The Big Bang: The Punisher, 1986-Present

The vigilantism, third in the me / Steve Long series beginning with Eat hot lead, comics reader and What was the questions, again?, continues with further Punisher talk from …

STEVE AT THE MIC

We left off in our analysis of the Punisher in 1986: the year of The Dark Knight Returns, the year of Watchmen, and most importantly for the Punisher the year of his five-issue limited series, written by Steven Grant and illustrated by Mike Zeck. In short, it was the beginning of the gritty, “realistic” period I think of as the Iron Age of comics, and Frank Castle was right there in the first wave, making me think about the subject of crimefighting and vigilantism in a way that strongly influenced my gaming and, eventually, my authorship of Dark Champions (1993).

As someone who was a big fan of the Punisher’s appearances in Amazing Spider-Man and elsewhere, I was excited when I heard about the limited series. “High time they gave him his own title!” I thought, eager for the distraction from college classes. Unfortunately the reality didn’t live up to my expectations. While the limited series at long last revealed the Punisher’s real name, otherwise I found it very disappointing. The storyline seemed disjointed at best and just plain bad at worst, and the Punisher didn’t really seem to be acting in character. The whole thing came across to me as having not been well thought out with consideration for the character — as a production driven primarily by marketing decisions.

But for better or worse, my recollection is that the limited series was quite popular — so much so, in fact, that it led to the launch in 1987 of the Punisher’s own regular series comic book. That series lasted until 1995 and proved so popular that Marvel published even more Punisher titles:

  • Punisher War Journal (1988-1995)
  • Punisher War Zone (1992-1995)
  • Imprints under the “Marvel Edge,” “Marvel Knights,” and “MAX” banners

Raaah! Aahh! Urrghh! Rarrgh!

…plus a whole host of Holiday Specials, Summer Specials, Armories, and much, much more. For a good many years I snapped them all up, but by the early Nineties I’d gotten tired of them and basically stopped reading this character who was such a favorite of mine.

Why? Because in publishing not one but multiple Punisher titles, I think Marvel made an all too common mistake: they took a hero who was a fantastic supporting character and tried to make him the star of his own stories. And the Punisher is the sort of character who functions better when you don’t take too close a look at him. When he appears in Spider-Man stories he’s both ally and adversary, a mysterious figure who intrigues us as much with the questions he raises as with his actions. Once you answer too many of those questions, though, it’s hard to sustain the interest.

On a related note, I think they weakened the Punisher as a character by largely divorcing him from the established Marvel Universe. You could read dozens of issues of his titles and have absolutely no clue that he existed in the same New York City as Spider-Man and Moon Knight (never mind the Avengers and plenty of other high-powered superheroes). Every now and then someone — often Daredevil, in the role of antagonist — would show up, but that was it.

And what’s worse, the Punisher almost never fought supervillains. For my money that was a colossal mistake. They should have done with him what they eventually did with the subject of one of our upcoming columns, the Scourge of the Underworld:  let him, in his own book and in occasional quick guest appearances in other heroes’ books, shoot and kill any of Marvel’s legion of relatively pointless and unnecessary supervillains. He doesn’t have to fight supervillains all the time — in fact that would be just as big a mistake — but he absolutely should fight them on a regular basis.

Instead, to take the Limited Series and the first ten or so issues of each of his solo titles, he fought a plethora of “ordinary” criminals: a conspiracy of the rich and powerful trying to “end crime” in their own destructive way; Mafia families and goons; drug kingpins and street gangs; anti-US government militiamen; Muslim terrorists; evil cult leaders; corrupt Wall Street tycoons (one of whom was also a serial killer); a psycho putting cyanide in medicine (“Ripped right from the headlines!”); African poachers; an amoral sniper he knew in Vietnam. And he doesn’t just do this in New York City; he travels to South America and Africa, for example.

To make matters worse, the stand-alone titles virtually abandoned one of the best “gimmicks” for the Punisher: even the titular War Journal failed to use the “war journal entries” as a way of telling the story and conveying the Punisher’s thoughts and feelings. As a writer I can see why that might become tedious at times, but it really set the Punisher apart and I wish they’d kept it.

