By Theron Couch — Unlike Marvel’s other vigilante heroes, the Punisher has always used lethal means to accomplish his goals. Whether in his own series, a guest appearance in another character’s book, or even during an extended alternate future tale like the one in this week’s Old Man Logan Annual, Punisher always carries the chance for serious casualties. Frank Castle’s history of lethal justice dates all the way back to his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #129, wherein Spider-Man was his target and readers could be forgiven for not being able to tell whether Punisher was good or bad...despite who he was aiming his gun at.
Spider-Man vs. The Punisher
Through a lie that Spider-Man had murdered Norman Osborne, the Punisher was manipulated by The Jackal into trying to kill the wall crawler. Much of the issue focused on Peter Parker, yet I’d still call it action packed, since we are talking about a battle between Spider-Man and The Punisher, after all. And that fight started off decidedly in The Punisher’s favor, at least before Spider-Man summoned the strength to break the titanium bonds Punisher put on him.
Even after getting free, Spider-Man still wasn’t a match for the combined forces of Punisher and Jackal, the latter of which scratched him with electric claws and sent him off the side of a building. Of course, Spider-Man survived, eventually finding a clue planted by The Jackal that leads to a dead friend of the Punisher’s. The Punisher and Spider-Man arrive in the same place, and Spider-Man explains the frame job to Punisher—only Jackal could have planted the clue leading to the body, clearly killed by Jackal’s claws, but it’s Punisher who would have taken the fall. Spider-Man and the Punisher depart tolerably, if not amicably.
The Punisher’s Code
Even in this first appearance, Gerry Conway establishes a code of conduct for The Punisher that puts him closer to the side of the angels than the devils. The Punisher will only kill murderers. Indeed, his justification for killing Spider-Man was the supposed murder of Norman Osborne. The Punisher’s code is so rigid, in fact, he believes he must kill a target rather than allow that target to die in an accident—such as when Spider-Man falls off the roof following Jackal’s attack. Siding with Jackal may be a stain on Punisher’s shield, but Punisher remarks that he believed they were teaming up to rid New York of a criminal element.
The thing that ultimately lands Punisher in the villain column, however, comes at the end of this issue. Once Spider-Man has revealed the frame job and exposed Jackal, Punisher calls him a hero and leaves him alone, instead vowing to get revenge on Jackal. Unfortunately this set of circumstances does nothing to absolve Spider-Man of the Normal Osborne murder—the reason Punisher was hunting Spider-Man in the first place. To stay loyal to his code, the fight against Spider-Man should have continued.
The Punisher is often likened to a simple villain in Amazing Spider-Man #129, and maybe that’s the case, but I think there’s more to it than that. The Punisher follows his code of conduct throughout the issue, acting in a consistent way with a clear and avowed goal to end crime. If there is a villainous moment, it’s when he decides to stop fight against Spider-Man—abandoning his code—in favor of the pettiness of revenge.