Jon Bernthal’s depiction of the most legendary vigilante in comic-book history, The Punisher, has made him one of the hottest properties in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which is no mean feat, given the amount of promotion that goes into the company’s movie arm, when compared to its poorer televisual relation. But, much as Bernthal’s interpretation is one of a number of different live-action versions of the character, Marvel Comics also contain a number of alternative versions of the gun toting villain-killer.
From an outsider’s point of view, there’s little reason why The Punisher should be as iconic a character as he has now become. A relatively pantomime villain when introduced during his debut storyline back in 1974, the former soldier allowed himself to be easily brainwashed by an even more pantomime bad guy (The Jackal), before being effortlessly vanquished by a certain wisecracking wall-crawler.
Frank Castle has no particularly spectacular abilities or superpowers. No healing factor, retractable claws etc. He’s not even particularly likeable, notorious for his lack of humor and inability to work as part of a larger team. But 40 years after his creation, this Marine Corps veteran remains by the best anti-hero ever to have ever graced the pages of a comic book.
Why is this? Well, for one thing, The Punisher has now been lovingly embraced by a new generation of cynical comic book readers. Enamoured with his ability to stand up for the little guy, fans root for Frank as he goes head to head with the villains the Avengers can’t be bothered with.
On another level, his hyper-violent adventures can be seen to poke fun at the more outrageous elements of the genre, as his ridiculously superpowered foes are despatched in a variety of brutal, yet quite simplistic ways.
Both the armed forces and public services have embraced Frank Castle as a beacon of what they stand for, with numerous versions of that classic Punisher skull adapted to be worn on a variety of military and police uniforms. Not even Batman has ever managed to achieve that accolade… But if there’s one thing that goes hand-in-hand with being a Marvel character, it’s that you don’t get to be around for 40-odd years without managing to generate a few different incarnations of yourself. Thems’ the rules…
Rebirths. Time slips. Parallel dimensions. There’s any number of ways you can suddenly end up bumping into a new version of yourself. The Frank Castle you think you know, the Punisher of Earth-616, is only one of a number of different variations on the character.
So let us introduce you to 10 other imaginings of The Punisher that you might not yet have encountered in your many and varied comic book adventures:
10. Space Punisher
Back in 2012, Marvel decided to experiment with a very different version of Frank Castle, and released a 4 issue run called Space Punisher. The series was ‘divisive’ to say the least, with equal amounts of love and revulsion leveled at it by the readers, but nothing that seemed to fall anywhere between those two viewpoints.
What we’re trying to spell out here, is that Marvel fans either loved, or hated it. Well, generally they hated it. The series is LOUD and colourful, riffing heavily on the pulpy sci-fi serials of the 1950’s. With a ridiculous robotic sidekick in tow, this pony-tailed version of The Punisher uses a laser sword and a blaster to carve his way through a legion of reimagined Marvel super villains, as well as Space-Nazis and Space-Werewolves. Did we happen to mention it was quite divisive?
9. Angel Punisher
The end of the 1980’s marked somewhat of a low point for Frank. Storylines found him kicking his heels around the fringes of the Marvel Universe, trying to recover from of a series of weak cameos that had seen him temporarily enlisted in SHIELD, and also tried his hand at a spot of undercover work.
The writers needed to come up with some material that was fiery and fresh. So they decided to try something a little bit different. They killed him off. Now, as any true comic book fan knows, being killed in a comic is essentially a gold-plated assurance that you’ll be reborn in some fantastic way in the not too distant future.
And so it was that Frank Castle came back from the grave. As an Angel. Armed with a pair of supernatural, demon-slaying sub-machine guns, The Punisher returned from heaven to fight a short war on evil, across two series, one of which saw him pair up with Wolverine.
The stories were truly awful, and their only saving grace is the fact they cued up the quite brilliant ‘Welcome Back Frank’ run, which was illustrated by the late Steve Dillon. Yes, this was almost the most ridiculous narrative that The Punisher has ever had. Well, almost…
The closing stages of the Dark Reign storyline saw Norman Osborn having replaced SHIELD with his own paramilitary organisation named HAMMER. Castle’s efforts to kill the former Green Goblin resulted in Osborn dispatching Wolverine’s murderous bastard-child Daken to solve his vigilante problem. After a notoriously brutal battle, Frank ended up sliced and diced to death on a rainy New York rooftop, only for the Man-Thing to save his body and reincarnate it to try and protect a rogues gallery of persecuted monsters.
