Before the oppressive Comics Code Authority set down its non-violence guidelines in the 1950's, gunplay was nothing new in the world of comic books. Criminals, superheroes, and soldiers all knew that you got further ahead with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word. But with the establishment of the CCA in the early 50's, comic-book superheroes were forbidden to use any weapon designed to kill, limiting them to gimmicks like suction-cup arrows and magic rings while the bad guys plied their trade with ray guns and other improbable devices.
Not much changed until the early 1970's, when the CCA relaxed some of its more stringent rules, including the ones that forbade heroes from performing unheroic actions. Enjoying the new creative freedom, Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway came up with a new kind of character - a professional hitman with ethics, gunning after those who he decided deserved to be 'punished' for their criminal deeds. Obviously, his crime-fighting methods would not meet the approval of Marvel's upstanding heroes, and the Punisher spent more than a decade as a guest star, defending himself from both the criminals he's sworn to punish and the heroes who want him brought to justice for crossing the line.
Then, in 1986, a hugely popular four-issue mini-series by writer Steven Grant and artist Mike Zeck set the tone for the Punisher's subsequent adventures. Now portrayed as a brutal but sane anti-hero out to avenge the death of his family, he traveled the world to punish the top figures in the criminal underworld (although street-level punks got their share of punishment, too). Using the criminals' own money to finance his ever-growing arsenal, the Punisher's only ally in his personal war is a middle-aged computer hacker named Microchip, who provides him with the intelligence needed to spring into action.
With the debut of his own continuing series in 1987, the Punisher became one of Marvel's hottest properties of the 1980's and early 90's. Eventually starring in no less than three consecutively running titles, his adventures were also chronicled in numerous graphic novels, mini-series, and major Marvel crossover events - not to mention the never-ending string of guest appearances in just about every other Marvel title at the time (even teaming up with teen-humor icon Archie Andrews in one humorous event). While this extreme overexposure contributed to his eventual burnout as a major selling character, there was a method to Marvel's marketing madness. The 1980's was a time when crime dominated the headlines, and there was a general attitude - especially in the United States - that the criminals were taking over the streets. Against this cultural backdrop, a lawman who didn't worry too much about criminals' rights was sure to become an instant hit, and his popularity (not to mention inspiration to numerous other comic-book vigilantes) said a lot about the times in which he lived.
Within the world of comics itself, the Punisher also had a definite impact on the art of storytelling. Much of his stories was given over to detailed explanations and diagrams of his weaponry and tactics, a far cry from the less-realistic depiction of weapons and paraphernalia in earlier stories. However one feels about the Punisher's morality, there's little doubt his adventures contributed greatly to the progress of 'grim-and-grittiness' and everyday realism that could be seen in other titles.
Nothing lasts forever, though, and the 1990's saw less of the Punisher, what with falling crime rates and better economic times pushing the take-no-prisoners mentality to the media fringes. That, along with new writers who tried to take the character in new directions, pretty much sealed the Punisher's fate, who ended up as a hit man on the side of angels (literally) by the end of the century.
But years from now, when pop-culture historians look back at the 20th century and discuss the significance of our culture's heroes, they'll find the Punisher, and they'll see a hero who rode the zeitgeist as far as he could go, leaving plenty of entertained readers - not to mention bullet-ridden corpses - in his wake.