The recent congressional elections in the US made me think of The Punisher. Not that he’d ever make an effective politician (though way crazier things have happened to him in the Marvel Universe), but you can’t really regard The Punisher without regarding his politics. The Punisher debuted in The Amazing Spider-Man # 129 (cover-dated February 1974) and sports the iconic cover of a yellow background: Frank Castle taking aim at Spider-Man in his crosshairs, bullets causing bricks to explode on either side of Spidey as the hero does a back flip from the building’s wall.
Writer Gerry Conway intended the character to be a second tier character, something akin to Mack Bolan, Don Pendleton‘s character in The Executioner paperbacks. Perhaps the character became popular because he was the closest Marvel came to the seedier, grittier urban environments portrayed in films of the seventies. Vigilantism certainly seems to have been a popular topic of the time, as evidenced by films like Deathwish and the proliferation of Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation films.
That being said, the Punisher doesn’t become a major commercial force at Marvel until the eighties – antiheroes like Wolverine and The Punisher became the new cash cows and appeared as guests to be shoehorned in. The eighties, a time of conspicuous consumption and materialism under the aegeis of the Regan years in the US, and the publicizing of his War on Drugs, provides the soil for the Punisher to flourish. He kills criminals and thugs and hoods and goons, an endless array of drug dealers and gang members and mafioso types, most of them disposable and indistinct. Sometimes there are women in the stories, but they’re transitory and have little romantic or lasting value. The Punisher is not sexless, but the real sex undeniably being offered by the comics are shootouts with bad guys, the eruption of firepower supplanting ejaculation, our antihero’s success supplanting emotional doubt.
I think the first time I saw the Punisher might have been on the Mike Zeck drawn Marvel Tales covers, the issues reprinting his appearance in earlier Spider-Man issues. Even in Grade Seven, this artist had a great effect upon me and the Punisher’s unique design, the white skull on black cloth, the belt of bars which served to give the skull a row of feral teeth, and the glowing white boots and white gloves were all mesmerizing to a twelve year old. Frank Castle’s stocky face, severe expression, and thinning, yet defiant, shock of hair telegraphed that he was a singular character, unlike his Marvel contemporaries. It didn’t hurt that Zeck’s skill at composition and dramatic detail impressed the images upon your brain. Around that time, I bought the issues with the Punisher’s contemporary appearance in The Spectacular Spider-Man, the ones that featured Tombstone, drawn by Sal Buscema. I was quickly buying the trade paperback of the limited series (Circle of Blood by Steve Grant and Mike Zeck and John Beatty and co.), back issues of the regular series, and any key appearances I could afford. The Punisher had become my favourite character.
The introduction in the old edition of the trade paperback of Circle of Blood drew a connection between the Punisher and films like Lethal Weapon and The Terminator and other violent action films which were in vogue at the time. There was a deeper connection which the introduction hadn’t seized on that might have drawn the Punisher back to films like Deliverance, Taxi Driver, and The Deer Hunter, though the comics never really achieved that level of pathos or troubled times. To a kid in Grade Seven, the Punisher was simply a cool and effective new hero that seemed more grown up, more exciting than the traditional costumed types. He was effective and got the job done and though I didn’t know it at the time, paid inheritance to a strong NRA-esque law enforcement tradition with forebears like John Wayne and Dirty Harry.
The Punisher was a right-wing response to sensibilities regarding crime and the horrors of urbanization. He was of course silly (Alan Moore mocked him slightly with a character called The Admonisher in the Violator mini-series) and had been given his moniker by Stan Lee (I think Conway intended to call him ‘The Assassin’). Who constructed The Punisher’s costumes anyway – did Frank Castle possess sartorial skills? While Robert De Niro’s turns as a Vietnam war vet embodied the horror and defeat of the American experience, the inability to fit the trauma of war into a human shaped box, the Punisher embodied the American need for self-certainty and righteousness, a sawed off shotgun blast to the gut of social decay.
Vietnam was only a name to me at the time, and I had less than zero interest in politics and history (thankfully, that’s changed since). The bad people were involved in drugs and The Punisher took care of them. And by ‘taking care’, I mean he destroyed them. As technical and gritty as he was, I don’t think I would have liked The Punisher quite as much if he didn’t have the costume – if he dressed in an entirely black jump suit, say, or wore military camouflage or dressed like Schwarzenegger in Commando – it would have been too alienating. It was the suit that conferred upon him an identity (he was the manifestation of Death, its finality and implacability), making him seem unique and attractive at the same time. Even the melodramatic tragedy of his origin story (family killed by the mob) was seductive, making The Punisher analagous to Batman, but deadlier than Batman, and therefore sexier in those pubescent years.
In earlier times, The Punisher had been more of a springy type, leaping across buildings with a gun slung over his shoulder, swinging from fire escapes, and jumping down into alleys, despite the age signified by Castle’s hairline. The character looked like he was in his early forties. When Mike Zeck inherited the character during the tenure of the limited series, he continued this springy athleticism, the character constantly leaping, jumping, and bounding in enervated fits of agitation and fury. And the white gloves and boots and stylized skull remained front and centre during the Zeck issues – they were definitely key to The Punisher’s iconography. The mystique of The Punisher seemed to lie somewhere between the costumery of his wardrobe and the realism of his arsenal. We could only believe that he could do what he did because he wore the costume, its rubbery glow and plastic fantasy accentuating the gritty escapades he survived. The Punisher’s actual doubts and supposed trauma were pushed off far to the wide margins in order to keep the hunting and killing of criminals front and centre.
