What's more dangerous than a barracuda?
In his novel Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad wrote, “You shall judge of a man by his foes as well as by his friends.” Comicbook writer Garth Ennis took these words to heart when he effectively rebooted, with the help of artists Steve Dillon, Goran Parlov, and others, Marvel’s deadliest vigilante, Frank Castle, known as The Punisher.
The essence of the Punisher can be boiled down to one sentence: criminals killed his family, so he kills criminals. Fairly simple, and really, fairly boring. How many criminals can a guy mow down in cold blood before the reader begins stifling yawns? So Ennis chose to concentrate on Castle’s supporting cast in order to highlight aspects of the Punisher’s character that may never have occurred to the reader before.
Beginning with his first arc, “Welcome Back, Frank”, Ennis introduces Joan, Spacker Dave, and Mr. Bumpo, three comically average denizens of Castle’s apartment building, who prove invaluable in Castle’s personal war. And of course, Ennis populated Castle’s world with some of the most vile antagonists created for the comics’ page: the mafioso Oedipus, Nicky Cavella; the white slavers, Cristu and Tiberiu Bulat; and of course, the man they call Barracuda.
Big, black, and bald, Barracuda is reputedly based on African-American folk hero Stagger Lee, a St. Louis pimp convicted of murder in 1895. As in the song that immortalized Stagger Lee, Barracuda is almost cartoonish in his viciousness, and it seems this characterization is two-fold in purpose. One, Ennis is applying his well-known dark humor to briefly exchange the spotlight on Castle’s hard-nosed, no-nonsense brand of violence to one that is even more over-the-top, as we catch glimpses of Barracuda’s life in prison and notice his preference for the ludicrously over-sized M60 machine gun.
Two, as intent as Castle is in his war on crime, we should be reminded that a war requires a worthy adversary, one with his own war to wage. In Barracuda’s case, this war is even more encompassing than Castle’s. It is strictly Barracuda versus the world. Emblazoned on the gold caps of his front teeth is his personal motto, there for all the world to see each time he smiles (which is often): FUCK YOU
Upon the first meeting of Barracuda and Castle in the arc aptly titled “Barracuda”, the reader is treated to more violent slapstick than a Three Stooges marathon. Castle stabs out Barracuda’s right eye, hacks all the fingers off his right hand, and knocks out two of his caps, yet Barracuda is still able to subdue him (for a time, anyway). As highly entertaining as this arc is, there is not much more characterization to Barracuda until the story’s end. Finding himself double-crossed by his white-collar employers, Barracuda ends up aiding Castle in destroying their yacht with all aboard. Afterwards, Barracuda, with his almost child-like reasoning, says to Castle: “Now—I’s thinkin’ all this shit put you an’ me onna same side, homes.”
Of course, Castle shoots him point-blank in the face. Castle would certainly never align himself with a son of a bastard like Barracuda. But as far as murderous sociopaths go, the reader can conclude, as Barracuda did, that beyond their obvious surface differences, Barracuda and Castle are largely cut from the same criminally-insane cloth.
Barracuda’s next appearance (again, the character’s seeming ability to recover from the most grievous of wounds puts him in a very Wile E. Coyote-sort of category) is in a solo mini-series, and as such, he is given more scrutiny as far as back-story and motivations are concerned. In an attempt to raise sufficient funds to exact his revenge on Castle, Barracuda attempts a coup d’état of the fictional South American country Santa Morricone, and in the process becomes something of a father figure to Oswald “Hemo” Angelone.
Big Chris, Hemo’s gangster father, wishes Barracuda to help Hemo become a man by finally “making his bones” at murder. Hemo, a Coke-bottle-spectacled hemophiliac, could not be less interested in this. But by the series’ end, he realizes that his father does not have his best interests at heart, and in fact, does not care whether Hemo lives or dies, as evidenced by Big Chris ordering a small army to charge Barracuda’s base of operations with Hemo inside.
Barracuda, in what amounts to an honestly heartfelt sentiment, delivers this speech to the young man:
“You gotta learn, boy. I tol’ you back when shit started, you gonna have to change if you wanna be a gangsta. Yo’ pops out to waste my ass, an’ he don’t give a fuck who gets got while he doin’ it. Not you, not nobody. He one hard muthafucka, no doubt. He gotta be that way ‘cause that’s how the fuckin’ world is, Hemo. Shit comes to shit, ain’t no one gonna be there for you. Every muthafucka alone in this world—so you best be gettin’ used to that, an’ you best man up an’ learn to be hard as the goddamn world itself.”
Barracuda has experienced a world that is nasty, brutish, and violent, a world not unlike what Frank Castle experienced in the jungles of Vietnam, the jungles of New York City. Whereas Castle decided to save the world at the sake of his own humanity, Barracuda decided that if you cannot beat them, you may as well join them. The reader may find his theory objectionable, but again it is not difficult to see how far Barracuda and Castle tread the same path and how little divergence there is in the directions they chose. The fact that Barracuda accidentally kills Hemo while trying to show him affection is really only different from Castle’s guilt over his dead family in that Barracuda has never felt guilt in his life.
This theme of fatherhood is revisited with a vengeance in the arc “Long, Cold Dark”. The story opens with Castle’s recurring nightmare: his family is alive and well and happy, and Frank has grown fat and content in his old age. Instead of enjoying this, he is nearly paralyzed with fear that he is going to be unable to protect them. Clearly, Castle is more comfortable avenging his family than he is protecting them, in reacting rather than acting. But when Barracuda discovers Castle has an infant daughter that even Castle does not know about, he uses this to draw Castle out into the open.
It is also in this arc that we finally learn of Barracuda’s childhood. The eldest of three children, Barracuda was abused by his father. Rather, “tortured” would be a more fitting term, as he forced the boy who would become Barracuda to hold his bare hand to a lit grill, in an effort to teach the boy to be “hard as the goddamn world itself”. Barracuda bore the brunt of his father’s abuse in order to protect his younger brother and sister. Yet eventually, his brother was killed and his sister turned to prostitution to support her drug habit. And so the world had made its mark on Barracuda.
Previous to their final showdown, Castle chains Barracuda up and locks him in the trunk of his car. But Barracuda’s memories of his upbringing begin to flash before his eyes, driving him into a truly insane rage. Barracuda breaks free from his restraints and his rationale. As he unloads on Castle, he screams about his father: “Never found him! Never fuckin’ found him! Hadda take that shit out onna muthafuckin’ world!”
Barracuda’s revenge against his father was thwarted; therefore, the world had to substitute, had to act as the victim to Barracuda’s inhuman rage. And when Frank Castle becomes only the second man in Barracuda’s life to beat him, to physically humiliate him, Frank Castle becomes the target for Barracuda’s patricidal feelings. And thus is Barracuda’s projection of these feelings his downfall, for Frank Castle has been at this war of his for a longer time and with a minimum of emotional interference. Castle kills Barracuda finally, and returns his daughter to her foster parents, insisting that the child never know who her father is. Where Barracuda chose to unleash his fury upon the world, Castle chooses to withdraw from it, to keep his family at a distance, and to immerse himself in what he calls “the long, cold dark that I’ve made of my life”.
These two men were born into hard times, were trained by their government to kill, and were fuelled by feelings of anger and bloody vengeance that the average person would balk at believing could exist. But where Barracuda allowed the world to dictate its own terms, allowed his feelings to control him, Frank Castle seeks to make the world into his own image, to eliminate the enemies of what he considers the good, even if he becomes the evil in the process. This does not mean that Frank Castle is the better man.
But Frank Castle has survived.
For what that is worth.