Panelology - Casualties of the 90s: The Punisher

by Brandon

This week’s Panelology starts a series of articles looking at titles, companies, properties, and creators from that flamboyant decade of comic book decadence, the 1990s. The 90s were filled with many success stories that ultimately ended in a poly-bagged implosion caused by a lack of monetary resources, a misuse of properties, creative woes, and just plain bad luck. In my mind, the character that best exemplifies the comic book collapse of the 90s is one of my favorite characters, the Punisher.

The Roaring 90s
The early 90s were good to Frank Castle. Leaving the 80s, Punisher was already featured in two titles, his self-titled which began in 1987 and 1988’s War Journal. Though created in the 70s, Punisher resonated well with fans in the 80s due to the dark nature of the character. The character, much like many larger than life action-oriented properties of the early to mid-90s, received a lot of success. Of the Marvel properties, Punisher seemed more like the brand of antihero that was coming out of the early Image books. He was dark, brooding, and ultraviolent. And he had guns. We all know those early Image creators liked inserting guns into their titles. Big guns, at that. Guns were cool then, what can I say. The fact that Punisher was big on guns gave him a competitive edge during those early days of competition between Image and Marvel. In a way, Punisher was Image before there was Image; alternative to alternative.

By 1993, the budding Punisher franchise had grown to support four monthly titles, adding the fun at first War Zone and the laughably bad 2099 title. That’s four titles for one character. Do the comic book math there. To me, that just doesn’t even add up right. I’m of the opinion that no one character should really support several titles. There are all sorts of benefits creatively to having just one title per character. The fact that Punisher is often portrayed as a one-dimensional character did not help the saturation of Punisher books out at all. In the early to mid 90s, one could now read four titles where Punisher popped a cap in someone’s ass monthly. That was too much for a character like Punisher, no matter how enjoyable it is to see him shoot bad people.

He's Everywhere
The Punisher was also like Santa Claus, Jesus, and Bill Gates in the 1990s; he was everywhere! I think many people forget that for a time in the 90s Punisher was a lot like Wolverine. It seemed like he was showing up not only in his own four titles, but everybody else’s titles too. Some of the appearances in books like Ghost Rider, Daredevil, and Wolverine actually seemed to fit the mold of Punisher’s violent underpinnings. But many of his appearances were awful and unnecessary. Just taking a look at some of his more bizarre comic book visits to titles like Dr. Strange, Fantastic Four, Silver Sable, Quasar, Namor, and West Coast Avengers should make you scratch your head and ask, “What the fuck is Punisher doing in a Namor book?” And yet, there he is, in all his glory, hanging out with a dude who wears a scaly Speedo. Punisher has guns, damnit! Guns! GUNS! He should not be hanging out with Namor, least of all with a loser like Quasar. Punisher also appeared along side with some fairly “wtf” people outside of the Marvel Universe too. Most famously, you have the Archie crossover, but he also appeared in Alf. Throwing the Big Pun in your title for a month gained a Colbert-like bump in your sales, I suppose. But really, West Coast Avengers? Archie? Quasar?

Punisher fans, hang your heads in shame!

On top of all of this, Punisher also starred in several prestige-format comic books. By several, I mean approximately 1,857. This is one less the amount of appearances he had in other idiot’s comic books. While many of these specials were actually pretty good, these titles just added to the glut and oversaturation of the property. It was rumored that near the downfall of the character there were several unpublished Punisher prestige format books and miniseries just waiting in the wings to be published. The mystique of this now lost Punisher file filled with more schlock from the 90s has become an urban legend.

This type of overuse of the character was about to take its toll. The carrying capacity for Punisher in the volatile comic book market was not far behind.

The Downfall

By 1995, poor sales on all of the Punisher titles forced Marvel to cancel all of them. The main title would be resurrected later that year, with the writing chores being handled by John Ostrander. As a writer, Ostrander is generally a highly capable, one of my favorites. However, he tried some pretty bizarre things out for the Punisher. First, he had the Punisher join the mob. Later, after that went tits up, he had him join S.H.I.E.L.D. I kid you not. After that story went tits up, the title was cancelled with issue 18 due to Marvel’s economic woes despite and a general decline in popularity of the character. Like several canned titles, issues 19 and 20 were already in the creative works, potentially haven been written and drawn, but they would never see the light of day. Oh, and Punisher had a Steven Seagal style ponytail for the first few issues. I cannot tell a lie. It’s true.

But there is appositive side to the mid-90s for Punisher. Though 1995 would seem like a bad year for Punisher with the start of a new lackluster series, there was one highlight. One of the last in the line of prestige format books hit the shelves called Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe by one Ennis. As the title suggests, in this book, Punisher kills the entire Marvel Universe. The end. It was a bloody, What if?-type fun ride that would give a glimpse of what the future would hold for the Punisher.

Punisher would fall into further humiliation with the publishing of the now infamous 1998 Golden/Sneigoski/Wrightson limited series. In the miniseries, Punisher gets powers from angels so he can put caps into people’s ass for them. Yes, you got that right. Angels. I remember reading this during my freshmen year of college thinking, “Who the fuck green-lit this piece of garbage?” This is an X-File if there ever has been one. While I don’t recommend actually buying this miniseries, do try to borrow it from some sad fan like me who actually bought the damn thing (I also somehow got a signed version of issue #1 along the way, but I don’t remember how). It is truly a bizarre, David Lynch-style reading experience that will make you want to write an angry letter to your congressman or Bill O’Reilly. To make matters worse, this angelic-gun-toting version of Punisher appeared alongside Wolverine in a miniseries in 1999 called Revelations. Ugh. This should have simply been titled 90s Glutfest. It was a simple proposal; take two of Marvels most overused heroes and put them together. Genius! But not really. Unlike the first angel miniseries, you should not seek this one out. I believe it’s illegal.

