Marvel Graphic Novel: Heart of Darkness: The Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank (2000)

In a world of squeaky clean superheroes, Frank Castle (AKA The Punisher) is a dark and disturbing antithesis to those ideals. There are no second chances with him--if you are a bad guy then your punishment is death. That being said, it would be difficult to write his character convincingly if he wasn't at least slightly relatable and so we have Welcome Back, Frank, a reimagining of The Punisher written by Garth Ennis for the Marvel Knights imprint.

Castle is living in an apartment building doing his thing (and by thing, I mean brutally murdering criminals) while he tries to take out a crime syndicate run by a ruthless old woman named Ma Gnucci. Much of the first half of the book is comprised of watching Castle dispatch droves of criminals in creative ways and for a Marvel comic it's very violent. What keeps it from being too over-the-top is Ennis' pitch black humor--he never hesitates to throw in a goofy situation or funny one-liner. Any comic where you get to see the main character punch a polar bear in the face is top-notch entertainment, if you ask me. It almost has a exploitation or B movie feel because it never takes itself too seriously.

Although Castle has a one track mind, he is constantly side tracked by his friendly neighbors: an awkward young woman named Joan, a crust punk who goes by Spacker Dave, and a jovial obese man named Mr. Bumpo. These side characters give the story some heart and provide Castle with opportunities to let down his stern demeanor from time to time. There is a scene were Joan brings Punisher some homemade cookies and you get to see him munching away on them while he is sharpening his bowie knife. I loved seeing these kinds of moments and it makes Castle a much more relatable character. He has not lost his edge in this though and he does not show any mercy to criminals.

Welcome Back, Frank solidified the modern iteration of The Punisher as he is known in popular media now. It was the basis for the film adaptation in 2004 (starring Thomas Jane as Castle) and there is a scene that was used in the second season of the TV version of Daredevil, in which Castle was a prominent player. I think that Punisher works best when he has a bit of a human side to him as opposed to being just a killing machine. His life is tragic as he has nothing left to live for other than murder and mayhem. There is a method to his madness though, which is highlighted when Castle comes into contact with copycat vigilantes. He is not too pleased with their motivations or tactics and makes this displeasure...apparent.

Steve Dillon (RIP) supplied the art for the run and his style is a perfect compliment to Ennis' writing style. They worked together previously on Preacher (1995-2000) and the combo was excellent then too. Dillon's cartoony yet detailed style makes the graphic violence easier to stomach and he is great at designing characters with a lot of humanity. Tim Bradstreet did the covers and his hyper realistic and gritty aesthetic is a welcome addition to the series. Chris Sotomayor's colors have that glossy early 2000s computer feel that isn't my jam, but that's just my personal taste.

This is the perfect place to start for comic readers who haven't read any Punisher previously because it's a self-contained tale that is easy to follow. Fans of Garth Ennis would definitely enjoy it as it's some of his best work. Just be warned: if you are easily offended or squeamish this may not be the book for you.

-Michelle Kisner