Characters are driven by conflict, and some of the best are driven by internal conflict. In an era where superheroes are finally being taken seriously by mainstream audiences, writers everywhere are desperate to prove that their character is the most multi-layered, complex, and human comic book hero. There’s Batman’s angst-ridden ethical dilemmas, clamouring for attention; Iron Man’s rampant alcoholism; Captain America’s eternal battle with belonging and nostalgia; and Spider-Man’s need for atonement for a single moment of negligence.
And then there’s Frank Castle…
How does one even begin to describe a character like Frank Castle? The first thing to do would be to clear the air and state that Jon Bernthal’s rendition of the character, while wonderfully satisfying to watch and hear, isn’t actually much like the Punisher insofar as anyone reading comics would know him. Where Bernthal was conflicted and tortured, Frank Castle knows no such anguish. In fact, the Punisher is the single most content and stable person alive in the Marvel Universe.
Read any issue of Garth Ennis’ seminal run on PunisherMAX and you’ll see a man take to a life of dealing with the very worst people have to offer with a workman-like efficiency. There’s a kind of zen to watching Frank at work, unloading entire magazines into wiseguys, goombahs, slavers, and corrupt executives. All the dirt and slime of the human race, slammed into a reality with no quippy Spider-Men or righteous Captain Americas. In the MAX universe, everyone gets what’s coming to them and all cheques are cleared one way or another.
There’s a beautiful simplicity to all this, an ethos that reflects Frank himself and whatever he has that can come close to being called idealism. Here, no maniac gets a redemptive arc and rehabilitation is not an option. The reader knows exactly what’s going to befall each and every single character that falls within Frank’s crosshairs or anyone guilty of any wrongdoing whatsoever. Every story, be it centered around the slave trade, the war on terror, or child trafficking, is going to end with punishment. That’s the world Frank Castle lives in, one over which he has sole dominion, free from the interference of the likes of Daredevil.
And it is absolutely joyful.
There’s a remarkable sense of catharsis to reading Ennis’ issues, as you finally get to see a mainstream comic book “hero” set out to achieve something and then actually achieve it, issue after issue. Characters like Batman suffer a long defeat, trying to hammer the world into something that makes sense, something they can control and master. They monologue and suffer, and spend countless nights in fancy costumes brooding over gargoyles. Frank, on the other hand, just gets it done.
Every issue sees a new evil brought into the spotlight, but at the end the world is right again. The bad men are dead and off goes Frank, wordless into the sunset looking for more deserving of his punishment. It sounds absolutely juvenile, and it is. But so are superhero comics as a whole. This is a medium of varying levels of fascistic overtones, mirroring the angst felt by many adolescent boys and giving them a vicarious look into taboo lifestyles that involve, more than anything else, bending the world to one’s own will. Batman does not submit to anyone, and will keep caped crusadering whether or not anyone actually wants him around. The Punisher is these ideas taken to their absolute conclusion: a man with a gun (likely several, actually) shooting other, arguably worse, men with guns. He does this and the world seems absolutely right. This is satisfying and it makes sense. It’s hard to see a slave trader or child molester meet a horrific bloody end, choking on their own teeth, and feel anything but content.
The moment I realized this was when Garth Ennis truly shocked and unnerved me with whatever black magic he had enacted on his Punisher books. How does a comic book about an angry man with a gun turn a lifelong Superman fan into an incipient little psycho who thinks that a 12 gauge to the head is a solution to 90% of the world’s ills?
Well, the answer is that it didn’t. Ennis didn’t take a starry-eyed boy and turn him into a ravenous, little murder machine. What he did do was something far more insidious.
He exposed superhero comics for what they really mean to me and several other boys like me: a means to grapple with a world that feels like it is constantly spiralling out of control by taking it and making it our own. What is Gotham without Batman? Metropolis without Superman? Through theatrics and raw prowess, these characters rise from nothing to become masters of their surroundings and their universes. To become the single most important thing in the world, carrying and deciding the fates of millions. The world is hammered into shape, and that shape is our own. We make the world what we do in it.
So what is the essential nature of a world that only has a Frank Castle? Here Ennis takes that central edict of the biggest and greatest of the genre to its logical conclusion: Frank is defined by a compulsive need for never-ending vengeance, seeing in the world his family’s killers and therefore a worthy candidate for punishment. So what does Frank Castle’s world look like?
Well, I’d say Ennis pretty much nailed it.
We all knew where this was going. There was never any question that the eternal conquest for blood would beget yet more blood. For as outlandish and wild a departure Ennis’ Punisher capstone The End is, it is the only way a world defined by a man’s compulsive need for retribution could have ended.
In the end, everything pays and all cheques are cashed. The books are balanced and there is no sin unpunished.
There’s a wonderful sense of peace to all this. This grim conclusion is what Frank was heading towards the entire time. It is important to note that Frank never really cared much for saving anyone. This is not a man who sees good or innocence, all that left his world years ago; one could argue that it was never really in his world to begin with. If all the world is little more than a tumor, better to burn the whole thing, and him with it. Cauterize the wound. There’s no anguish here and no internal conflict. Just the peace of knowing that the inevitable has come to pass, that the world has taken its essential shape and it is well truly yours. It makes sense, and what more could you ask for?
All hostiles terminated. Mission Accomplished.