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Bizarro Back Issues: The Punisher Fights Dr. Doom in ‘Acts of Vengeance’

The Marvel Comics crossover Acts of Vengeance was awesome. In fact, I’d be willing to say that it’s my favorite Marvel crossover, because it’s such a simple idea — shuffling around villains so that they fight the heroes they usually wouldn’t — that led to so many great stories. There was the Captain America comic where the Red Skull, a Nazi, faced off against Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, the surreal issue where Daredevil climbed a mountain of robot skulls to beat Ultron to death with a stick (really), and the first three issues of Walter Simonson’s run on Fantastic Four where the FF, used to battling cosmic threats like Galactus, handily smacked down dozens of low-rent Spider-Man villains.

And then there was the story where the Punisher fought Dr. Doom.It all went down in the pages of The Punisher #28 and 29, by Mike Baron and Bill Reinhold, and it is far and away one of the weirdest stories in Baron’s sixty-issue run. And that’s saying something — in his string of beautifully low-fi action stories, Baron pit the Punisher against an entire video store’s worth of straight-to-VHS action movie plots.

For instance, this story in particular came hot on the heels of a two-part story where he hijacked an experimental submarine and threatened to nuke a crooked admiral’s house in suburban Virginia. And that followed a multi-issue epic that saw Frank Castle tracking down an assassin who used poison to fix a boxing match, which involved attending a ninja training camp run by three rednecks in Kansas before meeting up with some actual ninja in Japan. And both of those were preceded by a story where he killed Charlie Samson, the Marvel Universe equivalent of Charles Manson, by breaking him out of prison and dropping him out of a helicopter.

Of course, there was also the story where a heroin addict / prostitute / brilliant surgeon used an experimental technique to repair Frank’s face after it got slashed up, with the side effect of darkening his skin tone to the point where everyone thought he was black for six issues, but, well, you get the idea. Suffice to say, it’s a weird one.

It starts off with Dr. Doom kicking it in an extradimensional conference room set up by Loki to coordinate mass villainy, where he is just ripping into the Kingpin for being unable to kill the Punisher. See, while he’s usually more closely identified with Daredevil or his original foe, Spider-Man, the Kingpin had been a driving force behind a good chunk of Baron’s run on the title. It makes perfect sense, too: The Punisher is dedicated entirely to getting his revenge on organized crime, and in the Core Marvel Universe, most organized crime comes straight down from the Kingpin. A conflict between the two characters was inevitable.

As a result, there was a long string of interconnected stories that saw Frank chipping away at the Kingpin’s empire, eventually even recruiting a small team of allies made up of people who’d helped him out on previous missions, and who of course were killed off almost immediately. The story ended in a standoff, but it made the Kingpin one of the few characters other than Jigsaw that Frank Castle hadn’t been able to kill, and for the Punisher, that’s about as close as you get to an arch-nemesis.

But Kingpin hadn’t been able to kill Frank either, and Dr. Doom just would not let it go.

Thus, in a sterling example of the “well then why don’t you do it” school of super-villain cameraderie, Dr. Doom, a man who built a time machine in his basement, heads off to try his luck at fighting the Punisher, a man who has a gun.

He does this, as you might expect, by luring him to a quarry and — after a brief exchange between a Doombot and a minigun — attempting to blow up his van with a tank.

Two legitimately amazing things about this sequence:

1. Frank immediately understands the thoroughly ludicrous reason that Dr. Doom is trying to kill him. There’s no hesitation, he’s just “oh, I guess the Kingpin was able to get a dude who put rockets on a skyscraper and shot it out into space (twice) to come after me. That is, without question, the most logical course of events that I can come up with given the information that I have.” It’s like he read the solicitation for the issue.

2. “The battle van is not equipped to sustain a direct hit from a 90mm cannon.” Frank’s utter disappointment in the inability of his Ford Aerostar to handle a direct hit from a tank is hilariously palpable.

The van is, however, surprisingly nimble, so Frank’s able to avoid being blown up, but it’s only a matter of time before the Doomtank gets a lucky shot and turns it into scrap metal. So of course, it’s time for the Punisher to escape on his jetpack.

Yes. His jetpack.

It’s worth noting that the Punisher’s jetpack did not appear at all in the previous 27 issues of this comic. It’s just suddenly there. Punisher has a jetpack now. Deal with it.

