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.
a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.
the principal male character in a story, play, film, etc.
Classical Mythology .
a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity.
(in the Homeric period) a warrior-chieftain of special strength, courage, or ability.
(in later antiquity) an immortal being; demigod.”
Frank Castle certainly fits definition number three, and most likely definition number two since it’s specifically subjective and there would certainly be people who would consider his acts heroic, such as property owners who no longer have to deal with graffiti after Frank summarily executes would-be taggers.
A case could even be made for definition number four, as he is a warrior, and is certainly possessed with special strength, courage and ability. Is he a demigod? Probably not, but so far as I recall Ennis does not go into detail on Castle’s parentage. He is depicted as the likely result of a magical, moonshine fueled encounter between Clint Eastwood and Rambo, with a little of The Terminator’s sperm thrown in for good measure and gestated in Ares’ womb.
So we’ve covered three out of four definitions, but what about number one? As mentioned previously, he’s courageous and able, but he’s about as ‘noble’ as a rabid homeless man ranting about Satan on a street corner in a urine-soaked slum. Nevertheless, I feel he fits the definition closely enough. Frank Castle is, in my diagnosis, a superhero. Take that, Timmy.
Note, however, that this does not necessarily exclude him from also being a sociopathic serial killer so cruel it would give Stalin nightmares. In fact, the two definitions for Castle’s personality may actually complement each other, when you consider Garth Ennis’ distaste for superheroes in general.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s back up a bit and see how we got here in the first place. The Punisher debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #129 in February of 1974, the same year Wolverine first appeared in the pages of the Incredible Hulk. In that issue, Frank was a ruthless, proto-gothic vigilante intent on murdering Spider-Man for a crime he was believed to have committed. Later comics would have Frank brutally slaying other would-be vigilantes because they’d accidentally killed innocents, despite the fact that he nearly does it himself here. Hypocrisy? Why not? The guy’s a dick.
The Punisher proved to be a popular character, and popped up as a guest in Spider-Man as well as other superhero magazines. He received his own series in 1986, and was subject to numerous interpretations depending on who was writing him at the time. Some depicted him as a good man forced to use extreme measures due to the ineptitude of local law enforcement; some depicted him as a bit of a nutcase whose use of violence was as excessive as it was entertaining. No writer had a bleaker view of old Frank, however, than the living limerick punchline Garth Ennis, author of Preacher.
Garth Ennis took over writing the Punisher after a particularly ridiculous (even for Marvel) storyline involving Frank being killed and resurrected as some kind of holy warrior by angels (this sort of thing happens to Frank a lot; see the equally stupid Franken-Castle storyline). Ennis took the Punisher back to his roots as a one-man army taking on the mob, meanwhile imbuing the stories with his particular brand of black humor. These stories were still part of the main Marvel 616 continuity, where most Marvel heroes exist, but the Punisher always seemed a bit out of place there. After all, being as violent as he is, why do the other superheroes of the world allow him to continue to exist (especially since it’s established that pretty much any of them can easily hand him his ass)? Why is there a character as brutal as Andrew Jackson at a festival of British Indians living in the same universe as Howard the Duck? Why is the Punisher still referred to as a Vietnam vet, as he was in the Spiderman comics of the 1970s, despite the fact that the rest of the superheroes get their origins slid forward in time as the decades march by? It never did sit quite right, and soon enough, Ennis was given complete creative freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted for the Max line starting in 2004. Featuring R-rated language and enough violence to make a young Peter Jackson heave, the Max line is where I feel the character finally came into his own.
As he’s depicted in this series, Frank is three years older than the sun, having become the Punisher shortly after ‘Nam and continued aging like a normal (albeit badass) person since then. He starts the series slaughtering mobsters at one particular capo’s 100th birthday. Shooting the helpless old man in the head, Frank then goes to wait outside and shreds all the wiseguys with a belt-fed 50 cal as they run outside to confront him. Elegant.
The series is full of over the top moments like this. At one point Frank eviscerates some unfortunate lowlife and ties him to a tree in the woods. He finds his way into a Russian missile silo at the behest of Nick Fury and slaughters pretty much the entire Red Army to rescue a little girl. He has sex with a double-masectomy patient whose husband he shot. He goes to a prison full of corrupt guards and has a field day annihilating absolutely everyone.
