The Punisher is simultaneously one of the most popular anti-heroes in the entire Marvel Universe, and strangely difficult to follow.
This is increasingly common in the Marvel Universe, but the Punisher’s modern continuity is endlessly chopped up into new titles and series relaunches, meaning you can’t sit and read a Punisher series on Marvel Unlimited for more than 30 some issues at a time. Meanwhile, noobs like Deadpool have sustained runs of over 60 issues!
Nonetheless, there are loads of great Punisher comics in the modern Marvel era, with creative giants like Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon (Preacher), Rick Remender, Matt Fraction, and Jason Aaron all devoting time to Frank Castle. Much of this is across Marvel’s MAX line, meaning 1) These issues aren’t available on Marvel Unlimited and 2) They’re properly bloody and messy for a Punisher story.
So enjoy the comics, and always remember: Get a damn haircut.
0) Before the 2000’s: Solo Punisher Debuts
Collects: Amazing Spider-Man (1963) 129, 134-135, 161-162, 174-175, 201-202, Annual (1964) 15; Marvel Preview (1975) 2; Marvel Super Action (1975) 1; Captain America (1968) 241; Daredevil (1964) 182-184; Spectacular Spider-Man (1976) 81-83; Punisher (1986) 1-5
I was quite disappointed at the apparent lack of this classic Punisher story in Marvel Unlimited. Then I did a little research (see also: read some Punisher), and it turns out Circle of Blood is totally in Marvel Unlimited! Just look for:
Punisher (1986) #1 to #5
Punisher: Kingpin Rules
Collects: Punisher (1987) #11-25 & Annual 1-2
This trade has it all: Mike Baron, Savage Dragon’s Erik Larson, Ninjas, Moon Knight, even Frank as the substitute teacher from hell. High-octane 80s insanity.
Collects: Shadowmasters 1-4, Punisher War Journal (1988) 1-3.8-9, and Punisher (1987 (24-25)
At one point in his career, Frank fought ninjas almost exclusively. Maybe this was because of Frank Miller’s influence on Marvel. Maybe it was the 80s love of the silent menace. Maybe it was the cocaine. Who’s to say. What I can tell you is that this might be the definitive collection of “Frank fights ninjas” stories and that your shelves are empty without it.
Punisher War Journal #1 to #19
Punisher: Capital Punishment
Collects: Punisher (1987) #63-75, Punisher: G-Force, Punisher: Die Hard In The Big Easy, Punisher/Black Widow: Spinning Doomsday’s Web
Chuck Dixon era Punisher in a chase across Europe to stop Kingpin’s machinations. If that’s not enough, there’s a Black Widow team-up in there plus Punisher in Space!
Return to Big Nothing
Collects the graphic novels of Return to Big Nothing, Assassin’s Guild, and Intruder. Some classic work from the original team of Grant and Zeck.
A fantastic yarn from Chuck Dixon and Jorge Zaffino were the team that made Frank a stand-out character in the 80s and 90s. Frank is smart here and tough, going after drug dealers and henchmen.
Collects: Punisher: POV 1-4 (1991). Pure fun, and nothing wrong with it!
Punisher In the 90’s
The first 6 issues from Chuck Dixon and John Romita Jr are included in Marvel Unlimited as:
The Punisher: War Zone (1992) #1 to #6
Collects: The ‘Nam 52-53, 67-69; Punisher Invades The ‘Nam: Final Invasion 1; Punisher War Journal (1988) 52-53; Punisher War Zone (1992) 26-30
The next available issues in MU are covered as:
The Punisher: War Zone (1992) #26 to #30
The War Zone continues with:
The Punisher: War Zone (1992) #31 to #36
Collects: Punisher (1987) 63-75, Punisher: G-Force, Punisher: Die Hard In The Big Easy, Punisher/Black Widow: Spinning Doomsday’s Web
Collects: Punisher (1987) 85-88, Punisher War Journal (1987) 61-64, Punisher War Zone (1992) 23-25
I) Where to Start With Garth Ennis Punisher Comics
Of all the Punisher comics in the 2000’s the Garth Ennis stories are without a doubt the most definitive, and the most confusing to read in the proper order. Here’s what you need:
Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank — Issues (2000 to 2001 series) #1 to #12
The Punisher Vol. 2 (Marvel Knights – 2001 to 2003) – Issues #1 to #37
Punisher MAX (2004 reboot – over 60 issues).
Collecting three stories – Tyger, The Cell, and The End
Collects: Punisher Kills The Marvel Universe, Amazing Spider-Man (1963) 161-162, Heroes For Hire (1997) 9, Punisher (2001) 33-37, Punisher War Zone (2012) 1-5, Marvel Universe Vs. Punisher 1-4
And just like that, you’ve enjoyed yourself some Garth Ennis Punisher.
This story takes place before Born and shows hints of the man Frank was before the war — and his return home — changed him forever. A bittersweet way for Ennis to end his time with the character with that character’s beginnings.
