The Punisher is a strange character.
On paper, it looks simple enough – a war veteran named Frank Castle witnesses his family get killed as collateral damage in a shout out between rival gangs and swears revenge. Some depth was added to the character during the excellent Punisher Max run, which gave Frank some layers, and that was good. Hell, that was excellent. It’s one of the best comics out there, what with the terrible sense of grime that coats the whole of it, and it’s utter lack of any other Marvel character.
See, there’s an argument that Frank couldn’t work in the Marvel Universe. It’s the same argument that people level against the likes of Hawkeye and Black Widow, that a non-powered character – and especially this one – couldn’t operate in a world with powered heroes and criminals, that he would be easy to hunt down and either capture or kill.
And you’d have to, wouldn’t you? If you’re a hero, the Punisher looks like a mass-murdering monster, with at least a four-figure kill count stretching from Vietnam to the modern era. He has, all by himself, filled cemeteries of criminals. If you’re a villain, priority one has to be stopping the guy that’s killed thousands of your friends and henchmen and will put a bullet through you if he ever gets the chance.
Here’s where we get to the problem, because what is the Punisher’s power?
He’s good with guns. That’s it.
At least, that what it looks like on the surface. If you stop to think about him about him, though, a whole new vista opens up. He was a black operative on Vietnam, trained to be one of the most lethal soldiers in one of the most terrifying wars this world has ever known, and he’s done nothing but fight ever since. He’s refined his technique, dedicated himself to fighting and nothing else.
Iron Man is a rich guy in power armor with no formal combat training. Spider-Man gets by on spider-sense and heightened reflexes. The X-Men are a civilian militia with a lot of practical experience.
Frank knows more than all of them combined when it comes to the preparation and application of violence. His power is that he’s been fighting for so long that he can’t do anything else and that there is nothing else to him.
He’s not even human any more, not in any way the rest of us could understand. He’s moved into some weird mental place where he exists all by himself, occasionally touching someone’s life or, more likely, ending it. He’s a force of nature pretending to be a man.
So when it was announced that Nathan Edmondson was going to be doing a Punisher series, I was interested. Good Punisher stories are hard to find, but when they’re good they’re great. Nathan’s written some interesting military-based characters in the past (Who is Jake Ellis?, Olympus), so that seemed like a good fit.
Then I read the solicit, which said something about the Punisher going out to Los Angeles, and how was he going to operate so far out of his element, which the solicit seemed to think was New York. I remember looking at this quizzically for one simple reason: Frank’s element is killing people. Location is incidental; he’ll know as much as he can about the terrain long before he gets there, and he’ll pick up the lay of the land quickly. That’s kind of what he is.
When the first issue came out I picked it up a little nervously, thinking that we were going to see Frank making mistakes because of the territory, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the various criminals assumed he’d be out of his element, and they suffered for it. It was fun and well written, with everyone showing the right amount of terror of Frank and Frank out-thinking them as best he was able.
Because, as dangerous as Frank is, he’s still only a man physically. He’s got human reflexes and endurance, is prone to exhaustion and incremental pain, and as likely to make mistakes as anyone. When the gangs call in Electro – who Marvel really began pushing to coincide with the last Spider-Man movie – even Electro was scared of him, and ready to run away rather than stay in the same state with him.
And that’s all well and good. Really. It seemed like a good Punisher tale about Frank going on summer vacation, heading out to LA to get some sun and kill some people. It was intelligent and everyone felt like people, with us getting a police officer character and getting to see how Frank’s actions affected her, specifically, and the rest of LA in general. The criminals came across as people making the best of their situation, and no one was made to hold the idiot ball. That counts for a lot, in any story, and especially in one that focuses on people over powers.
The story continued, and as it went on we got into the real heart of this. There were hints of something larger going on, and Frank got wind of whatever it was and started killing himself to answers. He took a trip down to a Mexican prison, killing everyone on his way out, and then kept the murder going on his way to the truth.
