It's fair to say that Frank "The Punisher" Castle has always been a weird fit for the main Marvel Universe. Conceived originally as a villain in the Spider-man stories back in the late seventies, he achieved a kind of breakout success in the darker worlds of comics in the eighties and nineties. He's always been an unrepentant killer of criminals which puts him at odds with 95% of the heroes of the MCU and attempts to turn him into an anti-hero at best have never really come off. The only person who has ever dealt with him satisfactorily was Garth Ennis and even then he had to transplant him into a "real world" continuity shorn of all superhero fripperies to tell a compelling story about him. So over the years people have had a hard time knowing what to do with the character and he's ended up involved in some incredibly goofy storylines; like the time he died and came back as an avenging angel or the time he was turned into an African American or this storyline, which is possibly the goofiest of the lot; known as "Franken-Castle". This maxi-storyline (starts in Dark Reign: The List, continues in The Punisher #11 to #16, which then changes it's name to Franken-Castle #17-21 and crosses over with Dark Wolverine #88-89) sees Frank die and then be born again becoming caught up in a war that includes all the oddball monster characters of the Marvel Universe as he reluctantly gets drafted in to help them defeat their persecutors before going after the person responsible for his death. Oh but I'm giving away the plot, so without further ado, part one of my look at the glory that is the Franken-Castle storyline by writer Rick Remender and various artists, with part two to follow in a few days time.
First some backstory. Due to the events of the 2008 Marvel Event "Secret Invasion" Norman Osborn aka The Green Goblin is in charge of H.A.M.M.E.R a goverment agency that has replaced S.H.I.E.L.D. Frank has vowed to bring his corrupt rule to an end and an attempted assassination attempt has put Frank on Osborn's list. Frank is not alone, he is being helped by a skate punk tech whiz called Henry who is the son of one of his old enemies. Osborn has recruited various supervillians to hunt Frank down and now Henry and Frank are seperated and weakened and with that Dark Reign: The List begins.
This single issue is drawn by John Romita Jr. Frank is in his his hideout his wounds patched up and mentally talking to his wife Maria. Osborn's people target a huge missile strike on his location, but manage to miss him. So he send out his ground agents which include "Daken" son of Wolverine. Henry finds Frank but Frank knocks him out at leaves him in a dumpster so he'll be safe.
|Daken versus Frank round one|
Frank riddles him with bullets but Daken has his dad's healing factor. He cuts off Franks arm and Daken notes Frank seems like he "looks relieved." Then cuts off his torso and head and The Punisher is dead. His remains fall off the building and lie in the gutter, this whole incident is witnessed by a distraught Henry and Osborn satisfied notes he has been terminated.
|Yep, definitely dead.|
Back in New York the assembled gunmen are told to collect Frank's remains. But before they can a bunch of little monsters pick the remains up and run off into the sewers and Osborn's men lose them. Before they can trace where the monsters have gone the imposing figure of Man-Thing rises up in front of them. Whatever knows fear burns at the touch of Man-Thing and Osborn's men burn well.
Then things are black, one voice say that Monster Island needs a "tactician- a soldier". The other voice is dubious that this "actual monster" will help. Then the voices are revealed to be Morbius The Living Vampire and Jack Russell the werewolf. The person they were operating on comes too but his brain isn't ready, "w-what y-you done to mhme-me?" it says grabbing Morbius by the throat. And then we get our first look at the resurrected Franken-Castle.
Finally Frank is calm and Morbius gives Frank pills and tells him if he takes one every twelve hours the "synaptic glue" will keep him in charge of himself. Jack postures in front of him and Frank gets up and starts to leave. Morbius tells him to wait and tells Frank that a few months ago some soldiers started hunting them and they don't know why. They formed a Legion of Monsters to protect themselves and the survivors have come to live in these abandoned Morlock tunnels. He says they needed a strategist someone with military experience. Morbius says he saved Frank's life, "make good. Help us. What do you say?" And Frank strides off saying "I say good luck."
We then cut to Manphibian who has been captured by the monster hunters. He demands to know what they want from him. The leader of the monster hunters wants to know where the item he is looking for and his monster friends are hiding. Manphibian says he knows nothing. and they have no right to be treating him and his comrades like this.
|The imprisoned Manphibian|
Frank is brooding in a room he's found. He fumbles the pills and drops some of them down a grate he takes one then looks hungrily at a rat. He grabs it and is about to eat it when a mute kid monster appears. Frank tells him to get lost but it offers him a chocolate bar and Frank accepts, they eat together in silence.
|A tentative friendship is struck up.|
Frank is in some distress, the pill is wearing off and he has no more. Then the Mummy appears and tosses him a new bottle of them. The kid persuaded Morbius to hand more pills over even though Morbius is mad at Frank. The Mummy then takes Frank on a tour, as they walk he says he knows it is in Frank's nature to protect. Frank says "I'm not in this business" he's in the "nothing business" as far as the monsters are concerned. The Mummy says helping people survive is a "worthy oponent to your apathy. A reason to live worth fighting for."
