I do not think it is entirely unfair to suggest that the commonly agreed upon origin for the Punisher is focused on the idea of vengeance over the death of Frank Castle’s family. This is a perfectly reasonable way to read the canon of Marvel’s often out of place anti-hero, but I do not believe that it is the correct way.
After a one-shot written in 1995 (Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe) Garth Ennis started writing his revival of The Punisher in 2000, bringing back the character to his own series after a struggle to maintain sales in the mid-to-late 1990s. This series kept the Punisher in the canonical Marvel universe with the occasional interaction with other Marvel heroes, but the comic connected more deeply to Castle’s military history.
In 2004, Ennis started the next iteration of The Punisher under Marvel’s MAX imprint. This allowed for a more realistic, graphic, and adult approach to the character in a world not hindered by Capes and Powers. While Frank Castle’s new world is tangentially connected to a greater-Marvel oriented existence, his only real connections to other characters is a version of Nick Fury, there is a constant engagement with Castle and War – both his personal history and interacting with people who have also been personally affected. This asserts a different origin of the Punisher through the presence of war. While the Marvel universe has always been more political, the comics dealt with it through metaphorical representations of the characters or through the allegories in their comics’ events. Punisher MAX’s universe is fully aware of the history of war and violence that happens in the reader’s historical, cultural, and political lives.
In this series, Frank Castle is an aged man, both literally and metaphorically. Not only does he have a specific birthday, and his life actually reflects this, as he is a Vietnam War veteran, but he is drawn as the age he is supposed to be. There is no chronotopic age magic, where superheroes can exist for 80 years in constantly the same age. Castle is in his mid-50s as the book starts, which is not to say that the series represents him as being restricted by his age, but it is used to demonstrate a reality to the character that has lacked significant presence in past comics. His experience in the Vietnam War holds incredible narrative importance — the Punisher does not exist because his family was murdered, but because of the effects of war on society and Frank Castle’s life.
I embed this clip here for a few different reasons. Not all of it is directly applicable, but I find it very astute in terms of trying to conceptualize war on a greater level than a political or martial action. Cormac McCarthy demonstrates several things with this passage. There is an overhanging issue of war as a consistent aspect of expected, traditional masculine identities. He asserts war as a larger concept of reality that is far beyond the understanding of the people who think it necessary. The passage demonstrates the lasting effects of war on life, long after it has been finished for a particular person. Finally, it establishes a metaphysical context to war as an action greater than a physical or political event in history. War is God.
All of the above has an effect on the characterization of Frank Castle as well as the Marvel MAX universe. However, Ennis does not simply hand this to the reader. The first issue of the MAX series entitled “In the Beginning”, displays the gravestone of Castle’s wife and children. He stands over their grave contemplating the event. The panels are a series of boxes, alternating a snapshot memory of the death of his loved ones and a box of text describing the event. The panels are black with white lettering, which adds to the weight of what is being said – this is not a normal box of speech, or a normal mind thinking these things. There is a weight to the words that can only be held by a man who lived through war, only to watch his family die, and the extradiegetic effect of the blocks of black help to emphasize this. These thoughts and memories are in boxes, with white borders, framing and containing these memories and emotions. These boxes come to represent the internal thoughts of Frank Castle throughout the course of the series, differentiating them from other characters and other representations of humanity. Frank is a man, not a superhero, and he was a man before and after his family’s death. He remembers the tragedy of his family with horror, and with contemplation. He never seems irrational or inhuman (unless you consider his violence). Ennis never says that this was a cause, reason, or origin of the Punisher, but it presents this as a memory of Castle’s, a moment of his life, and in doing so suggests that there is more.
Paul Fussell published a book in 1975 entitled The Great War and Modern Memory which discusses the First World War. Though it is not necessarily a great military history book, it is an excellent discussion of the effects of war in a cultural sense. Fussell states, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected” (7). Though this book is about WWI, and Frank Castle very much connects to the horrors of Vietnam, Fussell discusses WWI as “the beginning of the modern world” (11). He isolates a single concept as the creation of the modern world – the draft of soldiers in England. This idea of modernity is important, as it reflects the idea of what war is supposed to be and what it will become, as well as how society has dealt with this concept. War in England had once served as a form of masculine patriotic duty, or even a formation of social egalitarianism for the lower classes to prove themselves the equals of the elites in society (as was the case in England during the mid-1800s), the draft forces people into war who were not soldiers. The wars that had once so prominently served as a way to solidify national identity experienced a generation gap between the war with Russia in 1854 and World War I in 1914. You had a generation of leaders who built their identities and nations around the process of war, and a generation of soldiers who had no reason to participate or consider war as a cultural process.
