Friday, May 1, 2009

Famous First Fridays: The Punisher in Amazing Spider-Man #129

With Amazing Spider-Man #129 (November 1973), Marvel unleashed an anti-hero who would turn comicdom on its collective head with the introduction of Frank Castle, the Punisher. At the time, Don Pendleton's Mac Bolan, the Executioner paperback series, about an avenging ex-Green Beret who's family is wiped out by the mob was stirring up a minor sensation. At the movies, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson's Deathwish movies were stunning the country with their modern-day cowboys dispensing justice bullet by bullet. Inspired by the "vigilante-mania" caused by those books and movies, Gerry Conway came up with his own version Mac Bolan. (The costume was designed by John Romita, Sr. based on a sketch by Conway.) This was still early 70s Marvel, though, and while the Comics Code was loosening its decades-old restrictions, it was still extremely wary of the type of violence such a "super-hero" would demand, so the Punisher we'll see in Spidey #129--with incredible art by Ross Andru, inked by Frank Giacoia and Dave Hunt, by the way-- is quite a bit tamer than the Punisher who'd become fan-favorite in the 80s and 90s. No bullets for the Punisher in his debut. When we first meet Frank Castle (being used as a dupe by Spidey's then-number-one-nemesis, the Jackal) he's using a concussion rifle. Dig it...

Now that concussion rifle looks pretty deadly to me, and at least as messy as bullets. Strange were the ways of the comics code. Anyway, when the Punisher actually comes face-to-face with Spidey, he's got another rifle, this one dispenses a titanium wire that wraps Spidey up in much the same manner as Spidey webs up his foes. Ironic, no?

Much like the criminals he's sworn to wipe out, the Punisher uses the time he has Spidey, er, tied up to explain his motivation...

Obviously, Conway isn't just trying to cash in on the "vigilante justice" craze, he's struggling with the right or wrong of it, using Castle as his sounding board. When the Jackal strikes Spidey from behind, causing him to fall from the building they've been battling atop, we see the Punisher's self-righteous and delusional idea of what justice really is...

Oh, Conway and Andru could be pretty sneaky, too. By page 17, the Punisher has pulled out an honest-to-gosh, bullet-firing pistol and is putting it to use. Did the censors for the Code not read the whole issue?

Since Spider-Man was the actual star of his own comic, it was his job to figure out what was going on. Seems that the Jackal, after seeing the Punisher wasn't going to be as cooperative a partner as he thought, had set Castle up for murder. After Spidey explains the whole plot, the Punisher reacts with that self-righteous anger again. After all, he only murders folks who deserve to be murdered, right? But before the Punisher disappears into the shadows, Spidey asks the question many of us had been wondering about why the Punisher was fighting a war in the streets of New York instead of in the jungles of Viet Nam like the good marine he was supposed to be. The Punisher's response? Marvel-style cryptic, baby...

Conway let us know with a wink that he knew we knew the Punisher was "inspired" by Mac Bolan. When the Punisher made his next appearance, in ASM issues 134-135 (April-May 1974), he dropped a few more hints at the Punisher's origins while Castle and Spidey took on another costumed criminal called the Tarantula.

The Punisher was a smash-hit. In early 1975 Marvel devoted an entire issue of its black and white try-out mag, Marvel Preview (#2) to finally giving the Punisher an origin and then turning him loose in all his violent glory. Without the restrictions of the Comics Code, Conway and artist Tony DeZuniga gave us the Punisher we came to know and either love or hate: the ultimate killing machine who killed not only the bad guys, but pretty much anyone associated with the bad guys. No more soul searching. No more rifles that fired "concussion blasts" and wires. This was a bloody war on organized crime, all the fear and anger against real-world crime spewing from the ink and pulp pages with no remorse, regrets, or apologies. It was the "bloody pulps" of the 30s revived for the Groovy Age. Fans went nuts. Some were elated at the release such a comic could bring. Others were disgusted that Marvel had seemingly given in to base sensationalism. Fandom might have been split on whether to love or hate the Punisher, but they sure weren't ignoring him.

A toned-down Punisher appeared in Giant-Size Spider-Man #4, shortly on the heels of MP #2. It disappeared from the racks quicker than you could say "Watergate tapes". Then Marvel hoped to create a new "men's magazine" in black and white comicbook form called Marvel Super Action. The Punisher would headline the mag, now written by Archie Goodwin (Conway had moved to DC), still drawn by Tony DeZuniga, still violent, volatile, and vengeance-bent. Only one issue of MSA appeared and, again, it was snapped up and gobbled down by the comics-reading public, but for some reason the series never continued.

The Punisher would be relegated to guest-starring duties for the rest of the Groovy Age. Always interesting, always helping pump up sales, but in the hands of too many writers, becoming a very confusing character. Depending on the particular writer's stand (or the needs of the story), the Punisher could be flat-out heroic, an anti-hero, a villain, or a very dangerous lunatic. It would take the 80s to straighten him out and make him the macho icon he would become.

1 comment:

  1. Frank Castle aka the Punisher made his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man 129 cover dated February 1974, so let me just write...HAPPY 40TH ANNIVERSARY!



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