Naturally, for such a time enduring character, the Punisher has an extensive back catalogue of titles and appearances. Although he first appeared in comics as of 1974, it wasn't up until 1986 that he got his own ongoing series.
So although his original heyday runs from that year until the mid-90's, the Punisher has improved with time and with the help of some great writers and artists giving their own interpretation of the character and his place in the world. Because of this, where to begin with essential Punisher series' is a matter of what you appreciate about Marvel comics, especially since despite his humble beginnings, Punisher has never been the most typical run of the mill character!
Original Classic Punisher
The '80's and '90's saw Frank Castle go from a regular feature of Spider-man and co. to his own original series. Unexpectedly, the character soared in popularity. It only took three years of having his own series to becoming a movie character (Dolph Lundgren's uber-violent Punisher of 1989). By then, he already had several monthly and weekly series and some from the most legendary writers.
Circle of Blood
The debut Punisher series of 1986, by Steve Grant and Mike Zeck is all espionage and action as Frank Castle has long ago left his past behind to continue his war on crime.
This series sees him in a fast paced adventure to take down the Kingpin, coming face to face with a deranged Jigsaw in prison and being used by corrupt authorities in their own twisted ploys.
But what takes centre stage is the plot by a wealthy madman and his institution to train and deploy a squad of Punishers; two of which are to include Castle and Jigsaw.
The art and writing are a bit dated but still great fun and you can see why he rose to popularity so quickly before he became a total loner (despite the fact that this is pre-Microchip days). It's also refreshing to see that Frank Castle is more of a hopeful trusting character that falls for the same tricks as everybody else back when he's still relatively young and fresh-faced. A good, fun read that's worth more than one look!
Chuck Dixon's War Zone
Whereas when you read any of the Punisher essentials, you will find many of them to be one-shots (single issue stories that used to be features of Punisher's weekly issues) that don't go into great depth, Chuck Dixon and John Romita's War Zone was a series that lasted longer than Marvel will allow any Punisher series to last these days.
This many might argue is the original classic series before Garth Ennis redefined the character and gave him the no holds barred series that nobody else has rivalled since and it was where many Punisher fans believed it should have remained; in the "real world" with as few fantastical elements as possible.
War Zone portrayed Frank Castle as a little more than the previous incarnation. Now well established, he was a brutish, well-armed bogeyman and the kind of vigilante readers appreciated and he hunted down the worst scum New York had to offer.
This series featured a wider array of allies than usual to help the wayward Punisher in his neverending war which included the mainstay Microchip and then the woman that would go from regular feature to part-time replacement; New York cop and future Lady Punisher Lynn Michaels. If there was anything the Punisher of the last decade was based upon, this was it!
Mike Baron's Punisher War Journal
Also responsible for one of the more enjoyable Punisher series of the past is writer Mike Baron.
Baron was one of the few writers to acknowledge that the Punisher had a vast array of talents and a history rich in achievement that were not always utilised in his outings; such as the fact he was a very effective martial artist, was also quite tech savvy without the constant aid of Microchip and then a very highly decorated soldier.
Mike Baron was great at writing the adventures of this more compassionate, charitable and forgiving Punisher but he also gave the Punisher a sense of humour, often a sick gallows humour that intimidated his enemies to no end.
This Castle was also a more internationally active seeker for justice and therefore was always meeting new people, learning new tricks and referencing a lot of pop culture. It's always going to be an eye-opening experience when you read from his lips that he loves blues and jazz but hates rap music because it has no melody and harmony. I also wish that Punisher would get more artists that could ink like Jim Lee.
The Garth Ennis Era
When somebody asks what Punisher is the best read, telling them 'Garth Ennis' is stating the obvious. Of course, that was the beginning of an era that got so many fans of the Punisher into comics and made a non-powered human being more badass than any mutant or god on the planet.
From the cartoony humour and violence of his earlier work to the full-on Grindhouse style of the long-life MAX series, there is no end to the perfection brought to the characters here by the man once fired by 2000AD for not being good enough to write Judge Dredd. How's that workin' for ya, Dredd?
The Marvel Knights series
Welcome Back, Frank was the beginning of a new revitalised Punisher series back in 2000 and the opening arc that was loosely based on for the 2004 Punisher film.
This series was so over the top cartoonish, yet it featured a new kind of storytelling that remains unrivalled and really got into the psyche of the veteran soldier and vigilante.
Frank Castle is a little older now and Microchip is supposedly dead. Returning to New York after his long hiatus (ignoring the terrible stories that destroyed all previous credibility from mid to late '90's), the Punisher wants to unleash an unprecedented tidal wave of violence against the thriving mafia crime syndicates that have taken over in his absence. On the Punisher Task Force (a crime case started by cops that have no intention of stopping the Punisher from doing his good work) is hopeless detective Martin Soap, who the NYPD's chief knows will fail at all costs.
In his new apartment block are a bunch of social rejects - Joan the Mouse, Spacker Dave and Mr Bumpo, a man so morbidly obese he can't fit through his own doorway. And on the unlucky end of his rage is the Gnucci Family, ran by the most crazed and sadistic woman in history. It's hilarious and yet gathers momentum like no other comic in its time. The rest of the Marvel Knights Punisher series saw him royally piss off a lot of parodied versions of characters such as Deadpool, Wolverine, Spider-man and Hulk and walk away without a scratch and then there were a lot of bizarre tales that worked very well.
