The Punisher: …and those for whom there are no words

August 12th, 2009 by | Tags: , , , ,

In the end, Garth Ennis’s Punisher was about both the best and the worst of humanity. The worst, in that he represents just how thoroughly a human being can be broken by the unthinking and inhuman actions of others. The best, in that he looks at the terrible things that the best of us tolerate and says, “No more.”

Ennis’s Punisher isn’t a hero. He may do heroic things, and he may save lives, but he’s no hero. He is, at best, a murderer whose goals happen to coincide with those of many members of society. Punisher MAX really works for two reasons. Ennis treats the series as a war comic, making sure to show the effects of the violence on society and the characters. He writes Frank Castle not as the Punisher, a costumed mental case with a mad-on for criminals, but as a soldier using the things he learned in Vietnam to put the screws to the people he hates.

Frank Castle is no one to look up to, but he exists as the ultimate “If I could…” character. A social worker partway through the series, in the phenomenal The Slavers arc, gives Castle information on his targets, against her better judgment, because she wanted them to pay for what they’d done. She knew the law would never be able to touch them and that they would skate through life, and she hated them for it. They were trash, less than human, and the only person who could do what needed to be done was a man wiling to be inhuman to them right back.

And he does so, if not admirably, then with a certain amount of skill. He makes a child of a hard man with ease, before he finds the woman who helped mastermind the entire scheme. When she begs for her life, explaining that they just wanted to be in America and do business, he coldly tells her, “All that counts is you can’t stop me. I’m stronger than you, so I can do anything I want.” There’s a beat, as time passes and the panel switches, and he asks her, “Isn’t that the way it works?”

And it’s wrong, he’s beating this woman to death, and it’s terrible… but she’s the one who came up with the “rape them to break them” plan. She was willing to use other people as cattle to make sure that she lived a life of luxury. You’re appalled, and it’s ugly, but deep down, you understand that she’s getting exactly what she deserves. Getting to be a monster with no repercussions is unthinkable. It makes for some uneasy feelings. So, you don’t cheer, exactly, but there’s a quiet understanding, the feeling you get when you squash a bug that might have, or did, sting you. It is ugly, but it needed to be done. It is not a good thing that it was done, exactly, but it was necessary.

Frank Castle is a monster, but he’s also a representative of our gut instinct when confronted with some fresh horror. He does what a lot of wish we could, or, failing that, wish would happen, but make no mistake: he is only better than those he kills by comparison. He is a monster, and when confronted with this fact, he agrees. He cannot bring anyone into his life, because at some point, no matter how happy his life is, he is going to turn on the news and see someone that must be punished. He’s damned, he knows it, and he accepts that it is what it is.

The thing about Frank Castle, the thing that keeps him from becoming a generic and bloodthirsty action hero, is that he takes no joy in what he does. One-liners are rare, and stand out when they do occur. It is clear to both the reader and to Frank Castle himself that he takes no pleasure in what he does. The closest he comes is satisfaction, and even that is a vague inference. He does it because it must be done, and he does it because no one else will.

When confronted with the death of a broken and sad woman, all he thinks is, “If I could, I’d kill every single one of them. I’d wipe them out. And you’d never have had to exist at all.” It isn’t an honorable sentiment, but it is a sad one. Whenever Frank Castle meets a normal person, someone not in his line of work, he’s met with shock, scorn, and horror. They understand his appeal, and a couple characters even take him up on it, but his way is not the way life should go. There is no honor, no glory in being Frank Castle.

Garth Ennis took a derivative character, a Dirty Harry for superheroes, a character used to reiterate the ridiculous idea that heroes should never kill, and used him as a mirror for us. Our fears and our insecurities were put on display and put down over the course of the past five years.

Frank Castle didn’t die at the end of Ennis’s run on the Punisher, but I’ve read all the Punisher stories I need. I can’t read the one that fights supervillains, gets up by superheroes because he’s a loose cannon, and never seems to accomplish anything. I can’t take him seriously. It’s like going from photorealism back to stick figures, from the modern age back to the Silver Age, or aging backwards. I’ve read a Frank Castle that brought feelings and thoughts that I’d left unexamined right to the forefront of my mind. I watched him murder people, people who absolutely deserved it, and felt that that was the only way their story could have, and should have, ended. I’ve had to examine my reactions to his actions, and figure out what that means about me as a human being. And, honestly, I’m better for it.

