Garth Ennis gives the Punisher a fond(?) farewell from regular Marvel continuity.
In his posthumously published novel A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole introduces to American literature the protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly, quite possibly the most pompous, snobbishly vile main character in twentieth century literature. Overeducated and undersexed, Reilly spends the length of the novel bemoaning the travesty that is modern society while unabashedly sponging off his mother and shoveling ungodly quantities of hot dogs and soda pop into his fat, mustachioed face.
Reilly is, however, as the title would suggest, surrounded by a secondary cast as comically flawed as he: the bungling Officer Mancuso, as effective a policeman as any of the Police Academy film series; the loud-mouthed buttinsky Santa Battaglia, Reilly’s mother’s best friend and vocal proponent of shock treatment; and Myrna Minkoff, Reilly’s ex-girlfriend whose well-meaning liberalism makes her a willing target for any fraudulent Freudian looking to get into her pants. Nearly every character Reilly comes into contact with finds him appalling, and nearly every character is appalling in each one’s own way.
In the early 1960s, the era in which Dunces is set, Marvel Comics was making a name for itself as a top tier publisher of superhero comics. One of its selling points was that Marvel’s heroes were more human, more flawed, and thus more relatable to their target audience as opposed to the (comparatively) lily-white superiority of DC’s Superman or Wonder Woman. Spider-Man, from the outset, was vilified by the public and, as Peter Parker, the butt of his classmates’ jokes. Daredevil was able to perform dazzling stunts of derring-do, but remained without the ability to see. Wolverine had been poked and prodded, stripped of all humanity in the name of science and government, and continues to battle his more feral side. And of course, Frank Castle, the Punisher, had witnessed his family brutally murdered before his very eyes.
“Confederacy of Dunces” is the final arc of Garth Ennis’ run as writer on The Punisher that takes place within regular Marvel Universe continuity. From here on in for the next few years, The Punisher would be published exclusively under Marvel’s mature-readers MAX imprint, allowing Ennis to explore the character in a more realistic setting, with more colorful language and fewer men in capes. But before he does that, Ennis gathers some of Marvel’s foremost tights-wearing characters to send Frank off.
Daredevil gathers Spider-Man and Wolverine together to team up and finally take Frank Castle in and bring him to justice. Despite the fact his victims are all criminals, Castle has murdered over one thousand people, and Daredevil decides enough is enough. Garth Ennis as a writer has never made any secret of his attitude towards super-heroes; in his hands, most are generally inept, at best, and at worst, they are outright menaces to society. In this case Ennis strips each of these three down to his bare-bones character: Wolverine and Spider-Man are little more than adventurers, the former as thick as Canadian bacon and the latter little more than a confused adolescent trying to do the right thing. Matt Murdock, as Daredevil, is however an educated lawyer, so he is not only intelligent but unwavering in his ideas of what justice is. So Castle rightly decides Daredevil is his most dangerous adversary here.
Castle has a secret weapon up his sleeve, but first he tries to reason with Murdock. Murdock thinks he has Castle figured out: despite his lack of hesitation to kill, Castle will not allow any innocents to come to any real harm. That includes himself and his two compatriots. Since Castle has no extraordinary powers, and since Daredevil and his comrades do, if the three of them work together they ought to able to take Castle down.
And they almost do. But here we see the difference between a book-smart guy like Murdock and a street-smart guy like Castle. Murdock’s plan looks great on paper. But all Castle has to do is separate the three, and their collective power is reduced considerably. How Castle divides and conquers make for more of that Ennis-brand slapstick, but method here is not as important as character: Wolverine and Spider-Man are adrenaline junkies, hotheads who jump into the action feet first. Castle is withdrawn, objective despite his emotional involvement in this “war”: a general whose moves are as calculated as any champion chess player.
Once Castle effectively disarms the trio, he tells Daredevil: “Let this go. Hunting me just leaves the real scum free to do business. And look where it’s gotten the three of you so far.” Of course, Daredevil refuses, and Castle tells him, “Then on your own head be it.” Daredevil is so intent on stopping Castle that he cannot see what Castle can: that his own notion of justice does not account for what boils down to a force of nature. Frank Castle has become as unstoppable as a hurricane. And the best thing to do in this case is take cover and hope the whole thing blows over.
Of course, Castle knew it would not be that simple, and so unleashes his own personal force of nature. The secret weapon Castle has had this time is a drugged, amnesiac Bruce Banner. So when the time comes, Castle slaps him around some, and allows his gamma-irradiated personality to take over, and the Hulk goes on a rampage in Brooklyn. Again, Castle is not going to let any innocents come to harm, and after the Hulk’s rampage keeps Wolverine and Spider-Man busy long enough, Castle detonates the C-40 he had planted inside the Hulk (yes, you read that right).
Again, Castle confronts Murdock: “You want to stop me murdering criminals by taking me off the streets. That’s stupid. Send me to prison and I’ll just kill everyone I meet. There’s only one way to stop me. You know that. If you haven’t got it in you to do it, don’t waste my time.”
Whether removing Castle from regular continuity (however temporarily) was a purely editorial decision or came about at the insistence of Ennis is unknown. But this passage shows that something had to give. Not only does Castle not fit into Murdock’s idea of justice, Castle also does not fit into the Marvel Universe’s idea of justice. Castle, especially as Ennis had come to write him, is an anomaly in this diegesis, a character who follows the concept of vigilantism to its grisly yet only logical end. Separating the character from this more innocent playground of good guys and bad guys not only allows for a more in-depth exploration of the character, but allows the regular Marvel Universe to continue with its sense of play without this grim reaper of a man darkening the horizon. Although a more super-friendly (well, after a fashion) Castle was re-introduced into regular continuity a few years later during the Civil War, separating the two was certainly a good idea for both.
At the end of A Confederacy of Dunces, despite Ignatius J. Reilly’s selfishly fuelled actions—in fact, because of them—everyone in the novel wins out in their own personal lives. Officer Mancuso makes a major bust and becomes a hero cop; Santa Battaglia succeeds in marrying her friend Mrs. Reilly off to an eligible widower and in convincing her to call the men in the white coats onto her son. And Myrna Minkoff, worried that Reilly may have finally succumbed to his overly maternal surroundings, drives down from New York to whisk him away. And despite his rants, his medieval politics, and his gastrointestinal problems, Reilly agrees to run away with her, and the reader finds him or herself, in the end, charmed by this confederacy of deeply flawed, and thus deeply human, characters.
With the Punisher leaving the Marvel Universe, even for a time, everybody gets what they want. And as Frank throws yet another criminal scumbag from the roof of the Empire State Building at the story’s end, even he is happy with his place in the universe.