Season two of Daredevil heralds the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. I think he nailed it in the trailer and I cannot wait till the premiere. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, the days leading up to (and beyond) the premiere will be dedicated to my favorite Punisher books.
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There is no denying that war is terrible. People die in the millions (usually), soldiers return home mentally unstable, and countries tear themselves apart. Some argue the Civil War is the worst conflict in American history, but when it comes to cultural stigma and generational trauma, Vietnam makes Antietam look like Grenada.
Thanks to poor planning to solve a problem 20 years in the making (look it up), the Vietnam War was a stain on our country whose effects are still felt today. What could have been a simple resolution turned into a decade long shit-show thanks to General Westmoreland. A generation of young men bore the brunt of this colossal fuck-up in the form of untreated PTSD and an ungrateful American public. And in that chaos and quagmire, Frank Castle was made.
Told from the perspective of a grunt named Stevie, we follow the exploits of Captain Castle in the Marine Corps at Firebase Valley Forge in 1971, a lone outpost watching Cambodia. Its troops include junkies and degenerates who subsist on heroin, VC scalps, and rape. With a failure of a commanding officer at the helm, Castle maintains patrols and keeps the base running. For three tours the hunger for war kept him coming back, entrenched in the world of Special Forces as he rose to notoriety. At Valley Forge, the war winding down, Castle does whatever he can to sate his thirst.
As the days wear on, Stevie struggles to keep his fellow grunt Angel focused and off the needle. Stevie knows if they stick with Castle, his hunger will keep them alive long enough to make it home. He often reminisces about his future after the war, about all the women he will meet, and the sons that will admire him for his service. For all his naiveté, Stevie does not lie to himself about the situation. He knows the war has brought out the worst in men, some of which are in his platoon.
Frank knows Valley Forge is just a few calls away from demolition. With the commanding officer barely sober enough to care, the grunts whither and sleep off their final days as Charlie moves in the bush. Frank can have it either way as long as he gets to fight. When an inspecting general proposes closing the base, Castle makes use of his arrogance and lures him into the fire of a VC sniper.
A part of him believes in the concept of righteousness, using the war to deal out justice from behind a gun. When his soldiers fall out of line, he is quick to reprimand them, sometimes fatally. But when Frank struggles to retain what is left of his humanity, his consciousness gets the better of him, reassuring that he is only lying to himself and he can never return to normality. He will always have a taste for battle and the voice offers a war without end.
Come a heavy storm that prevents the aid of air support, Charlie launches a surprise attack on Valley Forge. With the grunts’ fighting spirit all but gone and the command useless, the only thing standing between the VC and a full take over is Castle and his handful of men. The battle is bloody and long, lasting well into the night as ammunition runs low. Resilient to the end, Stevie struggles to keep Angel in line as he gives into the hopelessness and gets his head blown off.
Stevie then keeps close to Frank, following his lead as Charlie swarms in. In the heat of the moment and by some miracle, air support finally arrives to drop napalm danger-close. Relieved by the incredible save, Stevie is too happy to notice a flaming VC charge him with a bayonet before he gets his wish and boards the jet plane that will take him home forever.
With the odds drifting out of his favor, the voice hounds Frank for an answer. It questions his resolve, making him consider why he kept coming back to Vietnam, to all the blood, guts, and hate that perpetuated a waking nightmare. The voice offers him a way to survive the onslaught and when he is left with only a shovel to fend off Charlie, Frank gives in. Come the morning, helicopters arrive in search of survivors. Among the charred corpses, the only one left standing is Captain Castle.
Born is a seminal work that not only explores the failings of the Vietnam War, but also adds dimension to a character that was a one-note vigilante. Equipped with a wealth of knowledge on the subject of war, Garth Ennis crafted a narrative that puts you in the boots of a soldier playing witness to the evolution of an antihero. The apocalyptic atmosphere would not be complete without Darrick Robertson’s detailed and expressive artwork that brings the story to life. The new Punisher may not use the Vietnam origin, but Born is essential to gain insight into how Frank Castle came to be.
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The original four-issue run is collected in Punisher MAX Complete Collection Vol. 1, including the next two stories I mean to review in the near future.