A Cultural History of the Punisher

Kent Worcester’s A Cultural History of the Punisher (2023, Intellect Books) was an interesting book to review, seeing as I am thanked in the preface as a “friend and scholar.” I’ll cop to being a friend of the author, but I’m unsure of this “scholar” business. I did not write this review in a flowing robe ensconced in some university, but in a t-shirt and jeans on my laptop.

My relationship with the Punisher is nothing special. I read the Grant miniseries and Baron ongoing in reprints and loved the Ennis books. The rest I couldn’t care for. I did dress as Frank Castle one year for Halloween, even though the Punisher has significant amounts of both height and weight on me. Shortly after that year, I began noticing the prevalence of the Punisher symbol brandished by groups I never considered big comic fans: police, the military, and the right wing. Punisher skulls have been combined with the American flag, the “thin blue line” variation of that flag, and former (future?) President Trump’s coif. At some point, my Punisher shirt ended up way in the back of my closet, where it remains.

Kent Worcester (currently a professor of political science at Maymount Manhattan College) co-edited such titles as A Comics Studies Reader and The Superhero Reader, and he has an excellent set of skills to help him write the present book. A Cultural History of the Punisher is a valuable effort to chart the history of one of comicsdom’s most identifiable characters. The book is roughly chronological, beginning with the Executioner pulp novels and the growing urban crisis of the 1970s, and ending in the present, taking detours to discuss Punisher parodies and appearances of the character on television and in film.

Worcester briefly addresses the 2011 retcon that updated the Punisher from Vietnam veteran to Gulf War veteran. This change bears more discussion. The Vietnam War and the Gulf War are about as different as military conflicts involving the United States can be. Vietnam was protracted, divisive, and resulted in tens of thousands of American deaths and the deaths of millions of Vietnamese. Contrast that with the Gulf War, which was brief, overwhelmingly supported, and a turkey shoot in the desert for the U.S.

The author mentions he began writing the book in 2016, and the book was published last year. Nevertheless, there is no mention of the most recent retcon of the Punisher’s military service. Now instead of having fought in the Gulf War, he served in the fictional Sing Cong War, along with many of Marvel’s characters with military backgrounds. This shows the Marvel Universe’s growing estrangement from our world and political concerns. It also lessens the Punisher’s veteran status due to him now having fought in a fictional war. Possibly, Worcester was unaware of this recent change, especially given how often the backgrounds of superhero characters are tweaked.

I disagree with the author in his treatment of one Punisher parody, the Persecutor, from Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law Takes Manhattan. While Worcester praises that satire of the character, he also says that “it cannot be described as profound.” Yet the Persecutor punctures one of the central myths of American mythology, that of our essential innocence. The Persecutor was a CIA torturer in Latin America, but when his family is killed by Marxist guerrillas, the Persecutor thinks this is unjust. Compare this to American politicians and pundits unable to understand the distrust and hatred felt by citizens of other countries towards the United States. The Punisher’s Vietnam was the war of My Lai, Tiger Force, the Phoenix Program, and Operation Speedy Express. To this day, the Vietnam War is widely commemorated as something done to the United States, rather than something America did overseas.

In discussing Garth Ennis’s Punisher, an interesting review from the conservative Frontpage Mag is dug up. The author opines that “Ennis and Marvel prefer to live in a vulgar world of leftist fantasy… If such self hating beliefs are allowed to permeate the popular culture, if our strength of will is sapped before we defeat our real enemies, our very survival may be jeopardized.” Quite the change from how conservatives have since appropriated the character. Punisher fans from that time might recall the character saying “I’m not going back to war so Colt can sell another million M-16s. I had enough of that in Vietnam.”

On the subject of conservative takes on the Punisher, from A Cultural History of the Punisher, I learned that Punisher writer Nathan Edmonson worked as Director of International Programs for the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that “teaches conservatives of all ages how to succeed in politics, government, and the media.” It happens that Edmonson’s run is nakedly right wing. The Punisher complains during a riot that “The have nots think their time has come.” Probably all a coincidence.

Worcester’s conclusion is that what’s good for Frank Castle is not necessarily what’s good for America. The first boom of the series was during a time of high crime rates, deindustrialization, and epidemics of AIDS and crack cocaine. At peak, Marvel was publishing four monthly Punisher titles, including one dedicated to the character’s arsenal of weapons and equipment. During the comparatively staid Clinton years, interest waned, and all of those books were canceled. It wasn’t until Bush’s war on terrorism and the ensuing national unease that the character experienced a rebirth of popularity.

Worcester gives the last word to longtime Punisher scribe Mike Baron. Baron – ironically a coke fiend at the same time he wrote a character who blew up crack houses with a bazooka – gives his view of what the modern Punisher title should look like: “We all know where the Punisher would be right now. On the southern border dealing with coyotes, snake heads, terrorists, and child molesters pouring across the giant invitation mat laid out by the present administration. I have always wanted to send him after crooked politicians as well. Can you imagine the fury that would ignite? Can you imagine criminals patterned after members of the current administration or people who have been in Congress for thirty years and have only managed to line their own pockets?” While I can’t see Marvel ever publishing such a title – nor would I want to read it – if they did, it should be a fundraiser for January 6th defendants. Fittingly, the Punisher symbol was also present on many of their apparel.

A Cultural History of the Punisher is a guide not just to the history of Marvel’s lethal vigilante, but the culture and history that created him and was created by him. It deserves a spot on the bookshelves of those interested in comics history, whether Punisher fans or not, and those interested in American culture at-large. And I don’t just say that as a friend and scholar.

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Hank Kennedy is a Detroit-area educator and writer who regularly writes about the connections between comics and politics.

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