A few years back, Marvel Comics unveiled a new universe of comics with a distinctly old-timey feel. Published under the Marvel Noir banner, several titles reimagined superheroes a grittier world in the first half of the 20th Century. Characters like Iron Man, Wolverine and Spider-Man were brought down to earth with pulpy stories that often pitted the heroes against gangsters, as opposed to invincible purple gods with purple faces and jewel-encrusted gloves.
Out of Marvel's extensive stable of superheroes, The Punisher seems best-suited to star in what's essentially a comic version of an old radio serial. That's the premise of Frank Tieri and Paul Azaceta's Punisher Noir, which takes place mostly in 1935, decades before Dolph Lundgren would star in a film that everyone agrees is the undisputed de-facto interpretation of the character. However, bits of the story flash back to World War I, and we get a look at the Punisher's pops. Turns out the white-hot shell casing didn't fall far from the semi-automatic pistol.
Frank Casteliano Sr. fought in World War I, and while he never admits it, he sure seemed to enjoy the part where he mowed down lots of bad guys. The giant winged skull staining his torso was something of an in-joke with his wife Ruth, who was always worried he would get a visit from the Angel of Death while on duty in Europe. The irony being that Frank Sr. made it through the war, while Ruth succumbed to cancer.
This left Frank Sr. to take care of Frank Jr., now a half-Italian half-Jewish kid who would have a rough time of it because there was actually a point in America where people gave a shit about that kind of thing. Papa Punisher led by example, giving his son the stubborn moral compass that he would take into adulthood. And yeah, a lot of this involved firearm training.
Of course, this is a Punisher story, which means that there's a horrible life-changing event around the corner. Sure enough, Frank Sr. runs into trouble while protecting a shop from some thugs. This is enough to earn him a "one-way ticket to the fish sleepery in the sky." They weren't great with their death euphemisms in those days.
So Frank Jr.'s origin story starts much earlier than his canon counterpart, who only turned to the life of a vigilante after losing his wife and children to gunfire. That's okay, because many interpretations have questioned whether Frank had it in him all along to be The Punisher, that the mob who ventilated his family was actually freeing him to be the exterminator he was always meant to be. Plus, Punisher Noir gets a sweet mask.
The hand-stitched hood gives the Punisher a pulpier feel than your modern day skull-shirt Frank, who always looks as though he's just gotten through a day terrorizing the silkscreening guy at Kinko's. Apart from the new duds, Punisher Noir more or less plays out like you'd want it to -- Frank murdering goons who deserve it, only most guys are wearing trenchcoats and everything is coated in the "Vintage" Instagram filter. We do get a crappy reveal of a stereotypical "evil transsexual" villain, but that disappointment is somewhat softened by some particularly creative kills. Only the Punisher could take something as innocuous as a ferris wheel and turn it into a brutal torture method.
No matter the time period, being a crook in the Punisher's world is basically like being a stupid teen in a Final Destination movie.
Mainstream comics have a nasty habit of canonizing awful Rule 63 versions of male superheroes, and Punisher is not an exception. Take Lynn Michaels, the first such "Lady Punisher" who made her debut in the early 90s. A huge part of her character was her romantic obsession with Frank Castle; the infatuation was to the point that she quit being a vigilante when she read the Punisher's war journal and didn't see herself mentioned anywhere. Lynn basically admitted that her whole existence was predicated on the whims of a man. Then there's Vendetta, a female Punisher from the year 2099, whose obnoxious and overblown misandry borders on parody.
Writer Greg Rucka was likely aware of the past pitfalls when he and artist Marco Checchetto created Rachel Cole-Alves, a woman who has her own reason for being. That reason is pretty harsh: Rachel's husband and dozens of loved ones were gunned down on her wedding day.
This is downright brutal, arguably moreso than Frank Castle's own origin story. Losing your immediate family in gang crossfire is one thing, but it's even worse to have what was supposed to be the happiest day of your life turn into a living hell. It was another case of wrong place, wrong time; some goons had crashed Rachel's wedding reception hoping to hide from their enemies, and when said pursuers showed up, they mowed everyone down just to make sure they'd hit their targets.
What these dickbags weren't counting on was the sole survivor of their wonton murder spree being a sergeant in the Marines. After a long and arduous recovery, Rachel finally embarked on a stealthy revenge mission. All in all, it went pretty well.
As it so happens, The Punisher is on the trail of the same creeps Rachel is targeting, and the two square off in the way that most comic book heroes do right before they're about to team up. Soon enough, Rachel is busting through doors in a Punisher-sanctioned kevlar vest, complete with a spraypainted splash of Frank's signature skull.
Thankfully, we narrowly avoid the expected bullshit love story. Rachel is quick to remind everyone she meets that half of her last name is "Alves," which she took from her husband. She fights her way to the top of the ranks in the memory of her beloved -- at least, that's what she tells herself.
By the end of her story, we learn that being a Punisher isn't a one-and-done job. There will always be bad people out there, and they definitely don't stop with the people who hurt your family. The mission will never end. Especially when Marvel has comics to sell.