The Punisher is driven by one singular purpose: to kill those who deserve to be punished.
His cruel brand of vigilante justice puts him in stark contrast to most other Marvel characters. It has also ensured that the Punisher’s stories can delve into dark subjects that are not easily discussed elsewhere. After all, Frank Castle saw the horrors of war up close and decided that was what he wanted to live for. Here are the ten darkest Punisher stories:
10 In The Beginning
There is no better example of a dark Punisher story which explains the origins and nature of the character to new fans than the Punisher MAX classic “In The Beginning.”
This twisted comic retells Frank’s origin story in its first few pages, then puts him into action against the criminal underworld, showing how he conducts his one-man war, using machine guns, explosives, and guerrilla tactics to defeat his enemies.
9 Child’s Play
Most of Frank Castle’s darkest stories are more recent comics from the 2000s or later. While “Child’s Play” is not quite as grim as these blood-drenched tales of torture and spilled viscera, this tragic crime drama from noir master Frank Miller is about dark as one could get in the 80s.
After a middle school girl kills herself by OD’ing on angel dust, both Punisher and Daredevil hunt the dealers down. The two end up battling one another, as Daredevil insists the dealers must be tried in the courts while the Punisher intends to execute them. But there is a third hunter, the brother of the dead girl, taking the burden of vengeance into his hands as he lets go of his innocence and picks up a gun.
8 Up Is Down, Black Is White
This comic is another in Garth Ennis’s Punisher MAX run, and in many ways functions as a sequel to the events of “In The Beginning.” With the mob crippled from Frank’s constant attacks, the mad capo Nicky Cavella decides to finally put down the Punisher. To get Frank’s attention, he makes a video of himself defiling the graves of Frank’s wife and kids, releasing it to the news networks.
In a blind rage, Punisher strikes at Nicky’s crew. However, in his fury, he gets sloppy, allowing himself to be ambushed. Old foes and allies converge on Frank’s location, trying to either aid him or wipe him out. By the end of the story, the streets of New York have run red with blood and the mafia have been irreparably altered from their war with the Punisher.
7 Greg Rucka’s Punisher
Greg Rucka is the writer who best managed to capture the dark gritty essence of the Punisher within the main Marvel Universe in the modern era. Others have told some truly breathtaking stories, but Rucka’s 2011 run on Punisher preserved the quintessential noir tone that defined the character while pitting him against superhuman threats.
This story shows Frank grapple with the airborne foe, Vulture, losing an eye in the fight, and looks at how he persuades police and journalists to aid him in his cause. The most interesting element of this story is the tragedy of Rachel Cole, a former Marine whose husband and family are murdered at her wedding, prompting her to begin her own crusade for vengeance as she follows in the Punisher’s bloody footsteps.
6 The Slavers
More than any other, this is the story that best captures the essence of the Punisher. He hunts a group of former mercenaries who operated during the Balkans and who used their muscle and resources to begin a business trafficking women. Meanwhile, the NYPD undertake a manhunt to nail Frank Castle, who is on forced to go to ground as he does not believe in killing cops.
Frank knows he will not stop trafficking. Nothing he can do will save the women who have been exploited nor stop others from being victimized in the future. But he believes in punishing those responsible, unleashing his full fury upon these highly trained veteran killers and bringing the war to them.
The villain Barracuda is an example of what Frank Castle could have been without a code–a ruthless merciless psychopath who elates in cruelty and taboo imaginable. The Punisher MAX story “Barracuda” introduces this iconic villain, one of only a handful of enemies tough enough to go head to head with the Punisher and come out on top.
This book perfectly explores how street crime intersects with corporate crime, both leaving a body count behind. While the courts seldom pursue corporate criminals, the Punisher delivers the same brand of lethal justice regardless of class.
There are a handful of stories which delve into Frank’s time in the war before he became the Punisher, but none of them are quite as iconic or as harrowing as the story Punisher: Born, which follows him through his final tour in Vietnam.
The hopelessness of the soldiers is laid bare here as incompetent officers, the harsh conditions of the jungle, enemy snipers, drug addiction, and overwhelming enemy numbers threaten his unit. Despite it all, Frank carries within him a darkness that is at home among the horrors of the war.
Punisher: Soviet involves Frank teaming up with a veteran of the Russian Armed Forces to take down a group of the Bratva who have bought themselves respectability and acceptance in the United States. Like many of the stories on this list, Soviet was written by Garth Ennis.
The third issue of Punisher: Soviet explores the war crimes of both the Soviet forces and Mujahideen with an unflinching brutality that lays bare the horrors of war like nothing else in comics. This book is pure nightmare fuel and anyone who can stomach it should read it.
2 Circle of Blood
While not as dark as later stories, “Circle of Blood” is the story that proved the Punisher worthy of his own series.
This bleak book delves into prison violence, the consequences of violence provoking more violence, civilian casualties, and Frank grappling with the realization that his war will never end. On top of this, he is betrayed by allies and makes new enemies out of those who would be innocents if not for his actions. Considering when it was written, this is a shockingly dark story.
1 The End
After the Third World War rains nuclear death upon the world, Frank Castle is among a handful of survivors holed up in a prison. Breaking out, he makes his way across the blasted radioactive landscape to a bunker where some of the last people unaffected by the radiation are in hiding.
Without ruining the ending, this story is bleak even by the standard of most Punisher comics, proving definitively that while Frank Castle might have a code, there is nothing heroic or even redemptive about him.
The Punisher is a dark Marvel property to begin with, but these 10 stories are perhaps the darkest of them all.