Six Weeks of Punishment (Week 4) — The Punisher in Marvel Super Action #1
It’s time for a special guest blog, as friend-of-the-Longbox and Punisher super-fan Dean Compton flashes us back to the bad old days of Marvel black & white comics magazine exploitation tales! Take it away, Dean! — LBG
Once more, Paul was kind enough to allow an 90’s loving interloper to waltz into your lava lamp and blacklight poster adorned lounge and set up shop! Seriously, it’s always a pleasure to get a chance to present some 70’s goodness here at Longbox Graveyard, and as well everyone knows, nothing from the 70’s brings me more goodness than The Punisher.
Over at The Unspoken Decade, the World Wide Web’s only habitat for 90’s comics, we’re building up to Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil (featuring The Punisher!) with SIX WEEKS OF PUNISHMENT as we look at Frank Castle’s past. One could never deny that Castle’s past is rooted in the 70’s, and so Week Four brings us here to the Longbox Graveyard, where it’s perpetually 1978, and the attitude toward a certain skull-chested vigilante was much more guarded.
By the 90’s, the idea that a man would murder criminals wantonly with a huge arsenal was much more accepted, but the 70’s, despite violence in the streets and violence in culture (I reference this in my first Punisher article here at LBG, Punishment is Black and White), just isn’t ready to embrace a cold-blooded killer like Frank Castle. This would relegate both the stories in which Punisher was the featured character to the 70’s Black & White magazine scene, where they could cut loose a bit more. Cutting loose is exactly what they did, starting with this sick cover.
Even in the black and white magazines, though, The Punisher was highly controversial and the fans of the 70’s just weren’t sure that The Punisher was the sort of character they desired to see due to his excessive violence and penchant for murder. I don’t disagree with them. Frank Castle is a reprehensible person who engages in mass murder. The character fascinates me, but if we don’t have some apprehension about Punisher’s tactics in his war on crime, then we don’t have any moral standing in which to critique the criminals we know we despise. Writer Archie Goodwin and some letter writers discuss this in the issue, and it gives the story and the character richer context.
I miss letters columns so much. I understand why we don’t have them any more, but seeing these well-thought-out and well-written letters makes me miss the prose we’d get in comic books after the story. There’s plenty of places to exchange ideas now, and one certainly gets the exchange faster via message boards, Facebook groups, and the like, but I miss feeling like I got something extra with the comic book, which is how letters columns always made me feel. Alas, we’ll just have to make due, won’t we?
Writer Archie Goodwin, Penciller Tony DeZuniga, and Inker Rico Rival bring us an important tale in Frank Castle’s history, for this is when Frank Castle found and killed the men who killed his family.
When people find out how much I love The Punisher (mostly due to the fact that I pretty much only wear Punisher and Kansas City Royals stuff), they always talk about his origin and if he killed the men who killed his family. Most of them seem quizzical about why Frank Castle would continue to kill criminals after dispatching the men who brought his family down. I think that’s because we see a lot of action movies with that trope. After he gets his vengeance, people expect him to move on to a quiet life as a soundtrack plays and the credits roll. Sadly, Frank Castle can’t have that, which is one of the things that separates him from other characters that we see who go after retribution for the death of their families. Either Castle can’t get over it, or as has become a popular assertion, Castle has always had something in him that made him need to kill. Whichever is true, the criminal underworld pays either way. In my last article here on Punisher, I mentioned that Marvel in the 70’s was able to extract the permanent essence from something designed to be temporary, and I think by having Frank Castle continue to punish the guilty long after having terminated those who killed his family enabled them to find said essence, although it would take them awhile to perfect it.
I’m also the first to admit that The Punisher is a reprehensible human being who does reprehensible things. There’s certainly a modicum of a code of honor within him, as he does save innocent lives, but for the most part, Punisher hungers to murder. He justifies this as being needed as to prevent anything like what happened to his family from happening again, but that’s just not good enough to let mass murder slide. Punisher fascinates me, for reasons I stated in my other Punisher article here at LBG, but there’s great reason to also revile the man.
Once you hear his story, however, somehow, you find pity for Frank Castle within that revulsion. Within Castle, however, there is no pity…
Joey Charisma is a great name for a mobster, but how thankless and awful must it be to be Punisher’s informant. You definitely know that your fellow mobsters will kill you the second they find out you’ve been singing, while at the same time, you also just know Punisher is going to murder you the very second you stop being useful to him. I’d say that’s between a rock and a hard place, but that simply wouldn’t do it justice.