II) Matt Fraction Punisher
Following the end of the Ennis era, Punisher’s War Journal was relaunched, just in time for his major role in Marvel’s Civil War.
Matt Fraction launched the series, and pens some instant classics, including an unforgettable lesson from Frank attending a funeral for a villain.
III) Jason Aaron Punisher
Not to pigeonhole the man, but Jason Aaron gets violence. His work on titles like Wolverine, Southern Bastards, and Thor: The God Butcher offer an impressive resume, and all the right kinds of credentials you want from a Punisher writer.
Aaron takes up the mantle of Punisher MAX from Ennis, and largely succeeds at a nearly impossible follow up challenge.
Issues: Punisher Max #1 to #22
IV) Rick Remender Punisher
There are essentially two parts to Rick Remender’s four year stint on The Punisher.
The first is a great, emotionally-wrought story of Frank Castle reacting to Norman Osborne’s Dark Reign in gleefully non-negotiable fashion (you think he’s just gonna let the Green Goblin turn around and run the world’s security?).
The second, is an untouched creative flourish, in which a broken Frank Castle returns to the Marvel Universe as a literal Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s the type of insane approach to a well-established character that is bound to either go down as one of the worst comics of all time, or a wildly fun and exciting experience. Fortunately, Frankencastle features significantly more of the latter.
Issues: Punisher (2008) #1 to #10, Punisher #11 to #16, Frankencastle #17 to #21
Punisher: In the Blood #1 to #5
V) Greg Rucka Punisher
Punisher by Greg Rucka Vol. 1 #1 to #5 (MU: The Punisher: 2011-2012)
Punisher, Vol. 2 #6 to #10
Punisher, Vol. 3 #11 to #16
Punisher: War Zone #1 to #5
VI) Marvel NOW! Punisher
For Marvel NOW, Punisher was relaunched with Nathan Edmundson at the creative helm. It’s the spiritual companion to Edmundson’s Black Widow.
For every Punisher appearance during this timeframe, I recommend Comic Book Herald’s complete Marvel NOW! reading order.
While you certainly could skip Punisher in Space, you have to ask yourself: Punisher in Space?
Personally, I think the decision is easy.
The Punisher: Black & White #1 to #6
Thunderbolts Vol. 1 #1 to #6
Punisher is a member of General Ross’s badass red-and-black Thunderbolts squad for the duration of its 32 issue run. The series really takes off once Charles Soule takes over writing around issue #12, leading to the conclusion: Punisher vs. The Thunderbolts!
VII) All-New All-Different Punisher
Daredevil/Punisher: Seventh Circle (Daredevil/Punisher: Seventh Circle #1 to #4)
The Punisher Vol. 1: On the Road (The Punisher #1 to #6)
The Punisher Vol. 2: End of the Line (The Punisher #7 to #12)
The Punisher Vol. 3: King of the New York Streets (The Punisher #13 to #17)
Daredevil vs. Punisher: Means & Ends (Daredevil vs. Punisher #1 to #6)
Deadpool vs. The Punisher (Deadpool vs Punisher #1 to #5)
If you’ve ever thought, I could really use more War Machine with my Punisher, boy oh boy, Marvel Legacy Punisher is for you.
And there you have it – a Punisher reading order and where to start guide. Have any Punisher stories you think should make the list? General thoughts on the ethics of one-man vigilante bands? Do what feels right to you in the comments.
Frank loses the War Machine armor but has gained a blood lust for more dangerous targets. Can a man with a gun really go up against powered foes? We’ll find out…
Frank Castle dies again, but this time he makes a deal with Mephisto: In exchange for a return trip to Earth, Frank must become the newest spirit of vengeance. That’s right, Frank Castle is the newest Ghost Rider… and so much more! Part 2000 AD comic, part Meatloaf album cover, all madness. But don’t let the goofy premise fool you; there’s some damn solid writing here that leads to a new, exciting take on the familiar character.
VIII) The Crossovers
Comics in the 90s were wall to wall dark anti-hero. They were grim, they were bloody, and they were popular; all which meant dozens of team-ups to capitalize on their sales. For my money, Punisher is the one character who was greatly improved by all this exposure, leading to some fantastic OGNs that add a lot to our understanding of Castle. Here’s a few of the better (or at least more fun) books to check out.
It’s always interesting to see the relationship between Steve and Frank. It’s even more interesting when their interests align, as they do in this story where the pair team up to bring down a South American drug cartel and the dictator who supports them.
Another interesting pairing, between Batman’s hatred of guns and killing and Punisher’s disregard for order and thorough planning. These books follow the standard crossover rules of “whoever gets top billing wins” this time reinforced by Punisher’s book having standard Batman while Bat’s book is all about post-Knightfall Azrael Batman (the “90s extreme” variant of the character).
These books pretty much typify the 90s anti-hero craze, but surprisingly, the stories are remarkably solid. At least, when you account for the era.