After he makes his escape, Frank meets up with his sidekick, Microchip, and this — yes, this — is where it starts to get weird, because this is where Frank decides how he’s going to deal with this problem: He is going to steal a Faberge egg from Dr. Doom’s art collection, and then use it to bribe him into leaving him alone. Seriously.

It’s important to remember that Mike Baron, who penned far more outlandish plots in Nexus and The Badger, is one of the writers most responsible for shaping the Punisher over the years. He wrote the first ongoing series for five years at the height of the character’s popularity, and is clearly influential on every writer who came after him. That said, looking back, the fact that the Punisher would make this plan seems completely insane.

I mean, why wouldn’t he just try to kill Dr. Doom? He’s the Punisher! Killing dudes is literally all he does! I get that Dr. Doom is a tougher customer than most, what with the fact that he has a suit of armor, can shoot lasers out of his fingers, and can apparently just cold drop a German tank into the middle of Maine whenever the hell he feels like it, but still. In the last issue before this one, Frank was about to use nuclear missiles on a dude who had fudged the numbers on a defense contract. It’s not like he’s known for going for a peaceful option.

And yet, that’s his solution here: art theft.

Frank ends up breaking into Doomstadt without much trouble, which is pretty weird when you consider how much of a pain that usually is for people who can turn invisible and smash through brick walls, but, y’know, it happens. But then, things get even weirder when Frank meets three more Doctors Doom, including one with an extremely prominent area:

Turns out Dr. Doom’s miniskirt is actually a pretty good look when you see the alternatives. Anyway, for those of you keeping score at home, this brings our Total Doctors Doom count for this issue up to five. The ones on each side are, of course, Doombots, but the one in the middle is far more complicated.

He ends up telling Frank that the Doom that tried to kill him back in America was a malfunctioning Doombot, which makes as much sense as anything else, but as we learn the next issue, that’s not true either. See, what you might not know if you weren’t reading the other Marvel titles at the time — or if you picked these up after rifling through a dollar box because you thought Punisher vs. Doom sounded hilarious — is that during this era, there were two Doctors Doom. Sort of.

The one trying to kill Castle at the beginning of the story is the original, Victor von Doom, who had been exiled from Latveria (but who apparently still had access to the tanks). The one with the fetching swimsuit-over-chainmail look was actually Kristoff, Doom’s one-time ward who had been brainwashed to replace his mind with Victor’s. So now the Punisher is dealing with two Dooms, plus a ton of frigging robots.

Fortunately for Frank, Kristoff lets it slip that the fancy painting hanging above the Faberge egg in Dr. Doom’s art gallery — and “Dr. Doom’s Art Gallery” is a one-shot I’d read the hell out of — is an irreplaceable painting of Doom’s parents. He also mentions that it’s irreplaceable because Doom killed the painter as soon as he was done, but at this point, the Punisher’s way beyond needing a reason to kill this dude.

In fact, Kristoff wants the Punisher to go back to America and kill Dr. Doom for him, which you’d think would be the perfect way to put an end to this, but it is not to be. We’re in for the long haul with art theft. It is, after all, a plan that is both intricate and elegant in its simplicity, and plays directly to the Punisher’s strengths.

And by that I mean he sets things on fire and karate kicks the living hell out of a guy.

With that distraction, he’s able to get back to the art gallery, where he steals not the Faberge egg, but the painting of Doom’s parents. He takes the painting back to America where he has a friendly artist make a forgery that he then duct tapes to the roof of his van.

As you might expect, this prompts one of the all-time great Dr. Doom Freakouts, and before long, he shows up in a spaceship and zaps Frank’s van with a laser that takes out his engine and his electronics, leading to these two guys yelling at each other about whether art theft or attempted tank-murder is a worse crime:

You can add “He says YOU’RE just a nutso robot!” to the list of phrases that just don’t get used enough in Punisher comics anymore. Or any comics. Or life.

Doom agrees to hold off on killing Frank if he gives him the painting back, and he ends up being a man of his word. There is, however, a caveat that he throws in about how Frank pissed off Kristoff, and thus “has sown the seeds of his own demise,” but as far as I know, that never really comes up again. So in the end, the Punisher manages to survive having two different Doctors Doom trying to kill him at the same time. That’s quite a feat.

But it isn’t what makes this weird little gem such a classic Punisher story. No, that comes from the fact that these two issues gave readers something that had never been seen before, and would never be seen again:

The Punisher in Lederhosen.

Bless you, Acts of Vengeance. You are the greatest thing that has ever happened.

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