There is a thin line between a vigilante and a hero. Except in the comic books. After all, the entire DC Comics Batman-family (i.e. Batman, Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman and Batgirl) thrives on the premise that characters take the law into their own hands to protect innocents against criminals. Nobody “bats” an eyelid.
Over at Marvel Comics, writer Gerry Conway took this premise to its logical conclusion. Imagine a Vietnam vet (a trained soldier steeped in military strategies and covert ops) losing his family at the hand of criminals looking to silence potential witnesses to their murderous activities and then declaring a war on crime, one that takes no prisoners. The Punisher (aka Frank Castle) was based freely on a novel called War Against the Mafia. Debuting in 1968 and written by Don Pendleton, the book featuring Mack Bolan who dubbed himself the Executioner and, like Frank Castle, was a Vietnam vet who declares a one-man war against the Mafia after seeing his family slaughtered by them. Conway took these and other plot elements, and put the Punisher firmly in Batman territory by placing a huge skull emblem on the character’s chest a vigilante in super-hero clothes.
After a successful publication run of multiple titles in the eighties, one written by talented scribe Mike Baron, the Punisher eventually ran out of steam and was cancelled. He was revived in a mini-series that served to re-introduce the character to a nineties audience as an avenging angel-zombie. The relative interest that was generated prompted the Marvel Knights imprint to launch a Punisher 12-part series helmed by the team responsible for the critically acclaimed Preacher Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.
A short aside about Preacher: In its five-year run, this series about a Texan man of the cloth blessed/curse with the literal ‘word of God,’ his hitman-wannabe girlfriend, and their Irish vampire buddy managed to offend most sensibilities. It stretched the boundaries of a ‘mature-themed’ comic book almost to a breaking point. Some consider the successful title blasphemous, vulgar, depraved, and obscene, yet it still offered a time-tested tale of trust, loyalty and even love.
Right from the outset, Ennis puts his Punisher series into perspective: “Entertainment. Plain and simple. Not a complex analysis of the causes of crime, not a portrait of one man’s tragic descent into murderous psychosis, not an in-depth examination of the vigilante down the ages.” However, few people are more qualified than former writer Baron to comment on the core psyche of the Punisher. “I always looked at the Punisher as a straight crime book stacked him up against every contemporary crime I knew, starting with the crack trade. Cults. Outlaw biker gangs. Terrorists. If I were writing him today, he would be after crooked politicians.”
In either writer’s manifestation, the violence seems compulsory. Ennis’ own sense of black comedy within his conception of the Punisher reduces many of the characters and the issues to a one-dimensional level. For one thing, the depiction of ultra-violence robs the events set up of any authenticity. Which I presume is the whole point. Ennis litters the story with ingenious ways by which the Punisher disposes of his ‘victims.’ To my mind, this reduces the impact of these execution to a cartoony aspect it’s almost like watching Wile E Coyote and the Roadrunner. This quality is further exaggerated by the ‘Vigilante Squad’, consisting of the Holy (an axe wielding Catholic priest), Mr Payback (a blue-collar avenger of the working class), and Elite (the self-appointed guardian of public cleanliness and decency). Inspired by the antics of the Punisher, they seek him out to be their leader! You cannot help but guffaw at the absurdity of the situation.
Baron also adds, “Our fiction is our laboratory. We can conduct any kind of experiment there with no real cost to human life. Besides, I viewed my stories as moral. Nobody got it who didn’t deserve it.” In the final analysis, despite all that has been said, this is the only standard by which we can judge this latest Punisher series. As Baron points out astutely fiction is our laboratory. Ennis and Dillon have fashioned a story that is appropriate to our times, especially in the context of modern entertainment, which takes itself too seriously. With the Punisher series, Ennis suffers no illusions that he’s making any statements on society or culture. After all, if the primary appeal of Superman is to see a man fly, then, at its most fundamental, the draw of the Punisher is to witness the ‘punishment’ of the predators and parasites of modern civilisation…. With the added bonus of being so fun to watch.
And that, my friend, is entertainment!
Many thanks to Mike Baron for his generous contributions to this article.