From Iron Fist to Luke Cage, Netflix has been really playing around with Marvel's name, and if you've been keeping up with the reviews, it's not been too great. But we can't forget what started it all: the wonderful, epic, gritty adaptation that was Daredevil, where we finally saw the Man Without Fear done right on the screen. Sorry, Ben Affleck.
Last year though, with the premiere of Daredevil's second season, it was The Punisher who ended up stealing the show. Jon Bernthal, who most of us recognize as Shane from FX's The Walking Dead, absolutely killed it in his performance as Frank Castle, acting as a merciless, vengeful foil to Matt Murdock's calculating and usually tempered justice. The second season was received so well, Netflix ended up giving Bernthal's Punisher his own spin-off, set to be released in 2017.
So what do you do while waiting for The Punisher? Believe it or not, there's plenty of Punisher stuff already out there, in these old, sticky things called "comic books." It was actually in these comic books where Frank Castle was born, and morphed into being the no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners force that we see today.
Here are three essential runs of Punisher comics to read before seeing the show:
The Amazing Spider Man #129 (1974), written by Gerry Conway
His first appearance ever, this storyline was originally supposed to portray Punisher as a one-off, second tier character, according to then-writer and creator, Gerry Conway. The vigilante with no remorse was such a hit with fans though, that he eventually started showing up alongside Spider-Man more and more. His characterization here is obviously not what it would become in later years, considering that all we know about him at first is that he's an ex-Marine who isn't afraid to kill criminals, but any Punisher reading list would be remiss without including the OG issue.
The Punisher, Vol 5. (2000), written by Garth Ennis
By this point in time, many things had happened to our boy Frank. He'd been fleshed out with a proper story that rationalized his need to kill (a family killed by the Mafia? say no more!), but some really weird stuff had happened to him too. The 80s-90s were a… weird time for comics. Just ask any nerd about the name Rob Liefeld.
But this is the start of Garth Ennis' run on the character, and from the start, it's a match made in heaven. Ennis is a writer who loves to push the reader's sense of comfort into unsettling, morally ambiguous storylines, and the Punisher is the perfect vehicle for that. There's no sparkle or super-powered fluffery going on here, it's Castle back to his roots: killing thugs and wiseguys who prey on the weak and innocent.
Punisher: Born (2003), written by Garth Ennis
Before I begin, I should issue a warning here: this is a genuinely graphic, explicit Punisher storyline that goes to really dark places, even for Frank Castle. Instances of violent, sexual imagery frequently take place, so if that's not your thing, then this won't be the run for you.
With that out of the way, let me tell you why this four-issue one-off by Ennis starts f*cked up, only to get more f*cked up. Born is about Frank Castle's time as a Marine in Vietnam, before his family was ever killed and he became the Punisher, before he ever became a dear frenemy to Matty Murdock. You can imagine that for Frank Castle, Vietnam was no cakewalk, with a lot of that experience influencing he would become afterwards as The Punisher. It's a doozy of a story, but a fascinating insight into Castle's morals and characterization brought to you by Ennis.
Further recommended reading:
if you don't mind the whole gore/sexual imagery of Born, I'd go further to recommend PunisherMAX, also done by Garth Ennis. This was Marvel's stab at taking off the kiddie wheels from the character and letting Ennis get as explicit as he wanted. Meant for more adult readers, if you like Punisher doing his thing without having to mess around with weirdos like Dr. Strange or The Thing, then look this series up!