The most grim and yet the deepest, most oddly touching and emotion-twisting series I have ever read; Ennis' MAX series ran for years and never lost its touch from beginning to end.
Ennis got the go-ahead to take the Punisher into the arena he deserved most (where no level of violence or abuse was too much for its adult audience).
Now into his fifties, Frank Castle isn't ageing well on the outside. But on the inside, the rage and the hunger to put an end to all the evil around him is still growing. Here there are no superheroes anymore. It's just Frank versus the worst scum the world has to offer and he had a million tricks up his sleeve they won't expect.
Frank's war on the Maggia has attracted the attention of the CIA's most corrupt and the most notorious gangsters the US has to offer. Throughout the series, we get more than skin deep into what made Frank the man he is, but it also gives a huge insight into his psyche. Nick Fury is his old war buddy from back in the day, he has old friends here and there like SAS vet Yorkie Mitchell, even an unlikely lover in the form of a rogue CIA agent out for revenge and a reason to live. Then the most sadistic enemies he has ever faced in his life such as Barracuda, the Man of Stone and the corrupt US Generals dealing in WMD's. The shocks run deep, the corruption runs worldwide and in the end, the biggest war of his life - the war that never ended since Vietnam - comes to him!
Contemporary 616 Universe
Over the last decade roughly, and since Garth Ennis restored faith in the character, the main Marvel Universe has invited the Punisher back to new exciting story arcs where he himself has often been a substantial player unlike ever before. Though there were some questionable events as Marvel always tries to shake things up (much to the chagrin of their customers), Frank Castle has been big over the last five years and it's not hard to see why.
Matt Fraction's War Journal
Although Frank Castle would have been late fifties/early sixties in real life and by the MAX imprint's reality based portrayal, here Punisher might be getting on a bit, he came back as a colossal superhero and villain battling Clint Eastwood-like anti-hero.
In Matt Fraction's War Journal reboot, The Punisher is the world's most wanted man, much to the extreme that SHIELD has an agent on his tail as he sets about stepping his game up to take out bigger players.
As the Civil war gears up, Frank finds himself a player not favoured by either side despite the fact he tries taking to non-lethal means of taking down the likes of Rhino.
But as Captain America's assassination brings to the surface his old feelings towards the Star Spangled Avenger (feelings of admiration, despise and guilt), Frank and his new techie, ex-Rampage villain Stuart Clarke, and as authorities run him out of town, things are going to get desperate for the Punisher and so he comes back fighting the way he does best... with big guns, brawls, brass balls and a twisted kind of wisdom no other Marvel player knows!
The Rick Remender Run
Taking over from Fraction during War Journal's cancellation, Remender shook things up a lot over the space of two and a half years and if it wasn't for the character's murder after Dark Reign, he might have been a lot more popular rather than stalling as Franken-Castle didn't hit home with fans.
Regardless, Dark Reign was a brilliant run and saw Punisher with yet another techie ally in the form of troubled young man Henry Russo.
Here, Punisher went up against the mightiest villains as Marvel's heroes were disassembled by Norman Osborn's Dark Avengers and SHIELD replacement HAMMER. And boy does he mean business.
This Punisher was more intense, more plagued by conscience and bitterness and yet employed as much gadgetry and firepower into his war as he could to outwit and outmanoeuvre the enemy and strike many damaging blows against the fascist dictatorship as other heroes tried to lay low.
After Dark Reign came The List, which saw Frank's grisly end. This was still a great arc however, sporting many modern and classic characters from Frank's adventures, and led to Franken-Castle which was a wacky epic that saw Frank get to grips with his monstrous self in more ways than one.
Remender's run ended suddenly with the miniseries In The Blood, which featured Frank Castle's return after his regeneration with the aid of the Bloodstone, which brought him back younger, more powerful and yet filled with greater rage than ever before. In this story, he ties up loose ends with past-allies and enemies in ways you probably wouldn't expect. It's a great way to see how Remender and Fraction revived the character for 616 and left a lot of possibilities for him in future.
Greg Rucka's Marvel Now! Reboot
Finally, Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto's somewhat short-lived reboot of Frank Castle and his exploits may not have met Marvel's profit expectations but it is a definitive version of the character that has been built up and perfected over nearly 30 years of solo outings.
This series from issue one to the War Zone miniseries finale played like a John Woo action suspense thriller version of the modern Marvel Universe.
The past few major Marvel story arcs might have taken a massive toll on the world but Megacrime has come back bigger than ever.
Like a ghost out of the darkness, the Punisher returns to take care of business and his first port of call is a wedding massacre that has destroyed the life of a fellow US Marine.
This Frank Castle is more action than words, yet we see him as a mastermind and a man of extremes. With everyone on his tail from the NYPD's finest, the crime world's deadliest and the Avengers themselves, this series was compelling, thrilling, tragic and so intelligent that it steals a lot of thunder from Marvel's bigger players, which makes me wonder why it wasn't so largely received.
Still, if you have no intention of picking up classic issues, this is just as great a place to start as any!