As a student I must make it clear that I am not a professional in any sense of the word. The opinions expressed in this essay are based on what I have learned in my studies and personal observations. I just wanted to let you know.
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Frank Castle is one of the most under appreciated and under-written characters in Marvel Comics. Based on a variety of stories, I find he is considered a one-trick pony, a one-dimensional vigilante that is more renegade than paragon. Even other characters call him a psychopath and mass murderer. Usually he is placed in a supporting role for a book other than his own, and in titles that bare his name he is hardly the focus.
Why is this? Why do authors treat Frank like a one-off anti-hero with bland dialog and stories no different than an episode of Law and Order?
It is because no one understands Frank Castle.
All characters in fiction are hard to write, but Frank is the kind of person that requires an intimate knowledge of who he is on a psychological level. He is in no way an ordinary vigilante.
There are two versions of Frank’s origin. Both are the same, but different; one says he fought in Vietnam and another in the Middle East. For this analysis I will use the Vietnam origin.
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In Mark Millar’s Civil War, after a one-sided fight between Captain America and Frank Castle, Spiderman remarked: “Are you kidding me? Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam. Same guy, different war.”
These few words speak volumes about Frank. It tells us he is or was idealistic about morality and justice, in addition to possibly being a fan of Captain America. All of that change, however, after Frank went to Vietnam, the single worst war in America’s history.
You could argue our modern wars are terrible, but when you take into account the physical and psychological damage done upon an entire generation of young men, the millions killed and poisoned, and the radical shift in public opinion against ordinary kids, fresh out of high school, who were forced to fight in a war, I could argue that you are a draft-dodging piece of garbage that doesn’t know shit about the world.
Of course war is an awful thing that creates as many heroes as victims, but Vietnam was a conflict that makes Verdun look like Grenada. There is not a single man or woman who grew up in that time that feels the effects of that disaster today. When you come home from the worst place in the world, after doing your duty to your country, to be called a murdering rapist baby killer, how would you feel about yourself? How can you move on knowing people think you are a monster? This mentality from the general public alienated millions of young men whom were already worse off with a flawed VA system and an even more incompetent government that had no idea how to deal with the situation after a series of domestic crises.
Frank Castle was one of the many soldiers affected by the war. He was a skilled sniper, but underneath his calm, stoic exterior was a man utterly changed by horror. Even Rambo could not cope with seeing his friends in roasted pieces of meat. On his return home he would have become one with disillusioned youth, had it not been for the one thing that kept him together: his wife and children.
Maria, Lisa, and Frank Jr. were his normal, his center, and reason for going on. Most returning vets would turn to heroin or suicide to cope with home life, but Frank had is family, and it was with them he was truly happy. They kept his darker side at bay, the part of him that killed hundreds, and seen the worst of humanity.
And on one fateful day, the horror is set loose after Frank sees his wife and children murdered in Mafia crossfire.
This is where the origins intersect and where most people find Frank an easy character to understand. It is the archetypical vigilante creation story; ordinary person loses loved ones and is inspired to go out and fight crime. It is Batman’s origin, a story even people who don’t read comics know about.
It is here most writers draw their conclusions about Frank. The problem is the blatant disregard for his past. Usually his military service is meant to justify his skill with firearms, but the psychological effects of war are completely disregarded.
Combat and a year’s worth of horror are taxing on a person’s mental health that becomes exacerbated after coming home. And when you consider the social effects of the Vietnam War, apply them to a man who saw his wife and children massacred in a park, you make for a logical take on the vigilante and a character with more empathetic complexity than any bat-themed billionaire.
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This brings to mind his psychological state.
Frank Castle is not crazy. He knows what he is doing, knows he is a mass murder, knows it is wrong, and does not care. This would make him a sociopath, but a sociopath is someone who willingly rejects morality. Frank Castle has a sense of morality because he murders criminals, ones that are the absolute worst. He does not shoot j-walkers or torture thieves, but when he knows someone has done true evil, he goes the extra mile.
He does not enjoy any part of it either; for him it is like a meaningless job you do just for the paycheck. In Rick Remender’s run from 2009-2010, Frank says a few one-liners, but the delivery comes of as dry and flat. This serves as a juxtaposition between the character’s action-hero aesthetic and the brutality of killing. What it is trying to say is nothing can make murder cool, no matter how witty your choice of words. It is more of a thematic aspect, but it says a lot about the character.
And on the subject of murder, Frank is very utilitarian in his methodology. He does whatever is necessary to get the job done, without the need for theatrics. He finds his targets, shoots them, and moves on. It is only when the target truly deserves it that Frank goes into Saw/Hostel territory; like the father who used his own children in pornography or the businesswoman that kidnapped girls to have them raped and drugged for prostitution.
So if he does not get anything out of it, why does Frank Castle kill people, even after getting his revenge? He is as much a hero as a victim; a man with morals and skills parallel to Captain America, and the emotional baggage of a disillusioned Vietnam veteran and a widower. To that effect, when he sees a world full of victims created by psychotic monsters, he has no choice but to cleanse them from the earth.
In the words of comic book writer Garth Ennis, “[Frank Castle] make[s] the world sane.”
Now if Frank is mentally stable and aware of what he is doing, why does he wear a costume? Wearing the skull is unnecessary because he does not wear a mask either; people and the authorities know exactly what he looks like. On top of that, why does Batman dress like a bat? To be a symbol? I understand protecting your identity, but you can do that without looking like a furry. But I digress; the reason behind Frank’s costume is simple:
If we assume Frank is a fan of Captain America, in a world of superheroes, then it is only fitting he dons a costume fit for his character. He is a murder, so he would wear a skull.
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I understand this has been a very biased analysis because I care about this character. There are millions of war veterans that have gone through the same experiences (family massacre aside) and like them, Frank Castle deservers the same respect in comics. However, I am not saying there aren’t stories that do him justice.
The best by far, if you are looking for a psychological and adult take on Frank, is Punisher MAX by Garth Ennis. The series can be a hard read because it is violent and offensive, but it is also compelling and realistic.
Another good story puts Frank knee deep in the Marvel Universe, unlike MAX. Rick Remender and Nathan Edmonson both take into account the realities of a world of superheroes, gods, and aliens. Remender goes into realms of camp with a story about Frank becoming Franken-Castle, a walking Frankenstein pun after Wolverine’s son chops him into pieces. Edmonson’s is more grounded in realism with appearances from Electro, Black Widow, and Domino against the backdrop of a drug cartel’s plot to kill the citizens of Los Angeles with a chemical weapon.
Other stories combine the serious with the fantastical. Greg Rucka’s run is more of a true-crime take, but it falls short because the focus is on the supporting cast. Another series is from the Essential Punisher Collection #2 by Mike Baron, where Frank travels the world in the war on drugs. Later he gets into a brawl with the Man Without Fear, Daredevil.
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I hope this analysis has bettered your understanding of this underappreciated character. Sure I have been very biased, but when it comes to the Punisher, I think he needs to be understood on a deeper level. Though he is not unique in concept, Frank Castle is one of the more complex characters in the Marvel Universe. It is a shame so many writers do not see it.
Millar M, McNiven S, Vines D, Hollowell M (2007). Civil War. New York, New York: Marvel Comics.
Ennis G, Larosa L, Palmer T (2004). Punisher MAX: In the Beginning. New York, New York: Marvel Comics.