An avid comic collector and fan for nearly 20 years, Vic started collecting comics around eight years old. Comic investing since the 2000s.
Let's Be Frank
When it comes to the first appearance of the Punisher, let's be frank here. We are talking about a comic character that is popular in the Marvel Comic books and amongst comic book fans. We're not talking about ads, posters or comic industry insider magazines that cover news about publishers. We're talking about comic characters that inhabit comic stories.
When Did the Punisher First Appear?
With that aside, Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, is a beloved character in Marvel Comics. He is my absolute favorite to date and has been a favorite of mine since childhood. The comic in which he makes his first appearance is absolutely a personal grail in my collection. So, when was the Punisher's first appearance? The cover to that very issue is below.
Amazing Spider-Man #129
That's right! The Punisher debuts in Amazing Spider-Man #129, with the classic target cover by John Romita Sr. As the cover implies, the Punisher is targeting our favorite Webhead. Why? Because he's being manipulated by the Jackal, who also makes his debut in this issue, into thinking that our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man is a murderer that needs punishing.
Yep, ole Frank Castle starts off as a hardcore vigilante set out to kill Spidey, but despite his extreme task, he is still depicted in this debut as having a code of honor. When the Punisher first tussles with Spider-Man and the Jackal sneak-attacks Spidey from behind like a coward, Punisher calls out the Jackal for his dishonorable and unjust attempt at killing Spider-Man.
While he makes a big fuss about killing an opponent honorably, the character of the Punisher ends up using all sorts of methods like kidnapping, torture, extortion and coercion in his war on crime, so the extreme vigilante became even more extreme as he evolved over time. However, he makes a big deal of Spidey dying in a more appropriate or deliberate manner than by accident.
Later, after Spidey escapes the confrontation and the Punisher and Jackal are at his lair, it's revealed that the Jackal has gotten the Punisher to believe that Spider-Man killed Norman Osborn (Green Goblin). However, Punisher is still upset about how the Jackal was going to let Spider-Man die so dishonorably. It's actually pretty silly, and the Punisher chastises the Jackal, "I did not intend to become a common murderer by allowing a man to fall to his death."
After the Jackal defends his own position by reminding the Punisher that Spidey killed Osborn and asking why does it matter how a cold-blooded murderer dies, the Punisher states:
"It matters! If I'm ever to live with myself, I have to know I'm doing the right thing, and letting a man die by accident doesn't qualify."
— Punisher in "Amazing Spider-Man #129"
In the climatic end confrontation, the Punisher discovers that he's been played by the Jackal and calls off his vendetta against Spider-Man. Instead, he vows payback on the Jackal and disappears into the shadows while claiming how he's just a warrior fighting a lonely war.
While it's a pretty campy read nowadays, all of the elements that are essentially the character of the Punisher are there. His marine or military background is stated, as is his war on crime. The Punisher's extreme and single-minded persona is both established and challenged with his "honorable way" of killing a criminal target.
As I said before, it's a bit sketchy, but this was meant to clearly establish that the Punisher was not an all-out baddie and that he did have a moral compass. It also established that the Punisher saw things in black and white but was still a complex character.
The Creation of the Punisher
This character was created by writer Gerry Conway and artists John Romita and Ross Andru. Stan Lee has credited himself with coming up with the name that he got from another character, but we'll get to that later.
The Punisher's creation was actually inspired by the main protagonist of a book series called The Executioner by Don Pendleton. Mack Bolan was the hero of these books, and he was a Vietnam War soldier whose family was murdered. After being called back home from the jungles of Vietnam to bury his family in the States, he learns that loan sharks from the local mafia are involved in victimizing his family. Upon learning that the real enemies are the criminals here at home, Mack deserts the war in Vietnam to start a war on crime at home.
Sounds like Frank Castle is pretty much the same character, right? Gerry Conway confirmed this in an interview in the 75th issue of the Comics Interview back in 1989.
"I was fascinated by the Don Pendleton Executioner character, which was fairly popular at the time, and I wanted to do something that was inspired by that, although not to my mind a copy of it. And while I was doing the Jackal storyline, the opportunity came for a character who would be used by the Jackal to make Spider-Man's life miserable. The Punisher seemed to fit."
— Gerry Conway, "Comics Interview #75"
In the same interview, Conway also pointed out that the black and white colors of his costume represented his attitude, his point of view or outlook on life. This is what made the character complex, according to Conway, as most of us do not perceive the world in such a manner. The Punisher's perception of the world is simple: There are good people, and there are bad people. Those bad people deserve to die, and, no matter what, there is nothing redeemable about them.
Working from a simple sketch done by Conway, John Romita blew up a skull logo that was originally sketched on one breast and made the Punisher's gunbelt part of the skull's teeth. With the sketch design and full script to Amazing Spider-Man #129 sent to penciler Ross Andru, he continued the character's look by adding a "hawk-like" face and the Punisher's physical build to complete the menacing, one-man war on crime.
Gerry Conway initially was going to call the character the Assassin. However, when he brought this to Stan Lee, according to the man, he disapproved of the name with such a negative connotation. Remembering a Galactus robot named Punisher that was in the story of Fantastic Four #49 (1st full appearance of Galactus), Stan suggested that name instead and the rest is history.
From early on, Gerry Conway made the point that most regular people reside in a gray area and would have trouble with the attitude or view a character like Frank Castle holds. This dichotomy was an underlying theme brought up several times with encounters between the Punisher and other Marvel heroes like Spider-Man and Daredevil, most notably.
Cultural Impact of the Punisher
Since his debut in Amazing Spider-Man #129, the character of the Punisher has become an instant fan-favorite yet quite a controversial Marvel anti-hero. Creator Gerry Conway has had absolutely zero problem addressing the figure and why his status as a "hero" is so controversial in past and even present interviews.
In Comics Interview #75, Conway stated the character of the Punisher is obviously "broken," and when asked about why there was such a rise in the popularity of darker, killer-type of characters, Conway stated that the dark villain reflects a nihilistic view and that the Punisher was originally conceived to be an antagonist, not a protagonist.
Military and Police Co-Opting the Punisher Logo
The same sentiment was addressed by the creator several times recently when certain units of the military and even the police force were using the Punisher Death's Head Skull to represent themselves. Conway has called police using the Punisher logo "a disgrace" and challenged the very notion of law enforcement using the symbol of a vigilante, who clearly breaks the law to judge and execute those without due process, and that "the Punisher represents a failure of the justice system."
Conway has further added in a recent interview in SyFy Wire, “He is an outlaw. He is a criminal. Police should not be embracing a criminal as their symbol.” He also felt flattered but slightly concerned about military co-opting the Punisher logo as well, and this too brings up a strange contradiction since the character of Frank Castle deserted the marines to start his "war on crime" after his family was murdered by the mob.
Whether you think it's an unnerving fact that this extreme vigilante has become so popular among the right or not, it's clear that Marvel's Punisher has indeed spoken to many, and even the Punisher logo has taken on a very different meaning than creator Gerry Conway even predicted.
Why the Punisher Is My Favorite Character
The Punisher is my favorite comic character, and if I am honest, it is very much in the way that Gerry Conway has spoken about him originally and to this day. Conway has said plenty of times that he's not a good guy, and I do not necessarily think of him as a hero, but I do think he is necessary. He is the dark vision of a social and cultural breakdown who provides simple and direct solutions to complicated problems.
However, we should be fully aware that the Punisher also operates fully outside of the law and to the absolute extreme. He is unhinged, and there is no telling whether you're beyond his ultimate judgement or dead in its sights until it's too late.
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