Heroes Never Rust #65 by Sean Ironman
Feed the Beast: What a Man Must Become to Survive Vietnam
Many of the Marvel Comics characters created in the 1960s have their origin tied to war. The Fantastic Four tried to beat the Russians to Mars during the Cold War. The Incredible Hulk was born during a gamma bomb test. The Punisher didn’t make his first appearance until 1974, but maybe he’s lasted so long because his origin is tied to war, like the others. Characters like the Fantastic Four and the Hulk were created, were scarred, because of some deeply human trait. They are parables to show us mankind’s flaws. They are comics that want peace, not warmongering—no matter how many battles those heroes find themselves in. The Punisher fits into that idea. Some readers prefer stories where the protagonist is a good person. I am not one of those readers. I don’t have to agree with the protagonist’s actions. I don’t agree with what the Punisher does, but I can understand it. That’s enough for me. In the final issue of Born, Frank Castle gets the closest he will get to becoming the Punisher until his family dies. And it’s in the midst of battle.
The issue opens with the greatest panel sequence in the miniseries. A close-up of an American soldier holding his face in both hands. Blood is on his hands. It’s raining. More blood flows and drips down his hands. He removes them from his face and he has no eyes and half his nose is gone. His mouth is filled with blood. In the final panel, he falls face first into a puddle and dies. “There is a Great Beast loose in the world of men,” the narration over the first panelr reads. “It awoke in dark times, to fight a terrible enemy. It stormed through Europe, across the far Pacific, and crushed the evil that it found there underfoot.” According to the narration, this “Great Beast” came to destroy evil. It was good at one point. But now that evil has been defeated, there is no putting away the Great Beast. “So the Great Beast must be fed: and every generation, our country goes to war to do just that.” The second and third page is a shot of the Vietnamese overpowering American troops. Castle and a few others fire from behind sandbags. Grenades are thrown. Pieces of heads are blown apart. There’s a severed arm off to the side. mid-air. The narration reads, “Today is the day we feed the Beast.”
It’s not long before Castle, Goodwin, and Angel, along with many more make a run for it. Angel stops to fire at the enemy. Goodwin tries to get him to keep running. Angel manages a few words before his head is blown clear off. “There ain’t no God, fool! Look around you! there ain’t no muthafuckin’ God!”
Anti-aircraft guns are used on the Vietnamese. Some are blown away. But there are just too many enemy soldiers. American jets fly overhead and drop bombs. “I was so certain I would make it,” Goodwin says in narration. “The big freedom bird. Thirty-six and a wake-up. I am out of here. In the end I can do no more than follow on a killer’s heels, rushing with him to his Alamo.” A soldier aflame runs at Goodwin with a bayonette ready to strike. Goodwin is grabbed and pulled into a plane. Beautiful flight attendants call his name. One says, “You made it, you silly son of a bitch.” He smiles with tears in his eyes and the plane flies off into the white of the background. He’s dead.
As Castle blows away Vietnamese soldiers, and actually stabs one in the stomach with the rifle when the barrel burns out, a voice tempts him. The voice says it can help him. Castle just needs to accept the help. Like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I don’t believe the voice to be of supernatural origin. I believe it’s inside Castle. I believe Castle accepts the beast within himself. He becomes a savage. He lets go of his humanity to fight his order. And he lives. He should have died in that battle, but against all odds, he pulled through.
Goodwin couldn’t give up his humanity. He couldn’t give up on his hope to return home to the good America. Castle gave up everything he had and he survived. He fed the Great Beast inside. He returns to America. The last shot of Vietnam is of Goodwin, blood soaking his shirt where his heart would be. His corpse is left behind. Maybe that’s what happens in war. There’s no humanity left by the end. Castle goes home, but he’ll never be the same. The Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk turn into something inhuman, but are still able to hold onto their humanity underneath. A lot happened in the world in the 1960s. The Punisher still looks human, but he’s not complete. Vietnam has created that hole in him.
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.