Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.


There’s something romantic about Frank Castle. Not in the candlelit dinner, flowers and chocolate sort of way. Rather, his unique worldview that gives him the freedom to gun down evil-doers without a second thought. Many Marvel characters, and almost all other mainstream superheroes for that matter, operate under a familiar “do no harm” code of justice. When Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and Captain America are still struggling with the morality of their abilities, Frank Castle’s gun barrels have already gone cold. With great power comes great responsibility? Not for The Punisher. There’s a scene in The Punisher movie starring Thomas Jane that perfectly encapsulates Frank’s philosophy—and what makes him so appealing:

“In certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law. To pursue natural justice. This is not vengeance. Revenge is not a valid motive, it’s an emotional response. No, not vengeance. Punishment.”

The Punisher is a man that deals in absolutes. He’s a great character to follow during those moments where one feels powerless against the darker elements of the world. He’s the perfect power fantasy, one that romanticizes the most extreme form of rich, uncompromising vigilante justice.

What’s it about?

Welcome Back, Frankpenned by Preacher duo Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon—reunites the reader with Frank Castle, a Vietnam veteran that was turned into a ruthless vigilante after his wife and child were killed during a mafia shootout. Left with nothing to his name, Frank descends onto New York and sets his sights on the Gnucci crime family with the intent to wipe them off the face of the earth. Sent to stop him is Detective Soap, a sad sack of a precinct detective who is forced into the impossible task of bringing the Punisher to justice by a department that’s keen on letting the soldier do his thing. The Punisher’s resurgence in New York is also cause for a rash in copycat murders, causing three disparate individuals to take up vigilantism by murdering those that do not fit their worldview.

Notable Notes

With Garth Ennis at the helm, one has to expect his off kilter sense of dark humor. After all, this is the same author who created a mutilated character named Arseface in Preacher. Ennis’ style of humor often puts the tone of the work at odds with itself. There are some really cool and thought provoking moments in the graphic novel that are often interrupted by silly sight gags or over the top violence. These gags are amusing and entertaining at their best but at their worst, they are corny and get in the way. 

Take, for example, the scene in which Frank is being chased by Ma Gnucci’s goons at a zoo. As the Punisher survives the tense and violent onslaught, the battle is interspersed with ridiculous imagery including a giant python squeezing a shooter to death and Frank dunking a man head first into a piranha tank before punching a bear in the face. Ennis delights in shocking the reader with grotesque hilarity, which is the sole reason why Ma survives a bear attack and spends the rest of the comic as an angry torso. The climactic confrontation between Ma and Frank ends in such a way that would be completely stupid if it were anyone other than Ennis.

Steve Dillon’s brightly colored and creative visuals enable Ennis’ sense of humor. Rather than riff from the amazing, realistic covers drawn by Tim Bradstreet, Dillon’s artwork gives the material a prime time adult cartoon feel. Like HBO’s Spawn but with a lot less black. Whenever I read this story, a part of me pines to see what a different illustrator, like Ms. Marvel’s Adrian Alphona, Tim Sale, or even Tim Bradstreet, could do with the comic. But that means losing Dillon’s skill at drawing expressions and the best panel in the entire book—the stupefied reaction from the bear after getting punched in the face—and such a thought fills me with sadness.

Significance

Ennis’ Welcome Back, Frank is a significant work because it directly influenced the Punisher’s entrance onto the big screen (that is, if one were to ignore the character’s true debut via the 1989 The Punisher movie starring Dolph Lundgren). 2004’s The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta, was heavily influenced by Ennis’ comic, featuring characters and whole chapters being adapted to the film. One example is the fight between the Punisher and the Russian, a gargantuan strongman capable of throwing his prey through solid walls and disabling a gun with his bare hands. In one of the film’s most enjoyable sequences, Frank is shown using the same ballistic switchblade as in the comic.

In 2005, THQ published The Punisher, a video game developed by Volition. Parts of the game were designed to tie-in with the 2004 film, primarily recasting Thomas Jane as the voice of the character. A level was designed around the battle at the New York zoo, giving players a chance to recreate the piranha attack as they work their way to save Joan the Mouse. Sadly, you don’t get to punch a bear.

The comic was once again used as source material for the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil. There is a tense scene, taken nearly panel for panel from the comic, where the Punisher, played by Walking Dead alumni Jon Bernthal, has captured Matt Murdock on a roof and forces him to decide whether or not to shoot a criminal using a gun taped to his hands. The circumstances of the confrontation are a little different, but the show has Frank use the exact dialogue from the comic.

Appeal

The appeal of Welcome Back, Frank is its virtue of being the perfect place for new readers to start. The comic doesn’t require trudging through the Punisher’s exploits from decades of old Marvel comics to understand or make better sense of his violent crusade. As a matter of fact, the comic doesn’t make a big deal about presenting Frank’s backstory because, ultimately, it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things. The Punisher doesn’t have a complex backstory like Spider-Man, Iron Man, or even Doctor Strange. He’s literally just a man with a gun out to shoot bad guys.

The modus operandi of the Punisher also makes him a good gateway Marvel hero for DC fans to get their feet wet. Frank Castle is quite similar to Batman, a vigilante hero who delivers justice by working outside the law. Batman, however, operates strictly with a “no-kill” rule that, at times, seems nonsensical within his crime-ridden world. With the Punisher, his code is simply “kill all bad guys”, making Frank Castle the perfect cure for those frustrated by the tired antics of the Joker, who’s always allowed to wreak havoc because Batman won’t kill him. In Welcome Back, Frank, the Punisher recognizes that the Gnucci Family is a danger to the city and that’s reason enough to launch a campaign to wipe them off the face of the earth. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way Batman does things, after all, that’s what separates him from the monsters that regularly ruin people’s lives, but there’s a great thrill in watching the Punisher move against evil people who think they are untouchable.

Why should you own this?

With his increased visibility through his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in Daredevil and his upcoming standalone series on Netflix, the Punisher is finally getting the attention he deserves. I’ve always been a fan of the character and his unique sense of justice, so it’s fantastic to see the character get his shot in the spotlight. Again, with nothing tying this comic to any particular story arc, this is the best possible place to start. It’s an independent comic that doesn’t have anything to do with Civil War, Civil War II, Secret Wars, or any other crossover. It’s a simple, no fuss, no muss story featuring a lot of action and Garth Ennis style tomfoolery.

Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank
by Garth Ennis
Art by Steve Dillon and Jimmy Palmiotti
ISBN: 9780785157168
Marvel, 2011
Publisher Age Rating: 17+

  • Allen

    | He/Him Past Reviewer

    Allen Kesinger is a Reference Librarian at the Newport Beach Public Library in California. He maintains the graphic novel collections at the library, having established an Adult collection to compliment the YA materials. When not reading graphic novels, he fills his time with other nerdy pursuits including video games, Legos and steampunk.

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