time. Created by writer Jerry Conway and artist John Romita, the Punisher first appeared in “The Amazing Spider-Man” #129, February 1974, as an assassin to kill Spidey hired by the Jackal. Later the character made guest appearances before getting his own miniseries in 1986 and then an ongoing title in 1987. An ex-marine, Frank Castle saw his family murdered by the mob and became a gun-toting vigilante. He would continue to be a popular character throughout the 1980’s and 90’s alongside darker, more violent antiheroes such as Wolverine, Ghost Rider and Deathlok. He even got his own movie adaptation in 1989 starring Dolph Lundgren, however it performed poorly in the U.S. and went straight to video.

But by 1995, Marvel Comics had canceled all three “Punisher” series, including “The Punisher War Journal” and “The Punisher: War Zone” due to declining sales. Then the publisher tried to relaunch with a new ongoing series under the new Marvel Edge imprint, written by John Ostrander, but it only ran 18 issues from November 1995 to April 1997. With the new Marvel Knights 4-issue miniseries “The Punisher: Purgatory” (1998) written by Christopher Golden, the Punisher becomes a supernatural agent after committing suicide and is reincarnated as a demonic version of himself, waging war against angels and demons.

By the year 2000, it was time for the Punisher to return to his roots, and with a 12-issue limited series written by Garth Ennis with art by Steve Dillon, the vigilante’s long-awaited return was welcomed with open arms and guns a blazing! The story arc, known as “Welcome Back, Frank”, ran from April 2000 to March 2001, and had the Punisher return to end the Gnucci crime family, led by Ma Gnucci, in what was to become one of the most seminal Punisher stories of the century and reignited his popularity with the fans. It even inspired the 2004 (somewhat-faithful) adaptation starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta. The movie even featured Frank’s wacky neighbors from the comics: Joan (played by Rebecca Romijn), also Bumpo and Spacker Dave.

Punisher’s popularity again grew in both the comics and in the media as a sequel came out 4-years-later with Punisher: War Zone (2008) starring Ray Stevenson. Although Thomas Jane was originally set to return, he turned it down, stating that he felt it was too “comic book” whereas he wanted a more gritty, realistic approach. Unfortunately “War Zone” remains the lowest grossing Marvel film to date. As Netflix would also grow in popularity both as a streaming service but also with its own original content, a new set of Marvel series were produced, starting with “Daredevil”, “Iron Fist”, “Luke Cage”, “Jessica Jones”, “The Defenders” and of course “The Punisher” (2017) starring Jon Bernthal.

Currently in Marvel Comics, Frank Castle has been to hell and back (literally) as Frank took on the mantle of ‘War Machine’ and later, during Earth’s last stand against Thanos, the Punisher died, but he signed a deal with Mephisto and became the Cosmic Ghost Rider. Year after year, the Punisher continues to punish criminals in the most brutal way and won’t stay dead. And without stories like “Welcome Back, Frank” he might have been lost to comics history like so many other characters in the Marvel Universe.

Be sure to bone up on Frank Castle with PUNISHER 101

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