The long, difficult road to liking the Punisher

July 16th, 2011 by | Tags: ,



For a few weeks, I house-sat for a friend of mine who has a floor-to-ceiling shelf of comic trades.  While patiently waiting for his cat to come out from under the bed so I could make sure she was still alive, I picked up a few of those trades and started reading.  I started with a massive Marvel hardcover of Garth Ennis’ original run on the Punisher, before he got the Max title, in part because I remembered David mentioning that a character named Joan returned in the run.

After that, I moved on to the ten Garth Ennis Punisher Max trades that comprise the most celebrated run anyone ever had on Punisher.  (What can I say?  It was a long trip and a shy cat.)  I’ve often repeated a saying about the Punisher that I’ve read online, “The more I read about the Punisher, the less I like him.”  After having read all the most loved Punisher stories, I have to say I finally changed my mind.  I do like the Punisher.  I even kind of like his world, although I expect I’ll have to be sparing with my Punisher reading since there are plenty of things that happen in that world that I don’t want to read about.

When I look at my ongoing reaction to the Punisher, and Punisher stories, I think what bothered me most all along was not the Punisher or his world – which I can read or hear about without having too much of an emotional reaction – but the way he’s sold to me.

When I’ve read Punisher reviews by people who are fans of the comic, I often run across the phrase, “You may not like him,” or “You’re not supposed to like him,” or even “I’m not sure I like him.”  Having read the books, I have to say that all those phrases are weapons-grade crap.  I don’t believe even one of them.  Of course you’re supposed to like the Punisher.  He’s the best fighter, the best tactician, the best judge of character, and the most purely committed to his cause without prejudice.  Oh, and he’s a war hero.  Also, when it comes to taking care not to have any civilian casualties, he’s more careful than specially-trained army and police forces.  He gets visas for mistreated undocumented immigrants.  He has a soft spot for damsels in distress.  In scenes when people are freaking out, he acts as impromptu counselor to get them back on their feet.  And is there a cute little kid?  You bet there is!  She loves the Punisher and hugs his knees and he stands over her for days making sure that she’s safe.  And finally, just for fun, he gives a cantankerous old man in a bar a bottle of the man’s favorite vodka, and makes the bartender treat him with respect.  Of course you’re supposed to like this guy.  And of course you do like this guy.  Don’t try to tell me different.

I’m not complaining about liking him.  Everything I said up there about the Punisher can be applied to Batman, Superman, and any other superhero.  As written by Garth Ennis, the characters who exposit just how great Frank Castle is at everything become well-rounded characters who are interesting to listen to when they speak.  The victims have voices, opinions, and speaking styles instead of predictable lines.  These are actual characters, not just props who stumble in and say whatever lines are needed to set the story in motion.  (Except the little kid.  There is no little kid in any fictional medium that even approximates what an actual child is like.  Maybe that’s because no kid lends his or herself to a coherent story.  They’re still too much like little space aliens come down to earth to fit into anyone else’s plot line.)

The reason you like him is he’s the only character who actually makes sense.  The thesis of the Punisher is set up in the first few pages of the Max storyline.  He recounts the story of his wife and kids being killed by chance during a mob shooting, and says that that was the day when the world went insane.  He finishes up with a line that goes (roughly), “I go out every night and make the world sane.”  If a guy in the real world were to say that with a massive gun in his hand, it would be time to run.  In this world, it’s correct.  People are in agonizing situations for which there is no effective help.  Official channels are clogged with corruption, technical procedure, and the need for public approval.  Unofficial channels are too weak and unprepared to be protection against the threats that face them.  And, over it all, there’s societal ignorance and indifference.

Set against this backdrop are, usually, two main sets of players.  There are villains who wow us with their sadism and evil, and who engage us with their petty prejudices and meanness.  And then there’s team Punisher.  As much as the Punisher is spoken of as a Force of Nature who Works Alone, he’s usually paired up with someone in these books.  Sometimes they’re reluctant to help him in any way.  Sometimes they’re insisting he join them.  Either way, the team up works because there is someone to bounce different ideas and opinions off the character, and draw out different sides of him.  Through these characters we see the Punisher’s philosophy, his disgust, his sense of duty, his more emotional sides, and the large part of him that’s still a soldier in the traditional sense of the word.  By going through these books, beginning and ending with military plots that show the Punisher as a soldier, we get a complete sense of his character, why he’s necessary to this particular world, and how he fits into it.

