The Popular Appeal of the Punisher: Violence and Vengeance

"The Punisher," by Tim Bradstreet

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?

Amazing Spider-Man #129 front cover
“The Amazing Spider-Man #129,” featuring the Punisher

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.

The Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank
The front cover of Garth Ennis’ work, “The Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank.”

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.

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Sean is a comic book devotee, and a pretty dedicated one at that. He is also an avid fan of slightly cheesy and very dated horror films, especially if they have huge monsters.
Edited by Jordan, Misagh.

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  1. I can’t believe they ended Rucka’s run. That book was easily one of Marvel’s absolute best at the time!

  2. Reading Garth Ennis Pinisher MAX, it is pretty hard to read anything where he does not kill dozens of criminals almost every issue. Remender’s run with Frank was a great surprise, even the Franken-Castle stuff. He was no matter what really sullen and morose with no concern for how much his victims suffer or how far he has to push himself to get “the job” done. This character will and should always be defined by death and violence but never should he return to killing junkies and litter-bugs. He should always have his limits and set morals.

    • Sean Hodges

      It’d seem petty to have Frank kill extremely minor criminals, I agree – indeed, you have to wonder if he even notices them, other than to question them on the things the “bigger fish” do. I’ll have to look into Remender’s run, then, if you recommend it!

  3. Nice article. One thing I love about The Punisher is that he works as both a loner killer (like in Ennis’s MAX run) and as a more traditional superhero who quips and interacts with other heroes often. But really, any superhero who sticks a gun in Archie Andrews’s face is okay by me

  4. This is an interesting discussion… essentially about the levels of violence that should be acceptable and published in mainstream comic books. Personally, I do not think the Punisher should be more violent unless it is necessary like in Slavers, if an artist and writer decides to make the violence more important than the story, then it will only be like that bad movie and I’d have to stop reading the Punisher comic books, violence comes last after the monologues, and the things leading to the violence when I read anything Punisher…

    • Sean Hodges

      You make some interesting points! I think, for myself, I’d say that the Punisher has to have a reason to be violent in his comics – he’s not a whack-job nor is he a slasher movie killer, and the things he does should reflect that. You’re right; a Punisher story that’s just about the violence is no Punisher story at all.

  5. Steven Stokes

    I always liked that Marvel Knights run myself, but I recently read Trial of the Punisher which hooked me in, I’m very sad its only a two parter…

  6. Punisher is a nutcase. He hears voices, he has a screwed up moral code, major PTSD, the list goes on and on.

    • Sean Hodges

      I think that’s kind of the point of the character, that he isn’t a conventional hero in any way and that he straddles the line between anti-hero and villain. It’s why nobody with a brain would ever try to justify what he does! However, despite him being so mentally unhinged you could write a series of medical textbooks on his mind alone, that doesn’t mean his stories can’t necessarily be enjoyed.

    • In my opinion, Punisher is not a Superhero. He is not “super,” he is not a “hero,” he is a sociopathic murderer who just happens to target criminals.

      • Sean Hodges

        It’s a good thing I never called him a superhero, then, eh? But seriously, you are right; the Punisher is about as extreme a shades-of-grey character as there’s ever been in the medium of comics.

      • Kristi Kers

        Well he bothers super-heroes because he doesn’t have their code of not killing and is very effective against organised crime and terrorism.

    • The Punisher is a character for the Marvel Universe. He is basically what that happens when the heroes lose it. He works as a reminder to every hero what happens if they gave away their own morality.

  7. Jeffrey Wells

    I can’t stand Frank in normal Marvel Universe. He has those white gloves and white boots, which make him seem like an anal-retentive vigilante and he’s always very one-note. And surely, he will kill scores of enemies when he is by himself but then our favorite Spidey pops up and then it’s all of a sudden non-lethal tactics.

    • Sean Hodges

      The Punisher hasn’t worn that costume for quite a while now, if I recall correctly; these days, he’s kitted out in military gear with the skull sprayed on more often than not.

