Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Character Study: Garth Ennis on Punisher
*PLUS: New Series Announced!
Jonathan Encarnacion

Garth Ennis is, undeniably, an authoritative force in handling The Punisher. He has established on the book a feel that serves the title character well: hard-edged criminal drama served through Marvel’s MAX imprint, allowing no compromise in the telling; the dialogue is heavy with grit, the fights as detailed in the gore as they would be witnessed firsthand.

Ennis grounds The Punisher within a specific frame that asks little from the reader in suspending belief: there’s no mingling with superheroes, and the world is kept far from the fantastical. This gives Frank Castle a stage to perform with impact, lending more resonance to his violent methods, revealing him as somewhat inhuman, at once frightening and fascinating to watch. In this character study, Ennis introduces The Punisher to those who may be curious.

On the surface, The Punisher’s origin seems to have a foundation in vengeance: Castle’s family is gunned down by the mob, flipping the switch for his drive to become a hard vigilante. He's at war, murdering gangs relentlessly; an experienced soldier, he fights with a cold, brutal precision.

It’s fast evident that Frank’s true motivations are well past the murder of his family, however. Although he’s killed thousands of criminals, among them most likely any and all who were even remote participants in his family’s deaths, he still continues to operate in perpetuity. For Castle, the war is fought for bigger reasons than hunting the people involved. “The cruel, violent arrogance that led to the death of his family has to be answered, has to be fought, has to be punished. He gets a definite sense of satisfaction in removing such people from the face of the planet.”

There’s an even darker furthermore to the reasons why Frank continues. “What he gains is not having to blow his own brains out, which I think he’d do if he was somehow rendered incapable of carrying on his war.”

Indeed, there is something very chilling about the way Frank Castle performs his life’s routine. His existence isn’t motivated by determination so much as it is function: very simply, this is what he does and continues to do. His objective is always in focus: no end in sight, none really yearned for. If there is any emotive sway within him, it’s suffocated somewhere very, very deep.

Ennis has a defined portrayal of the Punisher, and has said that his rendition will always stay the same. Character development is an impractical thing to consider in a character like Frank; past a certain point in maturity, people barely change anyway. Again, a fascination for the character is found through how he operates. What does bring change in Ennis’ stories are the characters Castle interacts with, and it’s these interactions that sometimes tap at Frank’s more hidden sides. There have been some that have made small dents, (“Nicky Cavella quite successfully pushed some of his buttons in the most recent storyline,” Ennis notes. “So did O’Brien, in quite a different way,”) but ultimately, “Frank can be reached, but never to any lasting effect; he can be gotten at, if only temporarily.”

As callous as Castle may seem when fighting this war, he isn’t completely devoid of principle. “He has lines he won’t cross. He does his best to avoid endangering innocents; again, that kind of casual violence is what killed his wife and kids. He’s also wary of killing anyone in law enforcement, no matter how foul or corrupt – that’s a matter of self-preservation, really; the last thing he needs is the cops or the feds taking a serious look at him.”

That said, rarely is Frank content with compromise, even when it's in regards to the authorities. “As you’ll see at the end of the next storyline, ‘The Slavers’, he can usually find a way to ensure that justice is done.”

In Punisher: Born, which tells the story of Frank’s service in Vietnam, Ennis reveals the events that trigger Frank Castle’s motivations. Drawing them out of him well before the murder of his family, Born begs the question: would Frank still inevitably have taken up a war against the mob if his family hadn’t been killed? “Without a loss as terrible as that of his family, would his past have resurfaced so violently? I think I’ll say no, it’s unlikely. It took a specific set of extreme circumstances to send him down the path he’s on; he wouldn’t have become The Punisher just because he was concerned about rising crime levels.”

So far, Ennis has given readers means to examine the switch and the trigger. But how far back does the source of Frank’s motivations go? “Interestingly enough, this is exactly the question I’m exploring in the third Punisher special, The Tyger – due in February, and drawn, I’m delighted to say, by the excellent John Severin. Frank was always a dark one. Plenty of people had a rough time in Vietnam, and plenty of people lose loved ones to violence. It would take more than simply combining the two to produce the Punisher.

“It’s a story of Frank Castle’s childhood. On the verge of his very first kill as the Punisher, Frank remembers a pivotal moment in his youth.”

Perhaps not so much a direct hint to the details of the thematic elements, but to the framework: “Blake’s poem, The Tyger, does indeed play a part in the story.”


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