The Punisher doesn’t work. Obviously he does work in some surface manner, the character has been in near constant publication since his first appearance in 1974, and he’s got the full franchise treatment (movies, TV show, a surprisingly decent arcade game). Nevertheless, pretty much any attempt to use him seriously, to try and comment on American crime or on the place of vigilantism in society or reaction to personal tragedy has been a dud. The concept can’t take it (which is not to say the stories can’t entertain as adrenaline injection).
Whatever arguments the series has to make on the subject of vigilantism are rooted in the perverted notion that the real problem with American law-enforcement is that cops are too nice. Whatever point it can make in response to trauma is lost in the fact that Frank’s wife and children exist only to die, to motivate him, they are not characters in any way, shape or form. Neither he nor the readers can mourn for them. There is, however, one glaring exception to the Punisher problem. One writer who has made it work on a level other than the puerile; and that writer is Garth Ennis.
This might be surprising to some. Partly because a lot of Ennis’ work is (intentionally) puerile, and partly because his history with corporate-owned properties, especially those with superhero tinge, is very much unflattering. Quite possibly Ennis himself is more surprised than most, but in the grim figure of Frank Castle, soldier and mass murderer, he has found his voice. That is because Ennis doesn’t write about vigilantism, or personal trauma; Ennis writes about America, about a country that exists in a constant state of war but wants to pretend that nothing happens within its shores.
Start the Violence
Garth Ennis has been writing the punisher, on and off, for over twenty years now. Through several imprints (Marvel Universe, Marvel Knights, Max) and working with over a dozen artists (including such luminaries as Steve Dillon, John Severin and Goran Parlov); and through it all he transformed the Punisher from just another vigilante, a shameless rip-off of genre made popular in 1970’s fiction, into something far bigger and more meaningful. He obviously didn’t start with this intention.
The first collected edition of his initial storyline, Welcome Back Frank, is as far away from meaningful as possible – a combo of over-the-top action with even-more-over-the-top comedy (the infamous page of the Punisher siccing a polar bear on a mobster comes from that series). Ennis’ opening essay in that collection basically positions the idea of finding any deeper theme in his Punisher work as inherently ridiculous. ‘It’s just dumb entertainment’ he tells us. A direct descendant of that famous Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opening: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
How far did he come away from that? In “Valley Forge, Valley Forge”, the final storyline of his ongoing run on Punisher Frank Castle Max (issues #55-60) the plot stops every couple of pages to interject pages from a non-fiction book written by an unseen character, Michael Goodwin. Michael Goodwin is the brother of a soldier, Archie, who served with Frank in Vietnam, and died during Frank’s final battle before discharge. In his attempt to understand the events that led to death of his brother, and to the birth of The Punisher Michael interviews several people, which brings us to this quote, from a comic-book published by a subsidiary of Disney Inc.:
“Our young people grow up knowing levels of despair and frustration that you simply cannot imagine – and if they do not want to live in poverty, or to deal drugs, what other choice do they have? Well, well, look who’s waiting to welcome them with open arms; whether it was the draft in the 60’s or the recruiters today, just look who’s waiting to snap them up.”
This isn’t a joke, or a gag. This is Ennis being deadly serious. Not about the fictional character he’s writing, but about the United States as a whole. This is what Ennis got that others didn’t, or did understand and couldn’t express in their writing, the Punisher isn’t ‘about’ vigilantism. It’s about American power, and the way the violence America perpetrates outside its borders comes back inside.
Superhero conflict was always this endless amorphous thing, Superman waged his “Neverending battle for truth, justice and the American way,” and any Marvel reader learns about ‘the illusion of change.’ Events exist on constant repeat without hope of ever shifting the status quo, because the status quo is what allows the series to exist. But in the context of the Punisher these same notions, a conflict that could never be resolved and constantly calls for escalation, gets a newer, bleeker and more relevant, moniker: The Forever War. War on crime, war on drugs, war on terror… a fight against abstract concepts.
In the end of Punisher: Born, a four issue miniseries written by Ennis and drawn by Darick Robertson which chronicles Frank’s final tour of duty in Vietnam, Frank makes a deal with something. A deal that allows him not only to survive the carnage that consumes every other soldier in the base but will also provide him with what he truly craves – a war that will not end. Is it truly supernatural or just something in his head? Unimportant. Or rather, as far as Ennis the writer seems to be concerned, the two are the same. In Vietnam Frank Castle was transformed, not into some dangerous elite killer (he was already that), but into a Myth. That most American of myths, the one about war that needs to be fought for eternity.
Just as the United States will play the role of ‘world’s policeman,’ without answering to any other power or authority, so will Frank Castle play the role of America’s policeman. Frank Castle isn’t just a person, he’s the notion that this isn’t simply crime but a war on the streets. A war that cannot be won, only fought. A war that becomes its own self-perpetuating self-feeding engine. The Punisher isn’t trying to help people, though he occasionally does, nor does he truly set out to punish evil doers. He does what he does out of sheer inertia.
This is exactly how Smedley Butler— the gentleman quoted in opening of this article and one the most decorated soldiers in the Marine Corps history– described war: war is a business, the military is a corporation. Like any good corporation, it needs to show constant growth (more bullets, more missiles, bodies) and seeks to safeguard its own existence. The driving force of Batman is to make a world that doesn’t need Batman; the driving force of the Punisher (under Ennis) is to keep the war going.
