Retcons, Reboots And Resurrections #34: When Punisher Meets Classic Monster Story
by Scott Redmond
In life, they say only three things are certain: birth, death, and change. Within comic books, the three things that are certain are that there will be retcons, reboots, and resurrections. Retcons are elements retroactively added to a character’s history, reboots can either be revivals of a character/their title or extensive changes to canon, and resurrections are characters clawing their way back from the afterlife.
Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.
Death and resurrection are at this point one of the most regular things to happen to comic book superheroes, right alongside costume changes and events where they have to fight one another. Honestly, it would probably be far easier to create a list of those who have not died and returned at some point than the other way around.
That being said, not all deaths and returns are created equally. Some of them are actually more likely to get a groan out of the audience than a cheer.
Say hello to Frankencastle, one of the more recent times the Punisher died and returned.
Right off the bat, to be fair, this isn’t the wildest death (we’ll get to that one) and return that Frank Castle had but it’s not far behind.
So let’s turn the clocks back all the way to 2009. This is a period in Marvel history where massive yearly events were not only happening (as they still do) but were leading to massive universal status quo shifts almost every time. House of M in 2005 led to the Decimation of mutants, 2006-2007’s Civil War led to various heroes becoming renegades as Tony Stark took over S.H.I.E.L.D., and in 2008 Secret Invasion brought back the Skrulls and sowed distrust in heroes but mainly led to Norman Osborn being handed the keys to S.H.I.E.L.D./H.A.M.M.E.R. and overall control of all things hero/villain.
In 2009 there wasn’t a massive event story because the Dark Reign moniker that ran across most books was the event of the year, the heroes having to deal with a Norman Osborn-led world. One of the characters that decided it was his duty to end Osborn’s reign was Frank Castle/Punisher, within his relaunched Punisher series. It must be noted that during the early and mid-2000s (and even into the late part) Frank Castle mostly operated in the Marvel MAX line in tales that were within his own continuity.
During the era of Civil War, there was a concentrated effort to bring him back into the Marvel Universe and seed him through all the various events. This series mostly began with him facing the Sentry, a broken hero conned onto Osborn’s Dark Avengers team, and The Hood, a common criminal with a mystical hooded cloak who was an ally of Osborn as part of the villainous Cabal before he even got close to Osborn.
This new Punisher series was written by Rick Remender, who had also written some issues of the recently wrapped up Punisher: War Journal series born out of Civil War, with art from Jerome Opena, Dan Brown, and Joe Caramanga with Tan Eng Huat, Lee Loughridge tagging in for the second arc of the book ahead of Frank’s death and return.
The Nitty Gritty:
Osborn being the man that he is, his mind wrecked by all the years of the goblin formulas and near-deaths and returns, decided that all the heroes and anti-heroes coming for him had to be dealt with. In late 2009 there was a small mini-event within the overall Dark Reign event known as Dark Reign: The List. With it came a series of one-shots where Osborn wrote an actual to-do list about taking out particular characters and setting his allies out to take care of these tasks. It included things like neutralizing Clint Barton and Bruce Banner, sending Bullseye after Daredevil, killing Namor for defecting from the Cabal, trying to control the Weapon Plus facility known as The World, taking down Nick Fury, and killing his old foe Spider-Man.
Another element on that list was to kill the Punisher, who of course was meddling in the affairs of Osborn and the Cabal. In Dark Reign: The List – Punisher #1 a wounded Frank fights off a variety of Osborn’s forces before Wolverine’s son Akihiro/Daken who was the Dark Avengers Wolverine came into the fight and eventually brutally dismembered and decapitated Frank Castle.
This is where the weird begins. Remender, Brown, and Caramagna would be joined by Tony Moore (with Roland Boschi, Jefte Palo, Paco Diaz, and John Lucas tapping in later) for this next leg of the journey.
Death would not be the end for Frank Castle at this moment, obviously, since this is a resurrection entry, as Moloids (subterranean beings) gather all his pieces up and deliver them to Morbius, the Living Vampire in Monster Metropolis, the underground city of monsters. Here Morbius uses the pieces and his science to piece Frank back together mostly, creating a Frankenstein’s monster situation with the anti-hero. A mix of flesh and mad science and technology.
Turns out there is a man known as Robert Hellsgaard who is seeking to kill all monsters with his Monster Special Forces unit because his family was killed by werewolves. This, of course, is a mirror to Frank Castle’s own mission, except while Castle only goes after criminals Hellsgaard and his forces take down every single monster even the innocent ones. While hesitant at first, eventually FrankenCastle agrees to be the city’s defender and to punish the bad alongside the Legion of Monsters (The Living Mummy, Werewolf By Night, Man-Thing, and Manphibian).
This is a whole “who is the actual monster” sort of riff with Frank being the literal “monster” (by universe standards) in physical status but Hellsgaard (who is a metallic monster of his own creation) is the real monster because he’s become the evil he claims to be fighting. One of those stories where the theme/meaning is so clear it’s tapping you on the shoulder so there is no way you miss it.
Strangely, the title remained titled Punisher until the seventeenth issue when it suddenly became Franken-Castle despite there only being five issues left at that point.
Eventually, all the fantastical elements (Castle rides a dragon while using a Gatling gun at one point) lead to the final arc of this story that crosses over with Daken’s Dark Wolverine series to give the men a rematch. It’s like a Looney Tunes episode with all the traps, one-liners, and over-the-top scenarios as these two men fight with no holds barred. One’s technically already dead and the other is mostly unable to die. Even the original Wolverine, Logan, steps in to take part in this fight.
Defeated and badly wounded, Franken-Castle escapes by sea and his tech partner Henry sends him to the nearest ‘uninhabited’ island which happens to be the fabled Monster Island. As part of his transformation, he was given a portion of the mystical Bloodstone jewel. Thanks to that magical gem weeks spent on Monster Island not only heals his wounds it magically reverts his body back to its old normal human standard but also messes with his mind. A whole battle with the Legion of Monsters and monster-hunter Elsa Bloodstone later, he gives it up and returns to New York to get back to ‘work’ by reminding criminals that he’s there.
Comic books allow for a ton of wild things to happen. It’s a medium where one never has to worry about a budget like films or shows, therefore just about anything can happen and often does. That doesn’t mean all of that is good though.
Franken-Castle as a concept is just sort of goofy and all over the place, and not really the best. Fitting a character like the Punisher into the Marvel Universe is always a tough thing to do because his being able to go around murdering (even if it is criminals) willy nilly and the other heroes ignoring it causes some real issues with the heroes’ supposed “not killing” values (though those values never seem to extend to aliens, monsters, synthetic life, etc).
It’s clear what the creators were attempting here and it gives Castle a more “worthy” cause to fight for a bit, but it’s just a bit all over the place and was so short-lived and easily forgotten/moved past that it’s head shaking. The follow-up Punisher: In The Blood mini-series from Remender and Boschi takes him right back to normal, and not a thing was seemingly learned or gained from this weird detour.
Next Week: An Iconic ’90s Property Gets A Second Booming Chance At Life