Back in February 1974, Spider-Man/Peter Parker faced a new enemy in the form of Frank Castle, the Punisher, a veteran of the Vietnam War turned bloodthirsty vigilante. The Punisher separated himself from other, traditional costumed heroes by his willingness to kill and uncompromising, suicidal one-man war on crime and what better way to celebrate the debut of this nuanced and complex character by dedicating a couple of days this month looking back at some of the Punisher’s most iconic moments in comics and other media?
Story Title: The Punisher Strikes Twice!
Published: February 1974
Writer: Gerry Conway
Artists: Ross Andru, Frank Giacoia, and Dave Hunt
By February 1974, Marvel’s iconic web-slinger had become a mainstay of the publication since his 1962 debut in Amazing Fantasy #15. Having earned his own ongoing title, The Amazing Spider-Man, the following year and already running afoul of the likes of Doctor Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus, Flint Marko/The Sandman, and, of course, Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, who had recently played a pivotal role in the death of Parker’s long-term girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. It’s into this tumultuous and emotional time of Spidey’s life that Gerry Conway and Ross Andru introduced not only the Jackal, a crazed scientist whose cloning technology would later result in one of Spider-Man’s most infamous storylines, but also the Punisher. Inspired by The Executioner (Pendleton, et al, 1969 to present), designed by Gerry Conway, and named by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, the Punisher was a hit with readers, despite being introduced in more of an antagonistic role, and began to appear in other Marvel comics, as well as his own self-titled series in 1986, with each subsequent appearance adding more layers and motivations to his character.
The Punisher, and the Jackal, are first seen in the Jackal’s hidden laboratory where the goblin-like villain expresses great admiration for the Punisher’s ability to shoot a stone statue of Spider-Man…as though destroying a static target is any indication of the Punisher’s prowess against a moving target, especially one as acrobatic as Spider-Man. The Punisher echoes these sentiments, stating that he’ll need his “Mechanic” to look over the Jackal’s concussion rifle before he takes on the real thing. While the Jackal also describes the Punisher as “[liking] the death – the killing – the joyful revenge”, Punisher rebukes this and claims that he only kills those who deserves to die….and that Spider-Man deserves such a fate.
Speaking of Spider-Man, we join our heroic web-head in the midst of breaking up an armed robbery; it’s pretty standard fare for Spider-Man, showcasing his impressive agility, strength, and dexterity with his web-shooters as he stops the crooks and leaves them at the mercy of New York’s finest. Still, even with the prospect of earning some coin from his action-packed photographs of the bust, Spidey is tormented not only by the fact that the entire city is convinced that he killed Norman Osborn but also by the death of his beloved Gwen Stacey and the fact that he cannot bring himself to reveal Norman’s identity as the Green Goblin out of fear of devastating Norman’s son, Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn (oblivious that Harry is already aware of this fact).
After flirting with J. Jonah Jameson’s secretary Betty Brant, Peter tries to sell his newest pictures to Jonah and is made aware of the Punisher’s one-man war against the mob. Chomping at the bit for a piece of “the most newsworthy thing to happen to New York since Boss Tweed”, Jonah orders Peter to bring him pictures of the Punisher yesterday! Switching to Spider-Man, Peter has barely enough time to worry about how he’s going to track the Punisher down when he is immediately fired upon by the skull-garbed mercenary! Saved by his patented spider-sense, Spider-Man confronts the Punisher on a rooftop where the hitman momentarily ensnares Spidey in a titanium alloy wire, brands Spidey a murderer, and expresses his hatred of criminals no matter what form they take.
Breaking free of his bonds, Spidey begins to pummel the Punisher but is attacked from behind by the Jackal; disorientated and stunned by the Jackal’s “negatively-charged electro-prods”, Spidey tumbles from the rooftop (much to the Punisher’s dismay) but manages to save himself on instinct. After recovering and returning to the scene of the battle, Spidey discovers a clue on the Punisher’s discarded weapon but returns home, exhausted, to repair his damaged costume and catch his breath, unaware that an increasingly paranoid and disturbed Harry is eavesdropping at his door.
After a brief segue to Mary-Jane Watson (who is still in her annoying, flaky “party girl” mindset at this point), the story dramatically cuts to the Punisher swatting the Jackal and berating him for interfering in his battle against Spider-Man. Punisher is angered at being roped into the Jackal’s murderous ways as Frank desires the complete destruction of crime, not the deaths of innocents. Later that day, Spider-Man follows through on his clue and arrives at the Punisher’s armoury on to find his “Mechanic”, Reiss, dead on the floor. The Punisher manages to get the drop on him (no spider-sense to save Spidey this time) and immediately pins the crime on Spider-Man.