None of my quibbles would matter as much if the writing on these books had been better. I’m not saying it was bad, but it was… lackluster, I guess you’d call it. The stories held my attention well enough at the time (though I think too many of them depended on the Punisher making stupid mistakes he never would have), but after I read them I quickly forgot about them. I can’t point you to a single “great Punisher story” that I think you should read…

…with one exception: the magnificent story arc in Punisher War Zone #1-11. With taut writing by Chuck Dixon and Punisher-perfect art (mostly by John Romita, Jr.), it tells the story of the Punisher attempting to bring down a major mob family by infiltrating it undercover. Along the way we get the funniest torture scene ever, weird assassins hired from all over the world to kill Our Hero, a steamy romance leading to a crazy ex-girlfriend with a Mafia family at her beck and call, and plenty more. It’s a joy to read from beginning to end, and if you can only read one Punisher story from the early Nineties, that’s the one.

In recent years I’ve looked back in on the Punisher occasionally and have seen some not-intolerable things. In fact Volume 7 of The Punisher, written by Garth Ennis and published from 2004 to 2009, is a great read throughout. While it approaches the Punisher more as a soldier and less as a crimefighter than I’d prefer, Ennis for once takes his subject seriously and turns out some highly readable action-adventure stories. So perhaps there’s some life in ol’ Skull-Chest yet.

Now if only they’d hire me to write a movie for him….

RON REPLIES: PUNISHER, MY PUNISHER

We knew we’d be doing lots of different Punisher posts, but I didn’t realize just how much parsing the guy would require. To understand the late 80s Punisher – and why I loathe him – I have to turn the clock back a decade.

Part One: still talking about the 134-135 Spider-Man story by Gerry Conway.

In it, the primary villain is the Tarantula, who is pretty terrible as far as powers & look & plot go, but genuinely fantastic for political background. “Dictatorship” meant very different things depending on the speaker during the Cold War, and I suggest that Conway was savvy enough not to confound different regions such that “South American dictatorship” in 1975 can be none other than Chile.

Now for the (“this”) Punisher: he’s got the same hair-trigger on first impressions + ranting, with no Jackal to blame for it this time, and the same strangely non-lethal effect on bad guys he’s allegedly so ruthless toward. For example, the Tarantula’s goons, Juan and the unfortunately-spelled “Hildago,” do not cease to breathe in this story for no discernible reason. The opportunity to contrast the Punisher killing them vs. Spidey not killing the Tarantula is simply bypassed.

Here’s the payoff:

T: Mockery? You dare mock me? Don’t you realize who — whatI am?

SM (while thoroughly kicking his ass): Sure I do, buster — You’re a first-class creep — traitor to your own friends. Men who were trying to free their people from a dictatorshipheroes whose boots you aren’t fit to shine!

immediately followed by:

punishergood

This is, I think, what’s entirely gone in 1986 and going forward.

Part two, 1982: Miller grows the beard

I like to divide Miller’s career into early grit vs. later grot, admitting that each has its heights of its respective thing. Daredevil 183-184 is one of the pinnacles of the former, simply outstanding gritty-supers comics. You couldn’t ask for a clearer transition for a single character: the Punisher’s nuances are brought forward, thrown into conflict, hitting their limits, and contrasted with Daredevil’s heroism even as that heroism is also brought to its limits … never mind the plot summary, just read the thing if you haven’t. Read it again if you have.

Daredevil, at this point, is about as far to the edge of what a “good guy superhero” can be, and written far better, in this regard, than Batman had ever managed (however, take a look at who Miller’s editor was to grab a clue about that). In perfect juxtaposition, the Punisher is about as close to a plain old good guy as he gets, as he’s after a particularly foul angel dust dealer and not, for instance, icing “Vito the Thumb” at a wedding or something. It comes down to the iconic moment of Daredevil armed with one of the Punisher’s guns as the latter is about to execute the perp. Notable too for arousing the now almost-moribund Comics Code Authority.

Strong as that moment is, though, this one provides the heart.

This is actually from the prequel in Spider-Man Annual 15, 1981 (O’Neil and Miller)

There. The depth is all there. He considers himself a law enforcement officer, and a member of the general social contract, the body politic. Millered-out badassery and all, this Punisher is still a person.

STEVE RETURNS FIRE

Excellent observations, Ron; I can’t disagree with any of ’em. I think in many ways that one of the problems you pointed out — not contrasting the Punisher with other costumed heroes — dogs his own books. And to some extent that’s because he talks ruthless more than he actually acts ruthless. Most of the stories I re-read for this article go something like this:

1. The Punisher begins investigating a criminal situation.
2. His activities are somehow exposed, people begin shooting at him, and he shoots back with lethal skill.
3. He makes a mistake somewhere along the line that makes the situation more difficult for him.
4. He overcomes these difficulties with skill, determination, and luck, beats the bad guys, and lives to fight another day.

You can re-arrange those elements sometimes, but they’re usually all there. What’s missing?

