Superheroes

Superheroes
Why No Punisher?

Ray Huling | 17 Jun 2008 08:57
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Barracuda doesn't seem much like Castle. Black and Southern, he talks like a thug through gold teeth engraved with the words "Fuck You." Where Castle is somber and terse, Barracuda is loquacious and upbeat - cheerful to the point of habromania. Yet they are nearly the same character.

'Cuda may be the one person on Earth who has killed more criminals than the Punisher. When Castle robs Barracuda's extensive arsenal, he calls the gangster "a man after my own heart." Each throws the other to the sharks, and each cheats death by clinging to the side of the other's boat. Each locks the other in a car trunk, and, in their respective trunks, each man packs an M60 machine gun. Barracuda handcuffs the Punisher; the Punisher chains up Barracuda. They both burst their bonds. The police can't tell their handiwork apart. They both thrive in war.

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But they differ. The Punisher has no limits when it comes to dealing with criminals. Barracuda has no limits at all. Barracuda grew up abused; he had the kind of childhood that doesn't permit a person to believe in Captain America. If Cap had fought in Vietnam rather than World War II, he'd be the Punisher. Take the Cap out of Frank Castle, and you get the 'Cuda.

Barracuda exemplifies Ennis's approach to the Punisher. He introduces characters who have real-world counterparts, but differ slightly from Castle. By showing how these characters can't fight Castle's war, Ennis explains why the Punisher doesn't exist in reality. Some people want to pull the trigger on their enemies, but can't. Others fire, but can't handle the enormity of their actions. Some can bear the violence, but can't adequately direct it. The Punisher shoots, hits his targets and lives with the consequences.

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The contrast between the Punisher and the rest of us doesn't solve the mystery of Frank Castle for Ennis. Nor does the explanatory power of Vietnam. He argues that neither war nor the murder of his family fully explains the Punisher's crusade. When Castle finally rescues his new daughter from Barracuda, he doesn't quit his war on crime to raise a new family. He gives the girl back to her adoptive mother and returns to his battlefield.

Ennis knows that superhero comics use violence against women and children to excuse male aggression. The murder of Castle's family is a pretext for the adolescent revenge fantasy that the Punisher so nicely fulfills. Smartly and wickedly, Ennis makes the reader's excuse for violence a pretext for Castle as well. Castle loves war, and he needed his family to die so that he could become the Punisher. Now, he gets to spend his life doing what he loves. Another chance to be a father would spoil his fun - and ours.

Only one other take on the Punisher lays such judgment on its audience: the 2005 videogame. Unlike the movies (but like the comics), the game presents a Punisher who looks and moves like an older man, though still vigorous and with a full head of black hair. It's also notorious for its foul language and torture scenes. Developer Volition had to tone down the latter for release on consoles. When the Punisher feeds a crook to a shark or presses a mobster's face into a grinder, the animation goes black and white. The player also loses points for killing an enemy in torture sequences.

These are not disincentives to carry out brutality. A player can dig up cheat codes or buy a GameShark to see the fatalities in color; there's a price to enjoying the violence in its fullest form. Similarly, readers of Ennis's Punisher observe that Castle paid with the lives of his family to get his everlasting war. Both approaches to the Punisher emphasize the cost of enjoying violence, a cost we would never pay in reality. By offering players a glimpse of their own blood thirst, the game shows how far from us Castle really lives. It's a digital argument for why there is no Punisher.

Ray Huling's a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. He can't wait to escape from New York back to Lovecraft Country.

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