Frank Castle is one of the most challenging characters in comics. He touches on some of the most difficult subjects in American society and politics––damaged war veterans and guns––and he ought to make us truly uncomfortable. That’s what makes him such an enduring and compelling character: he forces us to think about things that most of us would rather not think about.
Our reluctance to think about the issues that the Punisher raises perhaps makes it all the more important that we think about them. We rely on our servicemen and women to keep us safe, and we send them off to fight wars in other countries (hopefully in the service of good causes), but too often they suffer deeply and come home not quite whole. And though we owe them a debt of gratitude that we can never repay, we too often fail them when they return to us by not providing adequate support for them and by not recognizing the need for support. Yet many of us are blind to the suffering that many veterans have to endure after war.
Castle might also force us to confront the alarming rise of gun violence and ask us why we entertain ourselves with a murderous vigilante while real people are dying at concerts and churches. Even though most of us recognize the right to own firearms, our beliefs about that run up against the sheer horror that we all feel when we have to face yet another killing. Many of us propose new regulations in order to counter mass shootings, but it seems to me that the problem is far more difficult than background checks, registration, or even mass confiscations can solve. We have to start asking questions about what it is that is making so many men––and as far as I know, it’s all men––so violent? What makes them want to commit suicide by mass murder? What would make a man want to see the deaths of not only adults but children in a church? I don’t know how to answer that question, and I’m not convinced that anybody else does, either––but we need to answer it now.
I’ve been thinking about this lately in connection with the Punisher and what his place is in this conversation. The Netflix Punisher series launches on Friday, and The Punisher #218 dropped on Wednesday, giving us the debut of Frank wearing the War Machine armor. It’s ironic timing, perhaps, that the military-trained, gun-wielding vigilante returns to a prominent place in the Marvel Universe and debuts his first series as part of the MCU just weeks after the Las Vegas and Texas shootings.
Is there something wrong about a book and a television series like The Punisher happening at a time like now? Does the story of a (quite possibly deranged) former Marine who murders criminals in order to avenge his family and to protect the innocent do anything to help us make sense of recent killings? Does it distract us from them? Does it help us to raise questions that need to be asked? Does it help us to answer questions that we’ve raised already?
Some people might say that I’m asking too much of a comic book character (though probably not people who read this blog), but that’s the burden that any story about Frank Castle has to take on right now. The Punisher is what he is, and the the world is what it is. (Perhaps the better way of putting it is that the world is what we’ve made it to be.)
One point of entry into these questions might be to think about Castle’s motivation. What drove him to become a murderous vigilante was as much a failure and corruption of the justice system as it was the murder of his family. He initially relied on the courts to bring his family’s murderers to justice, and it was after he realized that the police and justice system had ties to the Mafia that he turned to vigilantism.
The Punisher, then, can serve as a warning about what can happen if we do not keep our most important institutions healthy and free of corruption. This seems especially important right now for a number of reasons, one of which is that existing gun regulations should have kept the Sutherland Springs shooter from owning any guns (and arguably he should have been in jail for domestic violence), but someone in the system didn’t do his job.
That is not to say that the Sutherland Springs shooter was analogous to Frank Castle, of course. For all his faults, Frank thinks that he’s pursuing justice and protecting the innocent. The Texas killer was simply a monster who wanted to kill innocent people. But both the fictional character and the real-world killer illustrate the point that the systems that we put into place to protect us can fail or become corrupt, and the consequences of that failure can be horrific.