Years ago, Frank Castle's family was gunned down in Central Park by mafia gunmen. That incident transformed the ex-Special Forces soldier from family man into the costumed vigilante known as the Punisher, the scourge of organized crime in the Marvel Universe. For years, the only villains Castle was concerned with were the ones that made up various mob families, but in the aftermath of the super hero Civil War, the Punisher was forced to turn his attention to the various super criminals populating New York City and beyond.
Castle's campaign against super villainy was chronicled in the recent "Punisher War Journal" series. It was full of strange and perilous battles, but nothing could have prepared Frank Castle for the events that unfolded once he escalated his war with an assassination attempt on Norman Osborn who had just begun his "Dark Reign" over the Marvel Universe. Beginning in 2009's "Punisher" #1 kicked off a series of events that saw the Punisher partner with the son of his greatest foe, come into possession of an arsenal of super weaponry, get murdered and be resurrected as a Frankenstein-style monster and eventually regenerate and become human again thanks to a mystical artifact. These tales were all part of writer Rick Remender's two and a half year run of stories featuring the popular anti-hero, a run that came to a close this month with the fifth and final issue of the "Punisher: In the Blood" miniseries. CBR News spoke with Remender for a look back at his time with Frank Castle.
Remender's solo run on the Punisher began in 2009, but he actually began working on the character a year earlier when he joined Matt Fraction as co-writer of "Punisher War Journal." The first story he worked on with Fraction involved The Punisher's horribly disfigured arch-nemesis Billy Russo, AKA Jigsaw, so there was a sense of coming full circle with Remender's final Punisher story, "In the Blood," with Jigsaw figuring prominently in that story as well.
"The relationship between Punisher and Jigsaw is interesting because it's basically two guys who have had plenty of opportunities to kill each other, but they're incapable of pulling the trigger for some reason. So they keep torturing one another. Humans easily fall into routines, and I think looking at it now that I'm done with it all, that's what this is. It's almost a routine for these guys to keep torturing each other. I think it just comes down to sick-minded people who are caught up in some sort of masochistic love affair.
"Billy represents the perfect embodiment of the type of guy Frank is after," Remender told CBR News. "Things got personal during 'In the Blood' because Frank basically brought Jigsaw's kid, Henry, into his war, and that's off limits. So -- Spoilers! -- Jigsaw goes out and gets a mauled assassin that Frank tried to kill by setting on fire and he has her study up so she can impersonate Frank's dead wife, who was temporarily resurrected by the Hood. It was temporary because Frank set her on fire. So the title 'In the Blood' was all about Frank and Jigsaw using each others' family to torture one another."
Jigsaw's son Henry has been a constant presence in Castle's life over the last several years, having debuted in Remender's first solo issue, "Punisher" #1. "I had a really good idea of who [Henry] was in terms of his reaction to Norman Osborn's Dark Reign. I could sort of use him to vocalize my own frustration with where my country was during the tail end of the Bush administration. Henry was a mouthpiece and Osborn was a target to vent a little steam. I was also leaning into my years being a skate punk. That obviously helped in terms of thinking about who the character is, his likes and dislikes and his personality," Remender explained. "During 'In the Blood,' he was forced to choose between his dad and Frank, who had become sort of his surrogate father. That made him a bit unpredictable and lead to the scenes where he had run back to his dad. Henry's behavior changed as I was writing the story and talking with my editor Sebastian Girner. I think we got to a place where Henry was still unpredictable, but his decisions weren't unnatural."
When the Punisher first teamed with Henry, he was unaware who the young man's father was. He partnered with Henry because his expertise as a computer hacker allowed him to access valuable intelligence like how to find an arsenal of super powered weapons, which Frank Castle obtained during Remender's initial arc on the series.
"When I took over the book and it was just me working with my then editor Axel Alonso, I had a mandate. It had to be very different from the Punisher series for Marvel's MAX imprint. My book had to be a real core MU style book. It couldn't just be more of Frank killing mafia guys," Remender said. "I liked the idea of giving him some toys in the form of all these found Marvel Universe relics. Frank can be somewhat ineffectual in taking down super villains, the guys perpetrating the worst crimes in the Marvel Universe, because he's really just a dude with an AK-47. We gave him a pretty decent arsenal, though. He was shrinking and growing with Pym Particles. He had a bow and full quiver of Hawkeye's arrows. He even had an Iron Man glove. So on one level he was kind of a one-man Avenger. The argument was that he was an amazing tactician and a super bad-ass soldier. So what if you gave him the tools to get the job done? I really liked the underdog rising up feeling the book had during the 'Dark Reign' stuff."
In Remender's opening "Punisher" arc, Frank's arsenal gave him an early victory against Norman Osborn and his general, the super villain crime lord known as the Hood. In the following arc, the Hood struck back by using his dark magics to resurrect Castle's long-dead family. Frank was so shocked and horrified by his family's sudden return that he killed them seconds after they emerged from their grave. The Hood then added insult to injury by revealing to the Punisher that his new partner was the son of his old foe, Jigsaw.