      As to the Spidey thing, I think that’s a little less clear-cut than that; generally speaking, he’ll try killing people even when characters like Spidey or Daredevil show up, though the fact that he’s willing to temporarily suspend his efforts for the sake of an alliance showcases his respect for them, I would have said. ‘Course, I may just be seeing things that aren’t there.

  8. MalColM

    Garth Ennis: the greatest Punisher writer ever.

  9. I cant wait for Disney/Marvel to come out with a Punisher movie. Reading the article, I do think The Punisher is a great and complicated character, but with that being said I feel that there is far more complex characters within the comic world. And I find that most of these characters come from the DC universe more than Marvel. Notably John Constantine from Hellblazer, also written by Garth Ennis for a time. For Example, while The Punisher’s main motive is revenge and hate, Constantine’s motives are usually far more abstract, layered and selfish. This stems from the concept of Constantine being a con man, whereas the Punisher is merely a Punisher/executer.

    The thing that i want to imagine is if The Punisher was written by DC than Marvel. For I feel DC heroes are usually written in a far more gritty and raw tone, mainly because of Alan Moore’s publications, than Marvel’s sugar pop Heroes. The Punisher is also a very DC-like character, especially for Marvel.

  10. I’ve always seen The Punisher as a modernized versions of Plato’s Philosopher-King. Someone with absolute power, but also the absolute wisdom to use that power. In Socrates’s mind, laws were only for those whose souls were ‘base’ enough to require them.

    The vigilante allure comes from that intrinsic knowledge that laws and rules are for the the weak of spirit. For someone strong of both body and mind, laws are unnecessary. We love putting ourselves in their shoes because all of us, on some level, think we are that wise person to whom laws should not apply.

    Just a thought!

  11. Peterson

    Punisher needs to be more violent and dark!!!

  12. Wonderful insight, thank you for bringing more focus to comics!

  13. Artunicka

    The punisher is someone the world needs. Killing is not always wrong. In self defense we kill to save ourselves or others around us. In msny cases Frank does this. In other cases he kills those he knows have gone too far in their “life style.” Be it a banger a rapist or a person stealing from others. Just as a bowl of weed is a gate way drug so to can the simplest of crimes. As simple robbery could easily turn into a homocide. It may not happen all the time, but why take that chance? And for the few who may have a chance, those that are left alive will remember the fear. He has no restrictions no red tape if I were a criminal that would stop me more then flashing red lights and hand cuffs. The only reason we don’t have one IMO is the training, artillery, and operating in a place where the crime was sufficiently high. Otherwise I’d do. Some people don’t deserve to live even if only one criminal was killed instead of arrested that criminal made his choice his death woukd be a message and could potentially save many not just the current victim.

  14. The reason that comes to mind as to why The Punisher appeals to me is that he goes up against the scum of society who consider themselves untouchable, like street gangs and the Mafia, and, using body armor, special forces training, and in some cases a vast arsenal, actually does away with them as never happens in real life as of yet, but absolutely should in my opinion.

  15. You see, the truth about those who find The Punisher distasteful and/or unconscionable but who love DC and Marvel Comics product is obviously not that they have a problem with reading comics nor playing games nor watching movies in which people are callously murdered, as there does not seem to be any outcry against the alternate universe Joker in the game Injustice killing millions of people, with the parallel universe Superman also ordering countless deaths, nor with the innumerable murders which the Joker and all other comic book villains cumulatively have committed in print stories and movies.
    It would seem, though I am sure they are not conscious of it for the most part, that what they very much prefer to depictions of the ruthless slaughter of the deserving is to witness such things happening to multitudes of faceless, nameless innocent people.