After The Slavers, Punisher vs Kingpin is hollow. I’ve seen real villains in these pages, and that comic book nonsense is just that. The Punisher shouldn’t be a character that makes you pump your fist and go “YEAH!” At this point, that’s a take on the character I want nothing to do with. It’s boring and retrograde.

Those five hardcovers on my shelf, though? Those are five of the finest, and most thoughtful, books Marvel ever put out. It’s a poorer comics world without them. All five volumes are on Amazon. Five, Four, Three, Two, One. The hardcovers collect two stories a piece, and are by far the best way to read the series. These are comics to get angry to and comics to care about. These are comics to think about.

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17 comments to “The Punisher: …and those for whom there are no words”

  1. if he’s so great, why do dr. doom, magneto et al still exist?
    once again, the punisher, like batman makes for some temporary satisfaction.
    but he is essentially a serial killer who should go to prison.
    and why doesn’t go after deadpool?
    that’d make some fanboy heads asplode.

  2. but I loved the write up.
    great to read, mister brothers.

  3. Because Punisher MAX takes place in a world without superheroes and supervillains. That’s sort of the point of David’s article.

  4. I’ve had similar problems with the non-Ennis stuff. It’s one of the reasons that I couldn’t really enjoy Punisher War Journal no matter how hard I tried. It’s kid stuff pure and simple by comparison — in the worst, most insulting way possible. It’s also why I’m torn over the upcoming Jason Aaron/Steve Dillon MAX run… which feels the need to do new versions of the Kingpin and Bullseye… meh.

  5. I think Ennis has basically spoiled the Punisher for the Marvel Universe proper. That’s no bad thing, since he’s basically been a square peg in a round hole there ever since he stopped using his “Mercy Rounds” and actually started killing folks.

    Now any version of him will look aenemic next to the Max version, and if they try and bring something akin to that version to the 616 stories, the assembled superheroes of the Marvel U will look like bigger chumps for not stopping him.

  6. The other thing I think worth noting in Ennis’ run, and you did mention this briefly, is that there’s shots of real empathy produced from Frank in roughly every other arc. Certainly, the Punisher at his core is a broken person who has become a killing machine, but that doesn’t remove that sheet of caring for innocent people. A lot of the superheroes surmise that Frank has been doing his thing for so long is because he actually enjoys it, and even Ennis has played with this idea in Marvel Knights. But then there’s scenes in Mother Russia, Up is Down and Black is White, and the final Barracuda arc that shows he’d drop it all just to be with his family again. Yes he is a killer and a monster, but there’s still something in his soul that separates him from other killers, much like Dexter Morgan.

    And David, I’d suggest you give the MAX reboot a shot. I appreciate Jason Aaron’s respect for what Ennis has done, and he’s even referencing Barracuda and other experiences in the first issue. You liked the idea of Frank being pulled out of a cartoon universe and put into a more realistic interpretation, and that’s what is happening to Wilson Fisk and Bullseye here. The characters are going to be reinterpreted for MAX comics and aren’t going to have some inherent plot armor. Bullseye won’t even look the same. Is using these recognizable characters a partial ploy to get more people to read MAX Punisher? Sure. But I wasn’t angry for them bringing in MAX Fury either, as he was awesome.

  7. @Dane: The problem with introducing Kinpin, Bullseye or even Jigsaw into the MAX Punisher is that if the story doesn’t end with Frank standing over their corpses, then you’ve pretty much broken the consistency of the universe. Frank Castle punishes the guilty. That isn’t his fancy codename, it’s his raison d’etre.

    If Aaron actually has the balls to introduce these characters and then brutally slaughter them, then I’ll get the trade and be on board for arc #2.

  8. I agree with you for the most part, David. But I’m also going to have to go with Dane and say that we haven’t seen what Aaron is going to do with these new realistic versions of Kingpin and Bullseye yet. MAX Nick Fury was in The Punisher and he was fine to me too. Aaron has a knack for gritty crime realism as he’s shown in Scalped (not to mention, his Punisher MAX X-mas special last year), so I’m going to put some faith into him before counting it out just yet.

