The essays focus on issues of gender, veteran status, politics and gun violence.
Frank Castle is arguably one of Marvel's most complicated characters. Although he is determined to annihilate the world's worst criminals, he's often willing to stoop to their levels – or even lower – to do so.
But perhaps that's understandable in his case.
As Castle's story goes, the husband, father and decorated war veteran was spending a peaceful afternoon with his family, enjoying a picnic in the park, when they inadvertently witnessed a murder by the mob. The mob subsequently killed Castle's wife and children, and tried to kill him, but he survived. In response, Castle unleashed a one-man war on all criminals, starting with his family's killers, and gave himself a new name: the Punisher.
Introduced in a February 1974 Spider-Man comic, the Punisher has not only endured over the decades – he's flourished. He appears in thousands of comics, three movies, a video game, fan fiction and, most recently, two seasons of his own “Netflix” series. But what is it about Castle's story that continues to speak to us nearly 50 years after its debut?
That's what a group of Texas Tech University scholars hope to answer through their new volume, “Judge, Jury and Executioner: Essays on The Punisher in Print and on Screen.”
The collection examines the Punisher from philosophical perspectives of morality and justice. Essays critique the character through the lenses of gender and feminism; consider the Punisher's veteran status in relation to the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars; and examine how politics and gun violence connect the Punisher's world with our own.
“What makes the Punisher relevant after all these years, especially now, given that parts of our culture have gotten so violent and certain political groups have used the Punisher's insignia as one of their rallying points?” asked Robert G. Weiner, popular culture librarian in the Texas Tech University Libraries and one of the volume's editors. “The Punisher himself is apolitical; he disdains the far right just as much as he disdains the far left. He walks around with a gun, killing criminals and taking the law into his own hands. What makes a character like that relevant in contemporary society and why does the Punisher continue to be a vehicle for storytelling?
“I mean, when you think about it, that doesn't sound all that interesting, right? How can you continue to tell stories about a character that just kills bad people and keep it relevant?”
That's what Weiner hopes to answer, along with fellow editors Ryan Cassidy, an associate librarian at Texas Tech who runs the University Library's Makerspace and Virtual Reality Lab; Matthew J. McEniry, an associate librarian and director of the Digital Scholarship Lab; and Alicia Goodman-Jay, a professor of theatre management and administration at Indiana State University who earned her doctorate at Texas Tech.
Among the contributing authors for the volume are three other Texas Tech scholars: Ryan Litsey, assistant dean in the University Libraries; Mike Lemon, an English instructor and consultant for the Graduate School's Teaching Effectiveness And Career enHancement (TEACH) Program; and Rob King, associate librarian for the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.
“What interested me about this volume is exploring how the traditional, almost stereotypic story of revenge in the Punisher has evolved or taken on new meaning over the different decades and eras of social progression,” Cassidy said. “I really wanted to highlight as many different voices as possible. While they would almost all certainly touch on the origins or motivations of the original incarnation of the character, each author would be able to talk about a variety of authors and representations in different media over the years.”
While the Punisher is frequently perceived as an uber-masculine character – and it tends to be men who latch onto him – Goodman-Jay gravitated toward stories that featured a female version of the Punisher.
“I'm interested in gender representation and how gender-swapped versions of the character match up to the originals,” she said. “Generally, female versions of beloved heroes (e.g., Batwoman, Supergirl, Mrs. Marvel, etc.) are marketed as almost equivalent matches to their male counterparts. Within the Punisher world, several female characters have been called the ‘female Punisher,' but in reality, are nowhere near as similar. What makes these characters unique is that the qualities that make the Punisher the anti-hero are normally reserved for female villains – thus they are insufficient to be called equivalent.”
For McEniry, the appeal was in how the Punisher reacted in various situations.
“Personally, I wanted to see how alternate Punisher characters interacted in worlds in which they had greater power to be that judge, jury and executioner,” McEniry said. “And what I found was that most characters, no matter their power level, stuck to their mission to punish what they saw as evil in the world. The narrative arc for this character never diverged from that mission, and perhaps that's why it's such a tragic character. No matter how far away from the circumstances they are, they were still haunted by the death of their family.”
