#6 – THE PUNISHER
By Greg Rucka & Marco Checchetto with Mico Suayan, Mirko Kulak and Michael Lark
Rachel Cole-Alves husband, family and friends were caught in the middle of the crossfire of the criminal organization known as the Exchange on what was supposed to be her wedding day. Detective “Ozzy” Clemons took on the case and wound up digging for something deeper, namely, looking to dig a final nail into the coffin of a violent ex-Marine nightmare with a body count of immeasurable magnitude. Clemons has been teamed with Walter Bolt, a young, slightly naïve up and comer who isn’t quite yet set on his own definition of justice. Norah Winters is a reporter who wants a story, and concurrently, someone to understand and be understood by. Christian Poulsen is an ex-SHIELD agent now working for the Exchange, whose deep love for Stefanie Gerard, ex-AIM scientist and leader of the Exchange, has led him to abandon his idea of morality and forge a new one. And on the fringes of all of their stories, the previously mentioned nightmare, the Punisher, no longer Frank Castle, no longer a thinking, feeling human, no longer a main character in his own series. A symbol, a loosely spray painted skull dripping down his black Kevlar vest, appearing briefly out of the shadows to punish those who’ve sinned, after the Exchange simply because of the evil they’ve done, he connects all of the central characters stories by forcing themselves to answer the question; what do they think of him? How can they live with the idea that the Punisher lives and breathes in New York?
THE PUNISHER as told by Greg Rucka is a complex and intricate crime series, told mainly through silent, cinematic sequences with brief instances of character revealing dialogue throughout. Most of the entries on this modest ‘Best of 2012’ list thus far have been very character driven, but despite the sheer amount featured within, this book doesn’t quite fall into that category. At its very heart, I’d say it’s about symbols and action, and how the two often end up intertwined. A young, broken woman can’t act vengeance upon her enemies without seeing the ultimate symbol of vengeance. An idealistic detective can’t begin to go outside of the justice system until he sees the symbol of bureaucratic white-washing in all its face-saving cowardice. And, most importantly, a man can’t become a symbol until he is a man no longer, and has no feelings or emotions to act upon. As mentioned earlier, every character in this book is reacting to one idea, and that one idea threatens to bring down the walls of all they hold true.
That idea is hypocrisy. In terms of the Marvel Universe, no one represents hypocrisy more than the continued existence of the Punisher. This is a problem the Avengers have just chosen to ignore. It would take all of three seconds for Thor, Captain Britain or even Giant Man to take this guy down. But the series seems to argue that he takes care of problems they can’t bear facing, so they give him a free pass. Detective Clemons represents the painful, grinding reality of facing hypocrisy head on. As he drives to a small cabin in the woods where members of the Exchange had gathered to meet and were, shortly thereafter, murdered by the Punisher, Clemons tells the story of Alfred Coppersmith, murderer of four, and his brief interactions with the man formerly known as Frank Castle. When Clemons showed up at the scene to see Daredevil and the Punisher arguing over Coppersmith’s survival, the costumed characters fled. Shortly thereafter, the city of New York is unable to prove Coppersmith’s guilt in a court of law. Coppersmith is released to the public and found dead within hours, presumably (read: positively) a victim of the Punisher. “Who lives, who dies. That’s not for us to say. We serve the law. Like it or not, that’s our job. Castle serves himself.” Ozzy informs his partner Bolt, who just earlier had suggested giving the Punisher a medal.
Bolt begins the story by secretly helping the Punisher, acting as informer and offering him secret police intel. This begins after his life is saved by Castle in a botched attempt at surveillance on murderer Hernando Torres. Bolt lies to the force and is promoted to detective for his ‘heroism’, an ironic benefaction that the character will not receive without due payment. I perceive Bolt to be portrayed as the weakness to Clemons’ strength. If Ozzy is full of world-weary wisdom and perseverance, Bolt not only wants to see things done the easiest way, he wants to see things done in the way that makes the most sense, while failing to realise that not all of life can be rationalized and justified in a pleasing, moral manner. As Bolt begins to feel doubt and guilt at his helping the Punisher act outside of the law, Black Talon appears on the streets of NYC with a horde of zombies. Bolt and Punisher team-up to take them down, with Bolt being forced to face up front his own human cowardice versus the ultimate control of the blank-slate Punisher. After Black Talon ends up with a bullet through the head, the zombie threat if averted, and Bolt reveals to his precinct that in this and the last instance, it was not he who saved the day but the Punisher. The deputy commissioner of public information thinks soundly on this for all of a minute and recommends Bolt is treated like the hero he is. After all, “The Punisher doesn’t work for the NYPD.”