    @Paul Wilson – I don’t think it really takes balls to kill a MAX version of Kingpin or Bullseye as they aren’t 616 proper anyway. That’s like saying it took balls to kill off Beast in the Ultimate U. Once again referencing Scalped, Aaron has no problem killing off anyone.

    Then again, I’m probably one of the few people who enjoy Fraction’s Punisher: War Journal because I don’t really compare it to MAX Punisher. It’s a different Punisher, from a different angle.

  9. so max is it’s own universe? oh God. why can’t we just have the one fictional universe?

  10. @edc: Seriously, it’s better this way. Editors in the past tried to push MAX as something going on in 616, but no one was buying it. Even the current 616 Punisher writer has said that the two characters are separate versions.

  11. Ray Stevenson said last year at SDCC that The Punisher is someone no one should want to be, but we’re damned glad he’s out there. This will stick forever in my head as the byline of Ennis’s Punisher MAX run.

  12. @David Salomon: I’ll still be surprised if they do it. It’s a double-edged sword really: if you bring Bullseye and Kingpin into that world and kill them off in one arc, then what was the point of bringing them in? Why not just use mob boss A and thug B? And if you don’t kill them off, how do you keep Frank looking effective?

    My theory (and fear) is that Aaron will bring them in and attempt to use them as recurring antagonists for Frank, to add more recognisable characters to the mix. And once you do that, how long until that world becomes bascially another Ultimate U, but with more tits and swearing? When can I expect Frank Castle to be dogged by crusading photojournalist Peter Parker?

    MAX Punisher seems to work best with minimal contact with well-worn concepts and ideas. Fury seemed a bit much, but I’ll put that down to it being one of Ennis’ indulgences.

  13. @Paul Wilson: Aaron said it’s going to be something like an 18-part mega arc. In theory, they’ll have enough time to develop in said arc without seeming like random stand-in characters and still be able to die.

    I mean hey, Micro was brought back into MAX and killed in that arc too, and I thought he was portrayed really well in those 6 issues.

  14. @Dane: Yeah, Micro worked ok in that arc because it was a shorthand way of saying “someone who Frank used to work with” without having to lose a lot of momentum to exposition or flashbacks.

    I dunno, I’m just leary of introducing “new takes of ‘beloved’ characters”. It just strikes me as the comics version of Stunt Casting. I prefer this Punisher to have as few links to the Marvel U version as possible, other than a name and a propensity for wearing black with a skull motif.

    Then again, I’ve heard good things about Aaron and I appreciate he probably needed the “stunt” to hook people into buying the relaunch. Who knows, he might even convince me that not only is his story good, but it absolutely couldn’t have existed without the versions of Wilson Fisk and Bullseye.

  15. I’m kinda shocked that they haven’t tried to do a 616 version of Barracuda, honestly…

    I like the idea of a slowly evolving story in the background that culminates properly. Kinda like how the aforementioned Barracuda worked well in both of the storyarcs he was in. There was no real reason for him to be in Long, Cold, Dark. It could have been another random superthug, and the story would have still worked to some degree. But, by using the established character, someone who acts as a reflection of something Frank finds far too similar to himself for comfort, we get a whole other level of complexity added onto the story.

    I doubt that if we see the Kingpin or Bullseye, they’ll be in full costume, with the purple pants and laser cane and super sumo wrestling powers, or the black spandex and killing people with paperclips and such. A Kingpin done similar to the one in Bendis’ Daredevil could work perfectly in a MAX Punisher title, with the caveat that Frank would throw him off a building or put a bunch of rounds in his head at the climax of the story. And I’d imagine that the Bullseye take would be similar to how Rawlins was portrayed in Ennis’ series. The character can work, and while there’s not a huge reason to tack the name onto the character, at the same time, there’s no reason why it can’t work.

  16. True. I can’t read Punisher after Ennis. Maybe the stars will align again before the character’s forgotten but I doubt it.

  17. @edc:
    Because they don’t exist in the MAX universe, genius.