"For those first eleven issues, the thing that got me excited was, well, 'If he's in the Marvel Universe, things like resurrection exist and the Hood is powered by Dormammu, who is pretty powerful -- why not lean into the crazy and have him resurrecting people. And maybe he'll resurrect Frank's family to try and get him off of his back.' Nothing was taboo," Remender stated. "I wanted this series to be exciting and I wanted to do things that scared me; things that would make me afraid of the mail I might receive and things that would keep me excited and interested in Frank's adventures in the Marvel Universe. I wanted to take the hard-boiled vigilante aspects and really dip them into the Marvel Universe.
"Right from the beginning I knew that Henry would eventually be revealed as Jigsaw's son," Remender continued. "It came to a point where we were going to have this straight edge punk kid help Frank fight Osborne, but I couldn't find a way to get his motivation to work. As I was working on things with Axel, it occurred to me that Henry was doing this to make up for something. Then I thought, 'He's the son of a criminal -- he's the son of Jigsaw!' Then, it made a lot of sense why he chose Frank and why he was doing this. He was an abused kid with a drunken, criminal father. It explained his straight edge [lifestyle]. He really came together as I was forced to come up with a believable motive to help round him out."
The revelation about Henry combined with being forced to murder his resurrected family had a deep effect on the Punisher's psyche. At the end of Remender's second arc, Frank Castle was no longer in the grip of his most frequent emotion of anger. He was instead feeling something else; despair.
"I wanted to take Frank as low as I could take him, and once I got him there, show there's still some humanity left in him. I know there's plenty of sociopaths out there who have no empathy and trouble reading people's expressions and emotions. Frank really isn't one of those guys. He isn't a guy who was born with that condition," Remender remarked. "His condition is shell shock. His condition is learned. So it was important to me to take him down as low as I possibly could and see a side of him, the remaining humanity, the side that we haven't seen before, and then show him rise back up."
Before Frank could pull himself back up, however, he still had a lot farther to fall. His biggest single drop came in the "Dark Reign: The List - Punisher" one-shot by Remender and artist John Romita Jr. Norman Osborn had finally become completely fed up with the Punisher and unleashed the full force of his intelligence agency H.A.M.M.E.R and his operative Daken, Wolverine's villainous son, on the vigilante. "I was really excited when I gave Frank the armament to go out and tackle these guys that he hasn't had a whole lot of success with. He did a pretty great job in his initial battles. Then, as I wrote the first year's worth of stories, it became clear he couldn't, shouldn’t, keep that up. I know there are a lot of diehard Punisher fans out there who may take exception with that and get a little upset, but things just got to a point where my logic button said he was going to have to die. I put him up against The Hood, who was the kingpin at the time, and Norman Osborn, who was king of the world. So he had to die."
The Punisher's death at the hands of Daken lead to the "FrankenCastle" era of the book, a controversial storyline that saw Frank Castle's hacked apart remains gathered and stitched together into an undead Frankenstein-style monstrosity by Morbius the Living Vampire and the Legion of Monsters.
"It was interesting, because the FrankenCastle stuff was starting to be advertised and it had angered a certain demographic of fans, people who I don't have a lot in common with in terms of our tastes. So I understood their reasons, but have a different perspective on what works in the MU. Anyway, because we started announcing that stuff in the middle of our second arc, 'Dead End', the FrankenCastle stuff got all the press and people missed what we did with issue 10.
"In those three issues, Frank's family is resurrected. He has the villain Firebrand set them on fire and then shoots the guy in the head. G.W. Bridge gets shot in the face by Microchip. Frank, after having torched his family, goes back to the one friend in the world that he has and discovers he's the son of Jigsaw. So he abandons the kid at the docks and drives off to go lick his wounds," Remender continued. "Then, a day later, here comes the equivalent of S.H.I.E.L.D. run by a guy that he tried to assassinate. That guy basically drops Wolverine's kid and an army on him and they actually kill him. Then he wakes up being resurrected by Morbius and the Werewolf by Night. God love comic books! I'm so proud of those issues."
Shortly after the "FrankenCastle" era began, the Punisher and his new allies in the Legion of Monsters found themselves in need of a computer hacker. Instead of going to other candidates or other sources of information the Punisher sought out Henry.
"Frank could have gone to a million places if they needed to get a hacker. It's the Marvel Universe. You could probably go to a Kinko's and there would be a super villain in the corner ready to hack whatever you need for $20. In terms of gathering intelligence, seeking out Henry was easy, but in 'The List' one-shot, Henry had come back to try and save Frank. They had a split in their relationship and Frank had abandoned Henry after finding out who he was, and a day later, Henry is back trying to warn him because he's picked up intel that H.A.M.M.E.R. is coming to assassinate him. That definitely played a role in earning Frank's trust back, but I think that relationship had to have its rocky points to feel like it's real. I think Henry then sticking around and seeing Frank as the monster he was also speaks to a child of abuse. A child of abuse will always be trying to find some acceptance from a father figure.