Perhaps the most notorious example of this generation gap is associated with Sir Douglas Haig, commander of British forces. He commanded previously under the tactical policy of being “committed to endless abortive assaulting” (Fussell 12), which proved completely ineffective during the battles of World War I. Haig, being bullheaded, kept his previous notions of combat as a foolhardy plan for victory. Particularly catastrophic was the 1916 Battle of Somme, where 60,000 of 110,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded on the first day of combat (Fussell 13), leading the battle to be known amongst the quickly distrusting soldiers as “The Great Fuck-Up” (Fussell 12). There was no romance to this particular war, it was not necessary for the construction of national identity and there was no reason to use military service as a way to gain a sense of proper citizenship for the youth of England, all of this was earned by the previous generations. The associations of war, masculinity, and national identity were crumbling as the terrified soldiers witnessed their own slaughter under the command of men of a bygone era of classical Empire and masculinity.
This establishes a concept of modern war, and establishes this concept as a wholly destructive force, rather than the potential to establish a national identity. Again, this is WWI, but the effects of this war reverberate throughout the entire existence of modern society. The horrors of modern war only get worse, and the draft played a large part of the Vietnam War.
In 2004, Marvel released Ennis’s miniseries The Punisher: Born. Though the events of Castle’s experiences are implied throughout the canon of comics, Born is that story (or, at least, Ennis’s version of it). It details out four specific days of Castle’s service where everything goes wrong. Supply ships are destroyed, leadership is destructive, there is internal conflict within the base of soldiers, the enemy threat is increasing, and the evacuation from the area is not coming soon enough. A fellow soldier is the narrator of this story, and his thought boxes are traditional in appearance. Throughout the book, however, are the same black thought boxes as discussed above that creep their way into the comic pages. These represent the thoughts in Frank’s head, but have an entirely different voice. There is a strange omnipresence and supernatural element to this voice, as it promises Frank security and power in exchange for violence. The extradiegetic separation of narrative boxes implies that this is the voice of the Punisher, and that its presence is establishing itself as the prominent identity in Castle’s consciousness. There is an ambiguous implication that it could also be a supernatural being, but is most likely the process of dealing with the trauma of war.
An issue in Ennis’s earlier run of The Punisher supports this formation of identity. In issue 6 of volume 4, a single-issue story entitled “Do Not Fall in New York City”, Frank is narrating to readers about a fellow Vietnam vet who had just killed his family. He is stating that every man came back from Vietnam a destroyed person, whether it surfaced during a traumatic experience and never healed, or remained under the surface until one snaps because of an inability to deal with society. This is suggesting that no one escaped Vietnam unscathed, even those who led normal lives for 30 years. Frank Castle is no exception to this, as Vietnam created the Punisher.
This is an important distinction to make, as it changes the entire perspective of war in Marvel’s comics. No longer is Castle an honorable man seeking vengeance for his family’s unjust murder and using his military training to do so, but he is a destroyed man who resorts back to destruction in order to force the world to make sense. In the MAX series, Ennis does his best to separate the morality of the readers from the actions of Frank Castle, to the point where he is simply a monster. In doing so, Ennis emphasizes the horrors of war and establish a sense of political corruption, as we are all too ready to send people into this horror.
War is able to change a man, as well as the world around him. This is not limited to just Frank Castle. One of the great ironies of war that is implied by Fussell is the unknown and permanent effects on society. I think Ennis’s characterization of Castle and his origin story are the smartest uses of the character ever, and though one may interpret the book as over-the-top violence for the sake of shock, the influence of war on the narrative roots the series with deeply profound political agency. Ennis does not stop there. War is such an omnipresent constant in the modern world, even if we do not necessarily think about it daily. There are characters throughout the series that are near equivalents to Frank Castle in terms of how war has changed their lives, whether they are from Russia, Ireland, or Yugoslavia etc. Perhaps that is one of the greatest ironies of all; it can charge particular people so violently while creating an equally alarming obliviousness in the rest of us while we are at home with our families.