Eat hot lead, comics reader

This is first in a series on comic book vigilantes, focusing mainly on but not limited to the 1980s. It’s a tag-team thing: each post is written either by me or the estimable Steven S. Long, and ended with the other’s response designed for (i) mutual guts-exposure and (ii) maximum clickbait. See, Steve and I claim to be differently politically labeled but we tend to agree on lots of stuff – yet this topic might be something we really don’t agree on. Fireworks ahoy!

TAKE IT, STEVE!

I first encountered the Punisher in 1977, when I was 11. Whenever I had enough allowance saved up, I’d ride my bike to the nearby Eckerd’s Drugs and buy comics off the spinner rack. Spider-Man was my favorite hero, so his were the books I looked for first. And so it was that I acquired The Amazing Spider-Man #174-75, a two-part story written by Len Wein that pitted Spidey and the Punisher against the Hitman.

For those of you unlucky enough not to have read this story yourself (much less practically committed it to memory the way I have), a terrorist organization called the People’s Liberation Front hires the Hitman (an assassin who in many ways could be thought of as the “anti-Punisher”) to kidnap J. Jonah Jameson. Good ol’ JJJ has written a bunch of anti-PLF editorials, and the group intends to blow up the Statue of Liberty with Jameson atop it.

The Punisher’s been tracking/fighting the PLF for awhile and learns of the plot. He goes to the Daily Bugle to stop the Hitman — and Peter Parker, naturally, is at the Bugle and joins in as Spider-Man. The Hitman outmaneuvers both of them, though, and escapes in his mini-copter when a misunderstanding leads Spidey to stop the Punisher from shooting out the copter’s engine.

Thanks to a spider-tracer, the two heroes track the Hitman. Along the way the Punisher reveals a connection with the Hitman from their time in Vietnam along the way — including the fact that the Hitman saved the Punisher’s life once, so the Punisher “owes him one.” They learn of PLF’s plot and confront the Hitman and the terrorists at the Statue of Liberty. The battle ends with both Spider-Man (holding Jameson) and the Hitman dangling from Lady Liberty’s crown — and the Punisher only has time to save one of them. After a second’s agonized soul-searching, he of course saves Spidey and JJJ, while the Hitman loses his grip and plunges to his death.

I was instantly fascinated with the Punisher: his methods; his weapons; his attitude; his War Wagon; his “war journal” way of describing what was happening in the story. I wanted to learn more about him — but in those pre-Internet, pre-comic book shop days, there really wasn’t any easy way to acquire back issues. It wasn’t until years later, when playing Champions got me back into reading comics after a long hiatus, that I was able to track down and read some of the Punisher’s other appearances.

I wanted to start this discussion of the Punisher as a comic book vigilante — really the comic book vigilante, since he was the first gun-toting, take-no-prisoners character published by one of the Big Two (at least that I’m aware of) — with ASM 174-175 because I think that story, moreso than just about any other appearance of the character, perfectly captures what he is, or in my estimation should be:

  • he’s a grim, hard-bitten crimefighter willing to deal with dangerous criminals in a way no other superhero at the time dared to: lethally, with guns, knives, and grenades rather than superpowers.
  • he’s driven by a desire to protect the innocent and make the world safer for them, not simply by anger and a desire for revenge. In my opinion, depictions of the Punisher as the latter, while understandable in many ways, fail to capture the essence and complexities of the character, and don’t do him justice (no pun intended).
  • he’s a man of violent action, but he only uses lethal force against those who deserve it, never against, among others, the cops (“Better incapacitate [the security guards], Webhead — but gently as possible”).
  • he’s a man who takes his assigned mission very seriously, to the extent of sacrificing most of the “normal” things in life (“Your humor in the face of danger never ceases to infuriate me, Web-slinger! This isn’t a game, mister — it’s war!”). At the same time, he recognizes that, to a certain extent, he’s trapped in a situation of his own making (“But my war, God help me, may go on forever!”).
  • he’s a man of many secrets, but not necessarily unwilling to reveal them and talk about himself in the right context.
  • he’s a man of high principle who would rather sacrifice his life than put an innocent person in danger (“War Journal Entry Number 419: The look in the Hitman’s eyes left no room for doubt: he wouldn’t hesitate to murder [Jameson] if I refused to [put my weapon down] — and that was my biggest problem! For I had sworn no innocent would ever become a victim of my private war against the underworld — even if it meant losing my own life instead… which was precisely what was about to occur!”). He’s not just a fighting machine, nor is he violent and destructive for no reason.

