Monday, July 5, 2010

A Punisher Retrospective

In the past week, I've read a lot of issues of the Punisher. For the uninitiated, a quick overview: Frank Castle was a fairly ordinary man who did a tour in Vietnam and came home. His family--wife and two children--were gunned down in the park after they accidentally witnessed a mob shooting. From that day, Castle took the name Punisher and began a one-man war on crime. I'd like to make it clear from the beginning that I don't actually like the Punisher as a character. I'm against capital punishment, for one thing, and I think a zero tolerance policy is naive-- as many characters have pointed out through the years, Punisher isn't fighting a winnable war, he's just rearranging the players. In terms of personality, there's not a lot there--he's actually supposed to be one-note, so obsessed by the war that he can't do anything else that distracts him. The one thing I'll say in his favor is that I prefer him to most depictions with Wolverine, since Marvel doesn't pretend that we're supposed to look at him as a hero. He's a little ways yet from Dexter-level psychopath who kills other psychopaths, but he's not supposed to be part of the world's greatest heroes.

Of course, that means he makes kind of an awkward fit in the Marvel universe proper. First, it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief to believe that a guy that fires bullets is a credible threat against the likes of Doctor Doom--in order to make him fit the rest of the superhero stuff, it usually means that he needs to be significantly upgraded--see either the Angel Punisher era or the current Franken-Punisher run. Second, a guy known for killing his enemies doesn't seem very credible as a threat in a universe where superheroes and villains come back to life on a regular basis. Back around the end of the 90s, interest in Punisher was waning.

Enter Garth Ennis, and the Punisher miniseries of 2000. This 12 issue series was followed by a Marvel Knights series that ran 37 issues, until 2004. The series is probably best described as a black comedy, with some darker undertones. The original miniseries has Punisher taking out multiple gang families and the nearly unstoppable Russian, finally defeated by a toilet to the head and smothering by a morbidly obese man's stomach. (Notice I didn't say it was a particularly highbrow comedy.) But we also see a lot of barbs that Ennis will develop further. First, the miniseries ends with Punisher killing a trio of imitator vigilantes, with the statement that one's a fascist, one's plainly insane, and one's sloppy--killing an innocent makes you guilty. The message you're left with is that Frank's code of honor, such as it is, spares no one, least of all himself.

The Knights run has a number of different plot lines, so I'll go through them briefly. Issues 1-5 has the return of the Russian, reconstituted in the body of a woman, because, well, because men with big boobs are funny. Spider-Man happens along, and after some ineffectual attempts, fails to beat the Russian and is knocked unconscious. The Punisher uses Spider-Man's prone body as a human shield to wear the Russian down, culminating in one of the best scenes of the series:

The storyline wraps up with Punisher chaining the Russian to an atom bomb, blowing up an island of mercenaries, and giving a thinly-silhouetted G. W. Bush a lecture on morality. Moving a little more quickly, #6 is a stand alone where Punisher goes after a serial killer, #7 is a silent issue (no word bubbles), and #8 is by Ron Zimmerman, which means I skipped it.
Ennis returns for issue 13, and we get a number of stories: one where Punisher reunites the crime families so they're more likely to gather in a single place, one where a reporter blackmails Punisher into following him around for a night, one where he "teams up" with Wolverine (ie, drives a steamroller over him, Roadrunner style), and one where Punisher goes on a tour of Belfast. Add some extended storylines including a crooked cops story, a story set in Texas, and one where the Punisher goes underground to fight homeless people led by a psychopath with a fetish for sleeping underneath the remnants of the bodies he devours. (Yes, really, on that last one. It's a veer into outright horror, which is rather rare for the series. The secondary overtone--that we ignore our society's homeless--fits a little better with the series' overall themes.) The series wraps up with "Confederacy of Dunces," in which Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Wolverine teaming up to bring Punisher to justice. That works about as well as you think it would.
The bookend stories of the run--the Spider-Man beat-up and the Dunces team-up--sum up Ennis' feelings concerning superheroes: he thinks they're really, really stupid. Under his hand, Wolverine is a ridiculous caricature of a character, and Spider-Man is, at best, a naive joke. Daredevil gets treated a little better, but largely because he essentially comes to accept Frank's view that the Punisher is a necessary evil. Ennis' distaste for superheroes comes out in other places too. Currently, he's writing "The Boys," which features a world where superheroes have become corrupt assholes, essentially lackeys to the government controlling business corporations. He's also somewhat famous for a "What If" he wrote years ago in which Frank's family is killed in a superhero crossfire rather than a mafia gunning, and Ennis quickly crafts exactly how Punisher would eliminate all those do-gooders once and for all. But the pinnacle of the super-hero commentary is one that's not played for laughs at all--in Hitman 34, the titular character has a long conversation with Superman, assures him that Superman's always been a big inspiration to him, and, as soon as Superman leaves, continues with his task at hand: assassinating a man three buildings away. It's a wonderful summary of what Superman stands for, and what he means, followed by a deconstruction of any meaningful impact in the real world.