Any reflections upon his outsider status and psychological state were fleeting and thin, sporadic afterthoughts that were rarely sustained and grown from one issue to the other. With the first unlimited series, which was rendered through charcoal strokes and cloudy lines by Klaus Janson, The Punisher stopped jumping around buildings, relied on his battle van more and more; the stories gained an increasingly violent and utilitarian quality despite being set in the Marvel Universe. The Punisher’s m.o. and ethos were quickly normalized through the addition of his friend and ally, Microchip, and the consistent use of the Punisher war journal. Originally used to convey exposition, the Punisher’s war journal (his personal diary, which sounds ridiculous as I type the words) became the standard for narration in his comics. The journal, his interior voice, increasingly eschewed reflection and introspection (the standard themes and content of a personal diary) for the fetishization of resolve, action, and hardware. The Punisher became an Ayn Rand figure. Thus, readers were led to identify with his interiority, thin as it was, and his motivations and p.o.v. were no longer questioned. The Punisher was no longer an outsider because his outlook was sutured into the reader’s identification through that most indelible of technologies – the written word.
It was perhaps inevitable therefore that they would move away from the bright black suit and the glowing white skull and gloves. They kept the skull because they couldn’t completely do away with it but the Jim Lee issues on The Punisher War Journal brought packs and pouches, combat boots, trenchcoats and jackets. Extra knives and weaponry were added to the gear, the practical was favoured over the symbolic. Soon, the costume would be dropped completely for a t-shirt or some kind of black shirt that simply had a crude skull spray painted upon it. After Garth Ennis took over, the Punisher eventually became a hulking mass, too bulky to leap and spring, basically an unshorn guy in a leather jacket.
In high school, I would tire of The Punisher in the same way I tired of conventional superheroes before him. Marvel pimped him out as often as they possibly could and this removed any edge and dignity he’d possessed. The stories lost interest for me. Any sustainable human themes (such as the death of Microchip’s son) were simply tossed aside, rarely lasting more than one or two issues. As I started thinking about the politics inherent in his comics, I could no longer suture myself into the stories. I became interested in Frank Miller‘s comics and Daredevil became my new favourite character, his pained and tortured sensitivity much more appealing to my adolescent angst.
Part of Miller’s Daredevil run was the Child’s Play storyline where Miller adroitly pitted Daredevil against The Punisher due to their politics, a template that’s been repeated again and again in subsequent iterations. The Miller reading, though older, was the first one that really employed The Punisher’s extreme political stance while at the same time defining what was cool and seductive about his intense potency and deadly efficacy. A Freudian symbol, sex sublimated to death, and inflexible as they come. I always thought that if Miller hadn’t been drawn to DC by Jeanette Khan, The Punisher would have been a suitable venue to develop and discover the explorations and innovations he examined in The Dark Knight Returns. With each year, I’m more sure of it – there exists an alternate timeline where Miller stays with Marvel and puts out a prestige format mini-series of The Punisher which deconstructs the comics world through the Punisher’s opposition to a repressive state and left wing values, with all the fascism and vigilantism inherent in The Dark Knight Returns.
The first Punisher unlimited series ended around the time I finished high school. I’m sad to say it but I couldn’t have cared less. It seemed that mainstream comics had headed in the worst direction possible, completely eschewing artistic value and integrity to make a quick buck. The faked death of Superman, the Spider-Man clones, Batman getting his back broken, the Hulk’s multiple-personality merger, and on and on and on – they all seemed like sensational gimmicks and faked events, appealing to speculators. Marvel attempted the same treatment on The Punisher by making him black. Yes, by making him appear African-American through the wonders of plastic surgery. There were a couple of issues involving The Punisher palling around with a de-suited Luke Cage that were truly horrible. I could only read a few panels, couldn’t manage an entire issue. Tone deaf and shockingly insensitive in what were still racially troubled times in America, the genius notion obviously bombed and Marvel quickly made Castle revert to his white appearance. It’s too bad because once they’d made the brazen decision to make Castle black, they had the chance to confront the flagrant racism and frame outlook of the war-on-drugs years. Unlike gender bending which often proved interesting in cultural works from Shakespeare to The Crying Game, race remained a topic that media wasn’t assured enough to play with.
I never really read The Punisher again after that. I read some of the Garth Ennis issues because people raved about them, but they weren’t really for me. I didn’t see anything new or innovative or engaging in them. Despite his failed and uncoordinated movies, The Punisher would eventually gain traction through the Netflix Daredevil show and then get his own TV series. I love the actor who plays him, Jon Bernthal, but I won’t watch the show. Besides not having interest, I can see that the costume is gone, the character is no longer middle aged, and I would hazard a guess that he’s no longer a Vietnam vet. Maybe he’s a Desert Storm or Afghanistan vet – I don’t really know – but somehow I doubt it. All the old tensions, no matter how unsubtle, have been blurred into a blotch of angst and violence. The current Punisher seems to come out of the neo-fascination with paramilitary survivalist types and it seems like a scarier time than when we were just lamenting the loss of innocence in Vietnam. Perhaps Trump’s election and The Punisher’s popularity on TV have some psycho-social connection, some rise of ultra-right wing sentimentality in the zeitgeist. If it wasn’t for the calibre of the art on some of that early Punisher stuff, especially the work of Mike Zeck, I wouldn’t have any fondness or nostalgia for it at all.
Even if you reject the ideology, that’s the thing about the art – it stays with you and gets you every time.