Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Talking About the Punisher

[Warning! I haven't edited this puppy yet]

  I have never been one to shy away from controversy. And I have been gone a long time. COmbined, let's shake things up at talk about the Punisher.
  He's a popular topic right now; he is in the current season of Daredevil (which the family and I are watching weekly) and Joss Whedon said a few hilarious things about him, too.
Quick Aside: Garth Ennis is a hack and I don't read anything he writes anymore unless I must. Just FYI.
 To me the most interesting thing said about the Punisher was by one of the men who created the character, Gerry Conway, who said [paraphrased],
  'The Punisher is such a thin character on his own that he is a Rorschach test.'
  This feels true enough to stand.

  Since I love to redirect and to talk about myself, let's detour a little.
  I graduated high school early and enlisted in the army at 17. I was active duty for 8 years as a linguist, cryptographer, intelligence analyst, and electronic warfare specialist. I was tactical and out of Ft. Bragg. I was in Desert Shield/Desert Storm/Desert Sabre.
You did know the ground offensive was called Desert Sabre, didn't you?
  During combat operations my team was attached to the French 6th Light Armored, meaning we went to war with the French Foreign Legion. I came back with a handful of medals and seriously considered joining the FFL, but I had met this girl....

  Anyway, once upon a time after the war I encountered a man about my age that was shocked and horrified that I had been a soldier. When he found out I was in combat he was obviously Deeply Troubled. But the worst, for him, was to learn that I was proud of my actions. He declared that I was just a cold-blooded murderer because...

  Violence Is Never The Answer.

 So we had this conversation, a talk familiar with many of the vets out there, where I asked him what he would do if he saw a woman dragged into an alley. 'Call the cops', 'Yell at the guy, tell him the cops were coming', 'Call for help'. It always boiled down to either the police came and used violence or other bystanders came and used violence. But the speaker never used violence.

  Now, the idea of wanting other people to do hard things is OK. My kids change the litter box and mow the lawn for reasons beyond 'it builds character'. The problem is when you pretend those things don't need doing or, worse, convince yourself those things are Bad, or, worst of all, firmly believe that doing them is Beneath You.

  Back to comic books.

  Marvel introduced the Punisher in 1974. Now, for you kids out there that need to GET OFFA' MY LAWN! you might not know that 1974 was a really, really bad time to live in an American metropolis. New York City was so beset by violent crime the police officers union was warning tourists to stay away and the nickname 'Fear City' was being used. Detroit's Devil's Night mass arson/riots tradition was well underway. The Zodiac Killer had just sent another letter after being uncaught (and he never was); in the Northwest and Utah young women were vanishing at the rate of 1 per month as the as-yet-unknown Ted Bundy was on his killing spree; the BTK Killer had just begun; The Zebra Murders are ongoing; the domestic terrorist group the Weathermen were still very fresh in NYC's memories, as are several other active domestic terror groups; the previous decade had seen massive riots in cities across America, including multiple days of riots in NYC just the year before.
  The Vietnam War was ongoing.
  The Knapp Commission had revealed massive levels of corruption in the NYC police department ranging from taking bribes from tow-truck operators to issue tickets up to working for the mob as enforcers. The same story was being found true in Chicago, Los Angeles, etc., etc.

  In short, there was a very unpopular war going on; infrastructure was falling apart; wages were flat while unemployment and inflation were rising; violent crime, riots, and, serial killers, and terrorists made the streets and homes unsafe; and the police were either corrupt or scattered and unfunded.

  The collapse of American cities into violence and fear was widespread enough to be a key element of a Bond villain in 1973, much like how Russian mobsters were big decades later.

  Media had already been responding before this; While the wide acceptance of war movies, often based on WWII but going beyond, meant that audiences were more used to a high body count than you might think, films from Enter the Dragon to Shaft opened up audiences to the idea of a contemporary, sophisticated, non-soldier hero who kills to pursue justice. Films like Billy Jack, Coffy, and even Magnum Force were portraying vigilantes who killed their targets, usually in a positive role (although Magnum Force opposed this view). The seminal movie Death Wish came out shortly after the Punisher appeared, again showing lethal vigilantes in a positive, if nuanced, light.
 
  And here comes Frank Castle.

  And he wasn't alone, not really. If I could travel back in time to my parent's garage in 1981 in the back left, next to my dad's Swing and Jazz records were cases of - war comics. Hundreds of issues of titles like Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, Fightin' Army, Our Army At War, Our Fighting Forces, and more. I also had Weird Western Tales, Billy the Kid, Creepy, Eerie, House of Secrets, House of Mystery, Ghostly Tales, Tomb of Dracula, Scream, and more.

  So when the Punisher showed up the movie theaters and comic books racks were awash with violence, death, automatic weapons, and vigilantes who killed their targets. you could barely throw a rock without hitting somebody shooting somebody else for vengeance.