With that as his driving force, the Punisher is essentially indifferent to the opinions of anyone else.
“He basically doesn't care what the other superheroes think of him, what the police think of him or what the criminals think of him,” Weiner said. “In some ways, he is an ultimate expression of free will in the sense that he does what he wants, regardless of the consequences – and the consequences are killing the killers, killing the rapists, killing the drug manufacturers and killing the criminals.”
The other superheroes, for their part, despise the Punisher, thinking of him as insane or, at the very least, a loose cannon. And yet, while the Punisher often finds himself in opposition to the other heroes, he has one major thing in common with them:
“Like most comic heroes, he has a strict code to live by,” Cassidy said. “It just happens to be more brutal than most.”
That separation from other Marvel characters is what makes the Punisher fascinating, noted McEniry.
“His moral compass is broken; he wouldn't feel empathy for someone like the Green Goblin whereas Spider-Man is always trying to help the villains he encounters. He'd put a bullet in his head and be done with it,” McEniry said. “There's a finality with his actions that the other heroes don't allow, and that's why he's an anti-hero in the Marvel Universe. He doesn't play nice with the other heroes, and they know that.”
However, Weiner and McEniry suggest the “anti-hero” description isn't exactly accurate when it comes to the Punisher.
“I would argue that the Punisher is an anti-villain,” Weiner explained. “The Punisher is completely antithetical to the criminal mindset, even though he himself is a criminal by killing criminals. So, there's this irony and dichotomy with the Punisher that, I think, continues to make the character relevant and interesting.”
At the end of the day, Goodman-Jay said, the Punisher recognizes that he is not a hero. But in fighting to eliminate evil, he is sometimes pitted against others with the same goal. The only difference is that they are constrained by the bounds of society and law in ways he isn't.
“The Punisher interests me because he is not a hero nor a villain but somewhere in between; he is a contradiction claiming to want justice but going outside of the justice system,” Goodman-Jay added. “This is a complex issue because we know the justice system is flawed, but we also know vigilantism is not the answer. The Punisher is in a gray area between doing what is right and what is just – and those are often in opposition. It is a fascinating examination of psyche and moral debate.”
That examination allows audiences to question their own beliefs.
“The idea of taking the law into one's hands and how far someone is willing to go is a timeless question,” Cassidy said. “It fits into the philosophy of ‘what is justice,' ‘how do you mete out justice,' and ‘is justice for rehabilitation or punishment?' The character is often written off as a simple gun-toting madman, but the extensively diverse ways in which different authors, series and media forms have portrayed the Punisher display how complex and multifaceted the character can really be.”
For instance, despite the Punisher's seeming indifference to human life, he's reluctant to harm animals in any way. He's been known to save dogs, coyotes, lobsters and even sharks from certain death.
“While we sometimes question the morality of the Punisher, we also would very much like to have someone clean up the streets, as it were, and take out the evil that exists in the world,” Weiner said. “And the Punisher believes that's what he's doing. But make no mistake, there's really very little humanity left within Frank Castle. And yet, he would gladly walk a blind old lady across the street or save a coyote that's been shot.”
Studying a character like the Punisher, McEniry and Goodman-Jay said, reflects the turbulence and trauma of the real world.
“I think we put characters like the Punisher, Deadpool, Venom and Red Hood into the anti-hero box and bring them out when we want cool action sequences and nothing else,” McEniry said. “But there's a lot of trauma those types of characters go through that is glossed over in favor of their revenge story. Slowing the narrative down to look at how everything affects them lets us see that they are more than a one-dimensional story.”
“While studying clearly defined heroes and villains can reaffirm our beliefs about good versus evil, studying characters that blur the lines is where we can gain insight into the human condition,” Goodman-Jay added. “Characters that make us debate circumstances, question systems and highlight social issues are worth studying, and the Punisher fits the bill. Whether it is veterans' rights, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health topics, failures of the justice system or political corruption, the Punisher comics lead to very real issues and discussions that can hopefully lead to change.”