This scene is how we start, but it actually has little to do with the tale we will see, which starts off with Frank Castle recording an entry in his War Journal while also inviting in what appears to be a lady of the night into an apartment that he apparently nabbed via 70’s AirBNB, as he only rented it for the week.
Audrey implores Punisher to tell her all about his past while she freshens up, which seems odd. If I have learned anything from having to watch countless hours of Two and a Half Men at my job, it’s that hookers show up freshened up and ready to go. This gives us time for Punisher to tell us a little backstory and a sweet splash page that gives us a title!
After shooting up the numbers drop, we see what becomes a very standard element of Punisher’s narrative, in that he takes the cash from the drug runners, mobsters, and murderers that he kills and uses it in his war on crime, and Punisher even does so with a quip anyone could appreciate.
All of Punisher’s activities aren’t going unnoticed, of course. The Mob is personally affected by this, so the Bruno Costa are making their own preparations in regard to this, as well one would expect.
Obviously, another element of the war on crime is taking notice, and of course, I am speaking of New York’s finest. At this point in Castle’s “career” he hasn’t garnered the worldwide infamy in the eyes of law enforcement that he will eventually gain. Right now, though, a couple of detectives (and presumably a few MPs) are seeing what Castle is doing, and even more frighteningly…what Castle may be capable of…
One of my favorite relationships to dwell upon when it comes to The Punisher is the relationship he has with the police. I would imagine that many cops would just look the other way, especially in the Marvel Universe, where it seems like there is a machine like in the game Gauntlet, only instead of producing ghosts, this one produces an unending supply of mooks for guys like The Punisher to shoot. However, it seems like the cops of the 616 would have to deal with these guys more often than Punisher, so they’d welcome his presence.
You’d also have cops that really attempted to stop Punisher (much like in the recent Greg Rucka series that was really, really good) because he’s a blight on their profession. Here, we see Laviano more or less bemused by the entire thing, (and this gets explored further in Punisher: Year One, which I will be looking at on The Unspoken Decade for SIX WEEKS OF PUNISHMENT!) which is what I suspect the reaction of most cops would be. They may not actively help Frank Castle, but they also certainly don’t stand against him, and hey, if he makes their jobs a little easier, then he can just keep up his good work.
The more eagle-eyed of you probably noticed the lower right panel of what seems to be a country club. This is a country club that likes to attract high rollers and gamblers, which attract enforcers should these guys not pay. Two of those enforcers happen to be tied up in the Bruno Costa-and they happen to be two of the men who killed Frank’s family. One has an ulcer, which is appropriate; he’ll be worried the rest of his life. Punisher kills both of these guys, leaving one alive just long enough to tell the Bruno Costa Syndicate that he’s coming for the rest of the family.
Believe it or not, this doesn’t make the head of the Syndicate, Frank Costa, very happy, and he takes it out on his brother. If you recall, his brother was one of the guys who killed Punisher’s family. In fact, he’s lucky Frank Costa doesn’t kill him right here.
After hitting his brother in a manner that almost assuredly disfigured his brother for life, Frank Costa sends him and the other mooks on the hit squad down to a Florida retreat. This retreat is almost impenetrable, which means it is perfect for the Mob to send a few mooks to lay low until the heat dies down. What they don’t know yet, is that the heat will never die down from one Frank Castle.
The Mob retreat was built in a fort in a dying Florida town. The locals once had a oil boom, but that was apparently some time ago. The only thing happening here now is that the Mob has refitted an old fort to be their stronghold. Punisher makes his way down to the town, but he isn’t alone.
The Mechanic has the unfortunate distinction of being the first comrade in Frank Castle’s war on crime, but he also has the ignominious fate of being the first of many of Punisher’s friends to not get out of Castle’s war on crime alive. He literally died in Punisher’s first appearance, Amazing Spider-Man #129. The action here takes place before that issue of Spidey, and so we see The Mechanic’s motivation for helping Castle, as he says one of the most poignant things you’ll not just hear in a Punisher comic, but possibly ever.
