3 horrifying Punisher villains Netflix definitely needs to use
Man, Netflix is just going whole hog with this Marvel thing, aren’t they? They started out with Daredevil, and they’re just building up from there, like an extremely violent baking soda volcano. With a Punisher series coming up, I decided to take a look at the rogues gallery we might be seeing, but unlike my Luke Cage article, this one will be about villains I actually want to see, instead of villains that remind me that no matter how much blood and angst you throw in, it’s still essentially a live-action cartoon. And trust me, there’s plenty of characters like that, even in the Punisher comics.
As we all know, the Punisher has the unfortunate tendency to brutally murder all his bad guys, so you’d think this would make it hard to create a memorable rogues gallery. But you’d be wrong, and shame on you for your lack of obsessive knowledge of comic book trivia! While Punisher has been around for decades (he actually debuted as a Spider-Man villain in the ’70s), he didn’t truly come into his own until the massively popular “Welcome Back, Frank” storyline in 2000 written by Garth Ennis. Yeah, turns out that the guy who hates superheroes is actually really good at writing an ultraviolent antihero; go figure.
1. “Ma” Gnucci
Right out of the gate, we’re starting with the main antagonist of “Welcome Back, Frank”. But first, a little background before we dig into the blood-soaked main course: the 2000 Punisher series tried to fix the mess left behind by the disastrous ’90s version, which for some reason thought that turning the Punisher into a supernatural agent of Heaven tasked to kill demons was a good idea. Ennis, being a virulent hater of all things comic book bullshit, started out the series with a monologue showing that the Punisher had basically told the angels to fuck off and gone right back to killing mobsters. First on the chopping block was the Gnucci Family.
While Frank was busy running around being an extremely gory Ghostbuster, the Gnuccis had become one of New York’s preeminent crime families. Run by “Ma” Gnucci and her brother Dino, along with Ma’s three sons as enforcers, the Gnucci family operated basically unopposed in the city, mainly thanks to some handy blackmail photos (we’re never shown exactly what they are, but hints indicate the mayor and the police commissioner engaged in something gross in Las Vegas) and the fact that the city’s superhero population is too busy trying to keep the planet from exploding. So, Frank gets to work by immediately killing off Ma’s sons in a single night and later sniping her brother as he’s being led to court (ironically, for a crime he didn’t actually do for once). Understandably, Ma isn’t too happy about losing her entire family. She’s even less happy when she ambushes Frank in a zoo and he improvises a weapon out of a pair of polar bears. On the plus side, she lost a lot of weight really quickly.
Here’s what makes Ma such an entertaining villain, though: being turned into a quadruple amputee just made her more vicious. The second half of the story revolves around her sending every asshole who’s seen Scarface too many times after Frank by putting a $10 million bounty on his head. She also brings in the Russian, one of Ennis’s more entertaining creations (who didn’t make the list solely because I’m including him in this section right now), who’s sort of like a very jolly Ivan Drago.
So Ma sends the entire goddamn New York underworld after the Punisher, including the deadliest bastard she can find without actually hiring Dr. Doom, so how does it work out? Well, about as well as could be expected.
Seeing Frank show up at the Gnucci mansion literally carrying the severed head of the toughest guy they had makes all of Ma’s remaining henchmen throw down their guns and split, presumably to look for less dangerous jobs, like giving prostate exams to great white sharks, or those guys who clean the reactors in one of those Russian power plants that are only held together with cardboard and prayers. Not Ma, though, oh no; even with no arms and legs, she keeps going after Frank, even with her house burning down around her. Of course, this also meant that the final battle is a little anti-climactic.
2. The Man Down Below
Unsurprisingly, after the smash hit of “Welcome Back, Frank”, Ennis was kept on to write a continuing Punisher series the following year. Unlike his previous run, this series didn’t have an overarching villain, though it did bring back several characters from the original, including Punisher’s informant, the hilariously miserable Detective Martin Soap, and even the Russian, though he had undergone some… changes after getting stitched back together. Turns out radical hormone treatments and BEING BROUGHT BACK FROM THE DEAD can be a bit rough on your system.
However, our next character is one of the new ones introduced during this series, namely the Man Down Below. Our story begins in one of New York’s picturesque homeless shelters, featuring one of its standard forms of entertainment: a crazy person screaming his head off and spouting nonsense.