5. The Punisher ruthlessly guns down some criminal scum who’s not threatening him in any way.

That’s what we think of the Punisher doing, but what he rarely does, for the obvious reason that going too far all the time would make the Punisher less sympathetic to the reader. The writer conveniently arranges things so the Punisher acts in self-defense or is a soldier fighting in a war, not simply an assassin.

We don’t really see the ruthless vigilante, as far as I can recall, until the Punisher War Zone #1-11 arc I mentioned earlier. It opens with the Punisher gunning down an informant who’s literally groveling at his feet. Chuck Dixon keeps that up throughout the story, showing the Punisher stalking and taking down criminal operations with military efficiency. For my comic-buying dollar, it’s the first time aside from the character’s early appearances in ASM and the black-and-whites that we see him as he “ought” to be written.

But does that make for good long-term stories? Out of all the Punisher’s books, I can only cite that one story as being memorable and exciting to read. Some characters only work best as supporting cast, as contrasts to the main hero, and that’s missing in the Punisher books. Maybe that’s why Daredevil so often shows up as a guest star.

Next: Who is Coyote

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Posted on January 31, 2016, in Guest posts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. The Punisher’s detonation across the Marvel line in the late 1980’s, combined with Wolverine’s ridiculous ubiquity, drove me away from super hero comics for over a decade. (I’m not sure I missed a whole lot.)

    I specifically remember “Punisher #13,” in which the Punisher pretty much straight-up executes a Charlie Manson stand-in who is, at the time of execution, completely powerless. Maybe there was some subtle storytelling gimmick that was lost on me as a 13 year old, but I distinctly recall being morally revolted by the story, and thinking that even though Spider-Man may be a child’s fantasy, it was a healthier and happier fantasy to have.

    And I think Steve’s right: if you turn the Punisher from a supporting character to a lead, that means lethal violence is no longer an issue to mull over from time to time, in a, “Oh isn’t that interesting” kind of way, but a central and urgent concern. The Punisher as protagonist means ALWAYS asking, “When is it okay to kill, other than in self-defense?” And the answer is either “Very seldom, in which case we’re kinda teasing you with all this gun porn aren’t we,” or, “Every issue, in which case we’re basically moral troglodytes writing for moral troglodytes.”

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  2. As for the super villain problem: this has been kicked around the blog a couple of times: which comes first, the super human, or the super human villain? The Punisher has very important things to say about the question. Let me back up and develop the argument a little.

    Briefly, I think whether super heroes or villains come first, comes down to whether the fictional world’s social contract is broken (the mob controls the mayor and thus the police; we need an unaccountable, incorruptible super-cop to stand up to the mob) or the social contract is basically intact (the police protect us from most crooks but are powerless against the genius of Doctor Octopus, and thus we need a super human protector).

    Now let’s do what comics nerds have been doing since all time: putting characters into rough rankings relative to each other.

    TIER 1 HUMAN PLUS A LITTLE: The Enforcers. The Crime-Master. The Kingpin as a physical threat. The Melter. Shang-Chi. The Falcon-as-acrobat. Any of the Power Pack kids. Any of the early New Mutants. Any of the X-Men in the early 1960’s. Basically this is anyone with (mostly untrained) powers, or a goon whose name we know, like maybe Turk Barrett; Ann Nocenti’s “Daredevil” run had a few guys in this category.

    TIER 2: PLAINLY SUPER HUMAN. Pretty much all of Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery goes here; pretty much all of the Avengers and mainstay X-Men; Kingpin as a moral threat; it’s a big fat wide band. Any one of these guys could take on a team of Tier 1 dudes, or vice-versa. If you have a nifty super power, how to use it, odds are you’re in this category, unless the fans think you really suck.

    TIER 3: TERRIFYING BAD-ASSES. Thor, the Hulk, Doctor Doom, the Silver Surfer, Magneto, the Red Skull, Annihilus, Thanos, Ultron. Again, any one of these guys is probably a headache for a team of Tier 2 folks, and likely well beyond the scope of Tier 1 people.

    (NOTE: This is, of course, an ridiculous exercise, as Squirrel Girl proves.)

    So, in-fiction, if we were to look at powers and backstories and what-not, the Punisher seems to fall in Tier 1. For real-world popularity reasons, he’s mopping the goddamn floor with them, and we’re supposed to cheer for him–i.e., in the publishing, world the fans/writers/editors would invent some reason why he could stand up to a Tier 2 adversary for a while.

