The Punisher has always been a popular character since his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man all the way back in 1974. With a simple origin story, it’s hard not to see why. Frank Castle, a Vietnam War veteran returns home from the war and witnesses his wife and children murdered by organised crime in the park. This starts him on a one-man crusade against organised crime, using all of his military know-how to get the job done. As a result, he’s received many series over the years and even had three simultaneous series running back in the 1990s. These were very much in the vein of the over-the-top action movies of the 80s and 90s and rested halfway through the latter decade. A revival was given to him a few years later when he became an angel of death, full of supernatural elements and was very much a departure from what has come before. This only lasted 4 issues before being dropped. In 2000 the Preacher team of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon were tasked with reviving The Punisher again and have done so creating something a bit more back to basics, while still having their own unique take on the character – which would set precedent for many Punisher stories to come.
In Welcome Back, Frank The Punisher is brought back to basics as he is drawn to New York City to take on the crime organisation, The Gnucci Family. The main plot is essentially about him doing what he does best, which is talking out bad guys, there’s a handful of other threads at play as well – as The Punisher’s one-man war on the Gnucci Family has garnered the attention of other parties. First, there’s the police, who under certain circumstances have put their worst detective on the case – Detective Soap (who is essentially a loser). He’s the unlucky soul is stuck with the impossible task of stopping The Punisher, with little to no help. On the other side of the spectrum are three individuals who are essentially Punisher copycats. These three are all motivated for their own reasons to go down the bloody path – whether it be for religious reasons, a sense of revenge against big business or to take out everything unsavoury in the world to help real estate prices. They’re a different take on The Punisher concept and interesting to see how it can be done in other ways.
Another interesting thing is the way we see The Punisher’s life when he’s not on his one-man crusade against crime. This is generally done through his interactions with the people who live his building who are an odd bunch of people. At first, it feels unrelated, but with everything thing else in the story ties into the main plot thread by the end. The interactions are distant at first he does build a friendship with them. While it doesn’t go deep into The Punisher’s motivations it does humanise him and helps disassociate him from the unstoppable killing machine.
Garth Ennis has added his own brand of dark humour to the story which is equal parts tongue-in-cheek and shock humour. This is used in a variety of way from the stupidity of some of the mob lackeys to Detective Soap, who is treated like a walking punchline for most of the story. Even the way that The Punisher deals with his enemies has a grim humour to it. It’s not all about shooting enemies with the biggest guns possible like in the 90s, but clever uses of his environment which are clever and unexpected. For example, The Punisher is being chased through Central Park Zoo and he is able to use some of the inhabitants to take care of his enemies. For me, not every bit of the humour hits it’s mark, with some of the jokes feeling a bit forced but achieve their purpose more often than not. It’s worth noting that this won’t be everyone’s brand of humour, which some most likely finding it too crude.
In the art department is Steve Dillon, who worked extensively on Preacher with Ennis. Dillon’s style in Welcome Back, Frank is clean, but allows enough squash and stretch for the more tongue-in-cheek moments. This allows for many of a lot of the gags to land on their feet as they’re expressive in the facial gestures and body language. He’s also strong with his panel layouts, using larger panels and splash pages for the greatest impact. They’re used sparingly enough that they don’t lose impact through overuse.
This Punisher story opts for a lettering font which I’m not overly a fan of. The font, which is loose but scratchy, feels more like a product of the 90s. While this is a minor gripe, it did take half an issue to get used to it.
Welcome Back, Frank works really well as a jumping on point for The Punisher. Apart from a few cryptic lines referencing the previous series, in which he was an angel of death, there’s very little reference to the past. Ennis and Dillon move forward to form their own path with the character which created a template for the character which others could use in their own way. If you loved this story then there’s plenty more to come.
Overall, if you’ve never read a Punisher story Welcome Back, Frank is a great place to start. It’s got plenty of action but is far more grounded than the over-the-top action-centric stories that have come before it. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have any action, but the way it’s used feels more thought out, with clever disposals of enemies. This also feeds into the humour which is both dark in its approach but also very tongue-in-cheek in nature. This is all rendered together with clean visuals which accommodate the themes and humour and knows when to make an impact when needed. I would highly recommend this.