The Realest Man in Comics
The strangest thing about the Punisher is that he doesn’t exist.
Frank Castle, Marvel Comics’ vigilante anti-hero, first appeared as a Spider-Man villain in 1974. A Vietnam vet whose family had been murdered by the mafia, Castle became the Punisher to use the methods of war on the problem of crime. For the first two decades of his career, the Punisher represented American paranoia about crime and discord over the Vietnam War. These days, Castle embodies a different conundrum.
Castle has no superpowers. The Punisher wears no mask. Men with his skills and physique walk the earth today. His costume consists of a T-shirt. The weapons he uses are real and readily available. Two generations have grown up with his stories, but no one has ever taken up his mantle. Castle’s plausibility is unique among comic book heroes. We know why there’s no Superman. We don’t know why there’s no Punisher.
The best Punisher stories – in any medium – explore this mystery. They illuminate the one element that separates the Punisher from the real world: the peculiar psychology of Frank Castle. Traditionally, this task involves exploring Vietnam and the death of Castle’s family – that is, unless we’re talking about the movies.
Hollywood Can’t Crack the Punisher
The Punisher appeared on film in 1989 and 2004; a third movie will appear later this year. Each movie re-launches the character; no one’s been able to establish a franchise.
1989’s Punisher is a hoard of B-movie gems. Dolph Lundgren, as Castle, shows his bare ass three times, Louis Gossett Jr. plays a detective named Jake Berkowitz and a blonde Czech girl portrays a Yakuza ninja. Though the film mitigates the Punisher’s craziness by having him rescue a bunch of mobsters’ children from the Yakuza, Castle does teach one of the boys an important lesson by killing the kid’s father in front of him. This is as close as Punisher cinema comes to a moral quandary.
The 2004 version, starring Thomas Jane, earned pretty good money on DVD. It’s a straightforward revenge story, as boring and bad as the basest vengeance porn, despite borrowing from the 2000-2001 comic, Marvel Knights: Punisher, written by Garth Ennis.
Ennis’s Knights is nearly a Mad Magazine-style superhero parody. In its climax, Castle kicks an old woman who is also a quadruple amputee into a house fire. The scene’s both horrifying and hilarious. But when the movie folds Ennis’s black humor into its kick-ass formula, it makes for a nauseating ragout. The film ends with John Travolta, the main villain, chained to the bumper of a rolling car in a parking lot, which explodes in the shape of the Punisher’s skull logo. There’s no allusion to the Bat Signal here; no critique of vigilantism. It’s just braggadocio.
This year’s Punisher film adapts Ennis’s work on the Punisher under Marvel’s MAX imprint, which permits adult language and situations. The movie will be terrible, but it will draw attention to some excellent source material. Along with the new (since 2007) Punisher: War Journal by Matt Fraction, the MAX Punisher constitutes some of the best contemporary work in comics. Ennis’ run, in particular, which began in 2004 and will end this August, stands out as one of the great achievements of the medium. These two series show where the movies went wrong. Both comics demonstrate the uniqueness of Frank Castle’s tortured mind by having him interact with characters almost – but not quite – like him.
Two Soldiers, Two Wars
In the 1990s, several authors compared the Punisher and Captain America as two old soldiers; one from World War II, the other from Vietnam. Chichester and Clark’s Punisher and Captain America: Blood & Glory showed each soldier regretting his war – Cap for the bombs that won World War II; Castle for the politics that lost ‘Nam. Naturally, the Punisher tries to assassinate Cap. Then they team up, ride motorcycles together and argue about war. It’s a reconciliation story.
Garth Ennis had Castle finish the job on Captain America in The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe, an out-of-canon story in which Castle kills everyone with superpowers, criminal or not. He gets the drop on Cap by fighting dirty. Castle chides Cap for his ignorance of the My Lai Massacre just before he shoots him in the head.
Fraction’s War Journal complicates this relationship further by taking the opposite tack. His Punisher worships Captain America. They end up on the same side during Marvel’s Civil War event. When the Punisher kills a couple of villains and Cap beats the crap out of him for it, Castle refuses to fight back.
War Journal shows us that before his first tour in Vietnam, Castle had done the same thing while being trained by Captain America in boot camp. No matter how much Cap battered and berated him, the Marine who would become the Punisher would not raise a hand against the living embodiment of everything right and good about the United States.
The Punisher’s deference to Captain America tells us something vital about Castle’s psyche. Spider-Man and Iron Man both attacked Captain America during the Civil War, but the Punisher never did. The idea is that it’s impossible for anyone else to maintain such integrity these days, to have such absolute conviction. Castle is old-fashioned that way.
In Fraction’s account, the Punisher – far from assassinating Captain America – takes Cap’s death last year so hard that he actually dons a costume reminiscent of Cap’s and fights the Hate-Monger, a re-imagined Cap villain. Perhaps nothing in comics in recent memory has been as weird as seeing a star-spangled Frank Castle announce “I’m Captain $%^&^% America.”