  16. While I do understand the argument being made I do not see how Punisher can be considered a villain. Technically does he murder, yes he does but black widow has killed people Captain America (more Bucky than Steve) has killed people,Blade has killed people,and the Hulk probably does more damage than any other hero yet we still call them heroes. Where do we draw the moral line folks? What makes Frank’s motives wrong as compared to Black Widow who kills on a government paycheck? A very telling quote from Frank is” They laugh at the law. The rich ones who buy it and twist it to their whims. The other ones, who have nothing to lose, who don’t care about themselves, or other people. All the ones who think they’re above the law, or outside it, or beyond it. They know all the law is good for is to keep good people in line. And they all laugh. They laugh at the law. But they don’t laugh at me.” In the Marvel universe this can’t be more true. To call Frank is a villain is wrong, he may kill but by killing he is saving the lives of many people. Sometimes cops kill criminals, the military kills terrorists, and Frank kills super villains. I equate these because they are similar they all kill what makes Frank evil? While it is true that Frank jumps to violence quicker than the other 2 he has shown self control on multiple occasions using rubber bullets or traps to catch villains and not killing them out right. So is Frank truly a villain or is simply an anti-hero that we don’t understand.

  17. The Punisher kills those who have unlimited will to do the most wicked, vile things, and who have no outward nor inward motivation, aside from The Punisher, to ever stop nor even slow the escalation of their wickedness, much less stop committing their horrific evils against people.

  18. Patrick Hogg

    Loved the piece but I believe you missed the mark by looking into the motivations of characters and seeing what makes them tick. Comparing the motivations of the Punisher to those of the Batman or Spiderman is in the same affect comparing a wolf to a dog (not knocking the bat or spidey …huge fan of both). Sure they are close but deep down they are two different animals. Most heroes in comics fight crime. The word fight implies that the loser gets to live. Frank wages war upon crime, and last time I checked M4’s don’t go POW and BLAM. I do agree with you that most comic book fans and parents who do not read the Punisher would agree he is a selfish serial killer and 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. Growing up reading comics as a kid and a teenager I would agree with this statement. Growing up I did not like the Punisher, in fact I did not understand the draw to him. I did not understand many of my friends who read his book. After all he is almost as much of a monster as the people he fights. I found him too violent and dark. I read X-man( everyone loves high school with superpowers), Batman, Superman, and Captain America. I was living in Seattle going to the Art Institute happily drinking my coffee at Starbucks like many others in this country willing to watch the horrors of this world pass me by as a ticker on CNN. Then in 2006 I joined the Army, chose the Infantry just in time for the surge in Iraq. I soon stopped reading comics altogether. After seeing firsthand the nightmare of battle and war, spending my free time reading about a blue eyed blonde man dressed in a bright blue suit with a giant A on his head “fighting for the American way” just seemed childish and very naive. I served two combat deployments until an enemy hand grenade ended my life as a soldier. Whatever hopes and dreams and even who I was before that blast was gone, went up in a cloud of smoke hailed with my screams of pain. Few years later I was in a bad place, a dark lonely place, I pray many never have to feel. I found myself in a local comic store. Don’t know why I went there(really I cannot remember TBI is a gift that keeps on giving) Cannot recall what drew me to the Punisher hardback rack, but there I stood looking at the cover of Punisher born. I put away my copies of Captain America and Superman and bought born and in the beginning. I was hooked. My passion for comics was rekindled. I soon started writing Punisher fan fiction to help me deal with my own darkness. I was not strong enough to carry my darkness anymore, but Frank was, so I gave it to him. I found my hero. I found someone willing to paying the ultimate price for me. The Punisher is a hero not the same hero of Batman or Spiderman. No one wants to be the Punisher. Frank does not even want to be the Punisher. The Punisher is meant to be pitied. I feel sorrow and pity when I think of the marine, the husband, the father who became the numb emotionless soldier now known as the Punisher. Coming back from the Vietnam war, former marine Frank Castle tries to settle down with his family( been there trying to fit into a world that no longer makes sense to you), 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. Frank went to war, not some journey of self discovery, and fought an unpopular war at that. We really don’t know much about his wife, but we do know that she loved him and he loved her. The love of a partner that stands faithfully by her/his soldier during the nightmare of war is no little cliff note. Your love ones live a nightmare of their own waiting for a phone call in the middle of the night or a letter, waiting for any tiny sign that the heart that belongs to them is still beating; this type of love does not grow on trees in this day and age. When Frank lost…I mean when frank’s family was taken away from him, when the money driven American legal system failed him. When the country that he gave up years of his life fighting for in a foreign country instead of thinking of about just himself and spending time with his wife and son that he loves failed him. When all these things failed him, it created a perfect storm. Frank Castle died that day in Central park and this perfect storm gave birth to the Punisher, a man who is 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. I feel sorry for the Punisher when I read him, because I understand in a tiny way what made him. I understand why he is different from his bright costumed heroes he stands with on the shelves in comic stores. Frank did what every combat soldier does to stay sane, he put all the pain and hurt, all the things that make a life time of nightmares into a box and filled it away in the back of his mind to be dealt with later when his deployment is over. He wanted to go back to when the world made sense. War to a soldier is very simply. Your biggest worry is getting enough sleep. If that is your biggest worry, life is pretty good. Sure when you 1st arrive you worry about dying but as soon as you wrap your brain around the fact that dying is not in your control, it is all in the hands of the one aiming at you war becomes simple almost easy. You don’t care what day it is or what month it is, because it doesn’t matter. Life is defined by the current moment because that is all you have. The next moment is not guaranteed. The Punisher chose to go to war to stay numb to the pain of healing. The Punisher wants to stay angrier, the one emotion you can feel in war and be affective at your job. The Punisher does not want to heal. Healing would imply opening the box which now contains the murder he witnessed of his wife that he loved and his son. Why would he do that when he can stay numb and angry? The Punisher will wage his war to protect Frank until his deployment/ rotation is up. When will that be, when all deployments are over, when the soldier returns home to his family.
    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. Again I disagree with you. A code of conduct is defined as a set of rules outlining the responsibilities of, or proper practices for, an individual, party or organization. Related concepts include ethical, honor and moral codes, as well as halachic and religious laws. Batman and Spiderman have a code of conduct because they fight crime. The Punisher operates by rules of engagement which are defined as a directive issued by a military authority specifying the circumstances and limitations under which forces will engage in combat with the enemy. The Punisher wages war upon crime and Batman fights it. Bruce Wayne is a crime fighter a hero to look up to. The Punisher is a soldier who lost his way in a perfect storm. You should not compare dogs with wolves, different animals.

