Punisher: A Timeless Character
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This article was inspired because of a YouTube video made by Comics, by Perch. It’s a really great channel that talks about multiple comic book topics and definitely worth checking out!
“Remember my face! It’s the last thing you’re ever going to see… and I want you to carry the memory of it straight to HELL!”Frank Castle
Anybody that has followed the comic book industry on a regular basis knows that there’s always a new controversy occurring. Whether it’s something to be outraged about, something to complain about or something to be critical of, it has become the norm to find something new every week (or even every day) to criticize simply because it doesn’t adhere to some people’s dubious sense of morality. Last month it was the turn of the quintessential comic book antihero: Frank Castle, mostly known as The Punisher.
When the protests and riots started in the United States as a result of George Floyd’s murder, there were people in the comic book industry arguing that The Punisher’s skull logo, or even the character altogether. They believed he should be removed because of his connection to the police and his brutal way of handling criminals and villains. Some believe the character is, like Perch points out in his video title, an outdated concept and no longer works in the current climate of human society.
Simply put, that is not true.
If you want the short answer, I can tell you now that The Punisher is not an outdated concept and he should remain an active character in Marvel’s Comics’ fictional universe (we’ll go more into the “fictional” part later on), and you can stop reading now. If you want to know why then let’s get started, shall we?
Let’s start with an obvious statement: The Punisher has always been a controversial character. This isn’t new information and it’s become the norm when it comes to Frank Castle: his origin story (his family murdered by crime) and abilities (former Marine) is so heavily rooted in reality that it can make people uncomfortable. If it’s not his military background in the main Marvel Universe, it’s his police background in the Ultimate Universe. Or if it’s not either of them, it’s his way of handling villains, which is basically to shoot them dead. And if it’s not one of the aforementioned reasons, it’s simply because he is a normal man with no superpowers doing these things, and that they think a person in real-life is going to watch Frank and try to follow his example.
The problem with this reasoning is that it is based in the logic that mentally stable people are so easy to influence that watching a fictional character shooting people is suddenly going to inspire them to go out in the streets at night and go full vigilante. That is not so different when people said Heavy Metal bands like Black Sabbath or Judas Priest were promoting suicide and satanic messages or that videogames were the devil. It’s simplifying a situation and not analyzing it any further.
If someone is going to follow The Punisher’s example without any real justification for self-defense (perhaps someone breaks into their house or tries to assault them in an alley), said individual was already unreasonable. A fictional character is not going to turn any sane person into a vigilante and he is not going to inspire a generation of Dirty Harries. Frank has more than forty years of existence to back up that statement.
The current narrative is that Frank Castle is a bad example for military and policemen all across the world. A deranged psychopath that believes he is above the law.
The problem with this logic is that it is a complete misunderstanding of what makes The Punisher tick as a character. He is not doing what he does in life because he believes in the police or the military; he is doing it because the system failed him when his family was gunned down and he decided to take matters into his own hands. He is not trying to represent any system or political party; he just wants criminals to be punished. It’s as simple as that.
The Punisher is a necessary counterpoint to the likes of Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America and many others in the world of comics. While all those characters are heavily in the hero segment, Frank is decisively an antihero, bringing up uncomfortable questions with his actions and constantly challenging the viewpoints of the more conventional heroes. This is of course shown through his relationship with Daredevil throughout the years.
Different perspectives, values and points of view are necessary in both life and fiction for everyone to thrive. I have no problem with superheroes being wholesome and I have defended that many times before in this blog, but it’s also important to have characters with different viewpoints that are designed to be that way, such as in the case of Frank. He is the comic world’s definitive antihero and he represents another way of doing things in the superhero world. And that last part is worth acknowledging: The Punisher’s world is one filled with super-powered beings that cause damage, destruction and death over and over again, so it’s only natural we have a character that decides to take a stand and put an end to it. You can debate The Punisher’s methods, but you cannot deny he is motivated by moral reasons: that bad people and their actions should be stopped.
Nothing The Punisher has done in comics is much different to what the likes of Wolverine, Red Hood, Cable or Deathstroke have done. The antihero is an archetype just as valid as any other and is designed to be morally compromising – that’s the whole point of the “anti” part of the name.
No one watches Batman, who is a normal man with no superpowers just like Frank and tries to fight crime after watching the movie. Why? Because a mentally stable person can watch or read movies and comics and enjoy it (or not) without thinking it is a reflection of the real world. This brings me to the next topic: an obsession with making fiction a representation of the real world.
Some comic book pros have always suffered from an inferiority complex within the art form they work in. They tend to have this need to prove that what they do is “art” and this results in a desire to add a lot of politics, social issues and similar content to the comics. This is often handled in a very cartoonish or simplified manner, based according to the writer’s politics, instead of giving a more complete perspective. Instead of looking mature or ambitious, it makes the artist look pretentious and ham-fisted, missing the mark by a long shot.
All of this is combined with an obsession to use the comic book universes as a way to reflect real-life issues when the contexts are already very different. In a Marvel universe where you have mutants with superpowers, young men that crawl through walls or super soldiers that deal with alien invasions, demons and universe-ending threats, trying to implement real-life issues into this context seems a bit far-fetched, beyond receiving acknowledgement from people that never really cared about the medium to begin. But I digress, that is a whole topic for another article.
All of this fits in when discussing Frank Castle’s role and relevance in the current sociopolitical climate of our world. It isn’t fit to compare The Punisher to what is happening in our world because he is a fictional character. The criminals he has killed are fictional. The people he fights are fictional. The actions he has performed are fictional. Trying to argue that he has any resemblance of influence in events such as George Floyd’s death is foolish and naïve at best and disingenuous and manipulative at worst. You can dislike The Punisher if you want to (there are tons of comic book characters that I don’t like), but to try and remove him from the landscape by arguing that he is outdated or dangerous is simply nitpicking.
The Punisher is the embodiment of the most human type of revenge and rugged justice. He is a man who has lost everything and didn’t get any help or justice, so now he goes out into the world to help others. Much like Rambo and Dirty Harry, he is not meant to be politically correct or to follow the rules; he is a character that is designed to make people uncomfortable and who offers a different way of doing things. We can debate if his methods are right or wrong, but that is the whole point of his character: to make you debate and to make you think. And of course, to entertain, which is the goal of every great character.
Blaming The Punisher for real-life problems is like blaming music, videogames and such for the young people that fall into drugs, suicide or commit mass shootings: lazy, pathetic and cowardly. Instead of pointing fingers at a fictional character, we should take a look at ourselves and think about the type of people we’re raising in our society. To ask ourselves if we’re teaching our youth actual values that can help them in life instead of virtue signaling just for social media likes.
The Punisher is not an outdated character. In fact, he is timeless. He is the perennial story of a man seeking revenge and justice. He is an example of a broken man that will do what the law didn’t’ do for him. And if he makes you feel uncomfortable or out of your comfort zone as far as morals go… then good. He is meant to do that.
Some characters are not meant to be role models. Some of them are meant to show a darker and more morally-compromising look at human nature, even in fiction. The Punisher has always been controversial and he is always going to be that way because he shows a dark side of our nature as humans through his aggressive and violent way of doing justice.
And that makes him timeless.
“I won’t shoot you, you’re an honest cop. But I’m going to shoot him. Even if he goes to prison, he’ll be out in five years to do it all over again.”