The other major theme of the Knights run... well, we'll get to it in a minute. But immediately after Ennis' Knights run, a new run, Punisher MAX, began. The new run distanced itself from super-heroics; the only super-hero who showed up in the series' run was spy-master Nick Fury, whose main demonstrated power was smoking in public places and swearing a lot. Essentially, in the MAX run (60 issues, though it continued on without Ennis for a few more), Ennis admits that the Punisher doesn't work in a superhero universe, and tells some other, more mature-themed stories instead. To offer a sample: there's Punisher vs. corrupt business/government, Punisher vs. the widows of the gangsters he murdered, Punisher in Afghanistan, Punisher destroying a child prostitution ring. And in the process, Ennis uncovers his other two major themes beyond anti-superheroics: Punisher as addict, and Punisher as soldier.

It probably won't surprise you, at this point, to learn that Garth Ennis is well known for his series of war-based comics as well. He's got a lot of titles such as Unknown Soldier, Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, Enemy Ace, and so forth under his belt. Punisher's enemies are often characterized specifically as failures at soldiers: there's the undisciplined, never ending masses of poorly organized mafia goons, the fall-apart discipline of the various mercenary groups, the antipathy of the soldier as represented by the military generals who never saw live combat. The most noble (and often, the most ruthless) of Punisher's enemies are often those who follow soldier codes; the primary example of this type is the Russian general Zakharov, who at one point calls Frank a Russian accidentally born in America. Most critically, though, the Punisher's war on crime is presented as a literal war, and Punisher himself is a perpetual soldier, struggling forever for a battle he can't win.

That in itself is almost noble, and it's necessary to find SOME sympathetic element to Castle's character if you're going to write him at all. But the soldier aspect dovetails into the addict part. Fleshing out Castle's life, Ennis implies it was always about violence. A one shot, "The Tyger," explores Frank's childhood, and "Born" looks at his tour in Vietnam. What both conclude is that the Punisher has always been about violence. As is pointed out by various figures in the MAX series, he can't really claim it's even vengeance that drives him anymore, as he's already killed anyone remotely involved with the original shooting. Rather, he uses his family's death as an excuse to continue fighting. Frank Castle is a man who spent his entire life looking for a war he would never have to stop. And while Ennis raises the issue, he never has the Punisher defend himself from this accusation; first, because any moralizing, for himself included, is outside Frank's nature, but equally because answering the question definitively effectively ends the character. As long as that ambiguity is there, as long as Punisher is pulled between the poles of human revenge and endless battle, you can keep the war on crime going.

Accompanying this soldier ethic is Punisher's moral code: you don't kill innocents. Ever. There is, however, a catch. It's best depicted in the Knights series #15. That's the one that a reporter blackmails the Punisher into letting him tag along for an evening, on the threat that hired goons will kill the Punisher's police connection if he doesn't. Beyond this insurance, the reporter is counting on the fact that he never killed anyone to force Punisher to keep him safe as an innocent. Punisher eventually concludes the night with the reporter's dismembered corpse, and the haunting lines: "Only the bad guys die. What he found out too late was... It never takes much to make the list." This comes up a few times in the MAX series, in different ways. The widows "make the list" because they're ultimately not innocent--their silence made them complicit in their husbands' crimes. Similarly, the first arc of the MAX series has Punisher shooting his former ally Microchip, after the Microchip teams up with an off-the-books government agency that operates through funds raised by drug trafficking. There's a lot of ambiguity in the act--we don't quite know if it's because Microchip crossed the line, or because Punisher is showing some mercy in quickly killing someone dying of a gut wound, or, as Microchip suggests, Punisher is killing him because Microchip knows him too well, that he's the only person left who can engage him on a human level, and avert him from his war.

Though Ennis never quite goes here, the Punisher reminds me of a movie monster. Not the Frankenstein type (though they currently are directly exploring that direction), but the Jason type. Often, there's the same sense of relentless pursuit, of a truly unbeatable foe that Jason elicits. The Jason archetype has always, deliberately or not, followed a long line of horror-based creatures, beings who murder and punish those who transgress outside of the proscribed normative behavior permitted in typical society. In the Jason movies, for example, Jason often goes after sexually promiscious teenagers. Part of the horror comes out of the disproportionate response to the transgression--we don't kill people for hanky panky. In this case, the cure is worse than the disease, and we viewers feel satisfied when the punisher (hmmm, there's that word...) is punished for their own transgressive behavior. Because he punishes something actually monstrous rather than responding disproportionately, it's okay for us to root for the Punisher, to a point, at least. The difference between the Punisher and these monstrous villains is often not in methodology or origin, but simply in the type of transgressions he responds to--and his "list" of guilty and innocent.

Take all of this with a grain of salt--it's my interpretation of Ennis' interpretation of a character. Ennis' take on the Punisher is hardly the one out there either-- Jason Aaron, for example, is currently writing a series that seems to be inspired by the Punisher Knights era, and includes Bullseye to boot. But I'm absolutely amazed that Ennis found so many different facets--part Jason, part Dexter, part Rambo; soldier, addict, monster, person--in a character whose only purpose is to shoot things. So who is Frank Castle, after all is said and done? Well, I'll let General Zakharov explain.

'Nuff said. Later Days.

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