  19. “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.”

    This article is a year old but I can’t agree that Frank is unquestionably wrong. In the eyes of criminal law, sure, but not if you strip all that away. He does what so many comic heroes are too weak to do. Batman and Superman’s no kill codes are just self indulgent “I fell noble and superior because I don’t kill. It makes me feel nice to not kill” codes rather than actually helping society. They have the ability to end individuals of extreme evil, but instead they just let them continue spreading their evil over and over, creating an endless list of new murder victims. The Punisher is doing humanity a public service that most people are too uncomfortable to acknowledge is needed. Just like garbage collection is a public service. Batman is one of those people and never actually makes any good lasting change, he just inflates his own ego by dressing up in a suit. Batman is Jokers accomplice.

  20. punisher is really cool and yet one of the most complicated characters since wolverine himself.

  21. Vengeance-Obsessed Maniac

    “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?”

    Easy – how I sound is a matter of who’s listening. Simple fact is, as long as corrupt judges let hardened criminals go free on technicalities (like the Joker’s impossibly contrived “insanity” pleas), justice will have to be served externally, at the end of a barrell if need be. Some people accept that, others don’t… unless chance deems they have to, in experiencing firsthand the joys of corrupt legal systems.

    The Punisher is a murderer as much as George Washington was a traitor of the British Empire. Tough times require tough tactics.

  22. Interesting when villains in comic books make a face turn.

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