These are very good stories, which is why the ‘selling’ of the Punisher doesn’t work.  In most of the issues, especially the issue of Max, characters are mostnly wrong to the degree that they disagree with the Punisher.  The more they differ from the Punisher, in situation assessment, personal philosophy, background, taste, and opinion, the worse they are.  Characters the reader is meant to respect – not necessarily like, but admire and trust the judgment of – talk up the Punisher’s professionalism, fighting technique, and personal character.  There are times when the Punisher is unaccountably contemptuous of certain characters.  They turn out to be bad.  There are times when he strangely decides to trust – although characters are careful to say that he never really trusts anyone completely.  They turn out to be good.  He’s perfect.  And yet, the whole world is against him.  Almost everyone resists giving him information.  Almost everyone is morally repulsed by him and feels the need to say so, despite being knee-deep in the proof that he’s the only one who can help.  In one story, the cops all hate him and several of them try to frame him for a crime he never committed.  In the next, a bunch of slain mobsters’ wives complain that the police all love him and won’t move against him.  Everyone is against poor Frank, despite him being the best guy ever.

When I read these stories, I believe that the Punisher is the only person in that world who could adequately deal with the problems that are presented.  I also believe that he doesn’t kill a single innocent person.  In the real world, a guy like this would.  But if he did in comics, the character’s justification would collapse, and I like the character, so I’m willing to believe that he’s meticulous enough to never hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it.  There are plenty of inventive and compassionate characterizations that twist the reader into liking a character they initially hated, or being soured on someone they initially liked.  To have a more crude push towards the Punisher as the be-all and end-all of characters, chopping down other characters or manipulating storylines to get there, feels like a loss of faith in the reader.

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24 comments to “The long, difficult road to liking the Punisher”

  1. I recently read the MAX stuff for the first time as well and you NAILED it.

    I think the main reason people don’t want to root for the Punisher or say they don’t is because he doesn’t do the typical things that Action Movie protagonists do to win you over, no one-liners, no quips when down on luck Frank is that guy stripped of all the comedy that is put in to get people to be on his side, even after they are done reading it.

    Did you get to The Punisher: The End, because that is the farthest that he pushes it and man does he push it.

  2. “There is no little kid in any fictional medium that even approximates what an actual child is like.”

    I always thought Calvin came pretty darn close.

  3. This was a great piece; it accurately gets why I kind of got tired of Ennis’ take on the character (And tired of Ennis for other reasons).

  4. I love when people “get”the Punisher. Ennis did (not the “Welcome, Back Frank” stuff, which seemed to play with the black comedy parameters of Frank Castle).

    Aaron seems to get Frank, although the “the I actually wanted the mob hit in the park to happen” puts an distaste (ironic using the word when talkin about Frank but it fits) spin on the origin.

    That’s why the “Frankencastle” 616 stuff drove me nuts. So what if he’s an “regular” human in a superhuman world? That’s what makes it so cool. Write some interesting, creative stories around that premise!

    Seeing how he dealt with Frank in his Daredevil run, Brubaker’s upcoming series is a must read for me.

    As you can tell, I like the Punisher. 🙂

  5. I meant “distasteful”.

  6. Great article. I’d actually like to see your take on some of the more fantastical Punisher stories like the recent Rick Remender run on the character and Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher (not to be confused with Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe).

    I’m one of the people you’re probably talking about in the quotes from Punisher reviews paragraph. My take on him is that you’re supposed to like him… to a point, which makes the disagreements stick out even more. On the surface, he’s pretty amazing, but the further you go down the rabbit hole, the more you see him as just a bad guy who we’re lucky enough to find going after more morally bankrupt targets. He’s got quirks that are easy to make us follow him, but so does Rorschach and he wanted to destroy the world due to his personal code. Which, now that I think about it, is the plot of Punisher: The End.

    Ennis succeeds in giving us some of the most terrible villains, which is great since there are times when Frank is so unbeatable that you find yourself rooting for the bad guy until you see how much they deserve to die. Ennis cuts Frank’s work out for him to such extremes that it’s hard not to get behind him. At the same time, Frank is going after who HE believes deserves it. You aren’t going to agree with him 100% on that and therein lies the problem because while we can appreciate Frank’s honesty in what he is, we can’t always appreciate how stubborn he can be in the wrong situation.

