With the release of season two of “The Punisher” just days away, I thought I would get a bit ahead of the power curve given the inevitable deluge of rival op-eds inbound—articles from major news outlets that will no doubt repeat the hoary old scare tactics that have long surrounded comic books, video games, and even tabletop role-playing games. When season one debuted on Netflix, we even got treated to a rousing round of articles about how The Punisher was some kind of alt-right neo-Nazi icon.
For what it’s worth, Jon Bernthal, starring as Frank Castle in the series, isn’t a fan of the alt-right, and The Punisher’s creator, Gerry Conway, rightly pointed out that, if anything, Castle would be gunning for white supremacist hate groups as he has in the comic series. Personally, I found the first season of the show fairly mundane, melodramatic, and slow-paced. I fell asleep watching it, as I did with “Sicario” and “John Wick 2.” That said, I am a long-time fan of the comic book series and wanted to take a moment to flesh out what “The Punisher” is and isn’t before the media takes a bite out of this subject.
The Atlantic almost got it right when they proclaimed, “The Punisher is rooted in American trauma,” although the author, who we can forgive for not being a huge comics nerd like yours truly, only picked up on the contemporary themes in the Netflix show.
Much of the consternation about The Punisher stems from his use of firearms to exact vigilante justice, but as implied above, much of it likely also derives from the fact that Frank Castle is a white male combat veteran, one who ostensibly fights a one-man war against gangs, mobs, and cartels, which often consist of minorities. Some of this had to be cleaned up and made more politically correct for the Netflix series, which spins a plot of evil government conspiracies.
But to understand what The Punisher is, you have to travel a bit further back in time. You see, before there was The Punisher, there was The Executioner. This character is rooted in American trauma, but to be more specific, he is rooted in the trauma of the Vietnam War.
The Punisher was quite obviously directly lifted from the highly successful book series created by Don Pendleton called “The Executioner.” Pendleton, himself a World War 2 and Korea veteran, kicked the series off in 1969 with “War Against the Mafia,” in which Mack Bolan returns home from Vietnam to find nearly his entire family killed—victims of the mob. Pendleton’s writing was something I grew up with, writing that blasted right off the page in the style of Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft. “War Against the Mafia” was written as a statement about the Vietnam War and as Pendleton himself said, it was an effort to re-dignify the soldier after America suffered through such an unpopular war.
The book was a huge hit and sparked Pendleton’s “The Executioner” series, in which he authored 38 titles. Mack Bolan had struck a chord. Americans wanted heroic fiction in the aftermath of Vietnam; they wanted to read about a good guy with a gun squaring up against impossible odds. Sure, there are clichés aplenty packed into this premise, but every culture has its heroes. In China and Japan, they have samurai or kung fu masters. In Europe they have knights in shining armor. In America we got Batman and Superman. After Vietnam, we got Mack Bolan, a darker type of anti-hero who addressed a grittier reality that existed after the American dream fell apart.
As for the violent aspects of Mack Bolan’s crusade against evil, Pendleton said:
The violence in the Executioner books is merely stage-dressing for dramatizing the commitment and dedication Bolan has to his ideals and the lengths to which he will go to honor them. We can learn this message of love and commitment and carry it into our own lives without the violence and bloodshed, and of course it is this wish that fuels the writing. I do not want my readers to pick up a gun and follow Bolan’s example; I want them to be stirred by his commitment and to find ways to meet the same challenges without resorting to violent means.
I don’t think Pendleton’s words were designed to dodge the issue or reflect some cheesy PSA; from what I’ve read he was no pacifist, but was in fact a gentle soul who genuinely hated violence. However, Pendleton’s writing speaks directly to this dichotomy. You can hate violence and still be violent. Mack Bolan’s war on crime said something to a flower-power generation that wanted to believe in peace and love: He said there is a social utility to killing. He said that evil exists and some people need to be dead. And yeah, he used guns to make that happen—from his first shot with a Marlin .444 rifle to the many that followed with a 9mm Beretta Brigadier pistol.
When Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr., and Ross Andru created a character dressed in black, who was a Vietnam veteran, whose family had been wiped out by the mafia, which led him to war against criminals, it was perfectly clear who their inspiration was. And yet the formula worked perfectly for comic books, with Frank Castle becoming one of Marvel’s biggest success stories. Just as “The Executioner” warranted a series of spin-off titles, “The Punisher” also spun off into other comics I read as a teenager, such as “The Punisher: War Journal,” “The Punisher: War Zone,” and a number of graphic novels.
But even as a kid, I felt The Punisher was held back by existing within the Marvel universe. Some of us fans found Frank Castle interesting because he didn’t have superpowers, because the war he fought was fueled by his commitment and determination. I could not have cared less about his relationship with Spandex-wearing weirdos like Daredevil or Spider-Man.
Then, just around the time of 9/11, along came Garth Ennis to deliver what Punisher fans had always wanted. Ennis’ epic run on “The Punisher” had a gritty, realistic feel to it. Viewers watched Castle kill mafia goons with Claymore mines, slice open human traffickers, stop a supervirus in Russia, and even get some payback on white-collar criminals in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash. The author also did several mini-series that flashed back to Castle’s service in Vietnam. In short, the Garth Ennis Punisher comics are a masterpiece and certainly the high-water mark for the character.
Ennis cut out a lot of the melodrama that surrounds characters like this. Batman, for example. OK, we get it, your family was killed, the system failed you, and now you fight a vigilante war against crime. But after 1,000 comics, is this character still grieving? Still searching for revenge? Or at this point are they doing this because they want to, because it is what they are good at? These origin stories are somewhat pedestrian at this point, but Ennis began to answer the question of what comes afterward. He also explored how Frank Castle was already predisposed to this type of behavior. In his most recent mini-series about Castle’s first tour in Vietnam, he says, “War answers something in me.”
So this is what The Punisher really is, a representation of America’s need for a hero who fights evil, but expressed through a gritty post-war lens, projected into a time in our cultural history where people would not find a modern-day knight in shining armor as credible. Certainly not a credible threat to modern foes who fight dirty and murder civilians at random.
Yes, “The Punisher” presents a simplified, black-and-white worldview, but the vast majority of the media audiences consume is childishly superficial, presenting us with good guys and bad guys, the good guys almost always winning in the end. Our movies and television shows at best present the illusion of ambiguity only to reveal a hard-and-fast moralistic lesson by the end, one that makes audiences feel comfortable and provides them with a narrative framework for their lives. Even this very article is far too analytical for many comic book fans who really don’t give a shit about these discussions and just want to see Frank Castle kill some criminals.
So yeah, “The Punisher” provides simplified plot lines in which the white male combat veteran kills bad guys, but so do a hell of a lot of other movies and television shows, and you don’t hear nearly this much whining when lefty iconoclasts like Matt Damon use gun violence to resolve the protagonist’s problems in the “Bourne” series.
I guess what I’m getting at is, despite my misgivings about the first season of “The Punisher,” I’m going to jump back in and give the second season a fighting chance because, after all, who doesn’t want to see Frank gun down a bunch of dirtbags?