Ennis has multiple characters in the series try to figure Frank out; they confront him with the fact that his actions are neither heroic nor ultimately useful. He knows that. He doesn’t care one whit. Even the Comedian and Rorschach would be horrified by this guy’s nihilism. For the love of Jack Kirby, even Thanos takes breaks from wholesale butchery; but not Frank.
Even at his friendliest, the Punisher’s got less in common with Superman and more in common with Charles Manson. Castle is shown to be obsessed with warfare; his family is his only link to humanity and when he loses them to a few random mobsters fighting it out in a park, he decides to marry his love of war with his newfound hatred of criminals.
There might be some sort of social commentary about American society here, what happens when we train our boys to be ruthless killers and then expect them to settle back into normal society like all the bloodshed never happened. Frank is either a symptom or satire of our ultraviolent culture, depending on the writer. As written by the Irishman Garth Ennis in the mid-2000s during the reign of George W. Bush, the Punisher is the living embodiment of everything the rest of the world fears about Americans. He’s ludicrously powerful; insanely well-armed; he’s happy to declare himself the world’s lone champion against something vaguely defined as ‘evil’; he uses one crime committed against him as his justification to shoot whoever the hell he wants to; his morality is starkly dualistic and his methods are profoundly extreme. Hell, he was even forged into what he is today by the pointless barbarism of the Vietnam War. And of course: his ‘heroic’ actions may just be a smokescreen for his addiction to murdering the crap out of everything. If Captain America represents America at its most idealistic, the Punisher represents America as many would say it actually is.
The character at his best is bleak, cynical, sadistic and has very little interest in helping people. Yes, the world he lives in is full of people even worse than he is, and yes, his actions technically do sort of help some people, but none of this really justifies what he does. Garth Ennis does not want you to empathize with Castle, who is a fairly one-dimensional character, rarely wavering from his quest to find creative ways to put as many bullets as possible into everyone with a rap sheet. Character development for the Punisher is utterly unknown; unless you count him occasionally getting mad enough to shoot people even deader than usual. He’s not in any way delusional about what he does; he’s not even slightly haunted by his astronomical bodycount.
He is extreme, excessive, and very entertaining. The superheroic counterpart to Jason Voorhees, even most villains would balk at his nuttiness. As fun as he is, it’s a good thing there aren’t any other heroes like this because there would be no villains (or people) left after like five issues.
The character has been adapted for three different movies, none of which have any connections to each other. The Punisher (1989), starring Dolph Lundgren, which I haven’t seen; The Punisher (2004) starring Thomas Jane, which is an entertaining film with a great performance by Jane but ultimately depicts Frank as uncharacteristically nice (he only summarily executes, like, four unarmed criminals. Wuss.); and the most recent being Punisher: War Zone (2008), which has a nice lead in Ray Stevenson, and has a few fun moments, but ultimately is a reallyweird, really uneven effort that ends up only working as a moderately entertaining ‘bad’ film. Thomas Jane returned to the role in 2012 for a short film called Dirty Laundry that I suppose was a pretty solid ten minute effort. For my money the only really good adaptation of the Punisher is the Playstation 2 game from 2005, featuring the voice of Jane and a script by Garth Ennis. He’s also popped up here and there in other games, and a few cartoons, but is rarely done justice. This is a tough character to get right.
I still keep an eye on the comics here and there. Frank was Captain America for like two seconds during the brief period Cap was dead. Frank became an undead cyborg at one point, the aforementioned stupid Franken-Castle. As I said before, this is tough character to get right, and when he is done right he’s an irredeemable bastard, but I love him just the same. I understand the Punisher: Max line ended recently with -SPOILER ALERT- Frank’s death at the hands of the Kingpin but I haven’t read that far, as I’m not in a hurry to grab the stories written after Ennis’ departure. As far as I’m concerned, the Punisher’s death happens far in the future, when a geriatric Castle wipes out the remainder of humanity after a nuclear war, as depicted in Ennis’ Punisher: the End. Between now and then, I’d think twice before illegally downloading that Justin Bieber album if I were you. Frank Castle may be watching.