Streetwise Crimefighter Showdown, Round One: The Punisher vs. The Spirit
Name: The Punisher
Origin Story: His wife and children murdered by the Mob, Frank Castle – military vet, martial arts and weaponry expert – exacts his revenge and proceeds to attack all sorts of organized crime figures, including drug cartels, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Russian Mafia, the Yakuza, and various and sundry psychopaths.
Costume: His black shirt has a picture of a huge white skull.
Coolest Power/Ability: Killing without remorse.
Defining Stories: Garth Ennis’ brutally hardboiled 2000 run as writer. For such a deceptively simple hero concept, Punisher has attracted some first-rate writers; in addition to Ellis, these include Peter Milligan and the mainstream novelists Duane Swierczynski and Charlie Huston, who all contributed to best Punisher series, published by Marvel’s “mature” comics line, MAX, throughout most of the first decade of the aughts.
Cultural legacy: An anti-hero lacking the moral compass of most superheroes, The Punisher is a pumped-up ordinary joe who helped put the humanity, as amoral as that humanity can seem, back in comics. —Ken Tucker
Name: The Spirit
Origin Story: Denny Colt, police detective for Central City, is left for dead after battling the criminal called Dr. Cobra in the opening pages of the first, 1940 Spirit story. Supposedly buried in a Central City’s Wildwood Cemetary, the indomitable Colt applies a small mask and becomes the Spirit, helping Police Commissioner Dolan rid the city of crime while wooing any number of women, from Dolan’s daughter, the presciently feminist Ellen, to Silk Satin and Sand Serif, femme fatales who break laws and the Spirit’s heart again and again.
Costume: Black mask, suit, gloves, and fedora, white shirt, and red tie.
Coolest Power/Ability: No super-powers, but an ability to solves mysteries, take a great deal of punishment while still throwing punches, and the healthiest libido of any comics hero.
Defining Stories: Hard to pick just a few, but: The melancholy, film noir-ish “The Last Trolley” (1946); the break-the-fourth-wall humor of “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” (1948). And in a rare feat, in 2007, artist-writer Darwyn Cooke took a character as closely identified with his creator as Sherlock Holmes was with Arthur Conan Doyle and did an excellent job of reviving the character for DC Comics for a few years.
Cultural legacy: Conceived by artist-writer Will Eisner in the 1940s, The Spirit is one of the most groundbreaking, beautiful, and imaginative comics series ever. Eisner’s signature innovation was on the opening, or splash, page – he used the space to present the word “Spirit” in a vast variety of ways: The letters were formed from a series of lipstick kisses, or took the shape of a wall the Spirit climbed, or appeared as wrought-iron letters that built a fence in front of the hero; Eisner’s imagination seemed limitless. Eisner also employed other artists to draw the Spirit who went on to their own significant careers, including Jules Feiffer and Jack Cole (who created the superb, Spirit-indebited Plastic Man). And, oh yes: Let’s just forget the horrid, ignorant 2008 feature film written and directed by Frank Miller.—Ken Tucker