“The Punisher” and Dehumanization
By Cody Fernandez
I grew up, like many children my age, being introduced to comic characters, not by comic books themselves, but by the ever popular Saturday morning cartoon show. Batman and Spider-Man’s respective animated series, introduced to the little me, many of the things I would still value later in life.
These were the values of Justice, Friendship, Loyalty, Compassion, and Sacrifice. The importance of Intelligence and the great harm that misused power will cause. These characters fought for something right and would never hesitate in the defense of the innocent, no matter the danger to themselves. These were powerful ideals that would attract me to the whole Multiverse of Comic Heroes.
I first met Frank Castle, the man that would be called Punisher, in that Spider-Man animated series. Here was a character, not bound to the same strict moralities placed on other “heroes”. Later on, in my teenage years, I began collecting comics. Being the angsty teen I was, I was instantly attracted to two characters. Ghost-Rider’s extreme look and art style could not be ignored, but Frank…. Frank interested me in a different way. In the time since I had first been introduced to the character, I had learned much about him, the reason he took on the mantle of vigilante, and his brutal methods. I was so surprised that a character like “The Punisher” existed alongside the “Great Power and Great Responsibility” of the tamer heroes. That made me really question what Responsibility truly meant.
“Great Responsibility” meant something very different to Castle then to the old Web-Head. Spidey set out to stop crimes from becoming worse and to make sure that the justice system got ahold of those it could not grasp by itself. Frank on the other hand, did not worry about that. His responsibility began not when his “Punisher sense” tingled, but the very second he awoke. His battles were not waiting to come. He was not even fighting aliens or super villains. He was fighting a war.
A war on crime.
Frank’s war is just that. There are real casualties, and there is no doubt that Frank Castle is a serial killer. This realization came to the teenage me, and really sparked some thought. I had seen this anti-hero time and again, from my favorite Western movies to the ever popular 80’s action flick. The tales of a man with nothing but his wits, training and some sort of killing implement.
How was this different from the villain who slaughters a room full of people to obtain some prize? Killing is killing right? There is black and there is white. This conundrum became ever more prevalent as I began to understand the real body count behind Frank. I knew there was a niche for these “killer” books, I was and am in that niche after all, but I had a hard time understanding how the writers and creators kept us rooting for the “Hero”. Then over time, there emerged a simple and obvious epiphany.
Frank Castle was killing “criminals”. Not “people”. Frank’s books shined the most the worse the “people” he ended were portrayed. I then discovered Garth Ennis’ amazing “Max Comics” run. These grounded Frank in our world. Our world is full of true horrors. The Sex Trafficker. The Terrorist. The Drug Kingpin. These were not super villains. These were simply evil people. This was the key to The Punisher’s existence.
A human devalues themselves when they act with horrors. Yet, somehow, the action of placing horrors upon said humans can be valued by some. This is a very complicated issue we all will always struggle with. It is the difference between Vengeance and Justice. This is the lesson most superheroes teach. The true value of Mercy.
Frank however, teaches something different. The truth that sometimes Justice cannot be served. That the scales cannot be balanced and that sometimes, in a world of revulsions, you must become the monster to protect the innocent. That is the trial of the warrior. Of the soldier. It is the war given to mankind alongside his freedom and his death.
The Punisher is to me, one of best examples of the complicated nature of our moral life. He is by no doubt, a near pity-less man, yet somehow, he can illicit more pity than any of his literally 1000’s of “victims”. He fell in love with war and when he returned home, he missed it. He tried to move beyond it for his family, for love, but war would not let him go. He stared into the abyss and did not blink. For over 32 years he has been winning that staring contest to the cheers of fans worldwide.
Sometimes, we need the cultural release of the real evils in our world. I believe, In some small way, “The Punisher” exiles some of the darkness in our souls by showing us the acts we dare not think of, wrought upon the villains we wish were not true.