US police offers recently put the Punisher's skull logo on their cars. Yeah, that's right: law enforcement, openly celebrating a murderous vigilante.
I was so taken aback by this, I penned an essay for Meanjin magazine: 'The Punisher's Numb Rage'.
It looks, among other things, at the Punisher's real and fictional history, his appeal to the armed forces, and the troubling militarisation of policing.
You can buy Meanjin in bookshops or subscribe here. In the meantime, here's a short excerpt:
...the skeletal face is a warning: the Grim Reaper, Jolly Roger, Nazi Death’s Head (Totenkopf). It is a threat. In Solvay, New York and Catlettsburg, Kentucky, staff put this threat proudly on their squad cars.
Part of the Blue Lives Matter movement, which advocates for the safety of police, the stickers were supposed to celebrate law enforcement. The skulls told citizens that police ‘will stand between good and evil’. Yet this skull is the logo of a criminal. It decorates the chest of Marvel character Frank Castle, the Punisher: a vigilante, who uses his military training to terrify, torture and execute wrongdoers. In other words, the police were identifying with a murderer.
The Punisher was created in the year before I was born. He was a walk-on villain; a bit part to provide the hero with someone to overcome. Writer Gerry Conway wrote Castle for The Amazing Spider-Man #129, published in February 1974. He was simply an antagonist for the webslinger. His schtick: relentless killing.
Many mainstream Marvel superheroes merely knocked out or maimed their enemies. In fact, the death toll was surprisingly low in general, given the rampant conflict. This is part of what Ben Saunders, in Do the Gods Wear Capes?, calls ‘a comforting illusion of safety and control in a profoundly uncertain world.’ These comics were often more luchador fun than noir crime; more colourful spandex haymakers than crimson sprays.
But the Punisher was an assassin—in fact, this was his original moniker, before editor Stan Lee suggested the other. Frank Castle not only offered Spider-Man a physical challenge, he also highlighted the good guy’s virtue. Peter Parker snapped wire strong enough to hold ten men, yet stopped himself from ripping Castle to pieces. (From Spider-Man #1, 1962: ‘with great power there must also come—great responsibility!’)
The Punisher was never written to return, but his popularity with fans saw him paired with various Marvel characters over the next decade: Spider-Man again, Captain America, Daredevil, amongst others. In each case, he was the moral contrast: the maniac who killed, as against the principled hero. More importantly, he was also given a tragic backstory, which has endured over three decades. Castle was a decorated veteran, whose wife and two children were killed in a gang firefight. He dedicated himself to murdering the men responsible, then continued to slaughter all criminals: from street hustlers to Mafia dons. ‘I’ve got nothing to lose,’ he said to one target, ‘by risking what’s left of my life wiping your kind of parasite.’ (The target was Spider-Man.) Over the decades the wars shifted from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to Iraq and Afghanistan. But Castle’s brief was the same: kill all transgressors.
With his own mainstream series in the ‘eighties, the Punisher became ubiquitous: The Punisher, The Punisher War Journal, The Punisher War Zone, even The Punisher Armory, which showcased his weapons. The Frank Castle mythos was developed in this era. No longer a simplistic antagonist, he became an antihero in his own right: the righteous executioner, who never hurts civilians, and has few doubts about his mission. He pauses to fly a kite in Central Park to commemorate his loved ones, and has moments of tenderness and regret. But for the most part, Castle is a killer. ‘The Nam war vet who couldn’t protect his own family,’ he reflects in The Punisher War Journal #3. ‘Been taking it out on all criminals ever since.’ Witness the psychology: ultimately, this is more therapy than justice. He is purging the streets, yes—but chiefly to purge his own guilt and rage.
During the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, vigilantes were the perfect fantasy for audiences anxious about crime. There was some justification for these fears. The US Department of Justice reports that ‘the homicide rate doubled from the early 1960s to the late 1970s,’ peaking in 1980 and 1991. The causes of these spikes are still debated, alongside their portrayal in the media, but the fear was real. Many citizens were concerned about drug-related gang violence. This terror was often racial, with ‘crime’ almost synonymous with ‘black’ or ‘Latino’. While African-Americans are the victims of pervasive minority and state violence, the stereotype of the urban thug is authoritative. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers his friend Prince, shot by police. ‘Prince was not killed by a single officer,’ he writes, ‘so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.’
In this sense, the Punisher’s fury was a straightforward response to some readers’ dread. Alongside movie franchises like The Executioner, The Exterminator and Death Wish, comics took the common superhero premise—good guy citizens battling bad guys, rather than awaiting authorised aid—and raised the stakes. Instead of simply pacifying felons for arrest, judgement and jail, they murdered them: the point was extermination, not detention. Importantly, and even in the courts, fear justified actual violence by civilians. In 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot four African-American men in a Manhattan train carriage. He was lauded by many as a hero for standing up to the alleged muggers. ‘If I had more bullets,’ the electronics technician later told police, ‘I would have shot ‘em all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets.’ Now we have George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin, guilty of walking home with Skittles and iced tea—while black. (‘These assholes,’ Zimmerman said, ‘they always get away.’)
While often penned by liberal authors wary of fascist ideology, the Punisher of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties exemplified this way of thinking: a solitary soldier, solving complex, communal problems by simply slaying individuals. A charismatic purifier of streets, if not of blood and soil. And he rarely ran out of bullets.