Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men

374 – SMEK

Frank Punisher, wearing his skull uniform, frolics arm-in-arm with Carl the X-Cutiioner, dressed in a motley assembly of supervillain gear, through a field of flowers.
Art by David Wynne. Wanna buy the original? Drop him a line!

In which Frank Punisher is not a role model; Carl the X-Cutioner is not very good at secret identities; Miles tries his hand at poetry; and everything’s funny with a sidecar.

X-PLAINED:

  • Frankencastle
  • Frank Punisher and his cultural context
  • Punisher #12-16
  • Carl the X-Cutioner
  • S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • The New Mutant Liberation Front and several members thereof
  • William Connover (again)
  • Agynt Kymberly Taylor
  • Optimal sidecar use
  • Simon Trask
  • What it’s like to kiss Frank Punisher
  • Poor management technique
  • How we choose what to reveal when
  • The timeline where Magik is textually queer

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7 comments

  1. So Frank Punisher has always been one of my absolute faves since I was an ’80s kid… with all the healthy caveats that can include. But it’s the “he’s only a guy” thing about him that I love the most; that’s WHY I love him in Marvel, and I have that love consistently with a lot of characters. Like Storm’s de-powered run where she was still leading the X-Men on sheer badassery was my favorite era for her.

    I love seeing Frank take on a role in fighting anti-mutant hate here. What I don’t love is him accepting Carl’s role-model thing. Like, Frank has cultivated allies in the past, so maybe this is just standard writer inconsistency, but I couldn’t count all the times he’s rejected the idea of himself as a role model or inspiration. He has rejected that over and over and over.

    Also, the real-world co-opting you describe is such a terrible problem. I don’t know if Marvel could do anything to fix that besides C&D orders like you describe. Maybe they could retire him, or give him more explicitly anti-cop sentiments and storylines, but the people who co-opt him & his logo don’t read, anyway. It’s tough.

    Thank you for covering this!

    1. (Also I’m not sure if “anti-cop” is the best way to put that, now that I’ve clicked “reply.” It’s a complicated thing. But the notion of Frank as some sort of role-model for police is absolutely horrifying, and it’s terrible that anyone takes it in that direction.)

  2. For the record the American Gladiator giant Q tips are called “pugil sticks”, as in pugilist. It is still a very silly name.

  3. To be frank (see what I did there?) I’m honestly surprised Marvel still publishes The Punisher at all. But I know he definitely has his fans.

    I’ve never read this arc, as I had stopped caring about the Punisher at all by this time, so it’s nice to get a glimpse of what this particular series was. It was also cool to hear about him interacting with the X-Men’s world outside of just fighting Wolverine.

    This was an interesting time at Marvel as it seemed like the X-Men were central in the 616 and not just in sales. Usually they’re safely tuck aside in their own little bubble. And it doesn’t sound like a bad Punisher story so I might check this out myself.

  4. I am more cynical than you, so I am not surprised at all that Marvel continues to publish the Punisher. I’m fairly sure, that, when Marvel rank their IP for how lucrative each piece of it is, the Punisher is securely in the top half — not up there with Spider-Man, of course (there’s a limit on how many kid’s pyjamas are likely to have the Punisher on them), but definitely a nice little source of revenue. There were three separate attempts to bring the character to film, despite the fact that he’s an extremely derivative character who has very little original about him, something that becomes obvious if he’s not in a superhero universe.

    Which is a thing. I want to stress up front that I’m not saying in what follows that people (like Elliott Kay above) are wrong or bad people if they’re fans of the Punisher.

    But I would quibble a bit with our hosts’ stress on the “original intent” of the character, with its suggestion that the use of the symbol by police was a misreading of the Punisher. I think that’s an oversimplification and one has to confront the possibility that it’s not just a “valid” reading (a low bar), but a pretty convincing reading with a lot of support for it in the history of the character.

    The “original intent” thing: without getting into the whole issue of whether those sorts of readings in general should be used to dismiss alternatives (no), they’re peculiarly inadequate for a character who’s as nakedly derivative as Frank Castle. To the extent that you can pin the original intent here on any one person, it’s not Gerry Conway, it’s Don Pendleton.

    And you can believe that Pendleton wrote all of that absolutely colossal number of “Mack Bolan, the Executioner” novels (which I will admit I have not read and almost certainly never will read) without them being in any way a celebration of a violent vigilante’s “war” against criminals, but I would, ah, be a little sceptical. And I really don’t buy that all those novels exist and sold so well because their audience was reading them as some sort of critique of the lead character.

    There is the point that Gerry Conway originally created the Punisher as an antagonist for Spider-Man. That version of the character *is* credibly to be read as a critique of Pendleton’s Mack Bolan, and more generally of that type of vigilante character, so prominent in the 1970s. The point is that he’s who Spider-Man isn’t (later Daredevil, famously). One can argue about whether that works (note how easily Garth Ennis was able to invert it and represent characters like Spider-Man and Daredevil as the “silly,” “unrealistic” inferiors to the Punisher, for the reader to laugh at when the Punisher humiliates them), but that’s part of what it’s doing.

    But that original character is not really very relevant to the overall history of the Punisher. You can see this nicely represented in the art. The overall character design is broadly the same, but look at the face: Ross Andru depicts Frank Castle as a combination of demonic and thuggish, very different from the conventionally “heroic,” superhero-handsome appearance that has become the standard look of the Punisher. It’s basically a historical detail that ASM #169 is the first appearance of the character.

    That original character was intended for a restricted role in another character’s series. He wasn’t intended to headline his own series, still less to be someone who would eventually headline two at the same time. The Punisher as we know him is an artifact of the reception of the character, not his original creation. One has to ask, why was the Punisher so popular that he took off unexpectedly and became one of Marvel’s more valuable properties?

    One can say that it’s because of those stories, and they certainly exist, that carefully undermine the Punisher and subvert the story of the man with a gun who takes revenge for the killing of his family by waging a war on criminals, and not letting soft liberal red-tape concerns stop him. But I would say that those stories only work because of the baseline expectation of the Punisher being played straight — and those stories that play him straight certainly exist as well, plenty of them. One can’t exclude those stories and say that they’re not the “real” Punisher.

    Compare Death Wish, which came out in the same year that the Punisher appeared. I’m told (never read it) that the original novel is more ambivalent than the film. But the success of the film tells its own story about the sort of thing that people responded to in the Punisher.

    The Punisher falls into a category of narrative that’s not exclusively American but is especially popular in America. It has recognizable roots in the colonial period. In it, the hero never *starts* the fight — there’s always some provoking incident, usually involving the violent death or sexual assault of women. As long as that condition is met, the hero is allowed to respond with overwhelming force, letting nothing stop them. This is not necessarily presented as good per se; but it’s presented as necessary and inevitable, and there can often be this sort of admiring wallowing in the tragic necessity of violence (which I find is often present even in the “subversive” Punisher stories, although that is a very personal response).

    I do not think the police should adopt the Punisher’s symbol, because I do not think police should subscribe to that narrative and see their role in its terms. I don’t think the US military, who have also adopted the symbol, should do so, for the same reason. But I think that the police and military often do subscribe to that narrative, do see their role in its terms, and that many Americans want them to do that, in part because on a fairly deep cultural level many Americans recognize and partake in the worldview that the underlying narrative represents.

    The police are not wrong to understand the Punisher’s symbol as an appropriate one to represent those aspirations. The aspirations themselves are wrong.

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