Once, when I was working at a pirate-themed summer camp, a precocious 9 year old child, bedecked in the iconic garb of the romanticized representation of a historical rapist and murderer, asked me who my favorite superhero was.
“Well, Timmy,” I said after deliberating for a moment, “I suppose that would be Batman.”
“My name isn’t Timmy, it’s Aidan,” said Timmy, “and you can’t choose Batman. Batman is my favorite superhero.”
I asked why we couldn’t both pick Batman, since he was an archetypal figure that had existed for seven and a half decades and should really be for everybody.
“Because I chose him,” the young lad insisted, “You have to pick someone else. And you can’t pick Superman. He’s lame.”
I thought about this for another second. I like Superman. Why does Timmy get to make these rules?
“Aidan,” Timmy said.
“Well, Timmy, I guess if I couldn’t pick Superman or Batman I’d go with Frank Castle,” I pointed to the big white skull on Timmy’s black pirate shirt.
Timmy frowned at me. “Casey, the Punisher isn’t a superhero. He’s a villain.“
“How do you figure? He fights bad guys,” I said, possibly betraying morals more simplistic than those of a 9 year old, “Isn’t he a hero?”
The boy shook his eyepatched, bandanna wrapped head. “He kills people. He even tried to kill Spider-Man.”
Having each of my choices shot down was beginning to frustrate me. “Well, if it helps, Timmy, my preferred version of the Punisher is Garth Ennis’ interpretation from the Max line of comics, where there aren’t any other superheroes. I’m pretty sure Spider-Man doesn’t exist in that continuity.”
Timmy looked at me. “I’m nine. By the time I’m old enough to understand what you just said, I’ll be interested in sports and girls.”
“Sports and girls are for girls, Timmy.”
Nevertheless, the young corsair had a point.
Is the Punisher a superhero? An anti-hero? Or is he just a villain?
Dropping everything less important, I set out on a quest to answer the burning question of where Frank Castle fit in the hierarchy of archetypes.
To begin this discussion, we must first define the word “Superhero.” The term, which is jointly copyrighted by both DC and Marvel comics, is defined on dictionary.com as
” a hero, especially in children’s comic books and television cartoons, possessing extraordinary, often magical powers.”
Damn. That really just complicates the matter further. Since I’m going by the Max version of the character, whose comics are most certainly not for children, I move on to the ‘extraordinary, often magical powers’ part. Even that is debatable, but no one who has read these stories can argue that the Punisher’s abilities aren’t extraordinary: he is a warrior whose acts are technically violent crimes, who has no consistent accomplices, and who still manages to routinely destroy hooligans of every brand while avoiding or befriending all levels of law enforcement. And there is the implication in Punisher: Born that Castle’s aptitude for scum-slaughtering may indeed be ‘magical’ in origin, bestowed on him by a mysterious force that may or may not be Death, or the Devil.
Okay, then, we covered the ‘super’ part, but what about ‘hero?’ Well, here’s dictionary.com’s definition of that word:
“noun, plural he·roes; for 5 also he·ros.