The monster hunters have slaughtered thousands, supernatural beings, inter-dimensional travellers, aliens, oddities of the deep, "to them it is simple - we are monsters - we deserve death". All the monsters left on earth have congregated here in the Monster Metropolis where the Legion of Monsters will protect them. "I fear that promise will go unfulfilled" says the Mummy. They arrive at a display of weaponry taken from the monster hunters they have killed. The Mummy says they just want to be left alone. "That's one thing we've got in common" responds Frank.
|The Preacher has harsh truths for Morbius.|
Suddenly there is an explosion and the monster hunters pile into the Monster Metropolis. Morbius runs back to put the stone in the safe, but the skeleton in power armour is already there. Frank is lying in a small room and the little alien comes to get him. But he is shot through by a laser and dies in Frank's arms:
Frank: "Deaf and mute. But his eyes tell me the story. He dies terrified. He won't be the only one".
And with fiery rage in his eyes he looks up at the monster hunters that have appeared in the doorway. As he slaughters the monster hunters Frank thinks that his war is supposed to be over, but "they need a hand. And I've got two on 'em... both of 'em twitching for some murder". He takes the sword of one he has killed and slices another clean in half. And spends the next hour killing, "the first natural thing I've felt in weeks."
|Morbius is down and the leader of the monster hunters has the stone!|
Jack is soon surrounded and things look bad for him until Frank appears and crushes the silver bullet firing gun that was about to finish Jack off, "even a mangy stray has rights" he says. He puts a grenade in the gun barrel and tosses the man into his group of hunters and they are all blown up. Frank offers Jack a sword but Jack declines. Another hunter appears, it's Yamato and he takes Frank on.
They struggle with each other with Yamato stabbing away at Frank who is feeling slow and unresponsive and needs his pills. Man-Thing appears but Yamato blasts him with his arm cannon. Frank gets his second wind and fires his gun into Yamato's chest. Yamato picks himself up but the bullets bury knives into him and Frank bashes him with the gun barrel. Frank goes to check on Man-Thing who is all right and Frank holds out his hand to him knowing that he does not feel fear so will not burn at his touch. "Let's go start a fire" he says.
The skeleton in power armour has Morbius and is returning to their ship. Sixteen of the squad have been killed and as the ship takes off, Yamato flies up to grab the skeleton's hand and be pulled inside. Before that can happen, Frank hurls Man-Thing at Yamato and Yamato burns.
Frank: "Then we find 'em. And then we teach that son of a bitch what a real monster is."
A short time later hacker Henry has come to help them out. He tells them Robert Hellsgaard is "one hundred and fifty years young". He's a hero in Japan, and according to his S.H.I.E.L.D file the Howling Commandos wanted to take him down. They're defunct now, but they have a file that includes testimony from Dracula.
Henry says normally he would disbelieve that but "the events of the past few hours have broadened my perspective". He then starts reading the file which contains testimony from Hellsguard himself and we start a flashback, painted pages by Dan Berereton. It begins with Hellsgaard in Germany 1898 returning home after visiting Nikola Tesla. When he departs the carriage he is in and walks into the village he finds people lying savaged and bloody in the street.
|Blimey! It's the wife!|
He served twelve years of hims sentence obssessively reading about the occult and making notes. Then one day a "roguish gentleman walks through the prison walls". It was the famous monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone. He has heard Hellsgaards story and knew that he would be "starving for revenge. A perfect partener". They hunted for years, no matter how many they killed it was never enough for Hellsgaard. He created power armour and found a way to dispose of their kills permenantly and created access to a limbo dimension.
But Dracula was onto them and learned of their plans and he crashed in on them. Hellsgaard put on the power armour but Dracula ripped a tube out and flooded the armour with the coolant that burned off Hellsgaard's flesh. Then Dracula pushed him into limbo. Somehow Hellsgaard survived seventy years in there. The next mention of him is from the journal logs of a Japanese scientist Yamato in 1978.
