- Marvel’s attempt to revive the Punisher in the late ’90s resulted in a four-issue miniseries that reinvented Frank Castle as the Spirit of Vengeance.
- This Punisher had a new look, including a black trench coat, glowing eyes, and overpowered celestial weapons.
- “Purgatory” was ultimately criticized for its superficial characters, demonic spectacle, and tonal mismatch with the grounded nature of its lead character.
The following contains spoilers from Punisher #1now on sale at Marvel Comics.
Frank Castle is gone, but the Punisher lives on. Marvel’s newest take on the character is Joe Garrison, a former SHIELD agent framed for the murder of his family. The identity change brings the Punisher mantle closer to his roots, something Frank Castle had abandoned towards the end of his tenure. Marvel traded Castle’s vengeful crusade and arsenal of weapons for a magically revived family and new ninja abilities to distance him from his own corrupt iconography. However, these changes are nothing compared to the drastic makeover the character received in the 1998s The Punisher: Purgatory.
The four-issue miniseries was an attempt to breathe new life into the character, both figuratively and literally. After a mysterious death, Frank Castle is resurrected as a ghost who dispenses violent justice on behalf of the innocent. While investigating the reason for his revival, the Punisher becomes embroiled in a war between angels and demons, led by an archangel more dangerous than Satan. The resulting adventure was certainly memorable, but not in the way it was probably intended. Purgatory borrowed from the most despised clichés and styles of ’90s comics and created arguably the most deplorable version of the Punisher ever.
Punisher: Purgatory reimagined Frank Castle as a vengeful ghost
In 1998, Marvel tried to breathe new life into the Punisher by completely revamping him. The Punisher: Purgatory (by Christopher Golden, Thomas E. Sniegoski, Jimmy Palmiotti and Richard Starkings) reinvented Frank Castle as a spirit of vengeance, albeit much less theatrically than Ghost Rider. After meeting his end, The Punisher is resurrected as a supernatural dispenser of street justice who can be summoned by the prayers of desperate civilians. Abused women leave offerings at alleyway shrines dedicated to him. Children from abusive families paint his skull logo in rainy windows. Frank Castle is revered as a vengeful version of Beetlejuice, with the utterance of his name bringing violent justice upon those who deserve his wrath.
The Punisher’s new role also included a new look. In purgatoryPunisher wears a black trench coat, his iconic skull t-shirt, and an array of celestial, super-powered chrome weapons whose abilities respond to Frank’s needs. This means that when a situation calls for a specific weapon, it is already in his coat. In particular, the book states that he doesn’t know where these weapons come from or how they work. Glowing eyes and a seal on Frank’s forehead, both bright red, accentuate the ensemble. Certainly intended as a brooding take on this classic character, the chrome weapons and glowing eyes make Punisher seem more cartoonish than deadly.
The Punisher fought literal demons
Castle is eventually recruited by Gadriel, who reveals that the Punisher was brought back to help in the war against demons. Gadriel is the former guardian angel of Frank’s wife and daughter, who failed to save her on the night of her death. Seeking redemption for both himself and Castle, Gadriel intends to recruit the resurrected Punisher to fight a fallen archangel named Olivier. In the most hopeful scenario, the story could have been a mix of Nick Fury and Constantine. Instead, the four issues seem like a cynical attempt to find new ways to make the Punisher appear dark and contemporary. purgatory is all flash and no substance, but eschews compelling characters and narrative in favor of by-the-numbers demonic spectacle and cheap twists.
Even the archangel Olivier is endearingly superficial as a villain. He’s evil for evil’s sake and enjoys his one-dimensional role too enthusiastically. Dropping pop culture references and hard-edged anti-God monologues, the fallen angel, despite being a demon, commands an Agent Smith-style cadre of humans. It was even revealed that Olivier was actually responsible for the deaths of Castle’s family and possessed the body of Frank Costa to create the Punisher as an agent of death. Olivier is immediately promoted to the big bad of Castle’s entire life and just as quickly is torn apart by eldritch horrors from Hell. This revelation therefore seems pointless and leaves Frank without much motivation to continue his partnership with Heaven.
The Punisher: Purgatory was an unnecessary 90s reboot
The Punisher: Purgatory was not very well received and did not spawn any ongoing series or direct sequels. The poor reception could be due to numerous problems. The series killed off almost everyone introduced outside of Castle itself, offered no clear path for further stories, and, most of all, felt like a violation of the Punisher’s core character. Frank Castle was originally created to examine the systemic failings of the justice system. While the series showed him taking extrajudicial action as a vengeful bogeyman, it only took half a dozen pages for it to evolve into something much more spiritual. The focus on angels and demons as supernatural, gangster-related criminals didn’t work, mostly because the lore and cast seemed out of place next to the more down-to-earth Punisher.
On paper, the exploration of the concept of divine justice seems to be a logical extension of Frank Castle’s original themes. But in practice, it was tonally inconsistent at best and unintentionally hilarious at worst. Stylistically, Purgatory seemed about as natural as Freddy Krueger in a romantic comedy, and was only memorable as one of many needlessly extreme character makeovers. In Marvel’s next attempt to revive the character, they ignored the events of purgatory complete. What followed was the 12-issue Marvel Knights series The punisher by Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Chris Sotomayor and again inker Jimmy Palmiotti. It was an unprecedented success, ensuring that the character could survive without ever having to rely on divine intervention again.
The Punisher has always been a difficult character to balance, especially because social events in the real world continually challenge his character’s focus. However, The Punisher: Purgatory is considered the most drastic and unnecessary of Frank Castle’s many revisions. While later enlistment in a ninja organization seemed excessive for the Vietnam veteran, making him a renegade angel was probably too big a step for the character.
Recently, former SHIELD agent Joe Garrison took over the skull emblem Punisher #1. His debut, while surprising, marks a much-needed fresh start for a character who has had a few too many curveballs in his history. While the quality of Garrison’s stories remains to be seen, it is certain that they will not reach the divine lengths seen in The Punisher: Purgatory.
The Punisher (2023)
Is this the return of Frank Castle – or the start of something else? Frank Castle is gone, but evil will always have to be punished. As all-new threats emerge that claim innocent victims, criminals must be wary of a dangerous vigilante group hunting them from the shadows. Who is the new Punisher? What set him on the path of revenge? And when the smoke clears, will he even make it out alive? In this action-packed new saga, John Wick meets the fugitive. Ringo Award-winning writer David Pepose (SAVAGE AVENGERS, MOON KNIGHT: CITY OF THE DEAD) and Eisner and Harvey Award-nominated artist Dave Wachter (PLANET OF THE APES, X-MEN LEGENDS), throughout the Marvel Universe meets the next generation of punishment!