  So why does the Punisher stick out so much?
  I have a theory.
  [Yeah, you're shocked, I can tell. "Rick? With a theory?!"]

  Let's start with the most obvious - the Punisher hangs out with Spiderman. Not to get into a long rant about the Comics Code Authority, but what we would now call 'mainstream comics' had pretty much been stuck with the CCA for a long time by that point and the idea of a character in a superhero comic who killed people and WASN'T a villain surprised some people (which I will talk about more, later).
  Another thing was the same sort of concern that led to the CCA in the first place - the fear that looking at X makes people X. We've all heard it before -
  "Penny dreadfuls will make kids violent"
  "Pulps will make kids violent"
  "Crime radio programs will make kids violent"
  "Movies about mobsters will make kids violent"
  "Violent TV shows will make kids violent"
  "Violent video games will make kids violent"
  Well, back in the 1940's the whole "violent comic books will make kids violent" card had been played very, very hard and a lot of people believed it. Some people seem to still believe it.

  But one interesting thing I have noticed about people who complain about the Punisher is their resemblance to certain science fiction and fantasy fans; just like a surprising amount of SF/Fantasy fans don't know anything about the major works pre 1970 or so, a huge number of people I encounter that claim to be 'comic book nerds' don't know much, if anything, about War, Romance, Horror, or Weird comics from the 1950's - 1970's.
  Now, this is fine - I know people that only like Star Wars (the original) and don't read or watch anything else and, yes, they are 'legit nerds'. But I have a hard time with such people telling me
"The Punisher is bad because there is no place for heroes that kill in comic books."
  Tell that to Sgt. Rock, the crew of the Haunted Tank, or the Unknown Soldier! If you think all comics, ever, were always and always will be Silver Age Batman to Richie Rich then I really have no idea what to tell you except - Nick Fury.
 
  There are plenty of examples from other companies, but Nick Fury is also a Marvel property. Nick, formerly Sgt. Fury of the Howling Commandos, famously heads SHIELD.
  And he kills more people than James Bond. Indeed, so many members of Hydra were killed in the comic pages that there was a spoof years later (by Marvel!) that showed the after life had a separate entrance for a miles-long queue of Hydra agents.
  So Marvel had a hero in the same universe as Spidey dropping bodies every issue eleven years before the premiere of the Punisher.
  Yet I don't hear people calling Nick Fury a 'psychopath' or saying his fans are 'fascists'. Do you?

  So what do I think is going on? Why does the Punisher harsh the mellow of certain sorts so much?
  Simple - he breaks their daydreams.

  Let's be honest - probably more than most other media, four-color superhero comics are about wish fulfillment. Sure, sure, so is radio, and pulps, and so on, but the four-colors really snuggle up to wish fulfillment and give it a big ol' hug. No matter how grim 'n gritty the Dark Age got Superman still sold well. People look tot he superhero genre for a bit f wish fulfillment more than they tend to do in other media, in my opinion.
  There has always been violence in comics, even if it was just a thrown brick. Superhero comics are full of violence.
  Fatalities are obviously acceptable in comics. War and Horror comics were full of death, often gruesome death. And Nick Fury sure as heck killed a lot of people before returning to his helicarrier to talk to Iron man and Captain America.  So why is the Punisher disliked so?

  Well, what is the wish fulfillment of being, oh, the Flash? You can do things other people can't do and you use those abilities to make things better, right? Superman has been making money since 1938 because people don't just wish they could fly, they wish they could fly and make the world better. That is pretty cool.

  The Punisher actually does fit in there. He is better than other people at what he does. He is smart, tough, skilled. He likes children, puppies, and apple pie. He is loyal to his friends. He risks his life every day because he wants to make the world a better place.
  But he does it by killing criminals.
  Just like Nick Fury.
  But where Nick, the Unknown Solider, even the Agents of SHIELD are all soldiers, or spies, or cops, Frank Castle is an ex-soldier. He is a vigilante. Is he dealing with threats the police aren't equipped to handle, just like Spiderman? Sure. Is he taking up the slack left by corrupt cops, corrupt judges, and corrupt politicians, just like Batman? Yes, he is. Is his solution the sort that prevents too many recurring villains, like Nick Fury. Yup.

  I believe the problem of the Punisher is - some people think that violence is beneath them; that the ultimate responsibility of getting things done belongs to someone else. They always want to be Batman and never think about the guards at Arkham.

  Don't mistake me - I like Batman never killing; I think Superman vs the Elite made great points. I mean, my favorite superhero is Fawcett's Captain Marvel!
  But that doesn't mean there is no room for the Punisher. And it doesn't mean the Punisher can't say important things. And it very frankly doesn't mean other superheroes would automatically hate him.
  Oh - and liking the Punisher doesn't make you a Fascist.

  One of these days I will review the movies.