He'd been researching ways of combating Japan's rising tide of atomic super-monsters attacking their cities. They read of Hellsgaard work and began to revere him. They travelled to Castle Bloodstone and there they freed Hellsgaard himself. He joined their monster hunting cause gladly and with his technology put an end to the atomic beasts. But it didn't stop there, they hunted supernatural creatures and when they couldn't find actual monsters they hunted mutants and morlocks and even disfigured people. But they are also looking for the one thing that can restore Hellsgaards body - the Bloodstone.
Frank: "Alps is cold. Perfect temperature for the dish I'm gonna serve him".
The next chapter is drawn by Roland Boschi. Frank is dreaming about his family burning. Henry waks him up and asks why he is sneaking off. Frank says the others aren't coming, he's going to face Hellsgaard alone.
|Hellsgaard tortures Morbius.|
Hellsgaard says the power of the Bloodstone has it's power directly proportional to the person's desire for revenge. It draws its power from a "deity known as the exo-mind" which had deposited it on earth to aid in its observation of the evolution of humanity. He takes in the Bloodstone and it powers him up.
Hellsgaard: "Soon I will be a whole man again. A man with the power to extract swift revenge. Power to ensure no one is ever hurt by another monster.
Up on the battlements the monster hunters discuss Hellsgaard and how he saved Japan and now they will save every other land. Then the head of one of then explodes. It was Frank riding a dragon round the castle picking off the guards. Between his gun and the dragon's firey breath they take out many of the monster hunters.
|*cue Ride Of The Valkyries*|
Henry tells Frank to hurry up, his readings say Morbius and Manphibian are almost dead. The zombies flock round Frank but he mows them down while he imagines his dead wife Maria speaking to him. He reaches the castle gates and the guards blast him with a cannon but somehow miss. And the zombies come flooding in and attack them. Frank has got behind them and locks the interior castle gate trapping them in the courtyard with the zombies.
He works his way upstairs and frees Morbius and Manphibian saying "C'mon. Goin' home. Good guys won." But Hellsgaard appears and shoots Manphibian saying Frank has been corrupted by the beasts. "You are the villain" he says to Frank and says that some part of him must know what they've turned him into. But he is here for him, "I'm here to send you back" he says and fires his cannon point blank at him.
|Frank and Hellgaard tangle.|
Frank mentally makes the promise even though he can't move. Hellsgaard starts ranting and Frank thinks this will buy him time to "get a damn pill". Hellsgaard says they are alike, both had their families torn away from them and started them on a crusade against those deemed responsible. He rotted in limbo for decades, the torment ensuring he never would forget what happened.
Hellsgaard: "With the Bloodstone in my grasp I will fill limbo with the bodies of earth's monsters. Wipe their existence from history".
Then he sees Frank reaching for a pill. Morbius under torture told him Frank's need for the pills. Then he asks Frank what he would do to the man who murdered his family. "You would murder him. Gruesomely" he says.
|Frank is super pissed off now.|
Several hunters run to the portal to help Hellsgaard but before they can go through, Morbius appears and says "I hold three Phds in partying with your mothers" and grins wickedly. Inside limbo, Frank and Hellsgaard fight. Hellsgaard says the power of the Bloodstone means Frank can't defeat him. He half rips off Franks damaged arm and keeps punching him. He's about to crush Frank's head when there is a lava eruption that knocks him away.
They keep fighting and though Hellsgaard has the upper hand Frank refuses to give up. He sees the pills that Hellsgaard had tossed through the portal. Hellsgaard says they will only fix his mind not his broken body.
Hellsgaard: "You prolong this to placate your own ego! This isn't about giving meaning to our families' deaths! We're killers. We'd kill under any pretense."
Then Frank hits him hard and smashes the faceplate of his armour. This enrages Hellsgaard but Frank realises he's uncertain underneath the anger. Frank tells him he's going to share Hellsgaard's death with someone who wants it more. And Manphibian rises up and rips Hellsgaard's emaciated body out of his armour.
Hellsgaard doesn't understand how he can be alive. "My brain is in my neck" replies Manphibian. He batters Hellsguard and is about to land the killing blow when Frank stops him, "no. Not a path you want to walk" he tells him. Hellsgaard wimpers that he only wanted to rid the world of monsters. "All you did was create new ones" says Manphibian. Then a portal opens and Morbius comes through, he helps Frank who can barely walk to get to the portal and they leave Hellsgaard alive, but without the Bloodstone. "Thank you for your mercy" says Hellsgaard. "Yeah. Right. Mercy" says Frank as he looks back at the pathetic figure down on his knees amongst the rock and lava. And that brings the first Franken-Castle arc to an end.
|Cruel mercy indeed.|