Captain America is the moral core of Castle, but the Punisher still ends up shooting the Hate-Monger in the face. What happens, then, if we approach Frank Castle from the side of violence?
One War, Two Soldiers
Barracuda had the Punisher on the ropes. A giant black man, a mercenary, a convict, ex-Special Forces, a Vietnam vet, Barracuda was beating the Punisher into the ground. Castle had recently blown up a car in Barracuda’s face, electrocuted him, stomped on his head and shot him. Prior to all that, Castle had stabbed out his eye, cut off four of his fingers, and bitten through his cheek; later, he would chop off ‘Cuda’s right arm and his left hand, then blow his brains out with an AK-47. But, for the moment, Castle was swallowing his own teeth as fast as Barracuda was punching them out.
The Punisher got his hand on a pair of folding pliers, which he’d been using to defuse a Claymore mine attached to the car seat that held his infant daughter, Sarah. Barracuda had kidnapped Sarah and placed the mine there. Castle jammed the pliers into Barracuda’s face, squeezed with both hands, twisted and slowly tore off Barracuda’s nose.
This scene is the climax of “Long Cold Dark,” a five-issue MAX story by Ennis and Goran Pavlov. It is the best half-year comic book arc of the last two decades. Ennis does two great things in these five issues: He gives us Barracuda, the character who better than any other mirrors the psychology of Frank Castle, and he shows what family really means to the Punisher.
Barracuda doesn’t seem much like Castle. Black and Southern, he talks like a thug through gold teeth engraved with the words “Fuck You.” Where Castle is somber and terse, Barracuda is loquacious and upbeat – cheerful to the point of habromania. Yet they are nearly the same character.
‘Cuda may be the one person on Earth who has killed more criminals than the Punisher. When Castle robs Barracuda’s extensive arsenal, he calls the gangster “a man after my own heart.” Each throws the other to the sharks, and each cheats death by clinging to the side of the other’s boat. Each locks the other in a car trunk, and, in their respective trunks, each man packs an M60 machine gun. Barracuda handcuffs the Punisher; the Punisher chains up Barracuda. They both burst their bonds. The police can’t tell their handiwork apart. They both thrive in war.
But they differ. The Punisher has no limits when it comes to dealing with criminals. Barracuda has no limits at all. Barracuda grew up abused; he had the kind of childhood that doesn’t permit a person to believe in Captain America. If Cap had fought in Vietnam rather than World War II, he’d be the Punisher. Take the Cap out of Frank Castle, and you get the ‘Cuda.
Barracuda exemplifies Ennis’s approach to the Punisher. He introduces characters who have real-world counterparts, but differ slightly from Castle. By showing how these characters can’t fight Castle’s war, Ennis explains why the Punisher doesn’t exist in reality. Some people want to pull the trigger on their enemies, but can’t. Others fire, but can’t handle the enormity of their actions. Some can bear the violence, but can’t adequately direct it. The Punisher shoots, hits his targets and lives with the consequences.
The contrast between the Punisher and the rest of us doesn’t solve the mystery of Frank Castle for Ennis. Nor does the explanatory power of Vietnam. He argues that neither war nor the murder of his family fully explains the Punisher’s crusade. When Castle finally rescues his new daughter from Barracuda, he doesn’t quit his war on crime to raise a new family. He gives the girl back to her adoptive mother and returns to his battlefield.
Ennis knows that superhero comics use violence against women and children to excuse male aggression. The murder of Castle’s family is a pretext for the adolescent revenge fantasy that the Punisher so nicely fulfills. Smartly and wickedly, Ennis makes the reader’s excuse for violence a pretext for Castle as well. Castle loves war, and he needed his family to die so that he could become the Punisher. Now, he gets to spend his life doing what he loves. Another chance to be a father would spoil his fun – and ours.
Only one other take on the Punisher lays such judgment on its audience: the 2005 videogame. Unlike the movies (but like the comics), the game presents a Punisher who looks and moves like an older man, though still vigorous and with a full head of black hair. It’s also notorious for its foul language and torture scenes. Developer Volition had to tone down the latter for release on consoles. When the Punisher feeds a crook to a shark or presses a mobster’s face into a grinder, the animation goes black and white. The player also loses points for killing an enemy in torture sequences.
These are not disincentives to carry out brutality. A player can dig up cheat codes or buy a GameShark to see the fatalities in color; there’s a price to enjoying the violence in its fullest form. Similarly, readers of Ennis’s Punisher observe that Castle paid with the lives of his family to get his everlasting war. Both approaches to the Punisher emphasize the cost of enjoying violence, a cost we would never pay in reality. By offering players a glimpse of their own blood thirst, the game shows how far from us Castle really lives. It’s a digital argument for why there is no Punisher.
Ray Huling’s a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. He can’t wait to escape from New York back to Lovecraft Country.