    But imagine a world where a city police force can’t take out, say, the Enforcers. Or Jigsaw. Or Paste-Pot Pete. That is to say, imagine a world where the Punisher is necessary. That’s effectively saying that, forget about this Tier 2 nonsense, even with Tier 1 guys the world is ungovernable. The collective experiment known as “liberal democracy” has failed, and the barbarians are at the gates. The only thing that can save us now is a heavily-armed Big Man, and if we want to get out of this alive, we’d better defer to his military-inspired wisdom.

    Ain’t no accident he became crazy-popular in the Reagan-Bush era, and then faded pretty quickly after that.

    Ugh. The Punisher. Dude’s the worst.

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    • Reviewing the 1975-1982 Punisher has warmed me up to him – a lot, actually. In this context, he is (I argue) clearly unhinged. Even Miller writes him as unthinking enough to kill a kid and then feel bad about it … but not enough to do anything except ramp up his war. Even with the certain amount of badass-gun-porn he brings (Wein seems to be the chief offender, not Miller), he appears specifically to show you why the hero is really on the right side. Because he (the Punisher) isn’t, even when certain things about him are understandable. I maintain that this distinction, and his story role, are textually apparent when you look at these appearances without the post-1986 material fogging up the view.

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  3. On the gun porn angle, though, it’s interesting to note that until the Punisher got his own books, he almost never used a gun readily identifiable as any real-world model. With the exception of a few stories (such as, I think, the black-and-whites), the guns he used had a distinctively comic book-y look to them — almost like they were ballistics firearms made of metal by the same manufacturer that made AIM and Hydra blasters from plastics and ceramics. There wasn’t even much attempt to make them plausible or “realistic”-looking, in the way that would appeal to a gun nut. I don’t see anything I’d fit into the “gun porn” category until his solo titles (in particular, the “Armory” titles that did nothing but showcase his real-world gear, with manufacturers’ names and everything).

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  4. The thing about almost any comic book character is that they become an amalgamation of different writings and re-writings as to who they “ought” to be, a model character who sits at the intersection of authorial intention, commerce, and fandom. This results in some plasticity of character, such as Spider-Man’s sojourn from escapist High School kid, to troubled student in the big leagues, to the everyman hero and mentor he has become.

    The problem I have with the Punisher, and specifically with the way he is written by Dixon and Ennis, is that the guns and killing have pushed the character ever more into a dehumanized murder machine. And as he has been moved down that path, so have his contacts and enemies, to the point where there is no real point for looking to find the “gray” area in any of them because it does not exist.

    If there is no question as to right or wrong, and if every life is as cheap as it has become in the most egregious of examples, than all I think that you have left are a series of murders. Sometimes very clever murders I suppose, with colorful characters and dialogue, but no real examination of the points that I believe should matter in a story about the Punisher.

    The Punisher is sometimes described as being obsessed with vengeance, as practically having burned away everything about himself but his war with crime. If that is true, why does it matter that Frank Castle had a family? Why does it matter that his quest is clearly puts him on the same plane as Sisyphus? There is, quite simply, more there. And it gets lost when all the character is can be summed up by a hail of bullets and bodies.

    I am not saying that my reading is right, you understand. Just that I am disappointed, for my own sake, that more writers cannot see past the scowl and the skull.

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    • The point about the impossibility of the task is a good one. It certainly does seem more relevant to the Punisher, although I’m not sure why.

      To me this suggests a line that I imagine several writers have taken over the years: that the Punisher is ultimately trying to commit Suicide-by-Villain. At which point the death of his family, and the whole “Frank Castle died that day,” can all be seen as a really fucked-up form of grieving. (Though I’d argue that Spider-Man’s sense of moral mission is *fueled* by grief, but not a substitute for it the way the Punisher’s war seems to be.)

      Ron and Steve, when does the “My family got killed by the mob” thing show up? Gotta be 80’s sometime. I read the ’86 series in the last year or so, and liked Zeck’s art, but wasn’t paying enough attention to what was an addition to the character as he existed at the time.

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  5. Good question — one I probably should’ve touched on in the first column. We first see the Punisher’s origin — his family being killed — in the first black-and-white story, Marvel Preview #2 (1975).

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  6. So, growing up at this time (70’s/80’s) in the NYC area, a vigilantism series got me thinking about ties between Marvel/comics and NYC sociopolitics of the time, Bernhard Goetz, and the … bizarre? yeah, I’ll go with bizarre … Magnificent 13/Shaolin Protectors/Curtis Sliwa/Guardian Angels phenomena. Google tells me someone wrote a thesis:

    http://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1401&context=gc_etds

    My comics-fu is too weak to evaluate it, but it seemed worth pointing at.

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