Anniversary Special, Part 2: The Punisher's Greatest Hits
Over the past year, I've done more than a few things for the express purpose of having something to write about on the ISB, but the first, biggest, and most memorable was the Box of Punishment.
In case you're not familiar, here's how it went down: Back in February, I decided to read every single Punisher comic book I could find in the store, which amounted to enough comics to fill a short box and a Marvel Essential trade paperback. Exactly why I decided to do this, I'm not sure. All I remember through the haze of Mike Baron scripts is that I'd been playing the Punisher video game a lot, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
It is not something I'd reccomend trying out yourself--even with three years of working in a comic book store under my belt, it almost killed me, and I'm pretty sure it's directly responsible for my girlfriend dumping me the day I finished the Box.
If you were going to, however, these are the stories you should go for. They're not exactly the best Punisher comics out there (well, except for the top two), and there's a couple of them that are downright horrendous... but they are the most awesome, and each is highly enjoyable in its own way.
What you won't find on the list, though, is a little thing called "EuroHit."
EuroHit is a seven-part Punisher story by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in their pre-Legion days wherein the Punisher goes to Europe for a mafia hit. See how that works? Anyway, when the store had a huge sale on the Dollar Book stock, I made it my personal goal to put together and sell as many sets of the story as I possibly could, badgering customers into puchasing it with tenuous logic like: "C'mon, man" and "It's the Punisher in Europe, man, come on!"
When I finally got to it in the Box, I was filled with remorse for my sins. Reading EuroHit--even despite the presence of Outlaw (the British Punisher) and Tarantula and his Pointy Chews--is like trying to pull yourself out of quicksand on a rope made of punches to the face. You know there's air up there somewhere, but the further into it you get, the harder it is to get through.
Avoid it at all costs.
#5: Social Studies
Punisher (v.2) #14
Ever see Tom Beringer's 1996 classic The Substitute? Good, it'll save me some time, since this issue is exactly like it, but with the Punisher. I'd even go so far as to say that Mike Baron ripped off the movie's plot, but since this issue predates the film by about eight years, I'm forced to concede that may not be the case, even though they both transcend their own badness into the realm of pure awesome.
Regardless, it's pretty much the same: In an attempt to stick it to the Kingpin's school-based drug dealing operation, Frank Castle gets a job as a substitute teacher at Malcolm Shabazz High School. Yeah, that's right: The Punisher, at this point convicted at least twice of multiple murders, walks into a high school and is handed a job where he hangs out with kids all day. Thanks, Marvel Universe Public School System!
Anyway, after smacking around some punks, the Punisher teams up with a teacher and student, both of whom are packing heat, and takes on the massive crack lab in the school's basement, which looks a lot less like a high school boiler room and a lot more more like the sprawling dungeon of a medieval castle. And as a special bonus, the kid and the teacher both get recruited (along with a biker chick from the story where Frank poses as a meth dealer to kill the Marvel version of Charles Manson) for a personal assault on the Kingpin himself a few issues later. That one, uh, doesn't go so well.
Unless you consider getting shot in the face "going well."
#4: "Unfriendly Skies"
Punisher War Journal #50
This one's famous around the Wiz as the subject of one of Scott's patented Highly Innaccurate Yet Wholly Truthful Summaries, which are often a lot better than the comics they summarize, wherein he gets everything wrong by the high points: It takes place on an airplane and it's not very good.
By sheer coincidence, those are the same pieces of information you can get from a glance at the back cover:
Yep, let's see: A ponytail, a huge knife, and a comely stewardess bursting forth from her shirt from the stress of being held hostage. Not exactly signs of quality. And what's even better? Nowhere in the issue are Punisher Armory or Punisher Fighting Technique pages. You, mister back cover, are a liar.
The lead story lives up to the cover, though, opening with the Punisher hanging out in an airport wearing his costume and a pair of fingerless leather gloves, and chomping on a cigar while waiting to pick up Micro. At this point, the idea of remaining inconspicuous has been thrown out the window and shot a few times to make sure it stays down.
Anyway, he sees some suspicious cats going through security and--like any of us would, I'm sure--automatically assumes that the guy has a thermonuclear device hidden in his walker. The guy's actually Aviar, a known terrorist, so Frank ditches his gun and sneaks onto the plane, dropping down to fight a terrorist armed with a fiberglass knife. After that guy's dispatched, Frank even takes the time to carve "MERRY CHRISTMAS" into his chest and draw his symbol in blood on the wall of the airplane lavatory he stuffs the dude in. Now that is dedication to your craft.
He takes out a second bad guy armed with a nonexistant "all-plastic Glock," then shoves Aviar out of the plane, and as always, incredible amounts of violence make everything work out okay. Plus, it's got the first appearance of Punisher 2099, and how can you pass that up?