    Frank’s kill count is in the quadruple digits, easily. Can you really say that all of those people deserved it? I’m sure a lot of them deserved to be arrested, but execution? Were they THAT irredeemable? Did every single person on that boat need to get eaten by sharks because of one corrupt man’s speech in the Barracuda story? It’s all black and white with no gray when it comes to him. It’s even shadier in the 616 world where Frank isn’t always the protagonist, like in the comic Runaways where our teenage heroes were pretending to be criminals and Frank had little qualms trying to punish them.

    @Urbanguy: That’s why the “Frankencastle” 616 stuff drove me nuts. So what if he’s an “regular” human in a superhuman world? That’s what makes it so cool. Write some interesting, creative stories around that premise!

    Frankencastle was an interesting, creative story and if you didn’t want that, then you could read Punisher MAX for an interesting, creative story about Frank not having bolts in his neck. It wasn’t the only game in town.

  7. You are supposed to like the Punisher in the sense you think he is overall doing the right thing, and is a good guy at the end of the day. You aren’t supposed to like him in the sense that you would ever want to be his friend or hang out with him. That’s how I think of it at least.

  8. @Gavok: agree to disagree okay?

    I’ll take grounded 616 crime comics about Frank doing his non-powered vigilante schtick in a super-powered world over oddball “616 Punisher shouldn’t exist so what the heck” stories any day.

    IMHO, “Frankencastle” appeals to people who were blasé about the Punisher in the first place. Spider-man’s been through some goofy-ass stuff that we endure (and may enjoy) but we all know that his status quo will be restored.

    Even if the character goes through some “let’s try some wacky stuff” type shenanigans, Punisher fans shouldn’t be shunted off to MAX just because some have the mindset that classic Frank doesn’t belong in 616.

    Brubaker’s stuff will be interesting no doubt.

  9. …uh, Greg Rucka’s writing Punisher, not Brubaker. Speaking as an inveterate Rucka hater… I’m actually looking forward to it.

  10. @Urbanguy: I’ll take grounded 616 crime comics about Frank doing his non-powered vigilante schtick in a super-powered world over oddball “616 Punisher shouldn’t exist so what the heck” stories any day.

    Nothing about Frankencastle said that 616 Punisher shouldn’t exist. Especially since it was in a run that featured him being his normal self for a year before and six months after. The whole concept was character vs. concept. Is he the Punisher because he’s wearing a black shirt with a skull on it and is killing a pile of mafia goons every day? Or is he the Punisher because of his behavior and actions? As Remender put it, Frankencastle isn’t out of character because of Frank being unable to control his circumstances. It’s how he reacts afterwards that’s important.

    Besides, it was incredibly fun.

    IMHO, “Frankencastle” appeals to people who were blasé about the Punisher in the first place. Spider-man’s been through some goofy-ass stuff that we endure (and may enjoy) but we all know that his status quo will be restored.

    I disagree in that it’s about being tired of the old. It’s more about being interested in something new. Those aren’t mutually exclusive. And how is this different from your Spider-Man example? Everyone knew from day one that Frank would be alive again without much of a wait. It only took a year.

    Even if the character goes through some “let’s try some wacky stuff” type shenanigans, Punisher fans shouldn’t be shunted off to MAX just because some have the mindset that classic Frank doesn’t belong in 616.

    Two for me, none for you. Got it.

    [Rucka]’s stuff will be interesting no doubt.

    That I can agree on.

  11. @Dan Coyle: D’oh. Always mix the two dudes up. Meant Rucka. 🙂

    @Gavok: Again, agree to disagree dude. It’s not that serious.

    I still maintain that “Frankencastle” goes outside of the character parameters, much like having “Punisher as an supernatural angel” or “Punisher in Space! Fighting the Kree!” would be. For me at least. I’m speaking as a long time fan of the classic grounded Pun.

    Loved Punisher from Circle of Blood to the classic Baron run. Stopped reading when Frank got overexposed and stories got crappy. I suspect this is the Punisher that many people know and take issue with.

