Heroes Never Rust #62 by Sean Ironman
Vietnam, the Good America, and the Real Origin of the Punisher
I’ve written about my love for the Punisher before. To me, Frank Castle is one of the most interesting fictional characters. And I do mean fictional characters, not just comic book characters. He is the only character that causes me to argue with myself every week about whether or not to write a story or a screenplay even though without the rights I’ll never be able to publish it. The greatest Punisher writer is Garth Ennis. He wrote for The Punisher Marvel Knights series, which was a dark comedy take on the character, and he wrote The Punisher Marvel Max series, which was a violent, serious drama. Both work and both are fantastic. One of his best Punisher stories is Born, a four-issue mini-series about Frank Castle before he becomes the Punisher, when Frank is a soldier on his third tour in Vietnam in 1971.
For those of you who don’t know who the Punisher is (and shame on you):
Frank Castle is a Vietnam vet. One day, he goes to Central Park with his wife and young daughter and son. Two rival gangs get into a gunfight, and the Castle family is killed. Frank survives. Then, he decides to wage a war on crime. He spends the rest of his life killing gangsters and other criminals. That’s basically all you need to know to enjoy Born.
Every story requires a suspension of disbelief on the reader’s end. Whether it’s a huge jump the reader has to make, or a small one. The reader may not react a certain way to an event, but they must be willing to believe the character in the story would. The writer is not totally “off the hook,” however. The writer must provide a consistent fictional world. By consistent, I mean a fictional world that may operate by its own rules but rules nonetheless. George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire novel series, which forms the basis of HBO’s Game of Thrones, has dragons and magic, but there are still rules for those fantasy elements.
The Punisher is no different. Even though, he exists in a world that is somewhat close to our world, he is still fictional. The problem that has always plagued the Punisher is that he continues to kill criminals long after those who killed his family were punished. Why would he continue? This question is also what separates him from other vigilantes going after bad guys who hurt or killed someone they loved. Born provides the answer.
Vietnam is especially important for the characterization of the Punisher. Captain America fought against the greatest evils of the world during World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Americans came together as a country. Vietnam divided America. World War II vets were treated as heroes, while Vietnam vets neglected and resented. Regardless of facts, World War II is viewed as good men standing up to evil. Vietnam is viewed as a mistake, something America should have never gotten involved with. Good and evil, right and wrong, doesn’t seem to have a place in Vietnam. Soldiers went through hell and for what?
The Punisher, to me, is a romantic. Stevie Goodwin, one of the main characters in Born, says, “I will not fall in love with war like Captain Castle.” But, I don’t think Castle loves war. There is no joy when he’s gunning down Viet Kong. There is no joy when he allows a superior officer to go out on a hill where there is a known enemy sniper. I don’t think the Punisher feels joy. If the Punisher loved war, he would show emotion. He would show bloodlust. Stevie also states about Frank Castle that “his dedication to his men is total…Since he arrived, six months ago, not one patrol that he has led has suffered K.I.A.” Frank Castle doesn’t take risks just to fight the enemy. He is a man who refuses to accept that good and evil doesn’t exist, that there is no set right and wrong. He sees the world in black and white and will never see the grays. I believe that the Punisher believes he is sacrificing his own soul to fight for what is right. America is still good and right to him and the enemy must be stopped. After Vietnam, when his family is gunned down randomly on a picnic, he snaps. His mind can’t handle the idea of randomness. The good triumph and the bad are punished. Vietnam is the perfect backdrop for him. It’s what’s been missing from the film adaptations.
At the end of the first issue of Born, Frank Castle sits alone as the sun sets. It’s the first time we get interiority from him. “You got your war a stay of execution. But it won’t last. You know that.” Some readers have put forth the idea that these are not Castle’s thoughts, but a supernatural being such as the devil or Mephisto. I don’t buy it, though it could be interesting. There’s no other supernatural element to the series so it wouldn’t quite fit. I believe these narration boxes are Frank Castle talking to himself, being honest with himself. While I don’t think the Punisher loves war, I think he needs war. I don’t think he needs war to be happy. I don’t think he can be happy, even with his family. I think he is fulfilled by war. Vietnam has killed him. He has no purpose without war. Refusing to see the world as shades of gray, war allows him a clear enemy. As long as there is war, he can raise his rifle, he can shoot, he can stop those that would do harm to him and his men. He knows how to do those things. He can protect the American dream that no longer exists, maybe never did.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.