Many of these ideas percolated into my brain and influenced the creation of one of my earliest Champions characters, Captain X, who was pretty much a note-for-note “homage” to the Punisher. Eventually those creative impulses mingled with the concepts of Rorschach and the Scourge of the Underworld and resulted in the creation of the Harbinger of Justice, the character who ultimately led me to write Dark Champions (1993) and become an RPG writer/designer.

But of course, ASM #174-175 wasn’t the Punisher’s first appearance in the comic. It came out nearly four years after his debut in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 (written by Gerry Conway, 1974) as a vigilante working with the Jackal to kill Spider-Man. Even then, though, the idea of his ultimately being a hero was laid out on the second page: “I kill only those who deserve killing, Jackal.”

The Punisher also made two early solo appearances in Marvel’s black-and-white magazines: Marvel Preview #2 (1975) and Marvel Super Action #1 (1976). Both had the banner “America’s Greatest Crime Destroyer!” on the cover, and were considerably more adult in tone than the ASM stories: the Punisher didn’t hesitate to use lethal force, and his roots in the Vietnam War were a central element. He came across much more like a soldier than a costumed hero, with none of the “mercy bullets” he so frequently used in four-color comics. The first of the two stories had a few comic book-style touches (e.g., a laser weapon). But the second was a pure, brutal story of vigilantism, with nothing remotely related to a superhero saga. To my thinking, the influence of Don Pendleton’s “Mack Bolan the Executioner” series (which debuted with the 1969 novel War Against The Mob) and the Charles Bronson movie Death Wish (1974) show through pretty clearly.

The Punisher returned to the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man many times during the Seventies and early Eighties, and became popular enough that he showed up in other heroes’ books as well. The best-known of these was Daredevil #181-184 (written by Frank Miller, 1982). This story contrasted the Punisher’s ruthless attitude with DD’s more traditional superhero code of conduct in a captivating way. Miller’s Punisher was brutal and unforgiving enough to shoot unconscious teenage criminals, while Daredevil came off as practically a red-costumed saint in comparison. (Ben Urich: “Haven’t got much on [the Punisher]. He’s a vigilante like you….” Daredevil: “Not like me. He kills.”) But Miller’s Punisher remained true to his vow not to shoot the innocent: in his battles with DD, he either missed deliberately or used tranquilizer darts. Still, as befitted Miller’s style, the story had a harsh edge to it that no other Punisher story up until that time quite matched. I know it left a real impression on me when I read it.

All this led, perhaps inevitably, to a Punisher limited series: 5 issues written by Steven Grant, published in 1986. It kicked off a major boom in Punisher popularity — but that’s a topic best saved for the next installment in this series.

RON’S REPLY

What a difference the entry point makes! I first encountered the Punisher in his first appearance, in Spider-Man #129, but my strongest memory thereof comes in his second, #134-135 – the point being, not in the Hitman story Steve describes, which as it happens I’ve never seen. I recall my brother, annoyed with the character’s re-appearance in #134-135: “The Punisher is such a pussy – he needs a gun to be tough.”

My take isn’t quite that dismissive, and I think I may do a post about that story in particular to honor the original nuances in the character as I see them. However … I do think the textual character is nigh-deranged, and that your [Steve’s] reading of that page 2 quote in #129 is overly generous, deeply colored by the Wein story. For instance, he’s awfully quick to judge a person a “parasite” and a “punk” on the flimsiest of impressions, e.g., a few newspaper articles + the Jackal says so. He doesn’t mention or do anything about protecting innocents. I doubt that he set up the missile shot at Spider-Man to hit the abandoned tenement if he missed. He also seems to think that death by a fall is a terrible bad dishonorable thing compared to, say, a bullet between the eyes, which makes no sense.

It fascinates me how many tropes came in with #174-175.