#3: Ninja Training Camp
Punisher (v.2) #22-23
I've briefly talked about this one before, and with good reason: The story's called NINJA TRAINING CAMP, and is the single most awesome thing Mike Baron ever wrote. It's a classic.
Hot on the trial of the bad guy from the last issue, wherin the Punisher posed as a boxer to take on a crooked fight promoter, Frank enrolls himself in a two-week Ninja Training Camp in Kansas, which--needless to say--is highly suspect. Especially considering that it's run by a guy named Chet Scully, who conducts interviews for prospective Ninja Campers in a biker bar. In Kansas.
NOTE: If someone named Chet offers you ninja training from a bar in Kansas, DO NOT GO WITH HIM. He is not a real ninja.
Anyway, Frank passes his initation test with flying colors...
...and is introduced to Chet's fellow ninja, Wayne and Daryl. He refers to them as his "top instructors," but from what I can tell they're the only instructors.
The Punisher takes to Ninja Training Camp pretty well, meeting the daughter of a real Ninja who's none too keen on three redneck white dudes pretending they have her father's blessing but wants to recruit the Punisher to become the Western world's greatest ninja, as well as Arabian mercenary Saracen, who makes a return in the issue where the Punisher heads to Iraq and ends up cutting through ropes with fake fingernails made of diamond and painting a skull on his chest in axle grease.
He ends up throwing dirt in Wayne's eyes during a class and burning Chet's house down, which understandably cheeses them off, and so they do their best to hunt him down in the woods surrounding Camp Ninja. Unfortunately, the book's called The Punisher, and he pretty much beats the hell out of them and kills Chet's dog Tanto ("a ninja, just like me," according to Chet) before blowing them up spectacularly. Although he does learn a crucial lesson along the way:
If you fight a guy named Wayne in the woods, don't leave him for dead. Finish the job, or else he'll try to run you over with a truck.
#2: Welcome Back, Frank
The Punisher (v.5) #1-12
April, 2000-March, 2001
You've probably gotten the idea by this point that there aren't a lot of Punisher stories that are genuinely good, and that's pretty much true. Circle of Blood, the original Steven Grant/Mike Zeck mini-series, is worth reading, War Zone's got some good stuff when John Romita, Jr.'s on the art, and John Ostrander's 1995 series isn't bad, but is marred by spinning out of Over the Edge (which was similar to Over the Top, except with less armwrestling and more of the Punisher killing Nick Fury), and the unending presence of the X-Cutioner.
The Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon Marvel Knights relaunch, though, was awesome. Beautifully drawn by Dillon with an Ennis-fueled body-count of 19 in the first issue alone, this issue's not only responsible for dragging it out of the mire that was 1998's "Angel Punisher" series, but for pretty much any interest the title has today.
And why? Two words:
So what could possibly top Garth Ennis's defining take on the Punisher as the top Punisher story of all time?
Like you even had to ask.
The Punisher Meets Archie #1
The only way this comic could possibly be more suited for me is if it was a Christmas issue, but considering that it came out in the month I celebrate my birth, that's close enough.
Written by Batton Lash, of Wolf & Byrd fame, it is the single greatest crossover in the history of comics. Everything makes sense, and not only is it supreme in its strangeness, it's also a great Punisher story (with art by John Buscema!) and a great Archie story (with art by Stan Goldberg!).
The Punisher's hot on the trail of his latest target, "Red" Fever, alias Melvin Jay, who bears a striking resemblance to everyone's favorite teenager. He manages to elude Frank, hopping a train to Riverdale and posing as a business associate of Hiram Lodge, arriving just in time to escort Lodge's beautiful daughter Veronica to Riverdale High's 1950s-style Sock Hop.
The Punisher and Micro storm into Riverdale, wary of what kind of hell-hole a town that looks this clean can be, and in the mandatory Wacky Hi-Jinks, mistakes Archie Andrews for his quarry, chasing him down and leading to the best reaction shot in comics history:
Everything gets straightened out when Frank crashes the sock-hop, but not before Miss Grundy becomes smitten with him and Moose blunders into punching Frank, allowing Red to get away with Veronica as his hostage, demanding millions in ransom from Mr. Lodge. The rest of the gang rushes to her aid along with the Punisher--although a scene where Archie's jalopy rolls down the street alongside Micro's Battle Van is lamentably absent--and Archie rescues Veronica while the Frank metes out punishment.
Even better, there's a ton of in-jokes. Josie and the Pussycats play the sock-hop, where Marvel's Millie the Model and Archie's Katy Keene swap fashion tips. The incredible last panel. Plus, the single best page, bar none, ever:
It is quite possibly my favorite comic book ever. And yes, I have both covers.