Whilst initially somewhat reluctant to assist the assembled werewolves and vampires, the shuffling undead antihero eventually agrees to help, taking on a group of professional Japanese monster-hunters and an un-dead Nazi before regaining his humanity. Universally reviled by the majority of Punisher fans, this version rarely features anywhere other than on lists like this.
7. Punisher 2099
Much as the title suggests, this attempted reboot of the character was relocated forwards well into the far-flung future, as the ominously named Officer Jake Gallows happens across the original Punisher’s adventures in the history books, before adopting the mantle for himself.
Equipped with a jet pack and a ridiculously oversized pair of laser cannons, Gallows is joined by a few other reimagined versions of classic Marvel heroes, before the group takes on Dr Doom, who has bizarrely managed to get elected as President in this timeline.
This incarnation of the character resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of the 1980’s, all rippling muscles and ammo pouches, spouting hammy one-liners as he disposes of his opponents. Needless to say, it wasn’t a massive hit, and was quietly shelved away into the darker recesses of the Marvel archives.
6. Secret Wars
Having decided to quite hilariously resurrect and then mash together all of their previous differing universes during the recent ‘Secret Wars’ saga, Marvel had an utter riot inventing new versions of their most popular characters, as well as bringing back some of the older ones. Which of course meant meant even more Punishers. Well, three more, to be precise.
As Earth 616 comes to a brutal and explosive end, Frank decides to use the opportunity to slaughter a bar full of supervillains who are watching the apocalypse, before a quick trip to Iraq where he kills an Al Qaida leader before the timeline is erased from reality.
In one of the new timelines, a dying Dr Strange bonds with Castle, to create a new supernatural sheriff. At the same time, over in the newly established Marvel-Zombies timeline, a Pilgrim 1692 Punisher is banished to the dead zone, only to meet his end during an Ultron/Zombie face off. Lastly, in the new Civil-War timeline, an armour-clad Punisher sides with Steve Rogers, and becomes the leader of his special forces, mounting commando attacks on Iron Man’s border outposts ahead of a larger invasion force.
All three versions are brilliant little reimaginings of the original character, and subtly contribute to the success of each of the sun-stories they feature in.
5. 5 Ronin
A short, but particularly well-crafted run that was published back in 2011, this series relocated the Marvel Universe back in time to ancient Japan, and featured an appropriately modified version of The Punisher, alongside other renderings of The Hulk, Deadpool, Psylocke and Wolverine.
Each of these characters has a short standalone story, with all of them eventually encountering the wandering Deadpool, who narratively links them together for the readers. This medieval version of the Punisher portrays him as a feudal warrior who returns from war to find a rival has taken the opportunity to kill his family and claimed his land.
Inevitably, this leads to some appropriately bladed and matchlocked revenge, as ‘Samurai Frank’ wreaks retribution on anyone and anything that crosses his path during his quest for revenge. The series embraces the best elements of traditional Japanese cinema and storytelling, and is a must-read for all true Marvel fans.
4. Punisher Noir
Sticking with the idea of relocating some of Marvel’s finest properties to days gone by, the Noir series of 2009 saw The Punisher retconned back to the Prohibition Era, along with Spidey, Iron Man and the X-Men. And whilst it became necessary to give the majority of the characters some kind of Steampunk makeover, the only real changes that ‘Noir Frank’ finds during the series are purely cosmetic.
In this timeline, Frank Castelione Sr was a hero of WWI, who had a huge skull tattooed on his chest as a means of intimidating his German opponents in the trenches, and also embarked on a series of James Bond-style adventures against German and Russian agents. When he returns from the war, he does his best to try and keep Frank Jr away from his past, only to be murdered because of his previous government missions.
Finding his father’s weapons, Frank Jr wears a skull-emblazoned balaclava, and hunts down his father’s killers, who turn out to be 1930’s versions of Jigsaw, Bullseye and Barracuda, before a final run-in with fan favourite The Russian. Along the way he plays havoc with gangsters and coppers alike, in an entertaining and engaing adventure. The artwork is suitable grainy and shadowy, reflecting the depressing and hopeless feel of the time period. Very enjoyable.