The story initially focuses on social worker and shelter volunteer Jen Cooke, who realizes that this crazy homeless guy’s psychotic ravings might be connected to several homeless people mysteriously disappearing recently. Finding the police’s strategy of “go fuck yourself, lady” less than encouraging, Cooke and her friend Paul head into the subway tunnels to try and solve the mystery on their own. Solving mysteries turns out to be substantially more dangerous than Scooby-Doo made it seem, because instead of finding a senile old man in a weirdly well-made costume, they’re attacked by a horde of violent hobos, who drag Paul off and almost get Jen as well… until she runs into a different kind of crazy person.
Jen shows her gratitude at being saved by spending several pages of the story criticizing Frank’s method of dealing out justice, though you have to give her credit for feeling sorry for the people who tried to tear her to shreds like 5 minutes ago. Not to be deterred by something as minor as getting shot, the hobos attack again, and Jen accidentally stumbles right into the lair of the person who’s behind the whole mess: The Man Down Below. That’s not his real name; that’s just what his minions call him, and he’s not really in any state to correct them.
It turns out the Man Down Below has been paying the homeless to grab other hobos off the street, then toss them on the giant pile of corpses he’s built up in the sewers and bleed them out. Why? So he can sleep under the pile. As we’re shown in flashbacks throughout the story, the Man was trapped under the corpse of his morbidly obese mother as a child and spent two weeks forced to cannibalize her body before someone noticed the smell and called the cops (to be fair, it’s New York, and the corpse smell just sort of melds with the larger gallery of stenches). The mental trauma he suffered has led to him only feeling safe while buried in corpses. I’m not an expert on psychology or anything, but it seems like that’d make him afraid of corpses, but whatever, it’s comic book psychology; we’re just lucky he didn’t start fighting crime as Bloated Corpse Man.
Unfortunately for the Man Down Below, eventually Frank tracks him down and doesn’t feel particularly charitable after getting dogpiled by homeless people. Instead of shooting him, Frank just sets fire to the corpse mountain, burning the Man alive. Granted, this story would probably seem more like an unusually violent episode of Criminal Minds than a Punisher story, but hey, even the Punisher gets tired of just shooting mobsters all the time.
Our final entry is a little different in that it’s not set in the “main” Marvel universe. Marvel MAX is the imprint used whenever a writer wants to do something exceptionally violent, and these stories take place in a far more realistic world than the regular universe (for a certain value of “realistic”, anyway). Which means no superpowers, no douchebags in tights, and a shitload more gore and profanity, like HBO in comic book form. Obviously, the flagship title for this imprint would be The Punisher, and once again, Garth Ennis got the job of topping his previous run in depravity. And holy hell, did he deliver, with suicidally dark storylines like “The Slavers”, “Punisher: Born”, and most memorable of all, “Barracuda”!
Barracuda debuted in Punisher MAX #31, when Harry Ebbing, the CEO of the thinly-veiled Enron parody Dynaco, realized that the Punisher was gunning for him (long story short: if you’re going to commit white collar crime, keep the body count low). Understandably shitting himself in fear, Ebbing called up an old prison friend (read: the guy Ebbing sucked off to avoid getting passed around like a soda can bong in the showers) who had a reputation as a bit of a tough guy. By which we mean every single person who had heard of him was scared shitless of him. What makes Barracuda such an entertaining character is that he didn’t act like your generic badass criminal; he’s a genuinely pleasant, happy fellow who just happens to have a bigger war crimes record than the entire Nuremberg defendants combined, and who can soak up damage like a sociopathic lump of Play-Doh. In his first battle with the Punisher, Barracuda loses an eye, the fingers on his left hand, and several teeth, none of which even makes him flinch. In fact, it just seems to make him angrier. “Realistic” in comics is anything more plausible than a “guy in a purple hat the size of Montana who eats planets.”
Despite ending up fed to a friggin’ shark, Barracuda manages something unprecedented for the MAX series: he survives getting killed. In the entire Punisher MAX run, only a handful of villains appeared more than once (Nicky Cavella, General Zakharov, the Kingpin), and even they only survived by not getting into a physical fight with Frank until their last appearances. Barracuda is the only MAX villain to survive a direct fight with Frank, and he was given two more appearances: one as a supporting character in Nick Fury: My War Gone By (set in Nicaragua during the Iran-Contra clusterfuck in the ’80s), and The Punisher Presents: Barracuda, covering Barracuda’s actions in between Punisher fights. Another long story short: he was trying to overthrow an old banana republic for fun and profit.
Barracuda eventually returned to New York in “The Long Cold Dark” storyline, intending to get revenge on Frank for, you know, the eye-popping and finger-chopping and shark-feeding. Barracuda discovered that Frank had an illegitimate infant daughter that Frank himself didn’t know about, and decided to use her as part of his revenge. This was a mistake.