    Loved the later Ennis MAX Punisher but love seeing Baronesque Pun used in 616. The great thing about comics is that if you don’t like a particular take on a character, rest assured that something you like will eventually come around.

  12. @Urbanguy:

    I’d like for you to read something that I scanned out of the issue it was Rick Remender answering a letter in the letter column that sounds EXACTLY like where you are coming from.


    FrankenCastle is IMO the best example of a Marvel Universe story with the Punisher because it doesn’t shy away from the fact that it takes place in the Marvel Universe.

  13. @Rick Vance: Yes, I read that when it came out.

    I’m not trying to come across as some rigid fanboy who thinks his version or idea of a character is the only one that should exist my friend.

    My mindset is more like: “Frank as Frankenstein? Eh, I’ll pass. More power to those that like it though.”

    That is, maybe it was the execution (and art) that turned me off rather than the actual concept. In my earlier post, I alluded to “Punisher in space fighting the Kree.” Thinking about it, that could be a really cool story depending on the execution.

    Like I said, when I don’t like something (I’m looking at you Hudlin Black Panther) I simply stop reading and catch up when something I like comes around. Grounded crime comic 616 Punisher works for me is all.

  14. @Rick Vance: Is that the one that’s set after nuclear armageddon?

    @Gavok: I thought that Runaways comic was by Joss Whedon, who publicly stated that he hated the Punisher. For me, that was a little like the Ennis run when Wolverine and Daredevil were made to be idiots so the Punisher would look good. (It was pretty funny, though.)

    @David Bitterbaum: I think it’s more the reverse – he’s never going to want to sit down and have a beer with you. Or anyone, really. I think plenty of people would like to sit down with him, but that’s not going to happen.

  15. Funny that this comes on the heels of the equally insightful look here at All-Star Batman and the parallels are striking. I liked Ennis on Punisher Max and hated, despite the case being made for him, Miller on All-Star Batman. Ennis succeeds because of the “well-rounded characters” who don’t recite “predictable lines.” The villains are not the cartoon muggers in alleys but can be “regular” people who exploit or simply do nothing. Both Batman and Punisher are forces of nature but Ennis created a work of some weight where Miller is guilty of a more grimy version of the same lazy “suit me up Uncle Alfred” scripting Joel Schumacher was vilified for. Thanks for reminding me why the Ennis run was a good one and, head-to-head the better one.

  16. You don’t have to lie to us. We know you drugged the cat’s food so you could stay and read those comics.

    Eh, i guess it’s all your perspective on ‘right/wrong’ etc.

    While I enjoyed Ennis’ run on the Punisher, I can’t say I cared for the character that much. I more enjoyed the aesthetics and the overall madness of it all. I guess it depends on how you like your heroes.

    To me, the Punisher had a bland personality. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have one, but it was more of one I just didn’t care for.

    Maybe it’s just nostalgia from my childhood, but I love the early Wolverine stuff by Claremont, while he’s in Mandripoor putzing around and getting into trouble with no name mutants and thugs.

    The Punisher is a sociopath. Not a complete one, but he’s out there, nearing Ted Bundy on the spectrum. I find that just boring. I get we are supposed to feel sorry for him to a degree, empathize with him, feel his justification. But it’s all so corny and over the top, i can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it.

    Just another take on it.

  17. @Esther Inglis-Arkell: Whedon has said, I believe in 2004, “If I ran Marvel, the first thing I’d do is kill the Punisher. If you tell me he doesn’t kill innocent people, that’s fascist.”

    Funnilyy, if I ran Marvel, the first thing I’d do is retcon AXM out of existence. Fa fa fa!

  18. @Dan Coyle: Well, I guess we know why Whedon isn’t running Marvel. That seems strange to me, though. Pretty much all superheroes are fascist. Batman and his batfriends trample on individual rights, surveilling people, torturing them, threatening them, and breaking into their houses and then turn the evidence over to the state. Tony Stark is pretty dictatorial, and uses his friends, sometimes in the military, to take down those who threaten his business empire. Cap is the result of experimentation by the state to make a supersoldier to serve the interests of the state.

  19. Personally, I always found Frank to be a bore of a character who needs the MU to play off his one-dimensional VENGEANCE, like Remender showcased, or “Welcome Back Frank”. The eternal straight man to the greater MU’s colorful wackiness(“We had a team-up. You were great”).