  • the ‘Nam-ishness of the veteran background
  • the war-journal convention
  • the War Wagon
  • the addition of terrorists to law-breakers
  • torture interrogation, and an inkling of pain as a retributive device as opposed to merely a clean kill

punisherfirstAs with Wolverine, I’m interested in characters’ physical differences over time: the Punisher begins with the standard barrel chest of the super-genre, yes, but as I see it, Andru emphasized his athleticism rather than bulk. He’s also profoundly Italian-Amerian as befits his Executioner inspiration. In returning to comics after my significant hiatus, I couldn’t believe the name they stuck on him: “Frank Castle?! What’s that, a joke?” I’m beginning to think some dissertation topic is lurking in the extensive, accurate, and often subtle ethnic identities of the Marvel characters prior to the late 70s, and their equally extensive TV-blah whitening afterwards. [Steve tells me this was later Castiglioni’d, for which I’m grateful.]

Steve and I may have to do some kind of Marvel trivia sudden-death contest to see who gets to blog that Daredevil Punisher story.

STEVE’S LAST WORD

I concur with Ron’s observation that first impressions make a difference! Looking at ASM #129 and #135 through my adult eyes, it’s easy to see the Punisher as somewhat… unhinged, I guess you’d say, though I think the more accurate description might be “not fully thought out by the writer yet.” In #129 it’s perfectly understandable that he’d be on Spider-Man’s trail; at that point in the narrative Spidey’s widely thought to have murdered Norman Osborn. He’s a valid target for the Punisher. But why work with the Jackal — an unknown quantity at best (#129 was his first appearance too) who’s obviously got ulterior motives and is up to general no-good-ness? The whole thing smacks of a man who doesn’t have his head screwed on quite straight.

And then there’s #135, where the Punisher says outright to Spider-Man, “Now you can make a man… question the sanity of his own mind!” In fiction, at least, people who question their own sanity this way usually have a damn good reason for doing so, that reason being that they’re losing (or have lost) their marbles. I don’t know if all this was a conscious decision by Gerry Conway or not, but I clearly think there’s a pattern of a sort here.

And yes, the quote I pulled might seem a little generous in light of all that, and my own exposure to the character — but still, he says it in the second panel in which he ever speaks. It’s the first substantive thing the character ever says. Even if the story didn’t quite live up to it, I think it was intended as a definitional element — or at least, definitional of what the Punisher believes his motivation to be.

In the context of judging this overall subject, Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider-Man #82-83 (1985), is of interest. The Punisher goes off the deep end and begins shooting at jaywalkers and people who violate traffic laws before trying (and failing) to kill the Kingpin. He’s captured and put on trial. Based on his attorney’s impassioned argument the judge is about to rule the Punisher legally insane. He goes berserk for a few moments, insisting it’s the state that’s insane, not him. He finally collapses, insisting he cannot reason with crazy people: “They just can’t see things like I see them. They just can’t see…”. Personally I find this story a poor characterization of the Punisher, but reasonable minds may differ. (And caveat: the Punisher limited series later ret-cons much of this out of our conversation by declaring that the Punisher had been subjected to mind-altering drugs at the time. Though to me, at least, they never made it clear how or when this happened.)

On the War Wagon and war journal entries: those first appear in Giant-Size Spider-Man #4 (and the Punisher!, according to the cover), written by Gerry Conway and published in April, 1975. They also appear in the Marvel Preview #2 story, also written by Conway, but as far as I can tell that only has a date of “1975” so I’m not sure if it preceded GSSM #4 or not. The War Wagon and war journal entries first appear in ASM itself in the #161-162 story featuring Nightcrawler as well (written by Len Wein, 1976).

On the Vietnam-ishness of the Punisher’s background: this is first mentioned in Marvel Preview #2 (1975), in a story that involves the Punisher tracking down some killers he fought with in ’Nam. Its first appearance in ASM itself was #175, as far as I know.

On his name and appearance: I agree with your points here. I hadn’t noticed it before, but I think you’re correct.

Links: The evolution of the Punisher

Next: Sex and sex and sex and sex

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on January 7, 2016, in Guest posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I actually don’t find these earlier Punisher stories–which I am reading for the first time *especially* bad. #129 and #135 are your classic Misunderstanding Fight, Exposition, Part Ways type of thing, with #129 being actually a pretty hard-edged example.

    I’m also not sure the extent to which I’d call this early Punisher “deranged.” These are the same issues that have Harry Osborne grinning like a loon, sweat pouring down his furrowed brow as he skulks, roach-like, about the apartment he shares with Peter, presumably cackling the whole damn time. When Len Wein wanted you to think a dude was crazy, he was not subtle about it. The Punisher is clearly an anti-hero type, or intended to be.

