Netflix is a part of my lifeline. I spend hours on end every day drawing, inking, etc. If I don’t have something to occupy mind, I get distracted and wander off. TV, good and bad, books on tape, podcasts, they help me focus. So alas, I’m more up on TV culture than comics culture.
Every once in awhile, a piece of media comes along I feel is worth discussing. I was surprised to find that the Punisher was one such show. So here’s an article I wrote with some thoughts on this show that filled me with complex, contradictory emotions. Take it as you will.
When I first set out to write comics, the shelves were mostly the filled with superheroes like Batman, Wolverine, and the Punisher, tormented men who found solace in physical violence. I decided to go the opposite route, and wrote a female tween curmudgeon name Courtney, who learns witchcraft. I followed that up with a girl pirate, and then a barbarian princess going to princess finishing school. The question I’m asked most often is “Why do you always write about girls?” I just find fresh ground in these stories, or at least ground that hasn’t been trodden to death, unlike the typical male hero stories. And yet…
And yet, when a superhero show like The Punisher comes along, beautifully crafted, exploring complex subject matter with depth and maturity, I can’t resist. Moreover, I’m not immune to the fantasy of righteous wrath, of orgiastic violence visited exclusively on the wicked. It’s intoxicating. But sooner or later, I recognize intoxication for what it is. Toxic. An exhilarating fever dream. A seductive lie.
The central lie of the Punisher’s world originally came when he was merely a guest hero, or more accurately, a villain, on another Netflix superhero series, Daredevil. Karen Page, the permanently terrified yet eternally courageous heart of that show, confronts Frank Castle, known to the world as the Punisher, after his many murderous rampages. He’s battered and bruised, shackled to a hospital bed. Yet his inherent menace is such that a line is drawn halfway across the room, and Karen is advised not to cross. But of course, for Karen, compassion means crossing that line.
The last time Karen met Frank, she was trying to protect a gang member turned informant whom the Punisher had targeted. He chased her, along with his target, through this same hospital, spraying her with debris from the impact of his shotgun’s near misses. Yet confronted with the terror he had put her through, Frank softly reassures Karen that she was never in real danger. He’s a perfect shot, you see, expertly trained to focus his violence only on those who deserve it. Even with a shotgun, his precision is exact. Karen nods, believing.
As for me, I found his assurances a little harder to swallow. It reminded me of a familiar gun advocacy argument. The good man with a gun provides the best protection against bad men with guns. The problem is, statistics simply don’t bear this out. It’s far more common for good men with guns to be fatally shot by their own toddlers, all the while believing themselves experts in gun safety.
What is it about a man who’s lost his family that’s so universally compelling?
Every superhero presents a moral quandary. For the Punisher, it’s this: does an individual have a moral right to personally exact vengeance for crimes that the State fails to address, or even conspires to commit? The answer seemingly implied by The Punisher is yes. If Frank manages to isolate his violence strictly to the deserving, manages to avoid seriously harming anyone else, his moral stance apparently remains at least somewhat justifiable. And in a moment in history when the State feels less and less trustworthy, this is a seductive fantasy.
At the heart of The Punisher is Frank Castle’s grief over the brutal murder of his wife and children. It’s an all too familiar trope. How many modern heroes are defined by this very specific story? Not just superheroes like Batman, Green Arrow, Daredevil, and on and on. Lately the list includes James Bond, Captain Kirk, even Harry Potter. What is it about a man who’s lost his family that’s so universally compelling?
When my mother was 3 years old, her father, a WWII veteran getting ready for another war, brought home a set of colored mapping pencils. He carefully explained that they weren’t for her, they were for his work, to plan out strategies for the coming conflict in the terrain of Korea. But being a toddler, my mother couldn’t understand. Colorful things were for children. They were like fancy crayons, set out on his desk in plain view. So she played with them.
When her father found her at it, he erupted. Not simply into anger, but white-hot fury. No apology could abate it. She sobbed till she could hardly breath, but this only enraged him further. He told her to stop crying or he’d give her something to cry about. And that cut through her hysteria. Her violent sobs gave way to silence, and mortal terror. She saw death in his eyes.
From that day till the day he died, there was a rift between them. He could be a lovely, wonderful man, but he was never fully her father ever again. Not in her eyes. This wasn’t the only incident of rage. Forgetting to buy bacon for his breakfast could bring it. His anger had no filters, no restraint. For a man of war, getting things wrong was a matter of life and death. And so she kept her distance, all her life. He never fully understood how he’d lost her, or why. But he was a man who’d lost his family. War turned him into something monstrous, something murderous.