In Fury: My War Gone By, Written by Ennis and drawn by Goran Parlov, Nick Fury recruits Frank Castle to assassinate a Vietcong general (issues #7-9). When said general instead captures the two of them and reveals he has the means to end the war sooner Castle becomes even more intent on killing him. He has his reasons, his personal justifications, but the simple fact is that he cannot envision a world in which he does not wage a war of some sorts. There’s always a reason, always an excuse, always a cause for war. The military-industrial complex, the one Eisenhower warned about, isn’t some evil hidden conspiracy, it’s a simple appliance of the profit motive to act of war – if there’s money to be had someone is going to try and make it. Stop the war, stop the flow of money (to these particular pockets).
The only hypothetical end Ennis can conceive to his version of the character can be found in the magnificently nihilistic Punisher: The End one shot, drawn with evil glee by Richard Corben. In it, Frank — now old and grey— makes his way to the bunker keeping the last remnant of humanity after a nuclear war (namely the rich and powerful). When they tell him they are the only hope for the continuation of the human race, and that he thus must forgive their sins, he kills them all and then goes to the roof to burn slowly. “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism,” they say. The only imagined end to the Punisher’s war, to America’s wars, is the end of humanity.
On the Inside
In her 2008 book Bring The War Home, about the rise various White Power movements in the United Stated, author Kathleen Bellow recognizes the importance of the Vietnam War in the development these extremists racist organizations. The war taught many of the future leaders and participants of these movements how to wield their weapons (and how to teach others to wield them); but, more importantly, it also gave them a story.
[Louis Beam] brought many things home with him: his uniforms, virulent anticommunism, and hatred of the Viet Cong. He brought home the memory of death and mutilation sealed in heavy-duty body bags. He brought home racism, military training, weapons proficiency, and a readiness to continue fighting. His was a story about government betrayal, soldiers left behind, and a nation that spat upon his service and would never appreciate his sacrifice.
Indeed, he brought home the war as he fought it, and dedicated his life to urging others to “bring it on home.”
Bellow’s book recognizes that the same strength that made the United States secured from an invasion by an outside force, also made it extremely vulnerable inside. A people so secure from danger they cannot conceive of it, utterly separated from what happens outside their own borders. As Abraham Lincoln put it: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reaches us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
Bellows’ preoccupation with the ‘myth’ surrounding Vietnam is important, this myth is the story people tell to themselves, the way they explain the explainable (how the mighty America was defeated in a war by a tiny speck of a nation). Ennis is also preoccupied with the place of Vietnam as myth, the way it superseded previous myths about the American soldier. In one interview from Michael Goodwin’s book a former soldier begins to rant how he wanted Vietnam to be like his father’s war (World War II), that he wanted to be a liberator and a hero in the eyes of the world; and instead he found himself playing a villain. Bombing women and children.
Ennis doesn’t really believe that World War II was a clean war, he knows enough to understand that no war is clean (see War Stories: J for Jenny). But he recognizes the importance of it as an idea, something to strive for. World War II had a clear purpose and a known end. Every war that the United States waged since then seemingly had none, the military muddled in the Vietnam mud and the soul of the nation muddled with it. Except, of course, there was a purpose. There were profits to be had.
The final villains in Ennis’ Punisher Max run are not mobsters or drug dealers or some foreign cartel. Instead, it is the United States first army. Physically, it is a group of Delta Force operators sent to hunt him down, knowing Castle would have a hard time shooting at people he considers ‘good guys.’ But it’s the people above them that are the actual villains of the piece, a group of corrupt Generals that want to silence Frank least he tells someone about their previous act of mass murder. Said mass murder, a fake terrorist attack on Moscow meant to distract Russian authorities while they steal new lab-made virus, was part of a desire to secure their prosperity post-retirement, to get consultant jobs in various private firms.
What Ennis’ run on the Punisher recognizes is that war is business and crime is a business than the distance between the two is shrinking to non-existent. When Colonel Howe, the man sent to capture Castle, says that the military isn’t a corporation “But we have traditions. We have history. We embody certain ideals, integral to our nation’s honor.” He’s lying to himself, at least a little. Corporations also have history and ideals after all. The generals aren’t aberration, Howe is the aberration – a man of honor in a fallen world. Ennis would probably want to be Howe, he wants to believe these generals are a mistake (the rotten appeals); but he can’t (war is a business, the whole barrel is rotten).
Ennis has always been a writer preoccupied with myth, you can see it all the way to Preacher’s obsession with cowboys, and through his run on The Punisher he examined the biggest most American myth of them all: more than even superheroes, America’s biggest export is war and the American G.I, whose boots have trodden on seemingly every land.
“They’ll blame it on Vietnam. And They’ll be right. And They’ll be wrong.”
The final piece of the puzzle is The Punisher: The Tyger. A one shot story about Frank’s childhood in a neighborhood dominated by gangsters. Drawn by John Severin, he was eighty five at the time (!) and still blows the competition out of the water, it’s a surprisingly small and intimate story about a boy who loves poetry. Ennis shows here the skills he is rarely celebrated for, amidst the black humor and action, the ability to craft character through conversation; to let these fictional people and their world build themselves up in front of our eyes. It almost could’ve been an independent play.
It’s also something bigger, a story about evil and the monster that exists within the human heart. Because Vietnam isn’t the disease that killed ‘America the Good,’ despite what some of the characters throughout various Punishers would like to believe. It is just a symptom. War was there before, and war would be there after. And as long as there is war there’s going to be that racket. The corporations mentioned in the opening quote, that bit from The Punisher: Born, some of them are weapons manufacturers, but that’s not all that they do. Monsanto is an agricultural company… that also makes white phosphorus for the military. Because as long as there is profit to be had in America, someone is going to go for it.
Vietnam made Frank Castle into the Punisher. But America laid these foundations long before. That war was always going to come home.