by Chris de Serres
He was a different kind of hero. He had a rage that was unquenchable. His aim wasn’t to subdue, injure, or maim. He simply exterminated, without emotion or guilt. The more he killed the angrier he got. There was never any real resolution at the end of each issue. Only a next victim.
When he was first introduced, the writers weren’t sure how he would be received. He became an instant hit. Where Spiderman always subdued the baddies in a nice comfy web for the police to round up, this guy just murdered and blew up his adversaries. It’s what best inspired fear. He would just walk into a room and pull the trigger.
As a child growing up, I had never seen anything like him really. So uncompromising. So violent. Purely psychopathic.
He didn’t play well with other superheroes. Folks like Spiderman spent all their time trying to keep the Punisher from killing everyone. To Spidey, any innocents who happen to be injured or killed in the process weren’t just ‘collateral damage.’
The Punisher punished, and he did it well.
Eventually I joined the Army. I became an infantryman. I was issued my own killing weapon and I learned how to shoot it really well. I came to appreciate the power of a fragmentary grenade. It isn’t anything like the comics or the movies. A grenade moves the earth. I also saw what bullets can do to a human body. It stays with you.
I knew and worked with many unstable individuals. Some didn’t understand the difference between love and cruelty. Many of my platoon mates hated women. In such a way that I hadn’t seen before. I was encouraged to treat females as disposable things. Good for one reason. Easily shared amongst ourselves. They were all whores or fucked up. I’m not even sure what they would do if they encountered an average girl. They didn’t look for normal girls. They spent most of their time with prostitutes or strippers. Only the women who would feed into their degraded view of women.
These were the men our government used on peacekeeping missions in poor, ravaged countries filled with women and children.
I understood why the Punisher had to be a former soldier. It made perfect sense. You had to have a person who didn’t see human beings. They must all be subhuman. Simply a means to his ends. He could kill or torture them without a thought. He was simply programmed to do that.
Some people wonder if it’s the military that makes these boys into killing machines. In some sense, it does. Exposure to war certainly doesn’t help. Yet, many of these kids were trauma victims well before signing on the dotted line. Some had been terrorizing others for years.
My bunkmate was a gang member from East L.A. I never asked what things he did back in the barrio. My squad leader had PTSD from Desert Storm. He was notorious for snapping at the smallest provocation and violently attacking others in his platoon. He had to file bankruptcy because he spent all his income and numerous credit cards talking to a phone sex line worker for days at a time. He was a punisher, of others and mostly himself. I had never met someone who hated themselves more than him.
I’m not quite sure why I loved the Punisher so much. Maybe like every boy, I was reacting to some bogus notion of masculinity that was constantly being thrust upon me. I grew up on military bases so my heroes were always overtly masculine.
After seeing and knowing so many punishers firsthand I lost all romantic notions of that version of ‘man.’ There are other men out there. Who care for their families. Who are available emotionally. Who have empathy and cultivate their capacity to help the vulnerable.
Yet, we seem to love our black and white ways of seeing the world. Good or bad. Us vs. them. Look at the political landscape nowadays. Maybe that’s why the Punisher was so seductive. A seductive lie.