Of course, the driving force of the story is the one of Rachel Cole-Alves. Her world has been stripped from hers just as Frank’s was, years ago. She fashions herself after him, and becomes her own sort of anti-hero, also an ex-marine, driven to destroy the Exchange and get to the woman at the top, Stefanie Gerard. Her first attempt at revenge has her meeting up with the Punisher, and the two band together to take down the Exchange as a team. Rachel is nothing but dedication to her husband, to the ideal of love and what was taken away from her. But even her story is one of hypocritical intention, for her mission isn’t brought upon by a notion of love so much as the absence of it. I obviously don’t want to sound cold-hearted, but again, I sincerely do believe THE PUNISHER is not meant to be read as a human, character-driven story as much as one about principle. I’ve no doubt Cole-Alves loved her husband more than life itself, and that had such an injustice not happened, they would have lived a long and wonderful life together. But in the context of the story, I very much believe she represents a commitment to longing. In a climactic scene shortly before their final attack on the Exchange, the Punisher discovers that she has been meeting with Norah Winters. Well wagging a picture of her and her husband in front of her face, the Punisher bellows, “Stupid. Sentimental.” Rachel exists in the story not to become a partner to the Punisher, but to remind us why no one else can be him. Her desire to be loved, and her underlying motivation to find something she’ll never have, is what drives her mission, whereas the Punisher is actual moral purity, succumbed to no desire of flesh, hunger, or need of shelter. He will sleep anywhere, eat anything and be with no one. It’s fitting her final revenge, completed after the killing of Gerard, Rachel ends up accidently murdering Detective Bolt, believing it to be Gerard’s partner and admirer, Poulsen. If Bolt represented conflicting moralistic values, Rachel represented misplaced ones, and both of their flirtations with Frank Castle ended with them being punished for not strictly adhering to his impossible codes of conduct. As Rachel herself puts it after the accidental shooting of Bolt, “I thought I could be like you [The Punisher]. Be precise and cold and dead and pure like you. But no one can be like you.”
Norah Winters may play a smaller part in the story, but she plays a very important one. From my point of view, she represents the hypocrisy of altruism. Obviously, as a reader of superhero comics, I believe in the purity of good intention. I do not succumb to cynical beliefs such as everything we do represents an ulterior, selfish motive. But I do think Norah is in the story to remind us of how easily that line can be crossed, from wanting to help someone to wanting to be the kind of person who wants to help someone. Norah only begins a relationship with Rachel because she wants to get something from her; a story for the Bugle. And though I do believe it evolves into something deeper, and that Norah genuinely wants to befriend Rachel and see her live a normal life, I do think her sporadic appearances in the story show her as struggling with the duality of her career and her personal feelings for Cole-Alves, just as Rachel struggles with using Norah for information while knowing she wants to be friends.
What about the Punisher himself? If all of the other characters exist in the story to react to the briefly seen, enigmatic Punisher, what does he represent in this epic story of hypocrisy? I’d say he doesn’t represent anything, as he’s much more direct; the Punisher is hypocrisy personified. When the Punisher says to Rachel, “The dead don’t feel.” We begin understand the machinations of Rucka’s take on the character more clearly than ever before. When he beings to use the armour of Tony Stark, the webshooters of Peter Parker and the mechanical arms of known super villain Doctor Otto Octavius to take down members of the Exchange, we begin to see just what a man who feels nothing is capable of. Once someone feels nothing, thinks nothing and believes in nothing, he has no values or sense of purpose to let him see right from wrong, black from white, or even define himself as a person. This allows Castle to bury himself along with his family, and redefine himself in the image of a white skull and the moniker of the Punisher. He will punish by no code and no rule book, with the only caveat being that those who sin against the innocent will be those to feel his rage. Rachel, Bolt, Gerard, and Clemons all have their chance to go up against (and often, attempt to understand) this way of thinking, and each time it is shown to be an impossibly simplistic way to look at the complexities of human life. But this doesn’t matter to the Punisher; no criticsm or intellectualizing of his belief system would ever convince him otherwise. The world no longer exsists for him, so no longer do any ideas the world has to offer.
The series ends on the bleakest of pronouncements reitering this; after Rachel accidently kills Bolt, the Punisher condemns even her for the killing of an innocent life. After removing the firing pin from the gun she wishes to use to have herself killed, the Punisher walks off, removing her from his life forever. Rachel was a tool to him, a weapon like any of the others in his arsenal. THE PUNISHER is not a comic that ends with characters going through moments of self-realization, of epiphany or redemption. It’s a comic that simply ends, with a man who is no longer a man, with a symbol that meant many things for many different people, but which was too quixotic to apply to any real world scenarios. THE PUNISHER was a comic about hypocrisy and it’s infinite pain. But, perhaps most importantly, THE PUNISHER was a comic about how we stay truer to ourselves the less we try to define our actions in relation to abstract symbols, and the more we attempt to question, face our failures, and find real relationships of lasting value. THE PUNISHER is a bleak, moralistic fable that can be read and appreciated by anybody struggling to find their way in a civilized society, and all the hypocrisy that comes with it.