3. Marvel Universe vs. The Punisher
Moving away from the above couple of time-slips, we now move back into the more familiar territory of parallel Marvel universes, and you cant help but feel a little bit sorry for the surviving inhabitants of Earth-11080. In that reality, the superhero community has been ravaged by a sudden virus that rewrites their DNA, heightening their natural abilities but rendering their minds to the level of Neanderthal man.
In the wave of global bloodshed that follows, the minority of heroes who are able to resist the change manage to save a few small communities of survivors. And it’s all Frank Castle’s fault. Because The Punisher of this reality crashes a shady business deal involving what he thinks is a briefcase nuke, only to discover that it is in fact the virus in question.
The resultant explosive ambush allows the disease to enter New York’s water supply, kicking off the whole epidemic. On the plus side, by being one of the first to be infected, this Frank manages to become immune. On the negative side, he now has a whole roster of feral heroes and villains to work his way through.
This is one of The Punisher’s most popular storylines, featuring some truly memorable showdowns, but also reaching deep down to expose the emotional horrors wrought as the superhero community turns on itself. The highlights include a reluctant alliance with Deadpool, and Frank’s touching relationship with Steve Rogers, leading to one of the most tragic and iconic art panels to ever feature the two characters. If you haven’t read ‘Marvel Universe Vs Wolverine’, then as soon as you’ve finished reading (and hopefully sharing) this piece, track it down.
2. Ultimate Punisher
From the horrors of Earth-11080 it’s a hop, skip and a jump across the realities to Earth-1610, AKA the ‘Ultimate Marvel’ universe. This was an attempt by the company to try and create a more modernised, realistic version of the original, with rebooted origin stories to reflect changing social and technological developments. The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) is essentially a blend of Earth-616 and this reality, where the Samuel L.Jackson version of Nick Fury was created long before that actor took on the role.
Ultimate Frank Castle has pretty much the same origin story as his other dimensional counterparts, other than he was a police officer at the time of his family’s massacre, and not a soldier. This makes him slightly more inclined to execute crooked cops, where his fellow 616 version would not. The path he ends up taking, however, could not be more different, and rather than stalking the back alleys of New York, murdering drug dealers, this Frank becomes a member of Nick Fury’s ‘Secret Avengers’.
Augmented with advanced weaponry, and a high-tech suit, Castle works alongside Hawkeye, War Machine, Black Widow and a hard-drinking Cockney version of The Hulk to battle a variety of super foes, including Tony Stark’s evil brother. He relies heavily on the wealth of technology at his disposal, rather than his natural skills, and spends his time between missions selecting prisons to be incarcerated in, so he can work his way through their local populations before being sprung out by Fury for a new mission.
1. Punisher MAX
So here we are then, the top spot, and it could only go to one version. The one whose stories will form the basis for next month’s Jon Bernthal TV series. The one featuring the highest and most horrendous bodycounts of all time. The MAX imprint.
Punisher MAX was an attempt to surgically remove The Punisher from all the pantomime costumes and superpowers, and to drop the character right into the very real social and economic problems that were facing modern-day America. It kicked off with the CIA trying to recruit Frank in the early days of the War On Terror, which would set off a series of political intrigues and alliances that classically always ended in bloodshed.
Having cut his teeth during the Cold War running black ops alongside Nick Fury in Vietnam, the MAX version of Frank Castle is not to be fucked with, perhaps best demonstrated when he kills Microchip during the first storyline, for helping the CIA to find him. His enemies here are as lethal, and just as remorseless as he is, and much more threatening than anything that Earth-616 has thrown at The Punisher.
Communist Generals. Provisional IRA bomb-makers. Eastern European people-traffickers. And most notably, Barracuda. Another former soldier just a ruthless and skilled as Frank is. Basing the opening panels of the character on Clint Eastwood, the imprint went to great lengths to demonstrate the very real physical and emotional damage that Frank Castle’s crusade would cause him.
And the throughout the series, the artwork does it’s hardest to shock the readers. Women are raped. Children murdered. You pretty much get to see every human internal organ exposed during the course of the run. No other Punisher storyline even comes close in terms of the deep emotional drain of working your way through the endless carnage and heartbreak.
Which just makes the upcoming Marvel’s The Punisher Netflix series all that more exciting.