One of the most universally reviled chapters in the Punisher’s history is the incredibly brief (8 issues) he spent as some sort of angelic avenger. The Punisher is pretty much synonymous with vigilante-ism. He has no powers, just lots of guns and a mission to put criminals down for good. He rarely interacts with the rest of the Marvel universe so it seems incredibly strange that they’d somehow decide to completely pull the rug out from under the character and intertwine him so heavily with the metaphysical.
Let me stop here a moment before I get deeper into talking about the content of these books and talk a little about the series itself. First off, these stories were created as part of the Marvel Knights imprint, which basically took existing, often lesser-known, properties and put them in the hands of unlikely talent in out-of-continuity stories.
The most enduring title of the Marvel Knights line was probably Daredevil, which started in 2001 by Brian Michael Bendis, shortly after he kicked off the Ultimate Marvel Universe with Ultimate Spider-Man. Bendis would write Daredevil for nearly 5 years, and the series would continue for nearly 5 more years under different creative teams.
Shortly before the Marvel Knights imprint was kicked off, the Punisher had seen a big decline in popularity after exploding in the early 90s, at one point having 3 ongoing titles at the same time. All three would be cancelled due to low sales and subsequent attempts at revitalizing the character weren’t catching on. In a way, the Marvel Knights imprint was another such attempt, though what sets it apart is that it tried to do it by trying to be something completely different. And that’s really what this run was, moreso than bad, which is how everyone remembers it.
These few issues, written by Cristopher Golden, better known for supernatural and horror novels, including work with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Hellboy, weave the supernatural and metaphysical into Frank Castle/The Punisher’s history so tightly that it doesn’t feel like the Punisher anymore. It’s easy to dismiss it for getting the character wrong but I kind of think that’s sort of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, making the character in these stories Frank Castle does more harm than good because of the expectations the character sets. Getting past that however, and you have a kind of decent supernatural story concerning the fight between angels and demons. I thought it was kind of fun.
In the stories, supernatural elements become the driving forces behind the major elements of the character. The tragedy that drove Frank to become the Punisher is engineered to serve the purposes of a demon that was exiled from hell to live a mortal life. The murder of Frank’s family served two purposes. The first is that this demon, living as the mob boss responsible for the killing of Frank’s family, would inevitably be killed by the Punisher, sending him back to hell where he wants to return. The second is that the Punisher’s mission results in lots and lots of damned souls being sent to hell and feeding the demon’s hellish army. I personally find it somewhat compelling if it weren’t rewriting decades of a character’s history and given that this phase was so short-lived, I’m kind of okay in overlooking that fact.
Now, all that was backstory revealed later in the series. The brunt of the series has to with Frank as a kind of hired gun for heaven. What? Well, that’s a surprise to Frank as well since he doesn’t know how he got to that point. Eventually, Frank’s investigation and continuing mission to stop crime leads him to an angel. Eventually, it’s revealed that the Punisher took his own life but was revived by the angels to help them against the very demon that maneuvered Frank to unwittingly serve him.
Again, it all sounds very silly given that it’s the Punisher we’re referring to but I can’t help thinking that if, slightly reworked, this could make a fascinating Hellblazer story. A Vietnam vet whose family murder drives him to kill in an extended act of revenge certainly wouldn’t be out of place. Then add in the obvious but unseen demonic influence driving our lives and it’s very much in Hellblazer’s domain.
It’s still a misfire in that it didn’t fully consider the baggage the chosen property would bring with it, sort of like putting rice and other ingredients on a hamburger bun. You’re going to lose everyone who ordered it expecting a hamburger but if you take off the bun and rearrange everything else slightly and you might have a good plate of sushi.
So maybe I’d recommend this more to fans of supernatural and horror comics than I would Punisher fans. I enjoyed the story it told but I understand why it’s dismissed so easily by Punisher fans so maybe someone who isn’t too familiar or invested in the typical image of the character can more easily ignore the decades of stories that this arc tries to recontextualize into a whole different genre.