The Popular Appeal of the Punisher: Violence and Vengeance
As comic book writers have sought to appeal to increasingly mature audiences, they’ve created many anti-heroes and dark protagonists to try and inject more shades of grey into the once-bright and simplistic narratives of their medium. None, in my humble opinion, stand out quite as much as the grim, gun-toting vigilante known to comic fans as the Punisher. Initially created as a Spider-Man villain, the character has rapidly become a firm favourite amongst comic fans. Coming back from the Vietnam war, former marine Frank Castle tries to settle down with his family, only for a mob fire-fight to claim the lives of his wife and son. Swearing vengeance, Frank takes up vigilantism and begins killing criminals wherever he finds them. There is a darkness about Frank that, on the surface, often makes him almost as much of a monster as the people he fights. He’s a cold, cruel man, and there’s no room for mercy or compassion in his methods. Criminals, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, almost never get a second chance at the hands of Mr. Castle. He is arguably a serial killer, and many of the people he meets in the Marvel universe have said just that about him. And yet, despite the fact that he is only barely considerable as an anti-hero and not an extremist villain, the Punisher has a legion of loyal fans and fascinated readers. Despite Frank’s obvious mental imbalance and terrifying personal issues with violence, what exactly is it that draws people to him as a character, and why is he generally regarded as one of Marvel’s most successful anti-heroes?
Before we talk about the character, however, let’s hash over his publication history. Created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and first depicted in print by Ross Andru, The Punisher makes his appearance in February of 1974, chasing down Spider-Man who he believed to be a murderer. The character proved to be a hit, and began to make appearances in various titles, perhaps most notably in Frank Miller’s Daredevil where he became a fascinating “counterpoint” character to Matt Murdock, with their respective outlooks and methods being contrasted on a regular basis. A solo title was inevitable, and it appeared in January 1986 as a five-part miniseries, which led to an ongoing series centred around Frank the very next year. There have been many writers to take on the challenge of the character since, then, with Garth Ennis’ run on the Marvel Knights stories and the Punisher MAX series being particularly well regarded amongst fans – one of my close friends even went as far as to say that Frank and Ennis was a match made in heaven! All in all, the Punisher has had a very successful time of it at Marvel, and given that Greg Rucka’s run with the character has brought even greater exposure to the character, it seems likely that the aforementioned success is going to continue for some time.
So, to return to the important question, what makes the Punisher popular? Perhaps it’s his unique nature, even amongst the traditionally more morally conflicted characterisation that Marvel does so well. The Punisher is and always has been an extremely morally complex character; even in his first appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man #129, where Frank is more clearly a villain than a true anti-hero, he is shown to be at war with himself over his methods and the correct way to apply them. Back in 1974, of course, the idea of a hero who murdered the villains he came across was almost completely unheard of – gone were the days of the vengeful golden age vigilante, and upbeat characters with no-kill rules were very much the status quo. Even Wolverine, who also first appeared in 1974, is arguably less dark and conflicted than the Punisher when it comes to the reasons he uses to justify his actions. The idea of people becoming “superheroes” after a tragic event in their past isn’t a new one; after all, the most famous costumed detective of them all started his career as an eight-year-old boy who saw his parents murdered. However, unlike Batman, there is very little nobility to the Punisher. It has been very well established that his true motive is simple revenge, rather than something more idealistic like making the world safer. Frank Castle simply hates criminals and has decided to dedicate his life to wiping them out, and that, as far as he’s concerned, is all the motivation he needs.
Simple revenge, I said, and yet earlier I called him complex. Seems like a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it? Well, let me explain. While the Punisher’s motivations are relatively simple to understand, the way he goes about them and the way he interacts with people injects the complexity into his stories. Frank has a very clear code of conduct; no matter what he does to the criminals he hunts, he will not harm a civilian or anyone he deems innocent. Nowhere is this more clear, perhaps, than in Welcome Back, Frank, Garth Ennis’ fantastic action movie-like take on the Punisher, where the titular character ends up living in a tenement building with several other people. For the most part, Frank keeps to himself around them in the hope that they don’t get mixed up in his business, but when they come under fire because of his actions anyway he’s quick to step up and take care of the situation. However, who is and isn’t “innocent” according to the Punisher’s rules is often confusing, and that’s where the complexity comes in. He’ll spare corrupt cops on occasion, but then gun down super-criminals who’s only real crime was robbery in a stupid costume. It is always pretty hard, as the reader, to guess what’s going on in Frank’s head at any given time – and perhaps that’s the draw for some people. It certainly was for Greg Rucka, when he began writing the character in 2011; he stated that he wouldn’t be going into Frank’s motivations and instead would allow the reader to decide what kind of person the Punisher was themselves. Figuring out the motivations and mindset of a character can be an intensely rewarding experience, and when that character is a guy like Frank Castle, there’s an ample amount of material for any would-be comic book psychiatrist to delve into.