"That was something that was important in the Frank and Henry relationship. Frank was very withholding. He would seldom give praise. By the end of my run, what I really wanted to have conveyed was that Frank did love the boy and he did see him as a son, which is why in the first issue of 'In the Blood,' Henry gets that box of punk rock records that he thinks his mom has sent for his birthday. Of course, Frank acts like he doesn't know it's his birthday and plays it off, but the last page of the last issue we see that Henry's mom had no idea how to get anything to him. Then Henry has the sudden realization that Frank Castle bought him hardcore lps for his birthday. To me, that was the biggest thing you could get from Frank Castle. He bought you a birthday present!"
During the "FrankenCastle" era, the Punisher did more than simply reunite with Henry. The storyline saw Remender cut loose with his imagination by pitting the Punisher against things like a steampunk style cyborg, his army of cybernetic samurai monster hunters and a platoon of Nazi zombies. Remender enjoyed the creative freedom of the storyline, but feels he had an equal amount of fun on his early and later Punisher stories.
"I think the first five issues of 'Punisher' is some of the best work I ever did with Jerome Opeña. We were just banging things out and having so much fun. Then in the second arc, Tan Eng Huat and I got to resurrect a bunch of Marvel characters from the '70s and '80s. We got to breathe new life into them and make sure they were credible threats for Frank Castle," Remender said. "Then Tony Moore and I start doing 'FrankenCastle.' I had just finished up doing an annual with Jason Pearson and a one-shot with John Romita Jr and now I'm working with a buddy of mine doing the craziest stuff ever. We've got Frank Castle flying around on a dragon with a gatling gun, blowing up samurai monster hunters. I loved it all. I had such a good time. I had always planned on going back and doing one more traditional story, and by that I mean the status quo I established in those first five to ten issues. That's what 'In the Blood' was. I think 'In the Blood' is the entire third act, with 'FrankenCastle' being act two and those first few trades are act one."
At the end of the "FrankenCastle" era, Frank Castle was restored to his original human form by a powerful mystical artifact known as the Bloodstone. That having been done, for "In the Blood," Remender moved his focus off wildly imaginative monsters and onto the relationship between Henry and The Punisher.
"When you read my Punisher run all together, it really is about a father who lost his son and a son who had a broken father. They were looking for something and what they got from one another might not have been what they needed, but it worked out for them. In the end ,I think what Frank realized was that he was making Henry his surrogate son and he had put the kid in harm's way, Remender explained. "In the last issue of 'In the Blood,' Jigsaw makes a lot of sense when he confronts Frank about this thing that has been in front of us the whole time. Frank Castle has employed a teenager to come help him murder people. Jigsaw says, 'You hypocrite! You brought my son into this! Yeah you're pissed that I hired some former assassin to play your wife and to tear you up a little bit, but she wasn't your wife -- but this is my son. This is my son you've been using to help murder people.'
"Obviously, when you've got a great storyteller like Roland Boschi doing the artwork, you can let the art sell the story and there's a scene at the end of issue #5 where Frank is running across a burning building and he grabs Henry and jumps off it as it's collapsing. That entire scene was Frank thinking in little bursts of captions. I cut all of those captions and all the dialogue except for the conversation where Frank says 'Get away from me or I'll kill you.' It needed nothing," Remender continued. "There was a lot of great stuff in that final scene, but I didn't want to oversell it with dialogue that it didn't need. Occasionally, I may want to spell things out so everybody can get the story, but at the same time if it's not subtle and people aren't searching their brains to try and figure out what the writer is up to, it just sort of becomes exposition. With just that final image of Frank smiling as Henry walked away, Roland conveyed so much."
With "Punisher: In the Blood" wrapped, Remender feels the long form Punisher story he wanted to tell is complete, but if circumstances were right the writer wouldn't mind the character making a guest appearance in one of the Marvel books he's currently working on. "It would be fun if I was writing an issue of 'Venom' and he's off doing something and he suddenly he starts taking sniper fire and it's Frank who's come to kill him," Remender laughed. "I could have fun with that. If something natural presents itself like that I would definitely do it."
Remender wouldn't mind eventually revisiting Henry, either. "I would definitely consider having Henry involved in another book. I've got to find the right place for it, though, because I like where we leave Henry," Remender stated. "For me to dust Henry off, it would have to be something where it was a real natural fit. Like if a 'Legion of Monsters' ongoing got up and running and they needed a computer hacker."
Now that his epic Punisher run is complete, Remender feels both satisfied and eternally grateful to all the collaborators that helped him bring to life the individual chapters of his long form story. " I want to extend a huge thank you to my editors Axel Alonso and Sebastian Girner," the writer stated. "Also, thank you to Jerome Opeña, Tan Eng Huat, Jason Pearson, John Romita Jr, Tony Moore, Dan Brereton, Roland Boschi, Jefte Palo, Dan Brown, Lee Loughridge, Joe Caramagna, Mike McKone and all my artistic collaborators. Every issue was A-list art magic, the kind of comic books I got into this business to make."