“But I do have a war”… The Mechanic points a sad truth, which is that we here trumpet our dedication to the fighting men and women of the United States armed forces. Politicians climb over one another to tout their support of the troops. We fly the flags and the ribbons. We buy the shirts and the Desert Storm trading cards . When the men and women come home, though, they are often cast aside. Many of them find help, sometimes through the official channels and sometimes not, but sadly, many slip through the cracks. For all the support that is often voiced, there always seems to be too little of actual substance in the form of programs and funding for said programs to help veterans ease their way back into civilian society. You read interviews with them about feeling listless and purposeless. Some drift into homelessness and drug abuse. There’s certainly no panacea for this problem, but we should do better. So much better. You have to give kudos to Archie Goodwin for pointing out this issue very naturally in his text.
For Punisher, he has found a purpose, and for the rest of The Mechanic’s life, he has a purpose as well. The war on crime beckons, and these two have an impenetrable fort to break into. The mooks within react in different ways.
Skinner and Bruno are of the mindset that nothing is wrong, while the last panel there proves that Kolsky is right. Punisher is dead set on killing them, which means they are already dead. The only real question is how amusing it will be to see Punisher kill them.
The answer is very amusing.
Earlier, Castle noted that this town had once had a boom due an oil discovery. While this boom lasted a father finite period of time, it did leave behind much of its trappings, like say a giant oil well. Now if one were to, say, blow up this oil well, one would have a helluva trap set, right?
The oil well explosion is a delightful distraction, and it also lets us see Marvel putting “goddamned” into a comic book, which was a big deal then, even in a B&W magazine. Now it would be fairly run of the mill. Also, as a side note, it’s much cooler to say “goddamned” than “goddamn.” At least in print.
The reaction inside is to be terrified. I mean, a giant oil well just exploded outside. There isn’t much of a different way to act, now is there? Terror, though, can cause men and women to react in different ways. For instance, take the dichotomous approaches of Bruno Costa and Skinner.
As you see, Costa wants to stay and fight, while Skinner desires to leave. I can’t say that I blame him, what with him having been in a tenement fire as a child. Fire seems like an awful way to go. Of course, leaving won’t do him any favors either, as he pulls the old Greek Tragedy bit of attempting to run away from his destiny while running smack dab into it.
Punisher has now eliminated all but two men from the group of mooks that murdered his family. One is Bruno, who seems to have the idea of holing up and waiting for Punisher. The other is Kolsky. The entire book, Kolsky is presented as the only guy in this cadre that really has any shot at killing The Punisher, and since this book has a logo for “The Punisher: America’s #1 Crime Destroyer” and not “Kolsky: The Mob’s #1 Family Killer” on the cover, one has to figure that even with his dum-dum bullets and fatalistic pessimism, Kolsky’s chances are slim.
While he does manage to get the drop on Frank Castle, Kolsky isn’t prepared for that sea-water aquarium the mob had installed. Castle manages to use the fact that Kolsky’s gun has a silencer on it to lure Kolsky into the ultimate trap; he kills him with a damn shark.
That just leaves Bruno Costa for Frank to kill, and there has to be some sweet revenge here, right? This isn’t just the guy who iced Frank’s family, but it’s also the guy who had the super deep connections to ensure that he and his cohorts wouldn’t have to pay for massacring Frank’s family.
Alas, by the time he catches up to Bruno, he’s already dead, having been murdered by someone wielding an ice pick. Bruno’s own brother ordered the hit. The mob was still grasping at the idea that if the men who destroyed Frank Castle’s life were gone, then perhaps, he would stop eradicating them. Fat chance, guys. Who did Bruno in, you ask? Why, none other than the prostitute visiting Frank Castle in this very issue!
The last panel really sums up Punisher. There’s the drive. There’s the determination. There’s the nihilism. One sort of has to wonder whether or not Frank Castle would have given up his war on criminals had he been able to have the satisfaction of revenge rather than a mob prostitute assassin being the one to ultimately dispose of Bruno Costa.
Something tells me no. There’s just something in Frank Castle that changed him from something even remotely resembling a human being into a force of nature that only “lives” in order to dispense as much punishment against the guilty as is humanly possible before he burns himself out. The need to punish is much more than Frank Castle ever was. Perhaps this part of him would have seeped out around the edges even if his family had not been brutally slain right in front of him.
But just as I strongly believe that Punisher has something in him that forces him to solider on even after those who killed his family are dead, I also believe that there was something about his family that was holding this in check. Had Maria and the children not been terminated, Castle lives a quiet and perhaps even boring life.
Much to the chagrin of the criminal underworld, that life will never come to pass. Of course, that’s also much to the chagrin of Frank Castle …
NEXT MONTH: #158 The Treehouse