My mother recently expressed a wish that she’d gone into therapy before her father died, and been able to confront him, and perhaps even heal the rift. I find myself wondering what my grandfather would have said to such a confrontation. Because like Frank Castle, traumatized, angry men want to believe that their aim is true, that they only direct their violence at the deserving. That she should have understood he would never truly have hurt her. But it doesn’t work like that. We can try to aim the shotgun of rage, but it sprays everywhere. We can try to contain the violence, but it has a way of spreading to innocent people, to the people we love. That’s how we lose our family.
I’m a man born into this society that defines masculinity in certain ways. Toxic as they are, violent heroes have a place in my heart.
In many ways, my own father, a gentle man who’s never seen combat, did the same stuff to me. He was a veteran of his own personal conflicts, a survivor of a family war, passing the trauma of his abuse onto his children. He’s had to work hard to rebuilt a connection with us, and it hasn’t always worked. The process is ongoing.
My father and I both connect deeply with traumatized heroes. For him, it’s Achilles and Odysseus, and other classical figures. For me, it’s Batman, Daredevil, and now, to my own surprise, the Punisher. Though I’ve striven my whole life to value my loved ones, to communicate my feelings without fear or shame, to be gentle, these wounded heroes who turn their grief to anger, their anger to violence, they speak to me. I’m a man born into this society that defines masculinity in certain ways. Toxic as they are, violent heroes have a place in my heart. I could dismiss them, but that wouldn’t be honest. I need them, because they represent the suffering I still feel as a man. The feeling that we’ve lost something precious, that manhood has turned us into something hard and alone and filled with rage.
When The Punisher reaches its penultimate episode, Frank Castle finds himself in a deep, liminal place, brought to the edge of death by his enemies. He’s given a choice, to come home to his family, or to fight on. But his first choice means accepting death. That’s his only way home. Veterans often return from combat feeling like home and peace are more frightening than war. They end up putting themselves in high-risk situations just to feel calm, because in those situations, they know where the danger lies. Peace and quiet feel like death. I know this because my mother works as a therapist with veterans, bringing her own personal experiences as a means of connecting with them, and perhaps closing the rift left between herself and her father.
Given this choice, the Punisher chooses to make a new home in the world of horrific violence. He replaces his family with war. The series ends teasing the possibility that perhaps there’s a way back. That a bloodbath isn’t the only solution to society’s failure. That civilisation might still be worth his faith. But I found myself wondering if the show was soft-pedaling its real message.
Sooner or later, men like him, fueled by rage, with no home but war, those men harm the ones they love.
In some ways, the Punisher is two shows. One depicts a righteous man demanding redress for crimes against him by the State. The other show presents a man losing the last vestiges of his humanity in his scramble for revenge. The series doesn’t quite resolve these two opposing stories into one. And it doesn’t truly face the ramifications of the Punisher’s violence. Frank Castle gets a clean slate, a new name, and the opportunity to start over. As though the atrocities he committed can be overlooked, because they were only directed at the deserving. As though he’s not a ticking time bomb.
All superheroes act out some form of fantasy fulfilment. That’s their appeal. And I love them for it. We want to believe that, under the right circumstances, we could learn to fly. But it’s important to mark where the fantasy tries to deny important truths. Spider-Man’s fantasy is that most people would recognize his basic decency, and those who don’t are just jerks. But in reality, it would take no time for a media mogul like J. Jonah Jameson to turn everyone against Spidey, to sell the toxic narrative that doing good is bad. Look at the way the label “Social Justice Warrior” has become an insult. Whenever I hear it sneered with contempt, I think of Lex Luthor calling Superman a meddlesome do-gooder, as though nothing on earth could be worse. Edward Snowden still lives in exile, his crime, revealing the crimes of our government. The greatest fantasy of most superheroes is that their good deeds go unpunished.
The Punisher’s fantasy is that murderous rage could be harnessed for a greater good. He can wage righteous war on civilian streets and harm no bystanders, because he’s just that awesome. But that’s not the truth. The Punisher was originally a villain. Over time, he became something of an anti-hero, but here in his own Netflix series, he’s depicted with an air of heroism that quite simply rings false. I can relate to Frank Castle’s pain. I can even relish the catharsis of his horrifying savagery. But to applaud the Punisher’s methods is a mistake. He thinks he has perfect control of his violence. But that control is an illusion. Sooner or later, men like him, fueled by rage, with no home but war, those men harm the ones they love. Compassion for his suffering sends Karen Page across the line into his perilous sphere. But sooner or later, she will regret it. And if she never does, then The Punisher is a lie.