If you have ever wondered why they keep making Punisher movies (there have been three over the years), then you need to read the Punisher: Circle Of Blood (COB) miniseries.
While I doubt Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane or Ray Stevenson (the three men who portrayed Frank Castle in the movies) ever read this 1986 five-parter, I believe that it would have made a big difference if they had. This story features the Punisher at his most punishing best, and established him as an A-list (anti) hero.
The Punisher made his first appearance in 1974 (Amazing Spider-Man #129), portrayed as a deranged war veteran hell-bent on punishing every criminal out there (even litterbugs!) after witnessing his family being gunned down by mobsters.
This made him a flawed, one-man killing machine from day one. While subsequent creative teams did try to inject some depth into his character by giving him a sense of honour and the use of “mercy bullets” (they don’t kill, but merely stun), it was still obvious that he was not even in the same league as the likes of Spidey or Daredevil.
Then, after 12 years of mediocre tales, the creative team of Steven Grant and Mike Zeck (then a hot property, courtesy of his work on Secret Wars) came along, and in the space of five issues, transformed the Punisher into something much more, well, punishing!
COB is a must-read for Punisher fans and sets the benchmark for all future Punisher comics and movies. With the Punisher set to make an appearance in Season Two of the critically-acclaimed Daredevil series on Netflix (played by The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal), here’s hoping that he has read COB. If he hasn’t, here are five reasons why he should:
1) Castle foundations
The Punisher is more than just a deranged war veteran, and COB highlighted that by giving us his real name (Frank Castiglione Castle) and a befitting raison d’etre – his overzealous attitude towards eradicating crime stems from being drugged when he was first imprisoned.
Having re-established Frank’s past, his present involved settling scores at Rykers Prison and coordinating his crime-fighting approach through a covert operation named “The Trust” (which subsequently betrayed him). For once, the absence of heroes (including big names like Spidey and Daredevil) is not felt at all – instead, the presence of corrupted cops, mobsters and Rykers’ worst inmates makes COB a refreshing take.
2) Punishing methods
If Punisher’s anti-hero status had a starting point in the Marvel Universe, this would be it. Remember, in the 1980s, the golden rule was that heroes simply do not kill, and everyone had to emulate Captain America’s “holier than thou” persona. Then along came Frank Castle.
Sure, even before COB, he has taken shots at Spidey (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15) and Daredevil (Daredevil Vol 1 #183), but only with his so-called “mercy bullets”. It is only in COB that the Punisher finally dishes out the ultimate punishment, by wiping out his enemies directly (and indirectly – there’s a scene where one character opts to commit suicide rather than face the Punisher’s fury). Now, if only the Punisher could make a detour to Gotham and take care of a certain clown, permanently.
3) Breaking the code
Today’s comics fans would have no problems with anti-heroes or even villains who moonlight as heroes, but the 1980s was a different time. COB’s hard-boiled approach was a first for Marvel. Had it been published in the 1970s, it would have definitely violated the Comics Code Authority, which was created in 1954 as a way for the comics industry to self-regulate its content.
COB also pushed the envelope with controversial events like the aforementioned suicide, and a love scene with an undercover female agent. So the next time you see such “staple elements” in Vertigo, MAX or indie comics, spare a thought for the book that started it all.
4) Iconic covers
First impressions matter, especially on comic book covers. All of COB’s five covers are instant attention-grabbers, thanks to Mike Zeck’s stunning art and Phil Zimelman’s airbrush effects. These masterpieces are so good that they have been reproduced on various forms of media and merchandise, and have inspired many “tribute covers” in other titles.
Prior to the use of digital colouring techniques in comics (which became an industry norm after the rise of Image Comics), the use of airbrush painting was revolutionary and a sight to behold, even till today!
5) Just being Frank
I mentioned the Punisher’s raison d’etre aspect earlier, and would like to expand on it by highlighting how COB distinguishes Frank Castle from other Marvel heroes.
He is not like Spidey or Daredevil, because he has no qualms about killing. But he is also not like Wolverine – not because he doesn’t have claws and an adamantium skeleton, but because unlike the Ol’ Canucklehead, Castle thinks, plans and does not go berserk easily or unnecessarily.
Castle is not just a one-man killing machine BUT a thinking “hunter”, “protagonist” and “punisher” in every sense.
COB reinvented the Punisher from the most brutal of conditions – i.e. imprisoned with his enemies, manipulated by his new employers, and (to some extent) betrayed. Castle not only overcame these odds, but displayed true heroic qualities, albeit with an anti-heroic twist.
These unique qualities make Frank Castle an anomaly amongst Earth’s mightiest heroes and make him one person you wouldn’t hesitate to entrust with the task of (permanently) solving many global problems!