Refusing to believe Spider-Man’s pleas of innocence and yet unable to counteract his superhuman speed, strength, or agility, the Punisher is eventually subdued and forced to listen to reason when Spidey shows him the all-too-familiar claw marks on Reiss’ body and reveals that the Punisher’s gun was labelled up specifically to incriminate him. Realising that he has been manipulated by the Jackal, the Punisher swears revenge and heads off into the night. Spider-Man beats a hasty retreat as the police arrive and the Jackal looks on, vowing to destroy them both and ending the issue on a cliff-hanger that would later lead to Spider-Man doubting his very identity!
“The Punisher Strikes Twice!” is a fairly run-of-the-mill Spider-Man story, indicative of the story style of Marvel Comics back in the day; there’s a lot of extraneous dialogue, text boxes, and thought balloons that constantly keep the reader up to date with where we are and what characters (specifically Spider-Man) are thinking and feeling. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it hasn’t aged well for me and I often find it a bit of a chore to read through some of the older Marvel stories because of their tendency to favour stilted writing, exposition-heavy dialogue, and antiquated narrative devices.
Still, it’s quite a pivotal issue, introducing one of Spidey’s most nefarious foes in the Jackal and continuing his sense of guilt and dismay over the whole Gwen Stacey/Green Goblin/Harry Osborn saga. The Jackal isn’t much to shout about here in his debut, being little more than a monstrous ghoul who manipulates the Punisher into trying to kill Spider-Man presumably so that he can take over New York as the top crime boss. The issue does a decent job of establishing the Jackal as a manipulative asshole but we learn almost nothing about him beyond his desire to want Spider-Man dead; considering the Green Goblin has only just been taken off the board, it might have been a little too soon for another mysterious, imp-like puppet master enemy whose identity is a secret to crop up.
Yet, the issue is exciting and action-packed thanks not only to Marvel’s distinct, eye-catching colours and Spidey’s dynamic versatility when in action but also due to the inclusion of the Punisher. Introduced with a bang (despite how lame destroying a statue is…), the Punisher wastes no time trying to kill Spider-Man, believing him to be a murderer and little more than a masked criminal thanks, no doubt, the Jonah’s numerous news stories in the Daily Bugle and the city’s belief that he killed Norman (and, as I recall, Gwen and George Stacey as well).
We don’t learn much about the Punisher in his debut appearance but we learn enough; he’s decked out in his iconic skull costume (which makes an immediate impression) and his aggressive, focused mindset separates him from the usual hired guns seen in Marvel Comics at the time (who were generally little more than just generic thugs with guns). As the issue progresses, we learn that the Punisher has a strict moral code (he is angered when the Jackal’s interference nearly causes Spider-Man’s death in a dishonourable way), an intense hatred of crime and criminals, and that he was a Marine for three years. The Punisher is also quite a sturdy and formidable opponent; not only is he a crack shot and loaded with little gadgets and tools to help give him the edge in battle but he’s also fast and strong enough to get the drop on Spider-Man, take blows from Spidey, and to cause the web-head pain when he lands a good, solid kick. In the end, he remains tight-lipped about his past and his exact motivations but is satisfied enough that Spidey isn’t the true enemy and returns to his endless war on crime maybe not on “friendly” terms with the web-head but certainly on far more amicable terms than they began at the issue’s start.
Overall, it’s a pretty decent story; it’s standard sixties/seventies Spider-Man fare, with all the angst and action you can expect from this era of Marvel and Spider-Man, with the added bonus of a mysterious, intriguing new anti-hero at a time when violent anti-heroes weren’t as played out as they would come in later years. Thanks to Spidey’s endless internal monologue, it’s easy to pick up the issue and get right into the story and catch up with where the characters are and the art is both simple and yet beautifully detailed at the same time. Obviously, this was just the tip of the iceberg for the Punisher but Marvel certainly had a way with introducing dynamic, complex new characters as antagonists and then fleshing them out later on and I’d say they did just as good a job with the Punisher in his debut as they did with other characters who got a full-blown origin story in their first appearance.
Did you read “The Punisher Strikes Twice!” when it was first published? What did you think of the Punisher’s dramatic debut? What do you think of the Punisher as a character and which storyline of his do you think is the best, or the worst? How are you celebrating the Punisher’s debut this year? Whatever you think about the Punisher, drop a comment below.