A gang war broke out and martial law was declared in LA, with Frank heading back as things continued to go wrong. We learned that the Howling Commandos – Nick Fury’s old unit from World War II, and the best active soldiers in the Marvel Universe – were after Frank. For reasons. We spent some time with them, getting to know them. We got to see how intelligent they are in the field, how carefully the plan and how skill they are.
If Marvel decides to have Nathan Edmondson write a Howling Commandos comic I’ll be all over that.
So, keeping in mind how skilled and efficient the Howling Commandos are, we get to see that even they’re taken aback when they’re ordered to go after Frank. Being soldiers and professionals means they’re willing to do it for the good of the country, but the respect they give even the idea of going after Frank shows exactly how terrifying he really is.
It gets more complex, though. See, the Howling Commandos only get involved with things on orders, and usually around the world. Someone high up the chain has to want them to conduct operations on domestic soil, someone with a vested interest in keeping things violent in LA.
Here’s what we learn: the politics behind everything that has happened. Simple, right? And silly. We’re told never to talk politics in polite society, as if the various causes that form laws are somehow dirty and beneath notice. The truth is that there are few things that we should be discussing more, and it’s a truth that the young are adopting and claiming for their own as they come to understand how corrupt the politics they’ve inherited are.
And comics? Comics have always been a means of exploring different political causes, all the way back to their inception. The Punisher has always been about the lost, about how broken things can get, and about how crime both literally and metaphorically steals life. These are tales of societal and cultural entropy.
The Punisher is a rage-filled tragedy.
Frank is a character who stares into the face of every human evil and says no, because he’s already lost everything.
The brilliance of the Edmondson run is a sudden shift in scale.
Frank fights the symptoms of that corruption, the evil that comes from disenfranchising entire swaths of people, of forcing them into ghettos and feeding them drugs, of institutionalized racism and unchecked greed writ large. He fights against generations of criminals who come from generations of victims, the logical end result of a meat grinder society.
The Punisher goes after murderers, thieves, and rapists. He targets those organizations that are undeniably criminal, but not the white color criminals that destroy countries, that bankrupt nations, that cause the symptoms that he’s so effective at fighting. He is, in reality, nothing more than a painful bandage that does nothing to actually solve the problems he thinks he’s fighting.
Here, Frank finds himself trailing the cause of the symptoms he fights. He finds himself going to Washington DC, find himself in the office of an American Senator who put in motion a plan to incite riots and gang violence in Los Angeles so that martial law would have to be declared. The idea was to make money for both the military and a number of corporations, and the people that live in LA, well, they’re acceptable losses for the profits that will come as a result of this plan.
The senator in question is not afraid of Frank, because he hasn’t directly murdered anyone. He’s never held a knife or a gun outside of war time, if at all, and he’s certainly not going to go mug any one person. He has, however, played an indirect part on the deaths of hundreds in this political decision alone, and he admits that he’s done this sort of thing before and will do it again. This is what senators do, serve their corporate masters using whatever excuses they need to sleep at night, and the rest of the world can burn provided these senators get their kickbacks.
This is an evil that is above Frank. He can’t kill this senator and can’t fight the corruption that is causing the evils he fights every single day. They are, tragically, above and beyond him. He ends up facing off with Captain America after having this realization, and passes all this information along to Cap, but whether or not that will actively change anything in the Marvel Universe is questionable: Secret Wars came and derailed that story the same way it did everything else.
What we take away from this is a simple truth: violent revolution is all well and good, but nothing changes when you confront symptoms instead of causes. The simplest observable outcomes of an action are not the root action themselves, and without an intelligent look at why an action is happening, that action will continue to happen indefinitely.
For all his skill and lethality, Frank accomplishes very little. He’s a part of the very problem he thinks he’s fighting, another manifestation of the drama that is caused by the politics and greed that hover above him and every single one of his victims, and all of their victims, and so on, and so forth. No other comic has ever looked at the utter futility of what Frank has become like this one has, but Frank reacts predictably to this truth:
He heads back to LA, back to the riots that are now being blamed on him.
There are symptoms to fight, and that’s what the Punisher does.