    I mean, Frank Castle isn’t the kind of guy who’s gonna see any kind of real character development because the nature of his character.The only thing you can really change is HOW he goes about killing people(Frank Castle…but as a black guy! Frank Castle…but as a angel! Frank Castle…but as Frankenstein’s Monster!). He doesn’t have a real supporting cast that’s stuck over the years, no Jim Gordon or Alfred or Foggy Nelson that have permanent spots in the roster. To my knowledge, I’ve never seen him have any real love interest after his wife died. He doesn’t have any of that “they’re people just like you!” kind of appeal/relatability that drove the popularity of other Marvel characters like Spider-Man and the X-men, who grow and have relationships with other characters over time.

    No, Frank Castle does ONE thing, and one thing only: he fucks people up. Which, hey, that’s ok in small doses(like his original mini-series or his original appearances as a villain), but I think that’s a veeery thin premise to build a series on without falling into formula(which, for all of Ennis’ talent, even the most fervent fans would admit the series did).

    I thought Aaron was on the right track, focusing the first two stories on the far more interesting, colorful bad guys then good ol’ Frank, but then he drops a bomb of a story idea near the end of the “Bullseye” plot, and its totally carried what should’ve been just another “Frank in Jail” story arc into something with some real narrative power.

    tl;dr version: Uh…Frank Castle. Thought he was kinda boring, but Jason Aaron shut me the hell up. Also, Frankencastle was awesomeness.

  20. “When I read these stories, I believe that the Punisher is the only person in that world who could adequately deal with the problems that are presented.”

    That’s what sold me on the MAX version of the character. In the real world, we *do* have people like the group in The Slavers. They’re depressingly easy to find yet the real world is completely lacking a Punisher who will set their leaders on fire like they deserve.

    Punisher MAX is a far better character than the other versions because the other versions always deal with weirdos who wear their undies on the outside. Ennis’ MAX Punisher provided an outlet for frustrations over the lack of punishment for the bad people in the real world. Just like Superman did back in the 30s or Dirty Harry in the 70s.

    I’m hoping for a Banker-Slapping Man to show up soon.

  21. @Dan Coyle: Since AXM is, so far, the only consistently interesting and engaging post-Morrison X-book, gotta disagree with you about that retcon thing.

  22. Sorryn that should be “Whedon’s AXM”. Ellis’ AXM didn’t do it for me.

  23. @Prodigal: Well, we can agree on Sellout McSelloutyton’s run. Astonishing X-Men must be the first book in comics history where Daniel Way taking over is an improvement.

    Actually, I wouldn’t bother retconning AXM, because it’s so sloppily put together it can be handwaved away easily- hell, Mike Carey didn’t even bother to try and square Whedon’s character destruction of Prof. X in “Dangerous” when he got around to cleaning up that mess.

    But back to the Punisher, I think a Punisher you like, and maybe sometimes agree with, is far more scarier, and interesting, than a Punisher that’s a jerk.

    I didn’t like Franken-Castle myself, not because I didn’t like the concept, it’s that Remender’s execution was pretty dull (although likely hampered by editorial getting cold feet), Moore couldn’t keep the art consistent and the fill-ins were way too dissonant. I’m not much of a Remender fan in general. Most of his stuff seems way too lazy.

  24. @Dan Coyle: “Dangerous” wasn’t character destruction, though – aside from the whole occasionally-recurring thing where Xavier’s Id took physical form and tried to kill the entire team (Onslaught wasn’t the first time this happened, just the more recent), Xavier was presented as ruthless and manipulative from the beginnings of the Lee/Kirby run. Numerous stories from the first couple of years of the book had him solve the problems the team faced by mindwiping people, and let’s not forget the whole “I made you think I was dead” thing he pulled on his students way back when.

    As for the Punisher … My ability to like him goes in cycles. When he first started to really blow up in the late 80s/early 90s, I thought he was cool, but then when he was in every third issue of everything Marvel put out, I got burned out on him. It took “Welcome Back, Frank” to make me like him again, but then they started having other heroes job out to him, and I went back to being burned out.

    That being said, I think the way they wrote him in the War Zone movie was amazingly good, if only because the actor playing him sold it so well.