However, for most people, I think there’s a slightly different motive when it comes to their enjoyment of the Punisher’s exploits, and a more simple and clear-cut one at that. It’s to do, in a big way, with the notion and act of bullying. Bear with me, folks, I swear this is going to make sense. Anyone who has ever been bullied will immediately recognise, I think, the misery that such treatment causes. It’s pretty hard going, and there’s many times where you wish you were stronger or different in some way so that you could fight your tormentors off – I daresay a lot of kids who end up in that situation feel like this. Nowhere is the effect of this kind of oppression more obvious than in the people Frank encounters in his crusade; the unwilling prostitutes who suffer at the hands of a cruel pimp, or the poor kids being strong-armed into running drugs for a local gang, for example. We immediately empathise with these people as an audience, and recognise their pains and fears as much more extreme examples of our own. Their lives get steadily worse, and they sink deeper into those feelings of helplessness and despair. And then, one night, their tormentors meet with an even bigger threat. The pimp is brutally gunned down in his own flat, and the gang slaughtered as they shake down junkies for their money. The Punisher has done what his name implies, and for the victims, the nightmare is over. What Frank does is unquestionably wrong, yes, but it is very hard for us to read about him doing it and not find ourselves condoning it on some level, especially when we see events from the perspectives of these characters. Frank is, in short, appealing because he’s the strong force we wanted to be in our own darker moments, and if the historical surplus of tales to do with vengeance indicate anything, it’s that revenge stories are a hell of a way to draw in readers.
The more this argument is looked at, the more compelling it seems. In addition, vigilantism that can be seen as “justified” has a long history of inspiring tacit admiration in our society. As a culture, we in the West have an interesting habit of glorifying outlaws, from Robin Hood in the medieval era to Ned Kelly in colonial Australia. These men, who step outside the boundaries of the law and take matters into their own hands, are more often than not rendered into heroes by later generations. Take Ned Kelly, for example. In life, he was a cattle thief, a robber and a murderer. However, as time has gone on, Kelly became a folk hero and a highly romanticised if controversial figure. Similarly, the USA has people like Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday and others, all men who took up the gun and dealt with their enemies in a hard and uncompromising way. Arguably, Frank Castle also belongs in the same category of outlaw hero. He is the gunslinger who strides into the bar and guns down the bad guys without so much as a second thought. Right and wrong, for him, are as simple as who is good and who is not. The Punisher kills a lot of people in brutal and often creative ways, but because he only targets “the bad guys,” we are able to link him in our minds with these renegade heroes of the past. In some ways, you could argue that he’s a modern day “Man With No Name” who sticks by his values and sees his mission through to the bitter end, whatever that might be. Combine this with the feelings of visceral enjoyment we get from seeing the worst kind of bullies and predators meet their grisly ends at his hands, and it’s not hard to see why people are drawn to these stories and become lifelong fans of them.
Of course, no matter how you slice it, the Punisher is a murderer, and at the end of the day what he does is virtually impossible to justify. How could you, after all, without sounding like a vengeance-obsessed maniac yourself? However, that doesn’t mean stories centred around the character can’t be enjoyed for what they are, and hopefully I’ve illustrated the various reasons why so many people do indeed enjoy them. For me personally, it’s a mix of them all. I like looking into the motivations of characters and seeing what makes them tick – but at the same time, I also love a good action story, and the various Punisher tales always deliver in that regard. Frank Castle may be a morally questionable man at best, but he punishes the guilty with a level of creativity and violence that even the most farcical Arnie character couldn’t match, and as long as that remains a constant the Punisher will always have his fans’ loyalty.
What do you think? Leave a comment.