Beyond the 90s
And yet, in true Punisher style, the property somehow survived all of this. Punisher has been one of the success stories of surviving the 90s. He had one of the most bizarre and toilsome journeys of any Marvel character (with the exception of Spider-Man), but he mostly came out on top. In 2000, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon would begin their influential run on the title with the 12-issue maxi-series that pretty much forgot/ignored all of the trash of the 90s. Ennis was responsible for bringing Punisher back to his vigilante roots.

Though his run is at an end, Ennis continues to work on the Punisher today after planting him in a much deserved mature content title outside of the boundaries of the Marvel Universe. In 2006, a second ongoing Punisher title began, War Journal volume 2, to much praise as Punisher was “returned” to the Marvel Universe after a short absence. There have been several specials that have been made too, with most being accepted with positive praise. Punisher also doesn’t show up as much in other titles. While there have been a few instances of his carousing around the Marvel Universe, they have been generally tasteful appearances that don’t seemed forced or out of place. There was a fairly unremarkable movie adaptation and a new “requel” set to hit theaters this winter.

So, Punisher ended up on top despite some hefty creative missteps in the 1990s. It seemed like the creators involved in the 90s didn’t have a passion for the character. Sure, they probably liked him, but under the guidance of someone who truly enjoys and gets the Punisher like Garth Ennis, the character has flourished. To many Punisher fans, Ennis has heralded in a Golden Age for their favorite black clad vigilante. I know I feel that way.

And I would be lying if I said that the entire 90s run of Punishers books was bad. There were some great titles. Check out the list of recommended reading at the end of this article for some superb Punisher highlights. In the end, let’s all hope the next decade treats Frank as well as this one and much better than the 90s!

Next time...

Of course, if you have a story suggestion for Casualty of the 90s, I'd love to hear them. Post a comment below. Next week is Star Wars Week. Panelology will be taking a special “Casualties of the 90’s” look at Star Wars comics. See you then!

Recommended Reading:
Here are some great Punisher stories worth checking out from the 90s. Enjoy!
- Punisher War Journal #'s 25-27 (1990 - The Sicilian Saga)
- Punisher P.O.V. #'s 1-4 (1991)
- Punisher 53-59 (1991-1992 - The Final Days)
- Punisher: Die Hard in the Big Easy (1992)
- Punisher/Captain America: The Blood & Glory (1992)
- Punisher War Zone #'s 12-16 (1993 - Psychoville, USA)
- Punisher: A Man Named Frank (1994)
- Punisher: Year One #'s 1-4 (1994)
- Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe (1995)


Doug Smith said...

How do you expect me to take this article seriously when you dissed the awesome Quasar?

Question: didn't Frank commit suicide at some point? Wasn't that why they had to do the angelic nonsense, as a way of bringing him back?

Brandon said...

Yes, the Punisher was resurrected by Angels during the Purgatory miniseries. He also was electrocuted in the first issue of the Ostrander series.

Mister said...

A great article there Brandon, Punisher is only a character I got into recently, though my first introduction to him was the first Marvel Knights mini series. Which I found "interesting" and then I skipped the next and went on to the Ennis maxi series which I loved.

I have recently been buying the Max hard covers which I have loved, there have been some very powerful stories written in this book, and they have really grounded the character.

The new War Journal book on the other had I have no interest in, let see how that one pans out.

Brandon said...

I keep going back and forth with my enjoyment of the new War Journal title. Frank just seems so out of place with the superhero set. I didn't mind what Ennis did with his MK ongoing. That was a great balance of MU interaction and straightforward Punisher goodness. Fraction has been adamant from the beginning that if Punisher was going to be in the MU, he was going to face MU super-villains. It just doesn't seem to fit the character. Sure, that's where he started, but almost immediately Marvel pulled him away from that environment by focusing on a 70s style vendetta/revenge story.

As for Max hardcovers, I would love to buy them, but I am cheap-o. I can't justify the purchase of hardcovers for books I already own. However, I have told myself that if I come across some cheap, they will be mine.

Jonathan Nolan said...

I know you probably get literate people telling you this all the time, but right there in your heading, you misspelled genius.

Brandon said...

That's intentional.

Mister said...

Brandon, the hardcovers are beautiful to look at, and the art work just comes to life, the only issues i have with them is that one story is usually so much more superior to the other, that you feel let down by the second. But had you read it as a stand alone story, it would have still been brilliant.

As for the Fraction book, I read his Ironman recently and really enjoyed it, so I'm off to dig out some of his trades, Ironfist and maybe War Journal. In WJ which supervillians has he come across, and how realistic has it been?

Brandon said...

Pretty much all of War Journal has been filled with super-villains. The Hunter/Hunted arc with Kraven in issues 13-15 was pretty fun and it reminded me a lot of the Ennis MK run due to its use of humor. The current Jigsaw arc has some potential, but I'm not particularly thrilled with it.

I like Fraction, and Remender is doing a great job with The End League over at Dark Horse. Fractions Casanova is loved by many, but I wasn't too terribly impressed. It is cheap, though.