When the movie Dirty Harry hit theaters in late 1971, Clint Eastwood's portrayal of the cynical, unorthodox title character really seemed to hit a nerve with the general public. Weary of escalating urban crime and chaos, movie audiences found the ruthless Harry Callahan to be a no-nonsense antidote to the increasingly bureaucratic and therapeutic response of the criminal justice system.
Well, at the time, I was obviously much too young to even watch Dirty Harry, much less perceive the shift in the socio-political winds. However, in the smaller microcosm of superhero comics (which I'd stumbled into the summer of '73), the debut of The Punisher on the mindblowing cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #129 (1974) seemed to signal a change in tone that even an eight year-old kid like me could pick up on.
Sporting one of the best-designed costumes in all of comicdom, the deadly skill and steely concentration of the mysterious mercenary are obvious in this jaw-dropping Gil Kane cover (inked by John Romita Sr., who'd also designed the Punisher's costume). Kane's trademark perspective-twisting anatomy skills are put to good use here as Spider-Man literally twists in the wind trying to escape the Punisher's deadly aim...which didn't look likely with those cross-hairs directly over his heart!
In addition to the rather startling sight of the Punisher (against a blazing yellow background, no less), the layout of the cover has some cool "under the radar" stuff going on.
In the left-hand example below, note how a "V" shape is formed by the Spidey corner icon following an invisible angled line to the Punisher's head, to his shoulder, then directly to the center of the cross-hairs...with the perspective of the background buildings forming the second angle of the "V" shape. So, while the Punisher is the "star" of the cover, the eye is still riveted to the topsy-turvy title character.
In the example on the right, note how the direction of the Punisher's shot lines up perfectly with the high-powered bullet's impact "blast" on the building behind Spider-Man. Despite the switch in perspectives, the visual connection between the rifle shot and the background impact blast elegantly and efficiently makes it clear that the Punisher is the one shooting at Spider-Man. In fact, if the impact blast had been placed somewhere else, it's very likely the viewer wouldn't get as clear of a "read". A wonderful, yet deceptively simple cover design.
For the next several years following his debut, the Punisher's appearances were few and far between...making the character all the more mysterious and fascinating. Sadly, the appetite for darker, morally ambigous characters grew steadily through the late 70's, the 80's, and beyond...to the point where a once-intriguing figure like the Punisher became lost in a sea of thuggish pseudo-heroes and disaffected loners. But back in late 1973, this dangerous mercenary who'd declared a war on crime far deadlier than even Batman's was every bit as controversial and intriguing as his debut cover.