    Issue #129 does play up the Marine background, and in that issue the Punisher does appear to be specifically political, ranting about “them” and how “they” are up to no good–conflating drug addicts with their enablers and coddlers in Washington. Frankly the Punisher in this issue sounds like one of Nixon’s Silent Majority given a gun. I’d be curious to know exactly when the “dishonored vet” thing picked up steam.

    The set of issues you haven’t mentioned yet are #161-62, which are just . . . whoa man, these things tire a guy out. I can only read so many misunderstanding fights in one day.

    I will say this for Len Wein: he lived in New York City, and it shows. And Andru either lived there or had good photo references. One of the nice things about setting your characters in a real place is that you can drag in landmarks, etc., which for some reason Marvel is super-shy about doing.

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    • That’s Conway, not Wein. It’s not merely a pedantic point, they are light-years apart, particularly in relation to DC.

      The dishonored-vet meme did not kick in until the early-mid 1980s. The Punisher’s Marine background in the context of mid-70s Vietnam, in fact, pre-withdrawal, does not code as “poor ol’ spat-upon hero,” but “baby killer.”

      For my money, and I think this is textual, there is no daylight between “deranged” and “Nixon’s Silent Majority with a gun.”

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      • You’re absolutely correct about Conway. My mistake.

        The “dishonored Vet” thing was at least as back as ’82 because I remember seeing advertisements complaining of how vets were facing employment discrimination around then.

        Granted that Marvel and DC both existed as voracious machines that existed to take anything and everything in pop culture, digest it, and vomit it forth in garishly costumed goofballs rarin’ for a good ol’ Misunderstanding Fight, I honestly can’t think of two tropes less suited for each other than mid-Seventies Spider-Man and Bronson-type Deathwish. It would be like Sesame Street, with a brief interlude brought to you by Ralph Steadman’s illustrations from “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

        And that’s really the big problem with the Punisher as a character. He’s a genuine vigilante, no fooling around with: the only questions being, having determined that violence is an acceptable way to better your community, who would YOU go after, and why?

        The only way to avoid Spider-Man, Daredevil, Captain America, etc., from having to grapple with these questions, is for them to abolish the premise–that violence is NOT an acceptable way to better the community. Yet that’s built into the whole concept of the costumed crime-fighter. You can only evade those questions by fighting goofs like Doctor Octopus for so long.

        Miller’s Daredevil answers that question by creating a villain who simply cannot be defeated by violence: sure, you might get lucky and kill Wilson Fisk (I betcha Reed Richards could rig something up), but the City itself is an extension of Fisk, his corrupting laugh is in our social DNA.

        In the mid-80’s, Wolverine (again with Miller!) fought it in himself, by trying to overcome his own bloodlust. Running around gutting people is bad for his soul.

        Curiously, it’s Spider-Man who doesn’t really grapple with the question, as near as I can recall.

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    • The issue of “Who you’d go after, and why” is an important one. We’ll definitely be touching on that in relation to (among others) the Question, the Foolkiller, and a few others (including some villainous vigilantes, like the Vigilante Squad).

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    • Just as a clarification, while there was definitely a “dishonored vet” cultural meme going on at some point, I don’t think that ever applied to the Punisher. In fact, long before they ever revealed his true identity “on camera,” they stated repeatedly how many medals and honors he’d earned.

      As for “baby killer” — I certainly never got that vibe. Hard-bitten soldier, yes. Ruthless and uncaring about human life, no. But vibes are, by definition, subjective.

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      • I don’t get the “baby killer” vibe from the Punisher text at all either. I’m probably over-stating the point that in 1975, the 1981-onward idea that Vietnam vets were poor misunderstood patriots was flatly not on the radar. This is maybe too much for a comment, but there’s a sharp distinction between the 1960s vets, many of whom became participants in and leaders of the antiwar and draft resistance movements, and the 1970s vets, who signed up or were drafted in the context of those movements. The latter group was various and difficult to characterize, but I think it’s fair to say the more voluntary subset of them formed a pro-military, anti-antiwar bloc. (all this too should be understood in the odd context that drafted enlisted men served for a single year)

        This also might be splitting historical hairs too finely, but given that the (as yet unnamed) Punisher had been a Marine for three years just prior or recently prior to his appearance, then he’d fall more into the latter category.

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  2. Also, I imagine it is sometime in the mid-1970’s that Marvel will address the ultimate conundrum:

    Can a man get into a Misunderstanding Fight with HIMSELF?

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